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"Untapped potential": Capital & Centric’s ambitions for city living in Sheffield

With the ‘disruptor’ developer planning two major projects in the city, Charlie Heywood-Heath speaks to co-founder Adam Higgins to understand their ambitions – and the associated challenges.

Eye Witness Works Cafe Bar CGI

CGI representation of Capital & Centric's plans for Eyewitness Works in the Devonshire Quarter.

Capital & Centric

Already known for their restorative work across Greater Manchester, including at Kampus and Crusader Mill, Capital & Centric are casting their eyes across the Pennines. In partnership with Sheffield City Council, the developer is working on two sites in the city, Eyewitness Works in the Devonshire Quarter and Cannon Brewery in Neepsend.

My conversation with C&C co-founder Adam Higgins starts with a simple question: why Sheffield?

Adam has a long-standing history with the city, he tells me, having previously been involved in transforming the former Central Technical College into Leopold Square in the early 2000s. He says his main motivation for choosing Sheffield is its “untapped potential,” citing award-winning public realm spaces like the Peace Gardens, the strong culture of independence, a bustling music scene and an industrial heritage locked inside its now-derelict city centre buildings.

Our conversation quickly turns to the challenges and risks associated with trying to unlock this potential. Unlike C&C's hometown of Manchester, Sheffield does not have the same proportion of people living or working in the city centre or the same history of major regeneration, which means there is greater risk for developers and less evidence on whether there is real demand for these schemes. Adam tells me his company want to be at the forefront of this change, setting the standard through good design, public amenities and working closely with the Council to set out a vision for the city.

But what will this change actually look like in practice? Rather than seeing cities like Manchester as somewhere for Sheffield to copy, Adam says Capital & Centric believe we can take advantage of being ‘behind the curve’ in city centre living and set the standard for other cities to follow. Due to owning the Eyewitness Works site, Sheffield City Council have been an active partner in the project, working with the developers to agree end use and ground floor commercial units and connect to its wider vision for the Devonshire Quarter.

Sceptics may question how a closer relationship between a developer and its planning authority affects the balancing of commercial interests alongside wider planning concerns. And whilst it’s true that the business case will still ultimately be central, it demonstrates that there is a role for councils within development which goes beyond approval and towards actively shaping and promoting good quality design as a vested partner.

Adam tells me Capital & Centric believe that councils should feel confident to assert this view more regularly and challenge developers who do not meet their standards. In practice this has become far harder over the last 10-15 years, as housing target pressures have forced councils to focus on quantity rather than quality. As Adam himself acknowledges, this is evident in the “identkit developments” popping up in Sheffield and across the country, often dull and lacking civic pride, with very little long-term thinking about the homes people really want – and desperately need.

Given Capital & Centric are known for attracting a certain kind of 20-something, often young professional clientele, who will these two Sheffield schemes be for? Adam argues that, despite this perception of his company, their projects are not aimed at one specific group and that they hope to attract a range of people. With Eyewitness Works offering one, two and three-bed apartments and town houses, he tells me there is an ambition to appeal to young professionals, families and older couples, who he believes still have a desire to be in city centres. “Cities don't just need to be for young party people but can become their own community, a sustainable mixture of groups.”

Despite this aspiration, there will not be any affordable housing within C&C’s Eyewitness Scheme; instead £83,000 will be contributed via the Community Infrastructure Levy to provide new or improve infrastructure, facilities and services in the local area.

Eye Witness Works Aerial CGI

Aerial CGI representation of C&C's plans for Eyewitness Works.

Capital & Centric

An independent viability assessment conducted for the Council found that, due to high build costs and a reduced land value, it would not be viable for the site to provide the 10% affordable housing stipulated in planning policy. I raise this critical issue with Adam.

“Historic spaces like Eyewitness Works are, in some ways, a massive headache to restore. They throw up surprises and curveballs that maybe weren’t anticipated, and you have to take a lot of care to both preserve and celebrate the building’s history. That can take longer and end up costing more than building new.

“There’s not a one-size-fits-all answer. Sometimes there’s merit in taking down buildings where you can do something better or where there’s little architectural merit. But it would be such as shame if buildings like Eyewitness were lost.”

To make the site viable for development, Homes England loaned £3.5m to assist in site remediation costs which will be repaid by Capital & Centric once developed. Whilst the reliance on subsidies has been necessary in the current economic climate to restore sites which have been left to deteriorate, it also makes it difficult for developers to create schemes that provide affordable housing – something C&C aspire to do in the future, Adam says.

From a commercial point of view this decision is of sound reasoning, but it begs the question of how we provide the affordable housing desperately needed in the city right now. If affordable housing is determined from an assessment of cost and profit, it becomes harder to provide this within private schemes given the benefit is often not monetary but social.

Cannon Brewery 1

Cannon Brewery in Neepsend, where Stones bitter used to be made, is also due for redevelopment by Capital & Centric.

Capital & Centric

Adam seems optimistic that as more developers show an interest in Sheffield, the supply of affordable housing will become more feasible. But if the commercial market is currently not ripe for this provision, is there an argument that agents like the Council need to increase their role further and provide some of the homes required now to address our housing crisis?

This is by no means a new issue in British planning, as Sheffield City Council will be well aware. The post-war boom saw a recognition that the market cannot always provide all types of homes required, especially as affordable housing is typically a public good which falls outside a traditional consumer market. Yet since the Thatcher reforms of the 1980s and vanishing government grants under both Labour and Conservative tenures, there has been an over-reliance on the private sector to deliver all types of housing. This results in a system where the development of affordable housing becomes a ‘nice to have’ and not an absolute necessity. With around 21,000 people on waiting lists for social housing in Sheffield, affordable housing cannot be an aspiration for the future – it has to be something authorities address right now.

Eyewitness Works demonstrates that a lot can be achieved when the public and private sector work together to provide homes and restore some of Sheffield’s lost heritage. The building’s central role as the site of Channel 4’s current interior design contest, The Big Interiors Battle, shows it’s likely to provide the high-quality, desirable development required to boost confidence, sustainable living and investment in Sheffield city centre.

But if the Devonshire Quarter is to provide the “range of occupants” described in the Strategic Vision for the City Centre, then the Council needs the appropriate powers to develop and finance their own affordable homes. This will allow them to create a mixed community that can complement, rather than rely on, the work of private sector developers like Capital & Centric.

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