Bernard Ginns: State-owned banks are holding northern cities back

LEND, LEND, lend; hit your target, get your bonus.

In the boom years, bankers advanced loans to property developers with big visions.

Promises to deliver stunning residential developments on brownfield sites in post-industrial northern cities attracted easy money.

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Then crash; the market tanked. Banks called in their loans, forcing developers into administration and taking ownership of their assets.

Many of these assets were parked in special vehicles to be sold for profit at a later date.

Today, the market for commercial real estate development is looking almost healthy, certainly in the larger cities of the North.

Investors and developers with an interest in regeneration want to bring forward ambitious schemes, but are finding that important sites are being held back, sat on by landowners who are waiting for the best possible return, regardless of the social consequences of their actions in stalling well-intentioned schemes.

Some of those assets are ultimately owned by you and I, after the Government used our money to stop banks from imploding at the height of the financial crisis.

Is it in public interest to sit on these assets when developers want to get moving on important regeneration schemes that could give our cities a fighting chance in a fiercely competitive global market place?

“Unless we deal with the phenomenon of absentee landowners who really don’t give a fig about the future of the city as such we won’t achieve the best we possibly could achieve,” said Rachael Unsworth, the urban geographer who appeared at The Yorkshire Post Business Club event last Tuesday.

Other speakers included Allison Dutoit, of Gehl Architects, who talked about the progress that cities around the world are making in reinventing themselves for the 21st century economy.

Chris Brown, chief executive of Igloo Regeneration, summed up the challenge: “It’s really starting to feel like some of our big cities in the UK are falling behind their competitors overseas in the battle to attract and retain the creative and knowledge workers who will generate prosperity in coming years through improving the quality of place in their central areas.”

The event took place at Marshalls Mill in Leeds, bang in the middle of one of the best regeneration opportunites in the North, the South Bank of Leeds.

* Over lunch, an esteemed Yorkshire lawyer who has weathered several recessions told me the problem with the Big Four supermarket groups.

“There’s one too many,” he said succinctly.

It seems like his view might be catching.

At the weekend, the head of Waitrose raised the prospect of supermarket closures in the UK as major groups struggle in cut-throat trading conditions.

Mark Price, chief executive, told The Sunday Telegraph that it is “incredibly hard to call” whether all of Britain’s food retailers will survive.

Now Goldman Sachs has joined the debate, warning that its analysis of the UK grocery industry “suggests capacity exit is the only viable solution for a return to profitable growth”.

A note from the investment bank said any investment in price by Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury’s and Morrisons “can be exceeded by discounters given their now high return on capital invested”.

Meanwhile, structural shifts to discounters and online implies large stores will see long-term sales declines unless capacity is reduced, said Goldman.

“While consolidation at an attractive valuation is ideal, regulation means it is unlikely in the short term; and therefore capacity exit from the largest store operators appears to be the only solution,” the note added.

I wouldn’t rule out some form of consolidation. Competition authorities have already shown they will waive through rescue deals when the going gets tough. Remember Lloyds-HBOS?