Feature by John Grainger, Business editor
Philip Lunn is a man with a vision. Actually, he’s a man with multiple visions, one for each property development he tackles – which is quite a lot.
As managing director of Lateral Property Group, he’s the brains behind some of the most radical town planning proposals to have troubled Harrogate’s traditionalists for some decades. It’s fair to say his plans have probably caused quite a few pieces of toast to be dropped in shock over the breakfast newspapers.
Most recently, he has announced proposals to redevelop a block of lower Parliament Street as a family restaurant “destination” quarter; Jamie Oliver has even committed to opening a Jamie’s Italian there.
But he most famously came to public attention in 2011 when he unveiled plans to re-flow Harrogate’s through-traffic via Montpellier Hill and the Pump Room to enable the pedestrianisation of Parliament Street and the creation of a series of open spaces with water-features.
The scheme lacked public and council support, so he’s put it on ice indefinitely, but still insists it could have worked.
“Harrogate needs to start looking at positive change,” he says when I meet him at his Victoria Avenue offices.
“It has to accept that with reduced numbers coming through the conference centre and increased competition coming from Leeds and York it needs to invest in its town centre to make sure we have the strongest retail and leisure experience possible.”
Fair enough. But isn’t it true that as the owner of much of Parliament Street’s property he would have been the prime beneficiary of the scheme? And why, of all things, water features?
He concedes the point about Lateral benefiting from any pedestrianisation, but insists that it would have benefited the town as a whole much more than any individual.
“Harrogate’s central retail and leisure core is not fit for purpose,” he explains. “We need to make it as good as the Stray and the Valley Gardens. I mean, Harrogate is famous for its water, yet you can’t find a single water feature in the town centre. We need to create memories for our children!”
He argues that lots of other towns and cities on the Continent have been vastly improved by banishing traffic, opening up central spaces to people and incorporating art – and water features – into the civic plan. He even holds up (the now largely pedestrianised) Darlington as an example of what can be done.
So, who is this visionary, this upsetter of apple-carts who wants to create memories for our children?
Having grown up “in a property and construction family”, Philip Lunn spent his early years living in various places around Yorkshire; his mother’s clan is from Harrogate. After attending Leeds Grammar School, he went to Reading University and then snagged himself a place on Savills’ commercial graduate programme in London.
He spent 10 years in the capital before heading back north in 2003. As a result, he’s worked on developments large and small all over the UK, and along the way has proved himself rather good at seizing opportunities.
The main thing, he says, is to be decisive; his pet hate is people who are not.
“The role of a businessperson or entrepreneur is to make decisions,” he says. “Some you get right; some you get wrong, but you have to make them.”
So what’s he got wrong?
“We bought the Royal Baths in 2009 with a US-based partner,” he says. “It was great timing. In fact, my biggest regret is not having bought more in 2009.
“But then,” he concedes, “I can’t really have any regrets; we’re doing very well in a difficult market.”
Among the triumphs, the Jamie Oliver deal ranks highly.
“Signing Jamie’s is a phenomenal coup for Harrogate,” he says. “It will anchor this end of town and will face off the threat from Leeds and York.
“Some people will feel threatened, but it’s great news for Harrogate’s leisure offer.”
The “threat” from Harrogate’s larger neighbours clearly shapes his thinking to a considerable degree, but he’s quite clear that it’s very real.
“We’ve done a lot of research on this,” he says, “and it turns out that north Leeds is key for us. A lot more money comes into Harrogate from there than we originally thought.”
He points to the new John Lewis store planned for the Monk’s Cross development in York and the opening of Trinity Leeds, the million-square-foot, 120-unit retail and leisure behemoth due to open on March 21, as major competitors.
“I think Trinity’s going to pull a lot of that trade from north Leeds that would otherwise have come here,” he says.
The market research is typical of the way Lateral operates. Mr Lunn, who has just turned 40, may be a dab hand at spotting opportunities, but he doesn’t shoot from the hip – at least, not any more. He takes careful aim.
“It’s taken a long time to truly understand the balance between risk and reward,” he says.
“Conservatism takes a long time to learn in business. The days of the young buck rushing headlong into something are over; any decision now has to be very carefully considered. It takes a long time to get a wise head – just ask my colleagues!”
Another day, another deal. After the Parliament Street restaurant development, there’ll be a retail and residential overhaul of the block further up, and after that, there are bound to be more. But given that money is unlikely to be a problem any time soon, what’s he in it for?
“I love what I do,” he says, “and I love working with a group of incredibly talented people.
“The business we’re creating has technology at its core, which is rare in the property industry, and it’s allowing us to accomplish growth in the most difficult times.
“I hope our legacy will be that we’re a business that seemed to positively change retail development.”
Now that’s a grand vision.