Transforming Sunderland’s fortunes 

October 30, 2017

Siglion – a 20-year partnership between Sunderland City Council and Carillion, managed by igloo Regeneration, is looking to revitalise Sunderland’s economy by bringing office, leisure and residential development to three key sites in the city. Alison Cowie speaks to chief executive John Seager to find out more

For development company Siglion, its objective to help transform the fortunes of a city over the next two decades is ambitious to say the least, but one that chief executive John Seager and his team are fully committed to achieving.

Siglion was launched in April 2015 and is a joint venture partnership between Sunderland City Council and construction company Carillion, for which real estate business igloo Regeneration is providing development, asset and fund management services.

From modern city centre offices, overlooking the Wearmouth Bridge and coastline beyond, Siglion is set to redevelop three key sites in Sunderland (with a further two earmarked for future work) over the next 20 years.

The partnership’s work forms part of a wider masterplan driven by Sunderland City Council and a number of city stakeholders to revitalise the city’s economy.

Recently branded the 3,6,9 Vision, the masterplan includes at least £1.3 billion of investment including creating a strategic transport corridor to link the International Advanced Manufacturing Port on the A19 with the city centre and the Port of Sunderland, and building 15,000 new homes, and has already seen major infrastructure projects delivered, including the establishment of a Centre for Enterprise and Innovation at the University of Sunderland and the transformation of the city centre’s Fire Station into a cultural quarter.

John was appointed Siglion chief executive shortly before the partnership was officially launched two-and-a-half-years ago. A qualified chartered surveyor from the South East, he has lived and worked in the region for the past 14 years, previously working on development projects in the North East and beyond while at Gateshead-based UK Land Estates.

In his current role, John is responsible for managing the planning and delivery of Siglion’s development sites. The first of these – and the one that’s the most advanced in terms of delivery – is at the former Vaux Brewery site located in the city centre.

Siglion has outline planning to transform the 5.5-hectare site with office, retail, residential and leisure facilities, working with architecture firms including Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios and Newcastle-based FaulknerBrowns, among others.

Construction of the first building – a 60,000 sq ft Grade A office building with ground floor leisure and retail space – is well underway and is due for completion next year.

John and the team are particularly mindful of their duty to create something that not only benefits the city in terms of jobs and inward investment but also honours the historical significance of the site and engages the whole community.

John explains: “The Vaux Brewery [which closed its doors in 1999] was once at the heart of the city centre. Not only was it a major source of employment for the city, the smell of the brewing permeated the air and the brewery sponsored the city’s football team as well as numerous other clubs and groups.

“If you go onto ebay and type in ‘Vaux memorabilia’, you’ll find lists of stuff, from beer mats and beer trays to pictures and photos, which illustrates how relevant and important the Vaux site is for people of Sunderland.”

Not only do signs and hoardings at the reimagined Vaux site celebrate its history but the team at Siglion has put much thought into how the new development will attract locals.

As construction continues, the partnership is planning some charity and pop-up enterprises to draw people to the site, inspired by similar initiatives that sprung up in and around London Kings Cross as the station and surrounding area were regenerated.

“We’re currently looking into the possibility of holding a series of pop-up events and are in talks with a charitable enterprise about growing and selling food on site. We’re also investigating the possibility of growing hops on the site and creating sculptures out of them – a direct nod to its former brewing days,” says John.

Attention has also been paid to integrate the development with local landmarks including the recently completed Keel Square public space (located just metres away from the Vaux site) and the Keel Line – a paving inset that contains the names of 9000 ships built on the River Wear, which will run directly through the former brewery site.

Siglion invited a number of creatives to develop ideas for a structure that would mark the end of the Keel Line, while attracting people to the Vaux site.

The winning idea was The Launch, a huge swinging pendulum, that is inspired by the tradition of smashing a bottle of Champagne off the hull of a new ship as it was launched for the first time.

Detailed designs for The Launch are currently underway with the hope that it can be completed in time for the Tall Ships Race that comes to Sunderland’s riverside in July 2018.

Just as important as creating an area that engages the local community, is ensuring Vaux is an attractive option for new tenants, including out-of-the-region companies and organisations who can bring much needed high-skilled jobs and inward investment into the city.

John says: “At the moment Sunderland has a lot of out-of-town business parks and excellent motor industry-based manufacturing facilities, but it can’t cater for large or medium-sized companies that are looking for modern offices in the city centre.

“The city’s economy has suffered as a result, and we intend to try and fix that.”

John explains that the design of the Vaux site reflects igloo Regeneration’s ‘Footprint’ a method of design that’s focused on the health, happiness and well-being of those who use the site.

“I genuinely believe that architecture can have a huge influence on people’s well-being. This can be as simple as the view from a person’s window, or having a naturally ventilated building,” says John.

“At Vaux, we’ve designed the vast majority of offices using the top-level Well Building Standard so that we can say with confidence to prospective tenants, if you chose to base yourself at the Vaux site your employees will be happier, your staff turnover will be less and you’ll spend less on sick pay and attrition rates.

The development, John continues, is also designed to make the most of its location and the benefits of Sunderland’s proximity to the coast.

“You’ll be able to see the sea from much of the Vaux site and that coastal aspect and workers could feasibly go surfing on their lunch break if they wish to do so,” John enthuses.

In addition to the Vaux site, Siglion is also currently developing plans to transform the seafront area of Seaburn.

“We’re currently working on the overall masterplan to create a mixed-use development with a lot of retail and restaurants spaces, that will attract people to the seafront, as well as housing that will provide families with the opportunity to live in a fantastic coastal location.”

Similarly, Siglion is in the planning stage of its third site, Chapelgarth, which is a major housing development in the south of Sunderland.

“It forms part of a significant effort by the council to deliver more and better houses to not only retain skilled people, but also attract people from outside the area,” says John.

“We have consent in place for 750 residential units, and we have an agreement in place with a house builder to develop around 115 homes as part of the first phase. We hope work for this first phrase begins on site next year.”

As planning and subsequent construction work continue across Siglion’s three main sites, John is mindful that the partnership’s masterplan must be flexible to adapt to external social, economic and political factors that will inevitably impact such a long-term project.

But if the partnership delivers development in the three proposed sites, its chief executive is confident it will succeed in its aims to make the city more economically attractive.

He concludes: “Sunderland is certainly not the only post-industrial economy that has found itself in a difficult place to attract investors and developers, but I’m certain that Siglion and the city’s other stakeholders are doing very positive work to address these issues.”