Viewpoint: Allan Cook

May 1, 2019

Chris Dobson, North East Times’ property writer, talks with Allan Cook, managing director, Arlington Real Estate, about his property activities in the North East

You have been described as a successful North East-based entrepreneur with interests in property, regeneration, financial services and aviation. How has this reputation been established?

It all began in 1989 with Arlington Financial, an independent financial advisory business I set up with my sister, Julie, who still works with me today. I decided to return to the North East from Leeds, where I had been a partner in a financial services firm.

Arlington focused on giving no-nonsense financial advice to high net worth and SME clients specialising in taxation and pension planning, including the establishment and management of newly- deregulated self-administered pension schemes.

This led to Arlington deploying pension investment funds into numerous asset classes, but, with increasing pension investment regulation, a growing proportion of these funds found their way into property. Having dealt with numerous property transactions on behalf of clients and having built up a portfolio of more than 30 investment properties, Arlington has built a reputation in property.

Do you have the Midas touch, as securing the £120 million forward-funding of Durham City’s Milburngate mixed-use development from LaSalle Investment Management is exceptionally good news?

The LaSalle deal is fantastic news, both for Arlington and the Milburngate team, as well as Durham and the wider region. It’s not Allan Cook that LaSalle are interested in, it’s the unique investment opportunity that Milburngate offers their investors that has its attention. It really is a golden opportunity. A large scale, high-quality, mixed-use regeneration scheme with river frontage in the heart of a beautiful and historic city centre with stunning views of the Cathedral World Heritage site, an East Coast main line rail station and great road links, what’s not to like from an investor’s point of view?

What does this investment enable you to do with this project?

Securing the funding from LaSalle enables us to move forward into the construction phase of the scheme providing certainty of delivery to existing committed tenants and further increasing confidence in Milburngate as a ‘here and now’ opportunity to other prospective occupiers. Just as importantly for Durham, it puts the city firmly back on the map with the institutional funders, this being the second such deal we have negotiated following the investment in Freemans Reach on the opposite bank of the river by Legal & General.

Looking back, which scheme saw the launch of Arlington Real Estate?

Although through Arlington Financial I had been involved in many property transactions both for clients and as an investor, it was the acquisition and scale of DurhamGate, the former Black & Decker facility, in Spennymoor, that led to the realisation that our property interests had grown to such an extent that the focus of the business needed to shift to enable us to concentrate on property as the core business. This saw the disposal of the financial services business and relocation of the business to DurhamGate.

Arlington is also very much tied up with the DurhamGate £150 million regeneration project. What is the status of this scheme post Carillion’s failure?

When I acquired DurhamGate from Black & Decker, I had already purchased Meadowfield, a 12-acre site with more than 300,000sq ft of dilapidated industrial space from the then regional development agency.

Having completed a comprehensive refurbishment of the buildings, Arlington successfully let the space to various commercial tenants, including 140,000sq ft to Berco UK Ltd bringing much-needed employment to the area.

Although Arlington had a proven track-record of managing large-scale property transactions, I was clear from the outset that DurhamGate was something that was then beyond the skill set of the Arlington team and would require the involvement of a large-scale development partner. I approached a number of large players all of whom were interested in joining forces with us. At the time, Carillion were considered the “biggest and best”, so I was delighted when we secured them as a 50/50 joint venture partner.

Despite a great start, following the financial crisis of 2008, Carillion came under increasing financial pressure culminating in its spectacular failure in 2018. I am pleased to say Arlington now own 100 per cent of DurhamGate and is pressing ahead with delivery of the remaining phases of the scheme.

Can you single out the businesses so far attracted to DurhamGate and the jobs created as a result?

We have some high-quality, respected businesses at DurhamGate, including Learning Curve Group, Livin, Berco UK and Stanley Black & Decker. The wider DurhamGate area also includes Thorn Lighting and Boots. Collectively, DurhamGate is home to a combined workforce in excess of 1500.

This success has been achieved in just 30 years or so. Do you have any messages for budding developers?

Be careful what you wish for. Although extremely personally rewarding, particularly when delivering a successful, high-quality scheme in your own community, large-scale development involves investing a lot of time and a lot of capital and has more challenges that you can ever know, including the ups and downs of the economy, political opinion and market trends. Ten years ago, who would have forecast that town centre retail space would be off-trend and unlikely to recover, or that the market would be looking for multi-storey warehousing and logistics space?

Finally, tell me about the disposal of the Naval and RAF Gazelle helicopter fleet. How did this fascinating task come about?

Arlington Financial assisted with a successful competitive tender bid for the disposal of a large quantity of assets on behalf of UK Ministry of Defence. During the contract period, another opportunity with UK Ministry of Defence arose for the disposal of its Navy and RAF Gazelle Helicopter fleet. At this time an aviation friend of mine, who was also in property, had just bought a Gazelle and having flown it, I was hooked. It seemed like a perfect opportunity to mix business with pleasure!

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