Inside the Peel empire: Is trouble brewing at the company that owns everything?
‘I have to say I did get a bit agitated last week. All this speculation about Peel’s in difficulty… we’re not'
Dear Millers — this edition is arriving in your inbox a little later than usual because something unexpected happened when we were digging into a story about Peel Group, the vast, all-powerful property company that owns something like 33,000 acres of land and water in the North West.
The unexpected twist? The company’s new chairman invited Mollie in for an interview at his headquarters. Mark Whitworth wanted to clear a few things up. No, Peel is not in trouble. No, the job losses we had heard about are not a cause for concern. Whitworth was annoyed — “my blood boiled,” he said — about the suggestion from one source that the company is combusting, which he utterly refutes.
The reason we were surprised to get an in-person, on-the-record interview with Whitworth is that Peel generally “operates behind the scenes”, as the journalist Guy Shrubsole puts it in his book Who Owns England?, “quietly acquiring land and real estate, cutting billion-pound deals and influencing numerous planning decisions.”
Peel is the company behind Media City and the Trafford Centre — both of which were built on land that it owned. But the sheer scale of its land ownership and development activity boggles the mind. It has dozens of massive projects in the pipeline including putting 2,700 homes on the once-wild Pomona Island, building 1,000 homes and a controversial golf course at Hulton Park in Bolton, creating a new community in Worsley, Salford, building more than 1,000 homes in Tyldesley, Wigan and creating a 3,500-home development near Elton Reservoir in Bury.
So what’s going on inside the company — and what did we learn from our audience with the top man Whitworth, who only recently took over from Peel’s secretive founder John Whitaker as chairman of Peel?
Scroll down to read that if you’re a paying member — as always this edition is members-only, save for the mini-briefing at the top. The full edition also has a great list of things to do for the weekend. If you’re not a member yet, you really should join now to read the story, and the beautiful piece mentioned below.
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The human rights organisation Liberty is supporting three men from Moss Side who are contesting murder convictions handed to them as teenagers. Reano Walters, Durrell Goodall and Nathaniel “Jay” Williams were convicted of the 2016 murder of Abdul Hafidah under controversial joint enterprise laws, which allowed the police and CPS to convict them even though they had no direct hand in the murder. The three men say that institutional racism played a part in their convictions and that prosecutors used a misleading “gang narrative” to convince the jury. Liberty says that these allegations of gang membership are disproportionately used against black people and that the evidence often used — friendships, private messages, musical taste — potentially breaches the European Convention on Human Rights.
North Manchester General Hospital is finally going to be rebuilt, reports the MEN, as part of a five-year project aiming to transform the crumbling site. The government has given the green light to plans to rebuild the Victorian premises, with a start date planned for 2025. By 2030, an end date which Health Secretary Steve Barclay insists is “realistic”, the multi-million-pound plans will see several new facilities added to the existing hospital including an education hub, a mental health inpatient unit, and a new residential community in the Crumpsall area. The final and confirmed plans are expected to be published in spring 2024. Earlier this year, a senior figure at the hospital told us about the struggles of trying to operate a modern hospital out of a “Victorian workhouse infirmary”, adding: “The patients have got a really raw deal.”
Depot Mayfield will be the site of a new Royal Horticultural Society urban show scheduled for April 2024, the RHS has announced. Usually better known for their regular flower shows, such as the Chelsea Flower Show, the RHS want to use their urban show in Manchester’s city centre to demonstrate the gardening opportunities available to those who live in industrial and city locations with little or no garden space. The event will see the former railway station transformed and overtaken by plants. Those interested can get involved on the RHS website here.
And finally: Our weekly podcast is out and we’ve done an episode about the arrival of Soho House in Manchester. A whole podcast episode about a posh private members’ club, after you’ve already devoted thousands of words to it in the newsletter! What on earth is going on with the editorial decision-making at The Mill? Good question. It’s August and we’re scraping around at the bottom of the news barrel. No, actually, we think it’s an interesting story — one of those launches that tells you something about Manchester, and about what people in London think of Manchester. Have a listen via your favourite podcast app.
Is trouble brewing at the company that owns everything?
By Mollie Simpson
A couple of weeks ago, we received a tip about Peel Group, the billion-pound property empire known for developing Media City and the Trafford Centre and owning massive stretches of land along the Manchester Ship Canal. Someone close to the company said Peel had “combusted” and was going through a “major restructure”.
“The culture of Peel has broken down,” an ex-staffer told us. “People think they gave that business everything, and now that business has turned around and shat on them.” A quick search on LinkedIn revealed that several Peel employees — mostly in marketing, communications and engagement roles — had announced they had left the company.
So what’s going on? Is a giant company that seems to own half of the North West really in trouble? Last week, I got on a tram to the Trafford Centre and spent some time snooping around Peel’s head office to find out.
I approached a dozen or so employees outside the dreary glass office block: five said “no comment”, three didn’t know anything, two said they’d heard something about a restructure “on the grapevine” and one called the building’s security on me. Shortly afterwards, an irritated-looking man in a suit turned up and escorted me off the premises.
Then, much to my surprise, I got an email offering an in-person interview with Mark Whitworth, Peel Group’s chairman — the first time since he’s spoken publicly since he took on the role five months ago.
‘My blood boiled’
“I’ve got nothing to hide. Absolutely nothing to hide,” says Whitworth when we find him at the company’s HQ. I’m with The Mill’s editor and we’re sitting across a table from Whitworth in a bland meeting room.
Whitworth wants to talk business strategy, but first, he has a bone to pick with me. In his hands is an email I sent to Peel’s press officer last week, which he has printed out. He points to the key part of the email, which is underlined in orange highlighter and which he describes as “speculation”. In the email, I had asked Peel if they could verify some claims about the company going through a major restructuring.
“When I saw that, my blood boiled,” Whitworth says, pushing the email towards me. He suggests that the situation has been exaggerated by a few aggrieved ex-employees. “Quite frankly, it’s crud.”
Since he took over as chairman in April this year, Whitworth has embarked on a “modest” restructure, which he says was long-planned and certainly is no reason to panic about the business. How many people have lost their jobs? Tens rather than hundreds, he says.
Whitworth acknowledges “the market is tough” with higher interest rates, rising construction costs and delays in the planning process. He acknowledges that Peel lost a “considerable amount of money” when the Trafford Centre’s owner Intu went bust a few years ago. It had been reported by the Sunday Times that Intu’s troubles caused a major strain on Peel’s finances, with the company forced to sell some of its stake in Peel Ports and Liverpool airport in 2019 as a “retail bloodbath” sent “shockwaves” through Peel’s empire.
But overall, Whitworth’s tone is positive and his message is bullish, saying that the book value of Peel’s assets is higher than ever. “I would genuinely say we are in a stronger position than we have ever been,” he tells me.
The Peel empire
Peel was founded by the businessman John Whitaker in 1973 and made its name by acquiring vast swathes of land in the North, starting with redeveloping empty quarries into industrial sites and retail parks.
Little is known about the Whitaker family because they rarely grant interviews. In his recent book Manchester Unspun, the journalist Andy Spinoza describes Whitaker as an “aggressive property entrepreneur”, and “secretive tax exile” who helicopters in for board meetings from the Isle of Man, a tax haven.
What’s the billionaire Whitaker like in person? “He's very dapper, very old fashioned,” one acquaintance of his tells The Mill. Manchester’s regeneration in recent times has been fronted by charismatic, media-hungry developers like Tom Bloxham and Tim Heatley, but that’s certainly not how Whitaker operates. “Businesses reflect the character of their driving minds,” observes someone who has had frequent dealings with Peel, “and Whitaker is a monosyllabic recluse.”
Where some developers are keen to play a part in the public square, the Peel founder doesn’t fit that mould. “Whitaker just cuts too quickly to what's in his interests; there is no hinterland.”
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