The developer of a controversial £100 million scheme to create a new heart for Selly Oak says a previous pledge to restore a long-neglected canal is dead in the water.
The project to redevelop the former Battery Park site originally included promises to pay £6 million towards the new Selly Oak relief road and restore the Lapal Canal.
Campaigners from the area are furious the Harvest Partnership, a joint venture between Sainsbury’s and Land Securities, is now going back on those pledges.
Last month the council’s planning committee deferred their decision, while demanding major changes.
Now, in an interview with the Birmingham Post, Harvest said plans to restore a 350-metre stretch of the Lapal Canal were no longer financially viable.
It has, however, pledged to preserve the route of the canal through the site in the shape of a ‘greenway’, meaning it could be restored at some point in the future.
And the developer defended the decision to continue to push forward with the stalled £100 million scheme as it now has 60 per cent less retail space and includes a life sciences campus – part of Birmingham City Council’s proposed network of economic zones.
Originally the scheme, which has a Sainsbury’s store at its heart, was to contain a larger retail element, but that has been scaled back to make way for the life sciences campus.
The life sciences scheme is seen as a crucial project for the city’s future and would link in with pioneering medical research at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital and University of Birmingham.
Project director Neil Carron, from the Harvest Partnership, acknowledged there would be disappointment the canal project had been ditched but said it would be just too costly given the inclusion of the life sciences campus and the high level of contamination due to the site’s former use for landfill and industry.
The introduction of a landfill tax had also meant the cost of decontaminating the site had escalated.
Mr Carron said: “People remember a scheme that went for planning permission that had certain things we are not now able to provide.
“I think the canal is the one which creates the strongest feelings. In many ways this is probably the most difficult site in Birmingham because of the level of contamination.
“It is a reality of the economics of developing a site like this that is heavily contaminated that there are some things we can do and some we cannot do. We have been forced to make some decisions based on that.
“The development was to include highways developments and more but this is a much smaller development that is only two-thirds of the site that is still having to pay for all that. There is no fat on the bone.”
Mr Carron said cleaning up the contamination, creating the greenway and various enabling works, would cost £3.6 million, with around a further £2 million needed to complete the canal.
If the latest plan is approved by councillors when it comes before the planning committee on October 17 the clean-up operation on the site would start next year.
It is expected to take around 18 months, meaning construction could start at the beginning of 2016 with the development opening in 2017.
It is estimated around 2,700 jobs could be created – 2,000 of them in the life sciences campus.
Mr Carron explained how the huge plans for expansion in life sciences, creating a ‘medical quarter’ had led to further changes to the plans.
He said: “When control of the council passed to Labour we were asked to consider an alternative approach in the light of the economic zones policy. They identified a life sciences campus and the discussion we had was based on a brief from the hospital about what would be required.
“The conclusion that was reached was that it could only be located in one place in Birmingham, that is the north part of our site closest to the university. The life sciences campus has fundamentally altered the whole way this will take shape.”
Mr Carron said the inclusion of the life sciences campus, which at 439,000 sq ft will form almost half the scheme, could not fund the highways development and other works.
“It is only through the commercial element, which is much smaller than it was, that the life sciences campus can be delivered,” he said.
“But that is a strategic development, something that will achieve international standing which is already the case with the hospital and university.”
The greenway running through the site would enjoy legal protection, with a view to the canal being restored at some point, but any development is likely to be left in the hands of the Canal Trust. It may also link up with a plan to extend the canal into Selly Oak park with moorings for boats.
The developers also stressed that the plans for the site would see a section of the Birmingham & Worcester Canal opened up with a focus on creating a destination where people could meet to shop, eat and drink.