Shockwaves from Intu’s collapse can impact beyond Braehead
Intu, owner of Braehead Shopping Centre, has gone bust, leaving thousands of workers wondering if the giant mall will close, and if it reopens, how many jobs will remain. The SANE Collective explores the background to the collapse and what it tells us about city governance, planning and the obsession with retail.
Intu, owner of Braehead Shopping Centre, has gone bust, an outlier of a coming retail property market collapse. The company also owns the giant Trafford Centre in Manchester and Gateshead Metro Centre. The collapse is not just about Covid19 – it was on the cards from February this year when a major debtor pulled out of talks to extend time to pay.
Administrators KPMG have persuaded creditors to lend £12m to keep the Intu holdings open until a buyer can be found, if a buyer can be found.
The impact on Glasgow could stretch beyond Braehead. Last year the City Council gave the giant developer Peel Holdings permission to build a £100m “leisure and shopping outlet” on a site near the Riverside Museum.
But with a 24.6% stake in Intu, Peel Holdings is going to take a considerable hit from the company’s collapse.
Peel’s “Western Harbour” proposed 20,000m² of retail units, more than 10,000m² for leisure uses and restaurants/bars totalling almost 4000m². Their original proposal claimed the emphasis would be on leisure, but when the detailed plans emerged the amount of retail had expanded. Glasgow’s planning committee still gave them the go-ahead. Glasgow planners retail obsession seems unbreakable.
What kind of partner are Peel Holdings, for a supposedly economically and socially progressive City Council? Peel is mostly owned by the Whitaker family, and it operates through a complex network of no fewer than 342 companies. Its ultimate owner is Tokenhouse Ltd, a Whitaker family trust based in the Isle of Man.
In 2013, their influence on development decisions in Liverpool had become so pervasive that ExUrbe, a think tank run by former Labour MP Peter Gilfoyle, concluded: “Peel have blurred the lines between public and private interests.”
Their expansion into a major developer comes from cashing in on the UK’s industrial collapse. They own what’s left of British Coal; they parlayed their own loss-making quarries into a significant bank of reclaimed land; they are a massive player throughout the North West, owning Media City, home of the BBC, Salford Quays, Manchester Canal and a massive land bank along the North West waterways from Manchester to the Wirral. They have bought this land for a song, as part of the “regeneration” scam that has gripped local authorities and governments since Michael Heseltine was Environment Secretary.
According to the Salford Star they have received massive amounts of public money for their Salford schemes (NB this article is from 2012).
In his 2019 book Who Owns England, Guy Shrubsole describes Peel Holdings as one of the ‘secretive’ companies that “hoards England’s land”:
“Peel Holdings operates behind the scenes, quietly acquiring land and real estate, cutting billion-pound deals and influencing numerous planning decisions. Its investment decisions have had an enormous impact, whether for good or ill, on the places where millions of people live and work.”
In June 2013, Margaret Hodge, then Chair of the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee, accused the Peel Group of tax dodging, and stated that some parts of the group pay on average 10% Corporation Tax, and that some of the more profitable parts of the Peel Group pay 0% Tax.
They are a huge player in Scoland. As well as extensive residential and commercial developments, they are also the owner of Clydeport. They built the new port for the INEOS “dragon ships” bringing in fracked gas from the United States. They are currently trying to convince North Ayrshire Council to allow them to build a gas power station next to the port they own at Hunterston, based on burning imported gas.
What the Intu collapse shows is that there is no going back to a pre-pandemic economy, along the old lines. How many of the financial companies the Council is so proud of attracting will be deep in debt to a property market – commercial and residential – facing a major collapse? Thousands of empty retail spaces and thousands of unemployed people walking away from their mortgages is what we are facing in Glasgow.
In any case why should we agree to going back to this kind of economy that offers little to the people of Glasgow while enriching developers? In a recent open letter to Council Leader Susan Aitken, 14 campaigns and organisations, called on the City Council to respond to the current crisis by dissolving their Post-Pandemic Recovery Group, whose membership could be called “the usual suspects”. They said that instead the council should embark on a radical planning adventure, involving citizens fully in deciding the economic future.
Over the years, local authorities have been educated by neo-liberalism to accept that the market knows best. They no longer challenge developer-driven spatial planning, and are complicit in it. And the Scottish government, which rejected an opportunity to democratise planning in last year’s Planning Bill, is equally guilty.
As Planning Democracy (one of the signatories of the Open Letter) are constantly pointing out, our planning system gives massive power to developers and little power to citizens. In terms of the spaces in our cities, we get what they choose to give us rather than what we need or want – in Glasgow that has meant shopping, student accommodation and small flats.
Infrastructure and transport is invariably all about roads and cars. In fact Peel has been accused of doing everything in its power to prevent Manchester’s plans for a congestion charge. This is exactly what we don’t need. Get Glasgow Moving, the campaign for public transport, was also a signatory of the Open Letter.
The neo-liberal policies that have dominated development will simply not do any more. It has been proved that they don’t tackle poverty, ill health or inequality – Glaswegians are the living and dying proof of it. We need to plan a just, green and socially useful city for all its citizens.
Join us in thinking through how to bring into existence the social movement that can make this happen. Register here for First Sunday, July 5th, 4.00pm to 5.30pm
(The Open Letter to Susan Aitken. Read it here)