A developing relationship
Karen Hirst is extolling the virtues and value of partnerships and the vital role she believes they will play in forging Lancashire’s post-Covid future.
It is a subject she is well qualified to discuss, having spent most of her career bringing the public and private sectors together with impressive results.
Karen, 52, is managing director of Maple Grove Developments. Part of the Lancashire-headquartered Eric Wright Group, it continues to work closely with its public sector partners to deliver real change across the red rose county.
Just 24 hours after this interview, Maple Grove submitted a new planning application for the £21m Pioneer Place scheme in Burnley town centre.
The partnership with Burnley Council will deliver 120 new jobs, provide work for180 during construction and add £1.35m GVA to the local economy.
The developer is hard at work with Blackburn with Darwen Council to form a joint venture that will acquire the former Thwaites brewery site and look at a range of redevelopment options.
Maple Grove is also Lancashire County Council’s commercial partner in the development of the key strategic 65-hectare Lancashire Central site at Cuerden, near Leyland.
These are just some of the ventures set to play a role in the county’s recovery and they highlight the breadth of development projects Karen and her tight-knit team are involved in, not just in Lancashire but across the UK.
Looking beyond the current pandemic, Karen urges the public sector to be “brave” in its approach to recovery and in its efforts to secure the financial support that will be needed from sources such as the government’s new ‘levelling-up’ fund.
Warming to the theme she adds: “Lancashire has got a whole host of positives which we all know about and don’t get shouted about enough.
“The challenges are going to be Lancashire’s towns and cities. That’s going to be the case around the country.
“We’re all going to have to rethink towns, what they are about and why we go there.”
She goes on: “Coronavirus has accelerated some things and slowed others down. We’re going to have to look at how things are different and the changes that are here to stay.”
However, Karen is confident of a successful recovery and highlights Burnley and its town centre regeneration plans as “a shining example” of the confidence needed to secure cash backing to deliver change.
Growing up on farms, I didn't want a job where I was in the office every day, I like to make things happen
She says: “If the public and private sector have got the right project and get it to a certain stage, with support from government, they can secure the money to make it happen.”
Creating jobs is also an important and wide-reaching element of such development schemes, having a positive impact on areas such as the housing market, she adds.
Karen is a chartered surveyor and has more than 27 years' property and development experience in the public and private sectors. She joined Maple Grove in June 2016, becoming its managing director 18 months later.
She says she was attracted to the Bamber Bridge-based group, which carries its chairman’s name, by its values and commitment to its communities.
Eric Wright is owned by a charitable trust and all profits are either reinvested in the group’s business or distributed to the trust for its charitable activities across the North West.
She says: “It’s a business that is well-established and very much trusted. The way Eric has set up the business he puts his money where his mouth is, giving back and creating profit for purpose.”
In her previous role as Salford council’s development director Karen became well-known for the central part she played in its acclaimed regeneration.
Notable successes include the creation of the transformational New Bailey business district. More than £1bn has now been invested in Salford, with involvement from big-name players including Peel, English Cities Funds and Bruntwood.
Karen led on the major regeneration projects across all sectors, supporting the growth of the city and was part of the Greater Manchester team securing investment funds and driving forward developments.
Before her Salford days, Karen worked as a director for the Welsh Development Agency and for a private developer.
The ability to see things from both the town hall and the developer’s office is one of her many strengths. Having worked on both sides of the fence, she has a strong understanding of their sometimes differing needs.
She says: “Most of my career has been about that partnership working. The key to a successful partnership is to have a common goal you all aim for.
Lancashire has got a whole host of positives which we all know about and don't get shouted about enough
“I try to put myself in the position of other people, to see things from their perspective and to try and work through things to reach a compromise.
“Being honest and open is important as well. With my North East roots, I wear my heart on my sleeve and say it as it is sometimes,” adds Karen, who was raised in rural County Durham.
“Growing up on farms, I didn’t want a job where I was in the office every day, I like to make things happen.”
Karen believes it is also important that developers bring local people on the regeneration journey with them.
She says: “You have got to remember that people live in, work and visit these places. You need to do it with them. It’s really important to have their support.”
Karen has spent most of her career in a male-dominated industry. Though she points out that a third of Eric Wright’s board are women and nearly half the members of the group management team are female.
She says: “More women are coming into it but I’d be fibbing if I said it wasn’t still male dominated.”
Looking back at her career, Karen recalls: “I have gone to meetings where I’ve been the only woman.”
She thanks her two older brothers for her grounded approach to that situation and explains: “I’d just go there and get on with it and not make a big thing of it.”
Karen believes “being one of the lads” doesn’t always work as an approach and that being a woman can even be an advantage. “It allows you to stand out and to get remembered, hopefully for the right reasons,” she says.
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