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A blog by John Mothersole - Public Sector Advisor to Queensberry

As many of you will know, I was for many years the Chief Executive of Sheffield City Council. As with many jobs that carry responsibility and profile, things tend to find you. In that job I always reckoned there were two types of phone calls that you did not want to receive. The first was the one that started with “there’s something you need to know” which inevitably means that something has gone wrong. The second is the one that starts with “there’s something I need to tell you” which broadly means the same thing except that they also think it may be your fault! And so it was with some trepidation that I took a call from Paul Sargent, CEO of Queensberry about a year ago. Paul and I had worked very closely on Heart of The City in Sheffield and there was no reason to think there was a problem but it’s a big and complicated development so you never know. I need not have worried, and so it is that now I find myself happily acting as an advisor to Queensberry at what must surely be the most fluid and inventive time for development and regeneration in several decades.

Fluid and inventive though can be scary for some people and some businesses. If I reflect back on my previous experience that is also true for some Councils. In those situations, and in these times, fortune favours the creative, the thoughtful, the agile and the realistic. And when in national terms the policy goal is clear even if the route map is not, then the wise and the bold draw the map. Take ‘Levelling Up’. What’s not to like about a goal of growing the economy of many places in the UK backed up with, quite frankly, lots of cash? There is though at the town and city level sometimes a gap as to what exactly should be done. Enter Queensberry.

In the “old world” of only a few years ago things were simpler. Developers developed and project managers managed with the occasional complicated JV thrown in to keep the lawyers busy. Things are different now. The big developer model struggles to cope with the changed world of occupier sentiment, proper mixed use and turnover rents. JVs are based on assumptions that no longer exist. Projects though are still managed but what places need now, and what in my view Government wants, are plans and schemes that change the entire prospect of a town or city centre, not just a fine project sitting in splendid isolation. This is where we come in.

I was asked recently by a friend what does a development manager do. My answer was simple – they do what it takes. Simple as that answer is, it does lack boundaries as to what exactly will be done and that is a challenge when people (clients) like to know what they are buying. In reality, with the likes of Queensberry – and I say this with the possibly unique experience within the company of having been a major client – what you get, and what we offer, is a partnership. To be honest I do tend to avoid using the “partnership” word for the simple reason that is often over-used and lacks purpose. I use it here deliberately. Both sides playing to their strengths, complementing not duplicating, challenging each other without falling out, clear about the destination but flexible about the route.

For me that is where the motivation is. Getting to know places, maybe spotting what they haven’t yet seen for themselves, iterating and re-iterating what can and should be done, proposing as much as being told what to do, being savvy enough and agile enough to change things as the conditions change, managing, delivering and, of course, being there on the opening night! And we know it works. Just look at Barnsley which quite frankly is the best example going of a well-scaled realistically ambitious scheme in the country for a town that, through The Glass Works scheme, has signalled that it has found its way forward.

There are many organisations and practices that “do” place shaping as the modern parlance would have it and that in my view is the business in which Queensberry is now in. It struck me last week though that there is a very special edge that Queensberry has and it is this. This company has commercial reality in its DNA. It has grown successfully into the place shaping world with that reality at its core. That is unusual and very valuable. It has though not allowed the occasionally grim commercial reality to get in the way of bold and imaginative thinking. Dreamers are useful but places won’t thrive on dreams. Nor will they thrive on piecemeal projects. Maybe we should adopt the “dreams that work” tag!

The bottom line though is that whilst tarmac, trees, bricks and mortar are what often defines our sector it is all about people and human nature. Places – clients, current and potential – need to know our approach and we need to know where they are coming from. We need to understand the policy context as that will drive support and investment. The binary world of the procurement process is no longer the starting point. That is the opportunity that Paul has spotted and given to me as an advisor. I am loving it.

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