Duncan Tift meets Chris Lea, chairman of Stoford Developments, a man with some controversial views on the landscape of Birmingham.
Chris Lea once described himself as “a surveyor by day; punk at night” – and if he is looking for a suitable epitaph then I can’t think of anything better.
His passion for music started when he saw his first concert and the love affair has continued to this day. The gig that fired his imagination? Led Zeppelin at Birmingham Town Hall in January 1970. He is still a fan of the band although he baulked at trying to obain tickets for last year’s reunion at the O2 Arena – not because he wouldn’t pay the exorbitant prices, just that he prefers to remember them as they were.
“I’m sure it was great but I didn’t want anything to detract from the memory of that first concert,” he said.
He still attends gigs on a regular basis and in the course of the conversation admits he had been to see Steve Winwood only the previous week and recently returned from a blues festival in the Lake District headlined by Chuck Berry.
I venture that we may have similar tastes and I throw some names into the conversation – Jeff Healey, Walter Trout, and Joe Bonamassa – and my assumption is confirmed. Not only has he heard of all of them but he suggests a few others that I’m not aware of.
At this point our conversation drifts way off track and meanders through the world of rock and blues music and all thoughts of why I’m really in his office fade into the background.
I try to bring us back on track by combining music and property and only partially succeed.
What is his favourite venue I ask, and get a response that suggests he favours the likes of Dudley’s JBs over the mega-arenas of the NEC – more atmosphere he believes.
But in the list of venues, there’s no mention of Birmingham. Which leads into one of his first observations about the city.
“One of my major criticisms of Birmingham is that it hasn’t got any decent medium-sized venues. It’s good that the Town Hall is open again and I hope it can attract good acts but we shouldn’t have had to wait that long.
“I love going to concerts – when I worked in London in the late 70s and early 80s I’d be out at clubs five times a week seeing bands. There were so many venues to choose from and I saw some great acts in their infancy.
“There was Dire Straits, Elvis Costello, the Boomtown Rats, The Police, U2; so many. I remember going to see The Sex Pistols at the Lafayette, that was great – I got hit on the back of the head with a beer glass but there was no mistaking the atmosphere,” he says.
So is he surveyor or punk?
He admits that he plays the saxophone – “I took it up when I was 30” – but is really a frustrated musician.
It’s property that really occupies his time – and the real purpose of our interview today.
After graduating from Bristol Polytechnic he started a career in property that, apart from a gap year spent door-to-door selling in Australia, was to last the next 30 years. He began his apprenticeship at established Birmingham firm Edwards Bigwood & Bewlay before trying his luck in London. He spent five years in the capital before deciding it was the Midlands where he really wanted to work.
He started off at Cordwell in Halesowen and next went to Halfords before moving on a short time later to St Modwen, where he spent the next seven years.
After St Modwen, in the mid 90s, he moved to Kings Park (which was prior to the firm being bought out by ProLogis).
“I did just over a year with them before deciding that I wanted to do something for myself and so in 1996 I set Stoford up with Dominic Stokes,” he says.
“We started off in an office in Five Ways and the intention was to focus on end-users. We put some pre-lets together and set one up for Glynwed in Great Bridge. We still focus on the pre-let market now.”
In between, the company has developed many large-scale commercial schemes. There is the 120,000sq ft Centrica building at Swallowfield Park in Oldbury, with office units for npower just the other side of the Wolverhampton Road. It has recently completed the new headquarters for aggregates firm Lafarge while its next major development will be the new offices for Severn Trent Water in Coventry.
It is also looking at larger schemes and is working in partnership with, among others, Merrill Lynch, LaSalle and Axa on sites in Leamington Spa, Evesham and Droitwich.
Stoford’s joint venture company, Stoford Ventures, developed with HBOS, has bought the old Stock Exchange site in Great Charles Street in Birmingham.
With such exposure, is he worried about the economic situation?
“We are lucky that we had some long-term projects that will keep us going. The level of interest from occupiers is still quite good. Within our patch we are encouraged by what’s happening.
“The company is well-managed and, while no one could foresee what happened, we are well-funded,” he says confidently.
As we are focused on Birmingham, I use the opportunity to talk to him about his views on the city’s architecture and landscape.
He thinks many have been guilty of a lack of ambition and is a strong advocate of both the NatWest Tower and Central Library being replaced.
“We haven’t at times been prepared to grasp the nettle and move on like other cities such as Chicago. On a recent visit there I was struck by the diversity of the buildings. You can have a 100-storey building followed by a 70, followed by a park and a large church and then a 90-storey building and so on - for me it just works very well. Birmingham has judges and they have got hung up on getting things the same height and making sure nothing is overshadowed.
“I went to New York last year to take part in the marathon and stayed in a hotel that was 40-storeys high and surrounded by offices and then there was a cathedral. It all works so well. It’s good to see new development going on in Birmingham but we should be more imaginative.
“The existing [NatWest] tower is not a good building and I would think that most people would be pleased it could be replaced. The great buildings from the past survive and the bad ones don’t. Next, let’s sort out the library – I can’t believe that they want to save that. It has no architectural merit at all; it’s just a concrete block. It’s a real carbuncle.”
He continues: “To me they [the city council] have to keep moving with getting rid of the concrete collar and lowering the road. This is something else I’m passionate about. It’s the private sector and developers that should be taking over these kinds of projects. Developers should get on with what they can do and leave the public sector to get money from the government pot to tackle infrastructure.
“Look at the Bullring, when you start to join the various bits up it makes a tremendous difference. People talk about the Jewellery Quarter being isolated and the need to build bridges across Great Charles Street to get to it. I say get rid of Great Charles Street and you can just walk across it. The Jewellery Quarter wouldn’t be isolated then.
“At times you think we have been freewheeling and I think it needs a big show again.”