Prepared for take off

Yorkshire Business Insider, May 2004

South Yorkshire's new airport may be looking into the past for its name, but the county has its sights firmly on the future. Tim Chapman looks at the latest developments in Yorkshire's fastest-changing sub-region

A neglected part of South Yorkshire's history came to the fore in April when the owners of the former RAF bomber command at Finningley unveiled its new identity – Robin Hood Airport Doncaster Sheffield.

The name is already proving controversial, with Sheffield-born home secretary David Blunkett deriding the choice and the neighbours in Nottinghamshire being inevitably miffed. But developer Peel Holdings has literary history on its side – the first known version of the Robin Hood legend, the fifteenth century ballad 'A Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode', is based in the forest of Barnsdale, to the north of Doncaster. Another version from around 1600 identifies the outlaw's birthplace as Loxley, to the west of Sheffield.

The international response has been incredibly positive, says Peel Airports commercial director Neil Pakey. "Our grand objective is to raise the awareness in the international markets, because it's the international decisions makers who are going to bring business through the doors, as well as the domestic users," he notes. "We need to have both markets using the airport to make it work, whether that's business or pleasure."

Construction work on what will be the UK's first international airport for 30 years has now begun, with the steel frame for the new passenger terminal being erected by Barnsley-based Billington Structures. To date, over half of the contracts for site development have gone to locally based firms. Thomsonfly, the low-cost subsidiary of holiday giant Thomson, is the first airline to commit to the new airport, with the first flights scheduled for March 2005. Thomson will base four aircraft at Robin Hood, with flights to holiday destinations across Europe expected to bring more than a million passengers a year through the airport.

"This has converted us in many people's minds from being just something on paper into an airport in reality," says Pakey. "We've noticed a step change in the awareness levels that the international aviation industry is giving us now."

The airport has the capacity to handle 2.3 million passengers a year and 50,000 tonnes of freight. The 2.7km runway is one of the longest in the North, with the potential to handle flights to the Far East and the Americas. The Finningley site is currently home to around 100 companies, and Peel has planning permission for around one million sq ft of new business development. A 60 acre site alongside the airport terminal is earmarked for a business park aimed at aviation-based industries. There will also be residential development, with the first phase contracted to be sold to Persimmon Homes.

Another part of the county's history – a part which many would prefer to forget – was in the news recently with the 20th anniversary of the miners' strike. While that bitter clash of ideologies left social scars that still persist, the economic devastation wrought by the year of struggle and the ensuing mass closures is healing.

In April, ambitious plans were unveiled for the regeneration of the former Manvers colliery in the Dearne Valley, near Rotherham. The Dearne Valley has seen massive development over the past decade with some 290 million investment helping create 10,000 jobs in the former coalfield. Development has been encouraged by Enterprise Zone status offering tax benefits and planning advantages to business operators moving into the area. Enterprise Zone status finishes in 2005, and the Manvers development is the last site to be eligible.

Rotherham council appointed Wombwell-based property specialist St Paul's Development to develop the 84 acre site, next to the Ventura call centres on Manvers Way. The mixed-use development, dubbed Brookfields Park, will offer around 1.3 million sq ft of business space, including industrial units from 5,000-100,000 sq ft and around 200,000 sq ft of office development.

"We are not intending to focus activity on the call centre market," notes St Paul's managing director Mel Burrell. "I think the call centre market has peaked and that is not a focus for us." Call centres have dominated new development in South Yorkshire over the past decade, although many have questioned the sustainability and true value of the sector.

"This is the second stage of the redevelopment of Dearne Valley – it's about business jobs and out of city centre office jobs" Burrell adds. "The mix of users will range from small companies through to hi-tech businesses, through to nationally known organisations."

St Paul's has been at the forefront of the regeneration of the Dearne Valley, having formed in the late 1980s to acquire and develop the former Cortonwood colliery, the closure of which in 1984 sparked the year-long strike. The firm is now entering into a joint venture with the Duke of Norfolk estate and regional development agency Yorkshire Forward to redevelop another former colliery site at Smithy Wood, at J35 of the M1, as a major strategic office park. Work on the 50 acre site is planned to commence later this year. The firm is also well underway on its office park at J35a, with over half the 15 acre site completed and occupied. Sheffield 35a was the first property scheme in South Yorkshire to win backing from the European-funded Objective One programme, securing a 3.2 million contribution to its 12.4 million costs.

"I think Objective One is beginning to show what it can do," says Burrell. "It will be a few years yet until the real outcomes are seen, but I do think that Objective One has brought an increased degree of interest and profile into South Yorkshire. It hasn't necessarily brought with it any stigma of being any sort of second rate area, as it has done elsewhere."

The Objective One programme is now over halfway through its seven-year life. According to the latest figures, over 400 million of the total 700 million pot has been committed to more than 400 projects worth a total 1.2 billion. Around 30 key projects account for 60 per cent of the resources committed.

One of the largest projects in South Yorkshire is the redevelopment of the former Orgreave colliery land between Sheffield and Rotherham, the centre of some of the worst violence of the 1984 strike. On what is now known as the Waverley site, 760 acres are set for development over the next 15 years or more, including 35,000 houses, leisure and business space.

The Waverley development includes the 100 acre Advanced Manufacturing Park, the flagship for South Yorkshire's hi-tech aspirations. A joint venture between Yorkshire Forward and landowners UK Coal, AMP aims to attract 650 million of investment from private and public sources by 2007.

AMP's first, cornerstone tenant is the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre, a 15 million collaborative venture between the University of Sheffield and US aerospace giant Boeing. The AMRC is currently in the process of moving into its new purpose-built facility, and will later be joined by a number of other engineering organisations to create a cluster of research expertise. The latest body to commit is Cambridge-based joining technology specialist TWI, which will employ 40 people in a new industrial R&D centre.

Next to AMP is Sheffield City Airport, owned, like Robin Hood Airport, by Peel Holdings. With joint venture partners Kilmartin Property Group, Peel has submitted plans for a radical expansion of the site. The existing Sheffield Airport Business Park currently has around 400,000 sq ft of business space with consent for a further 1.2 million sq ft, but the developers have submitted plans for a further one million sq ft of business space, plus retail and residential development. Peel and Kilmartin have already secured 6.7 million of European Objective One grant aid for infrastructure development on the park.

But it's not just the coalfields and old industrial sites that are being transformed. South Yorkshire's conurbations are also renewing themselves to become urban centres fit for the 21st century. Doncaster is planning a massive regeneration of the 100 acre Waterfront area to include a new university college and a marina, as well as the usual mix of residential and leisure development. The town's Frenchgate shopping centre is currently undergoing a 200 million extension in one of the biggest transport interchange projects in the UK. Yorkshire Forward and Objective One are contributing around 35 million to the costs.

Barnsley and Rotherham are meanwhile included in Yorkshire Forward's ambitious Renaissance Towns programme. The early proposals for Barnsley by architect Will Alsop, which reimagined the town as a Tuscan hill village surrounded by a halo of light, received national headlines and not a little ridicule. Those proposals were primarily intended to create debate, however, and the council is currently considering more prosaic plans to create a new market centrepiece for the town and a transport interchange.

Rotherham, in the second phase of the Renaissance Towns project, is currently drawing up the masterplan for its regeneration. Development will make the most of the town's riverside location, with Forge Island becoming a major part of the new urban centre. Rotherham council has also signed with developer Oak Holdings for a 250 million leisure centre on a 300 acre brownfield site next to the Rother Valley Country Park. Dubbed the "YES! Project", the development will include two theatres, recording studios, sports and leisure facilities, and a hotel spa resort.

But it's in the county's largest centre that the renaissance programme is most advanced. Three years into its ten-year masterplan, Sheffield's urban regeneration company is now at a critical point. "This is the year when we deliver the projects and see the physical activity on the ground," says Bill Kirk, chief executive at Sheffield One. Kirk was confirmed as the URC's new head in April, following the departure of the highly respected Alison Nimmo. "There's a tremendous amount of effort that's been put in to get us where we are, but this is the year that we prove the worth of our existence by seeing buildings coming out of the ground," he adds.

Work is now underway on a new luxury hotel alongside the award-winning Winter Garden, as part of the 130 million Heart of the City scheme. The development by Macdonald Hotels will include 160 rooms and a 500-seat conference centre, and is scheduled for completion in mid-2005. Work has also started on the new Millennium Square, connecting the Winter Garden and Peace Gardens. That will then link onto the St Pauls office development, where work on the first building is scheduled to start this summer.

With its arched roof of glass and larch sheltering over 2000 plants, the 5.5 million Winter Garden has established itself as one of the country's most striking public areas and is acting as a magnet for further investment. "It's no accident that our very best quality office developments will be just 20 yards away in Millennium Square," says Kirk. "It has acted as a catalyst for the highest quality development we're now getting in the city centre."

Work is also scheduled to begin on a string of other city centre schemes this summer. Carillion will start work on its redevelopment of the former Castlegate market site to provide some 250,000 sq ft of office space, while the City Hall has secured over 12 million funding for a refurbishment as a 2000-seat concert and conference venue. Work is also starting on regenerating the area around the rail station as a gateway to the city, and the bus station is in part making way for the "e-campus" hi-tech business park to be developed by Yorkshire Forward.

Sheffield has been slower than the likes of Leeds to embrace city centre living, but is catching up rapidly. Construction group Gleeson, which was founded in Sheffield, will shortly start a courtyard residential scheme at the former Sheffield Boy's School in Leopold Square. Gleeson is currently nearing completion on 750 apartments in three separate schemes on West Street, including the 500-apartment West 1 at Devonshire Green for City Estates. Cala Homes is meanwhile planning Sheffield's tallest residential scheme, called Eclipse. Located on St Mary's Gate, Eclipse will include over 200 apartments.

Looking further ahead, work is scheduled to commence in 2006 on the 400 million New Retail Quarter, covering 20 acres of prime shopping space. The scheme, led by developers Hammerson and English Partnerships, will be anchored by John Lewis, who will move into new 250,000 sq ft flagship store. Also in the pipeline is a 100 million redevelopment of the Moor shopping area in the centre of Sheffield, including a new hall for the relocated Castle Market and a residential tower. The plans have been drawn up by Deutsche Bank, which holds long-term leases on much of the street.

The regeneration activity in the city centre has helped create a manifest sense of optimism, Kirk says. "Even some of the most cynical people in Sheffield now are actually saying they think it will happen, but everyone's waiting for this summer to see if we are actually delivering what we're saying," he says. "And at the national level, there's a very positive view of Sheffield."

The renaissance of Sheffield's centre should help stimulate the continuing regeneration of all of South Yorkshire. A recent government report on England's 'Core Cities' singled out the Heart of the City project for praise, and noted that Sheffield "exemplifies the challenge of responding to economic change". "That report was analysing why regions were successful," Kirk notes. "At the heart of them they've all got successful urban centres."