A decade has passed since work started on one of Birmingham’s biggest regeneration schemes, Park Central. Enda Mullen speaks to Birmingham City Council leader Sir Albert Bore about progress in an area once dubbed Europe’s biggest slum.
Being greeted with a message on a hijacked billboard hoarding in Lee Bank which declared it “Europe’s biggest slum” more than a decade ago was not one of Sir Albert Bore’s proudest moments, but it was certainly a memorable one.
Disaffected residents on the estate, between Bath Row and Lee Bank Middleway, had decided to voice their dissatisfaction in a very public and provocative way.
The advertisement was a double blow for Sir Albert – not only was he the leader of the city council at the time but the area also fell within his own Ladywood ward.
“I will always remember coming in to the council house one morning and residents had commandeered a billboard on the Bristol Road and had pasted up ‘The Worst Slum in Europe’,” he said. “It made national headlines.”
Reflecting on the dark days which preceded a Renewal Challenge Fund bid for cash to comprehensively regenerate the area, Sir Albert also concedes it had huge problems.
“We did analysis of social issues at Lee Bank and it had some of the worst health statistics in the city – in terms of perinatal deaths, issues around longevity and asthma. It just was a nightmare.
“The health problems here were a nightmare and educational achievement issues were huge but at the core of that was the state of the housing. The condition of the properties was quite terrible.”
Just how bad things had become was echoed by Chris Tinker, executive board chairman and regeneration chairman at Crest Nicholson Regeneration, the developer which entered a joint venture with Birmingham City Council and Optima Housing Association to transform Lee Bank.
Mr Tinker described there being “various murders there” while the company was involved in the bidding process.
What ensued was a root and branch transformation on a giant scale but no-one under-estimated the task in hand.
To obtain European and Government funding the ambitious scheme would necessitate a stock transfer of city council-owned housing stock to Optima but more importantly the agreement of the residents to do that, as Sir Albert explained.
“The residents worked with us, they had to for stock transfer,” he said. “You had tenant buy-in right from the very start.
“There was a vote and every single tenant in all blocks was balloted, in effect to determine what stayed up and what came down.”
A small number of blocks were retained but anyone who left their home was guaranteed an affordable home on the new development.
Residents were also given the chance to leave and some jumped at the opportunity but according to Sir Albert many who elected to do so decided they wanted to return once they saw just how good it was.
Far from just a demolition job and the recreation of a new council estate, the aim of the rejuvenation was to provide a mixture of affordable housing and homes that would be sold on the open market – the split being around 70 per cent open market and 30 per cent affordable.
As the scheme evolved, a central park with many facets and features became the centre point, with the park space created at the outset and development taking place around it.
That made a big difference, according to Debbie Aplin, managing director of Crest Nicholson Regeneration.
“The key thing to get early investment from the council was to have the parks,” she said. “One of the big challenges was how do we even get people to come down and have a look – it had that reputation of being the worst place in Europe.
“By putting in public space of really good quality it started to open people’s eyes.”
Now three to four years away from being fully completed the new estate, which represents a £250 million investment for Crest Nicholson, covers 61 acres, and is believed to be the largest estate renewal scheme anywhere in the UK outside London.
Sir Albert has nothing but praise for the developer’s role, describing its approach as “dramatically different” to other bidders.
While there is still much to be done – Crest Nicholson will soon go to see council planners to discuss the next phase of development.
It has already pioneered many construction techniques on the project, including two new apartment blocks with cladding which changes colour depending on how the light reflects on it.
There are still issues over a supermarket, which was originally planned as part of the scheme but with retailers reassessing how they do business, this is uncertain.
Crest Nicholson’s investment includes £29 million on essential works and £2 million to CPO properties. Also £2.4 million towards the parks in the early stages (with more invested since), £3 million on highways, £11 million on subsidies to provide affordable housing, £6 million or remedial and environmental work and £2 million on community facilities and buildings. It also spent £250,000 on the sky mirror public work of art in the park.
A Get Britain Building loan of £3.9 million helped to speed up work on phase 13 and the company is now paying that back as people move into apartments.
All those involved are proud of the fact there is little discernible difference between affordable and open market housing.
One of the unexpected benefits of the credit crunch has been a surge in people buying properties there, rather than them being bought up by investors.
Crest’s Mr Tinker said: “Running up to the credit crunch there was a buy-to-let phenomenon and trying to shut it off was like trying to push water up a hill. But what the credit crunch did was stop that investment class and the market has changed quite considerably.
“Since the credit crunch it has been much more accessible to teachers, nurses , doctors and dentists and we have quite a collection of young professionals moving in.
“It is ideally suited for people who see the inner city as their natural home, an urban quarter that’s pleasant and has all the amenities they want. There are much higher levels of owner occupancy which means people take an interest.”
So did Sir Albert ever imagine what has been delivered so far would materialise when he was greeted with that grim billboard message?
“Quite honestly the answer is probably no,” he said. “Whilst I might not have described it as the worst slum in Europe, some of the housing conditions here were appalling.
“The city council had invested and reinvested but it didn’t matter how much money it put in, it didn’t do any good, that dilapidated quality of housing remained.
“This is a transformation of an area that is far more than just taking down housing and putting up new housing.
“When I saw the billboard I couldn’t have envisaged it transformed as it has been – but you always dream.
“I think this is the best housing-led regeneration scheme in Birmingham and think you would find it very difficult to find anything better in any other part of the country.
“There are lessons to be learned here and we need to see if we can repeat those experiences in other parts of the city. It is certainly a lesson for the future.”