By Mike Cowley
That the Yorkshire and Humber region is key to the success of the Northern powerhouse initiative is a simple matter of geography, but its international airport carries just a small fraction of its catchment and Leeds has no fully effective mass transport system, creating a sense of isolation and leaving the region playing catch-up with its partners on the west side of the Pennines.
These are no small problems. Like all the Northern regions, however, Leeds has a team of fully committed and locally based organisations which endeavour to ensure it can pull its weight in the long-term campaign that inevitably lies ahead. One such supporter is a global player which just happens to have its head office in Leeds. WYG helps to create and manage strategic assets – whether they be airports (and Leeds Bradford Airport is unsurprisingly a client) or simply a brownfield site being converted into a Premier League football club training ground.
Starting life as an engineering company, White Young, more than half a century ago, WYG has evolved into a world-beating programme, project management and technical consultancy employing over 1,500 people and operating from more than 50 locations across the UK, Europe, Africa, Asia and the Middle East.
Overseas, WYG is possibly best known for its international development work such as helping to rebuild the Balkans after one of the most bitter and divisive wars of recent times had created deep economic and political infrastructure damage.
In its heartland in the UK, WYG focuses on the key disciplines of asset management, environment, planning (being one of the top three planning consultants in the country), urban and landscape design, engineering, management services and transport. It might be easier to list what WYG does not do.
The international consultancy has not forgotten that its roots go deep into the Northern soil, and has resisted the temptation to move its global headquarters to some more exotic location than a suburb of Leeds. It has also appointed its own Northern powerhouse lead in the form of Marc Davies – who doubles as head of environment, an increasingly important role in the range of services offered by WYG.
A graduate civil engineer, Marc Davies has another role, as chair of the northern region of the Association for Consultancy and Engineering (ACE). This was established as an advocacy channel for regional consultancy and engineering businesses to help the Northern powerhouse evolve from concept to reality, including the planning and development of major infrastructure projects such as roads and highspeed rail lines. A parallel priority of the group will be to promote education and support the career development of graduates and young engineers in the sector.
Recently, Mr Davies also became a founding member of Business North, the first truly pan-Northern organisation representing businesses in the region and engaging with Government on issues that will drive economic growth. There has already been positive engagement with Transport for the North (TfN).
In his various functions, Mr Davies ensures that WYG has a voice to drive the improvement of areas such as housing, employment and infrastructure across the region.
“The concept of the Northern powerhouse should enable the economy of the North of England to be globally significant, supported by the physical and social infrastructure that goes along with that,” Mr Davies says. “However, in order for this vision to become a reality, we need greater fiscal devolution to happen and businesses across the region to work with one another properly and fully.”
He is also pushing for a greater level of devolution to be agreed, including in the Yorkshire and Humber area, but also for city regions to grasp the opportunity, thus creating a proper balance. “Devolution is a patchy landscape at the moment,” Mr Davies says. “An important piece in the Northern powerhouse jigsaw is the ability for decisions about the North to be made in the North – it’s the best way of joining the dots properly and achieving real transformational change here.
“The current financial commitment made by the Government to the Northern powerhouse is a great start, but there needs to be much, much more. In infrastructure, for example, alignment with the recommendations from the National Infrastructure, Commission and the TfN strategy when it emerges next year needs to happen – and to measure up to the scale of the actual infrastructure projects needed it will have to increase significantly.”
Meanwhile, back in his day job, Marc Davies along with the WYG team has been active in ensuring that the North is ready “to rise again” by helping it maximise many of its assets. These include swathes of land which once housed the factories that sprang up as part of the Industrial Revolution, but which have since declined to the status of ugly brownfield sites.
As head of the company’s environment discipline, Mr Davies leads all areas of business activity nationally. He is also responsible for a number of key clients including National Grid, to which WYG has been an advisor for land assessment and remediation services since 1996. He acts as project director and project manager on large and often multidisciplinary regeneration schemes.
Marc Davies left Leeds University and joined the firm two decades ago, at the time when much-needed environmental legislation, with its origins in Europe, was enforcing changes in UK development strategy. One of the key projects in which he and his environmental team were involved was “the remediation and constraints removal” of the new training ground for a Premier League football club in the North.
In layman’s language, this saw WYG advise on the issues facing redevelopment of a brownfield site which had once been home to a number of factories along with one of the largest collieries in the county. The problem for the potential development – and the new owners of the club were determined to go ahead because of their commitment to rejuvenation of the local community – was not what was on the surface of the derelict site but what lay underneath because of the old mine workings.
Thanks in part to the expert advice provided by WYG, the football club was able to safely invest up to £200 million in what is now a state of the art training ground, which has breathed fresh life into the area.
Further afield, another project of note which involved Marc Davies was the remediation of the infamous Maze Prison site in Northern Ireland. Closed and left empty as a result of the Good Friday Agreement, it had housed hard-line paramilitary prisoners during the Troubles from 1971 until 2000.
Although the buildings and walls topped with barbed wire presented no real problems in terms of clearing the site ahead of future redevelopment, the difficulty facing the WYG advisory team was that the site had formerly been the RAF Long Kesh camp – and preliminary examination revealed a high level of lead content in the ground from spent munitions.
As the Northern Ireland administration’s objective was for the site to have maximum flexibility of use within the budget for the scheme, this required WYG to devise the most cost-effective method of dealing with the soil contamination. So successful was this that the company was able to ensure that 95 per cent of the 60,000 tonnes of soil excavated from the site were treated and retained, also delivering excellent sustainability credentials.
The WYG environment team not only has to deal with sites themselves, but also with what is found living on them, as current legislation covers protection of habitat for rare species. As a result, WYG has its own in-house experts on every species likely to be encountered, and the team includes Barry Clarkson, based in Leeds and renowned for his in-depth knowledge of bats. He is also an expert tree-climber, and this enables him to check on colonies which tend to live well above ground level.
While newspaper headlines tend to flag up instances of little-known creatures stopping developments, this is far from always being the case, and the WYG environment advisors are able to come up with ways of circumventing issues by presenting an alternative solution that suits all parties.
This happened when a proposed development site for National Grid involved a redundant but still full fire pond – a source of water if needing to fight a fire. The pond also happened to be the location of choice for some great crested newts, however. “We had a look at it and the only answer was to give them their own pond nearby,” Marc Davies says. “So it was really a win-win situation.”
Mr Davies also sees the Northern powerhouse as a win-win situation if the Government fulfils its promises to the region. “It is an initiative that will not only rebalance the economy between the North and the South,” he says, “but will have a major impact on the future prosperity of the UK as a whole.”
Man behind new airport plan set for take-off
Leeds Bradford Airport (LBA) connects the Yorkshire and Humber region with over 70 direct destinations across 23 countries, including four hub airports which provide onward connections to hundreds more worldwide. Around 3.5 million customers per year presently travel through LBA, and 12 major airlines now offer services from the airport.
Bridgepoint Capital acquired LBA in 2007 and has spent £38 million on the airport infrastructure. The company saw the potential for the airport to serve the whole of the Yorkshire and Humber region and has invested in delivering new routes and terminal enhancements. LBA is now looking to grow and develop further, with its “Route to 2030” masterplan outlining ambitious plans to grow to over 7 million passengers a year.
Apart from offering an increasing number of direct services to a wide range of European points, the four hub connections available from LBA give leisure and business access to key markets across the globe including Heathrow’s Terminal 5 with British Airways, Amsterdam with KLM, Dublin with Aer Lingus and Barcelona with Vueling. The fact that nine capital cities are now accessible from LBA is a major attraction for business passengers.
LBA is, however, looking to improve surface access to and from the airport, both on public transport and via the road network. The airport is supported by the Leeds office of WYG, a global firm with a reputation based on its ability to provide advice on how to surmount issues restricting the potential of assets.
Heading the WYG team working on this project is Nolan Tucker, director of planning. The success of LBA will be down to effective spatial planning, with many layers of local authority administration to be negotiated, and Mr Tucker has been in the planning sector long enough to know that his role – which started with planning permission for a terminal extension at the airport and has extended to advice to the estate – requires a holistic approach to make it work.
Having achieved planning permission for a number of highprofile projects in the region – 1,600 homes at Carr Lodge in Doncaster, the regeneration of Acre Mills in Huddersfield and redevelopment of Yorkshire Main colliery – Mr Tucker is well aware that each asset site cannot be viewed in isolation.
That is why he has been advising on an integrated approach to the new masterplan. The draft document includes not only new road and rail links but also a proposal for a new business park adjacent to the airport, now seen as a model for every successful airport.
The business park project follows consultation with local universities, which were concerned that a number of their spin-off companies needed to look outside the region to find suitable locations. So a 36-hectare site north of the airport is earmarked in the emerging Leeds Development Plan in part as an Innovation Hub to keep companies in the region.
As far as a new road is concerned, there are currently three options linked to the existing A65, one of which is expected to be completed by 2023. In terms of rail, the airport is looking at the opportunity to have a new Parkway station on the Leeds-to-Harrogate line north of Horsforth, with an integrated Park and Ride facility to help relieve congestion on the major roads leading into Leeds.
So where is all the money coming from? One option could be a pot of £173m in Government funds which Leeds was left with recently after its tramway project was suddenly pulled. Announced by Government in 2014, the Combined Authority’s West Yorkshire plus Transport Fund could also be an option.
“Implementing the masterplan for LBA has the potential to open up Yorkshire to the rest of the world through more direct and hub routes to key destinations in Europe and beyond,” Mr Tucker says. “It will be business-orientated, enabling investors from around the world to fly to Yorkshire and the Humber directly and ensure our own businesses have the international connectivity they need to grow and develop.
“The improvement of surface access to the airport including the new Parkway station is a key element in the airport’s masterplan.”