Councillors in Solihull are being asked to endorse a bid to borrow up to £30 million as part of a bold move to keep one of the country’s most ambitious regeneration schemes alive.
The £1.8 billion Regenerating North Solihull project, a 15-year project given the go-ahead in 2004, has already been delayed by five years and has recently been in danger of being blown off course because of the recession.
But a cross-party consensus and a sense of urgency to drive the scheme forward have led to Solihull Council seeking to increase its prudential borrowing limit to £30 million to plug a huge gap in funding.
The move will will mean new village centres at Craig Croft and North Arran Way can go ahead, as can plans to continue with a programme to build new primary schools or remodel existing ones.
The leader of Solihull Council, Councillor Ian Hedley, said though there is agreement on the need to finish the job in hand, he is remaining cautious until the proposal agreed by cabinet is given the green light at a meeting of the full council on Tuesday April 4.
“We decided this was one of our top priorities and we looked at how much money was needed for what we wanted to do,” said the Shirley East Liberal Democrat councillor.
“What we require is for full council to approve a change in our prudential borrowing limit. I am pleased about it but will be delighted after next Tuesday if the council supports us.”
The Regenerating North Solihull scheme set out to transform some of the most deprived wards in the country – Chelmsley Wood, Smith’s Wood and Kingshurst & Fordbridge.
At the outset it pledged to create more than 8,000 new homes, 10 new primary schools and five new village centres, as well as a raft of new community facilities covering everything from healthcare to leisure.
The public-private partnership saw Solihull Council form the Solihull Partnership with Inpartnership Ltd, Whitefriars Housing Group and Bellway Homes. The wards it targeted form a large part of north Solihull, an area ‘‘inherited’’ by Solihull from Birmingham in 1974 when boundaries were redrawn and Solihull became a metropolitan borough.
Regenerating North Solihull was seen as the perfect solution to an undisputed equality gap between the more salubrious south of the borough and the less affluent north.
It was also hailed as a model regeneration scheme for others to follow until the economic downturn threatened to stop it in its tracks.
Explaining how it ran into difficulties Councillor Hedley said: “Basically the economic funding of the whole thing was predicated on land values and selling houses and based on a plan that involved money being generated throughout the cycle to be invested.
“When the economy went down land values went down and selling houses became more difficult. The generation of money was more difficult and we lost some investment money too.”
Councillor Hedley said the prudential borrowing move was endorsed by financial experts at the council who agreed it was “the right thing to do”.
Letting the scheme grind to a halt was never an option, he said, but time was of the essence as the council risked losing further funding streams, in addition to £8.1 million withdrawn by Advantage West Midlands, if it did not act swiftly.
“We felt in order to get the project running as we wou
ld like we would put money into the village centres and also into getting the schools programme back on track,” he said.
“What we looked at was our prudential borrowing power to borrow £9.9 million for the village centres at North Arran Way and Craig Croft. Essentially it leaves us with £4.3 million of European funding which we would have lost if we hadn’t done anything by June.
“Around £19.6 million is required for the schools programme, which will enable us to complete a rebuild of a number of schools and the remodelling of others.”
The council’s stance would seem to be supported by the community too, which has, at times, taken issue with elements of the scheme.
Neil Roberts is the minister at Chelmsley Wood Baptist Church in Hedingham Grove, which serves as a bustling community centre as well as a place of worship.
“Most people have accepted the reality of the situation and are waiting to see if they pull it around,” said Mr Roberts, who has been a vocal critic of the scheme on occasion.
“My biggest fear was they would pull out and cancel the whole thing but they appear to be trying to find ways of making it work and that is reassuring.”
Mr Roberts said concerns remained over some plans being diluted in the wake of the recession. Although it was originally proposed to build ten primary schools, some were now being remodelled rather than rebuilt.
“Some of the schools have come together but all of the schools are not now going to be replaced and that is a bit of a knock-back for people.
“Bishop Wilson School in Craig Croft has gone in for planning and is possibly the last new build. We were pretty lucky there I think – we just got in under the wire.
“But we have to acknowledge it is not entirely the regeneration programme’s fault with the economic situation as it is.”
He also said some houses originally earmarked for demolition were now being retained.
“There is frustration that plans have been withdrawn to demolish some houses, particularly as the people living in them had not done any work on them for a number of years in the expectation of them being demolished,” he added.
Plans to rebuild the Baptist Church have been shelved too, meaning it now has to raise £600,000 by the end of the year to refurbish an out-of-date building.
“It is the main community centre for the area and we have been hanging on for five years in a building that has been deteriorating,” said Mr Roberts. “It is all originally from the sixties with a new roof needed and the wiring and the plumbing all at the end of their working life.”
In conclusion Mr Roberts said: “Overall most people are reserving judgement and waiting to see what happens. The message from the community is to deliver on the community facilities promised and finish the bits they have started, particularly Craig Croft and North Arran Way – the new village hubs.
“Personally that is what I am waiting for. Once they start to deliver that I will feel we are starting to move in the right direction.”