A labour of love

Neil McMillan SHORT_Moment.jpg

With construction commencing in the coming months, Milburngate is set to be a transformational project for Durham City; one that’s been a labour of love of mine for many years. But what is it about Durham City and Milburngate that captured our imagination?

When you look at some of the fantastic regeneration schemes that have been delivered over the years, including here in the North East, it’s impossible not to get excited about the places we can create if we collaborate and put our minds to it.

In Milburngate we saw an opportunity to create something from nothing, an opportunity of scale that could transform a significant part of Durham, deliver economic growth, create new jobs and become a reason for people to visit the city to spend time and money. We firmly believed if we got these social value enhancements right, then financial value uplift would follow. This was the opportunity we saw in Milburngate.

A Collaborative Approach

The opportunity we saw in Milburngate also resonated with the relatively newly-formed County Council. They had a clear strategy that the city needed to evolve if they were to deliver meaningful economic growth for the people of County Durham. They had a very positive, can-do attitude, and the fact there was alignment between senior officers and senior politicians was an important factor in our decision to invest.

The council acknowledged that the city had seen very little development for decades, but like us they were confident it was a city that had significant potential, which if executed correctly would help drive economic growth and also benefit the wider county and region. It was clear with our shared objectives and aligned vision that a collaborative approach to delivery was the right way forward.

Building On Asset Strength

Durham has got some truly stand out assets: A world-class university, the River Wear - that strangely most existing buildings turn their back on – and, of course, a UNESCO world heritage site.

Furthermore, it is the most accessible city in the North East; positioned in the heart of our region with an east coast main line station and a highway network that offers easy access to and from Tyneside, Teesside and Wearside.

These assets and infrastructure provide an invaluable bedrock for us to build upon as we worked towards developing our plans for Milburngate.

The Precursor To Milburngate

In many respects, the first phase of Milburngate was really Freemans Reach, which gave us the opportunity to make a mark in Durham. Completed in 2015, Freemans Reach was a joint venture between Carillion, Arlington and Richardson Family and the building is now home to NS&I and the Passport Office, both of whom took their space on a pre-let basis, proving there was a strong appetite for high-quality modern office space in the city.

Because of this success at Freemans Reach, it gave the three joint venture partners the confidence to progress our longer-term vision for the riverside’s regeneration by acquiring Milburngate House. Early on, it was clear the scale of the site provided the perfect place for a phased mixed-use scheme, with a variety of uses that complement each other and enhance the existing city offer. Doing so successfully would encourage more people to work, visit and live in Durham, an ambition that aligned with the County Council’s objectives.

Raising The Bar

To ensure our vision for Milburngate was right from the outset, we spent significant time visiting exemplar mixed-use property developments across the UK and Europe. Understanding the stories and best practice that sat behind some of the largest regeneration projects proved invaluable. Unsurprisingly, London set an incredibly high standard, with Argent’s vast redevelopment at Kings Cross being a great example.

Seeing the quality and detail that had gone into developments like this, and the value enhancement that followed, cemented our view that the quality of the finished product at Milburngate really had to raise the bar for both the city and the wider region.

It also confirmed our view that, due to its 6-acre footprint, Milburngate should be outward facing to ensure it integrated with the wider city context. We recognised that by creating new city squares, we could provide places people wanted to visit and dwell within, as well as developing new footpaths and networks through the city to and from the station. Doing so would not only add value to our scheme, but also the wider city.

Core to our masterplan were these key principles of pedestrian connectivity and public spaces, around which the building architecture would be created. And whilst, as with any development of this scale, elements of the masterplan have evolved over time, we have remained absolutely true to these core principles throughout.

Balancing Opportunity And Risk

But taking this vision and turning it into reality isn’t without significant risks, all of which need careful management and consideration at every stage of the development process. Asbestos, 20 metre high retaining walls, archaeology, flooding, the site’s history as a gas works and, of course, its world heritage location all throw up many challenges for the team. Some of these you can plan for well in advance, others can completely blind side you; the sad demise of Carillion being one of them.

Perhaps one of the biggest risks with a development of this scale, however, is judging the wider economic and political landscape. Indeed, it’s likely a project like Milburngate, from conception to completion, will go through a least one market cycle, meaning we must monitor those conditions carefully to ensure we’re futureproofing the success of the scheme for both ourselves and the city.

Despite the risks, the opportunities that exist at Milburngate far outweigh the potential downsides, which is why we’re confident in our ability to deliver. This is bolstered by the fact we’ve got a team that’s made up of the very best people from across the region; many of whom helped us deliver Freemans Reach, and all of whom have bought into and adopted the vision we’ve stayed true to since day one.

Bringing Our Vision To Life

As I pen this, I’m pleased to say that with significant funding in place with La Salle, we are now in the process of finalising the contractor procurement. This means that work on-site to begin building phase one of Milburngate will commence soon.

Very quickly you’ll see this quarter of the city being transformed, as construction of a Premier Inn hotel, 153 build to rent apartments, an Everyman Cinema, 10 restaurants and bars and 53,000 sq ft of speculative office space begin to take shape. And whilst we’ve still got a long way to go, this marks a very important stage in the development, one that’s hugely rewarding for everyone involved.

Personally, I’m incredibly excited and proud to be involved and look forward to Milburngate playing its part in, what I believe is, a very bright future for Durham and the region.

Neil McMillan, Managing Director, iMpeC Developments – Development Managers for Milburngate