Regeneration company Urban Union is currently delivering award-winning housing projects in Scotland including Laurieston in Glasgow and Edinburgh’s Pennywell development. Project Scotland’s Fraser Rummens spoke with the firm’s new MD, Susan Hallsworth, about transforming communities
Q) WHAT’S THE HISTORY OF URBAN UNION?
A) Urban Union, formed in 2011, is a joint venture between Robertson Group Holdings and McTaggart Construction. Both partners have a proven track record in delivering mixed tenure projects and formed Urban Union to deliver large-scale regeneration developments, creating quality homes and communities throughout Scotland. And that’s what we’ve been doing with Laurieston Living in Glasgow, Pennywell Living in Edinburgh and most recently, Muirton Living in Perth.
Q) WHAT WORK DOES URBAN UNION DO?
A) We’re delivering two of the largest housing regeneration schemes in Scotland. The first one is Laurieston Living, which is 900 units, a mix of affordable and private housing, and our aim is to deliver this over four phases over a nine-year period. It’s also fundamentally important for us to ensure our projects benefit the local landscape and community, so we make the best use of the space with the project featuring a linear park and a mix of accommodation as well as the potential for commercial opportunities such as retail outlets.
The Laurieston site is part of a £100 million regeneration of the area working with our partners Glasgow City Council and New Gorbals Housing Association – both instrumental in the new development.
The site is one of Glasgow’s eight Transformational Regeneration Areas (TRAs) and it is a key area at the heart of the city centre. As a nine-year build programme, one of the key priorities for us is to deliver not just all of four phases, but also to look at how we then connect Laurieston to other areas of the city. We don’t just consider the site in isolation, but integrate the accommodation into the local community, linking together aspects of the neighbourhood such as the Gorbals and the Citizen’s Theatre and connecting with other areas such as North Laurieston.
Urban Union’s second project, launched in partnership with City of Edinburgh Council’s 21st Century Homes housing division is in Pennywell. It has 700 units – a mix between apartments, houses and townhouses. One of the aspects of our business that we’re most proud of and renowned for is that we deliver over and above the number of affordable homes set by government requirements. At Pennywell 50% of accommodation comprises affordable homes, social housing and mid-market rent and 50% private housing. It’s an innovative model and we’re proud of our role in weaving together these communities.
We most recently have started construction at Muirton in Perth to build 201 units in the last phase of a regeneration project.
Moving forward, one of our key priorities is to develop brownfield sites – regenerating areas, creating homes and growing neighbourhoods. It’s not just about housing numbers; it’s about looking more at what’s in the area and how we can develop communities.
Q) HOW IMPORTANT ARE THESE PROJECTS FOR CITIES?
A) In each area we work in we’ve replaced existing housing stock and are committed to ‘community benefits in procurement’, creating strong neighbourhoods people want to live and stay in.
Laurieston, and also over the last 10 years the wider Gorbals area, has been changed by putting in new placemaking priorities. By which I mean not only considering the design and architecture of new housing, but the wider project objectives. For example crime has reduced by 60% in the area and more and more people are investing in and coming back to the area. The same is true of Pennywell. It’s about persuading people to stay in the area through the delivery of quality affordable homes, giving them opportunities and creating somewhere people are happy to live.
Q) WHAT DOES URBAN UNION’S ‘BEST PRACTICE’ APPROACH ENTAIL?
A) Our approach to ‘best practice’ is actually quite layered. One of our priorities is best practice in design and we adhere to industry standards such as BREEAM, Code for Sustainable Homes and affordability in heating standards. One of the main considerations we look at is the running costs once the houses have been handed over to tenants, including design and maintenance.
Secondly, in terms of placemaking, we adhere to best practice in planning standards, the density of units, green spaces and communal spaces; again, linking all aspects of the project to creating attractive spaces.
Thirdly, we are committed to community engagement programmes. We are active in building neighbourhoods. Given the long-term nature of our commitment to, and involvement in projects, which are often up to a decade in length, we consult with people who already live in these neighbourhoods to deliver what they want to see there. For example, we deliver an award-winning Art and Living strategy in Laurieston with our partners WAVEParticle, engaging the neighbourhood in cultural exhibitions and events which link the area’s past, present and future and showcasing the rich history of the area. In Pennywell in Edinburgh we are working on a similar programme with the local community.
Q) WHAT HAS THE REACTION BEEN FROM PEOPLE IN THE COMMUNITY?
A) It’s been really fascinating. I spend a great deal of time talking to people who live in the areas we work in – from those who are new tenants to those who have been there for generations. The reaction has been positive with established residents liking seeing new life come into the area as it develops.
Q) WHAT OTHER PROJECTS ARE YOU INVOLVED IN?
A) Apart from Laurieston Living and Pennywell Living, our third project is the Muirton Living development in Perth, where our partners are Caledonia Housing Association and Fairfield Housing Co-operative. With construction starting this summer this last phase of a large regeneration programme will bring 201 units to the area, again a mix of affordable and private housing.
Finally, as the business develops, I’m excited about looking towards potentially buying our own land and delivering our own developments, again still in partnership with councils and housing associations.
Q) WHAT CHALLENGES ARE INVOLVED IN THESE KINDS OF REGENERATION PROJECTS?
A) Naturally, I think one of our main challenges remains the planning and procurement process – the time and resources this requires can be challenging. I also think asking the right questions about the potential challenges that arise following the final masterplan is essential. For example, how do we respond to changes that need to be made once the project is launched? How do you communicate with the city council or the housing association on any changes required?
Q) WHAT HAS URBAN UNION ALREADY ACHIEVED?
A) With both Pennywell Living and Laurieston Living we’ve come to the end of the first phases at the same time. Both have won awards, not only for their design and placemaking, but also for community engagement, and I think we’re all proud that both have achieved so much in a short period of time.
Q) WHAT CHALLENGES AND OPPORTUNITIES DO YOU THINK THE INDUSTRY FACES IN THE WAKE OF BREXIT?
A) I think that bidding for regeneration schemes will continue. For example, Glasgow City Council has a number of flagship areas that they’re keen to develop and that is continuing, likewise in Edinburgh and a number of cities in Scotland. One interesting thing is, from talking to colleagues I know who are developers in England, that they are actually seeing Scotland as the more secure market and I think we will see more people coming up from England and investing in Scotland.
Q) WHAT DO YOU WANT TO ACHIEVE IN YOUR ROLE AS MANAGING DIRECTOR?
A) My role is to, firstly, ensure that the company is working and is as profitable as it can be, but also delivers the existing three housing developments. I think, from my point of view, it’s actually about looking at next steps so that in the next phases we can push innovation in terms of sustainable development, design and energy standards.
Also I plan to continue to work with the City Councils to achieve these goals and make developments that are not only the largest but exemplars for Scotland, as well as the UK and the rest of the world.
Q) WHAT CHALLENGES DO YOU EXPECT TO FACE IN THE ROLE?
A) Partnership working is important. We’ve touched on the challenges of working with councils and the length of time planning can take and the potential for delays, which will remain a challenge. With regards to sales, I think by developing an understanding of the market and how it continually evolves we will be able to respond to the inevitable fluctuations in demand for accommodation.
Q) HOW DID YOU ARRIVE AT YOUR CURRENT POSITION?
A) One of my first roles was as a director of a regeneration agency after Richard Rodgers wrote the White Paper about regeneration for the UK Government. The Government asked for nine regeneration agencies to be set up and I was director of one of the first of these. Alongside working with the Government to set standards around sustainable communities and homes, these were some of the first exemplars in the regeneration field, including skilling people and making planners and council leaders understand what regeneration meant.
Throughout my career I’ve been in a variety of property and consultancy roles. Most recently I worked for multidisciplinary consultancy, Pick Everard. One of the key clients was HS2, working along the route and helping local authorities understand how to regenerate the areas.
My previous job was on the Isle of Skye working for a similar joint venture company called R. My role there was working directly with contractors, acting as project manager on site, through to marketing, sales, supporting clients and growing the business.
Q) WHAT ARE YOUR FUTURE AMBITIONS?
A) One of the Government’s priorities at present is regeneration and I want to see Urban Union capitalise on this through the delivery of large-scale housing projects. I also want to see how we can develop leading examples for not just urban areas in terms of cities, but towns as well.