Stacey Barnfield gets a rare behind-the-scenes view of Longbridge – Birmingham’s biggest regeneration project in modern times
This is regeneration on an epic scale.
From my vantage point on the infamous ‘Cardiac Hill’ I can see a buzz of activity creating Birmingham’s first new suburban public park in decades.
It’s a park that will expose a 255-metre stretch of the River Rea which has been buried under factory buildings and warehouses for nearly 100 years.
Named after Lord Austin, who founded the legendary motor company bearing his name in 1905, the park will be a similar size to St Philips Square in Birmingham city centre when it opens in the autumn.
In the distance I can just about make out earthmovers and diggers trundling back and forth like remote-control toys as they carve this green oasis; planting 500 specially-imported Himalayan Birch, Pin Oak, Goat Willow and Lime trees and slotting into position a pedestrian footbridge over the river.
However my unique perspective of a suburb in transition shows how Austin Park, the centrepiece of Longbridge and itself the size of two football pitches, takes up a tiny parcel of land within redevelopment specialists St Modwen’s vast masterplan for a new Longbridge.
If you’re wondering where exactly Cardiac Hill is, try walking the steep incline of Lickey Road in the direction of Cofton Park – a route marched by thousands of Rover workers before the motoring giant’s demise in 2005 – and the nickname will have more meaning.
Back then and standing here I’d be blocking one of the gates to the sprawling factory that was the beating heart of this corner of Birmingham.
Little remains of the Rover buildings nowadays save for a few dilapidated sheds awaiting their date with the demolition experts.
Lickey Road is now fronted by houses in all shapes and sizes built and managed by St Modwen and it’s all part of the company’s £1 billion vision for the area.
The scale of this project really is quite staggering, as are the eye-watering statistics journalists love to seize upon.
It’s a project covering 468 acres, creating 10,000 jobs through a diverse range of industries, together with 2,000 new homes, the new town centre, parks and public open spaces.
The town centre alone is expected to cost £75 million and will boast a Sainsbury’s as well as a 75-bedroom Premier Inn and Beefeater Grill, cafés and restaurants, two new office buildings called Park Point and Seven House and car parking.
The striking Bournville College which cost £66 million to build opened in the autumn of 2012 and is home to 15,000 students, a new learning resource centre, business school, construction workshop and leisure and sport facilities open to the community.
A new youth centre called The Factory also opened its doors last year – marking the first new facility of its kind in Birmingham for six years.
The 17,000 sq ft three-storey centre, located on Longbridge Lane opposite the new town centre, provides a wide range of innovative services for teenagers.
Developers St Modwen have now handed the complex over to Birmingham City Council as part of a key step in the rebirth of the area.
The centre provides arts space, a sports hall, conference rooms, an ICT suite, music and media centre, workshop area, outdoor games, cafe and garden.
St Modwen forecasts the mixed-use Longbridge project will add an estimated £134 million to regional Gross Value Added (GVA) by 2015, with the total number of jobs created set to exceed 4,000 over the next two years.
“The Rover factory was the heart of the community,” explained Mike Murray, senior development surveyor at St Modwen and my guide for the day. “It had a hospital, a dentist and social clubs. When the factory went, so did those facilities and people stopped talking to each other. We’re talking about 60,000 residents who had nothing apart from a Morrisons supermarket.
“The whole idea was to put a heart back in to the town with new employment to get jobs back in the area and then wrap that with residential to create a sustainable community.
“It took us about three years to get through the local and national government planning process because we have about 20 stakeholders to talk to.
“People accuse us of not doing anything,” added Mr Murray. “but according to this morning’s log book there are 250 people working in construction on the site right now. There’s another 100 people supporting this in various roles. This is the largest regeneration project in the Midlands, one of the top ten in the UK and top 50 in Europe.”
St Modwen claims that in excess of 3,000 jobs have already been created since work started in 2007, with 348 full-time jobs being created during the construction process.
Far in the distance I can see another vast patch of land alongside Bristol Road, all flattened, stripped to soil and awaiting new tenants, and if I look directly behind me I can see the factory buildings of St Modwen’s biggest tenant – MG Motor UK, the famous brand now owned by SAIC Motor, China’s largest automotive company and the eighth largest in the world.
MG’s presence is perhaps the most high-profile link to the automotive heritage of this area and it’s where MGs for the UK are designed and the home of SAIC Motor’s highly-respected European Design and Technical Centres. This is part of on-going investment programme by MG’s parent company which recently saw a £1.4-million Engine Test Cell facility opened at the 60-plus acre site on nearby Lowhill Lane, employing 400 engineers.
Just a few more success-story stats to embrace after the painful, drawn-out collapse of Rover which prompted government inquiries into the company’s ownership and finances.
Longbridge’s regeneration is attracting interest from similar schemes across the world with experts keen to pick up tips on progress. “We’ve had the French environment agency over to look at the work we’ve done with the river, and the city of Lille came over to speak to us,” said Mr Murray.
“People from Brazil have also been to visit. They’ve never had to deal with regeneration on a big scale but suddenly, because they’re growing so fast, they’re having to sort out urban areas,” he added.
To support Longbridge’s new homes and town centre attention is being paid to infrastructure and access, particularly surrounding Longbridge railway station.
“We’re in discussion about sprucing up the rail station,” said Mr Murray.
“At present we get about 1,000 people per day passing through and one of the key things for us is for Bromsgrove station to be rebuilt in a new location. This will make Longbridge more accessible for people coming up from the south west.
“That’s how it works with Network Rail, if we get rail-user numbers to 2,000 that then triggers automatic investment so we’re trying to persuade Network Rail to carry out an interim scheme on the station. Hopefully passenger numbers will then increase to allow a bigger scheme to be carried out.”