When boom goes to bust ? City Editor David Bartlett looks at the battle to fill Liverpool?s empty city centre flats
A DECADE ago, the number of people living in the city centre could be measured in the hundreds. Now the population is around 15,000, thanks to a property boom that saw apartments built at a rate of 2.5 per day between 2002 and 2006, when 3,600 flats were thrown up.
But, for the past three years, as vacancy levels have fallen in the suburbs, the amount of empty properties has remained around 12% in the city centre.
While this is almost four times the national average of empty homes, it is not as bad as Leeds city centre, where 25% of apartments are vacant.
However, some Liverpool developments even put Leeds in the shade. Just weeks ago, Millennium Estates, the company behind the ?35m luxury Alexandra Tower on Liverpool?s waterfront at Princes Dock, went into administration ? 147 of its 201 apartments were empty.
In July last year, the neighbouring City Lofts block also went into administration.
Labour Cllr Steve Munby, whose Riverside ward covers the city centre, said in time these flats will be bought as people like living by the waterside.
But he worries more about developments in other areas that do not have the same draw.
He said: ?We need to work to improve the management of the existing blocks and in particular support the rights of leaseholders. We need to do something to match the need for homes and housing with the supply.
?That means an end to sometimes badly designed and poorly managed one and two bed apartments, where developers either disappear or go into administration. I have been arguing that we are building too many apartments in the city centre for years. I hate to say I told you so, but I have had my concerns confirmed yet again.?
Gerry Protor, general secretary of the Federation of Liverpool Waterfront Residents Associations, said the group had started to notice a shift in ownership.
?Before the credit crunch, the percentage of owner occupiers in apartment blocks had been going up. But apartments that were previously owner occupied are now being rented out.
?That?s not the best context for creating cohesive communities, but it is better to have people living in a flat than it sitting empty. Our concern is to create a city and apartment environment that is sustainable, and a community that changes every six months is not sustainable.? The Federation has helped organise a conference called liverpool leaseholder.com at the BT Convention Centre on Saturday, April 18, that will look at the wide range of issues affecting leaseholders.
Liverpool Council is supporting the conference and Cath Green, executive director for neighbourhoods and communities, said the council was keen to work with leaseholders to improve city centre dwelling.
She said the council had done well to reduce the level of vacant properties in suburban areas in recent years, but was aware of the problems with the city centre.
?It?s hardly surprising that flats are not moving as much as they were before the credit crunch,? she said.
?The city centre apartment market is a difficult area, we recognise there is a job to do.? After the fast pace of development of city centre living, it appears Liverpool is now in for a period of consolidation.
Between April and December, 2008, the city council only received 95 applications for large schemes ? around 53% less than the 200 the council had been expecting, based on a five-year average.
Only a few weeks ago, the Daily Post reported how a major ?100m scheme for Hope Street that would have eventually included more apartments had been mothballed due to the credit crunch.
But not all schemes have stalled. Work on Neptune Developments/Countryside Properties project at Mann Island is currently under way.
The first phase is due for completion at the end of 2009, and the second phase a year later.
More than three-quarters of the 376 flats have already been snapped up, and among them is Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard, who has invested in three luxury penthouse properties.
The apartments were the subject of Liverpool?s single biggest residential property deal last year, when all 376 were sold to investment group Dylan Harvey for more than ?70m.
However, estate agents say that some of the vacancy problem is created by investors who bought them off-plan. Now the boom has turned to bust, they are unable to sell immediately at a profit.
But, instead of renting them out, they would rather keep the apartments in pristine condition, hanging on to the property until it can be sold at a profit.
In the current market, it may be some time before that happens. more