A #600 million drive to transform Walsall will see the town "rise from the ashes" of industrial decline, its leader said yesterday.

A multi- million- pound regeneration programme aims to reinvent the town as a modern, cosmopolitan "market town" with canalside apartments, new public spaces, and upmarket offices, shops and restaurants.

A new private/public sector company has been created to deliver the programme, which will create thousands of jobs and cost more than Birmingham's Bullring.

Civic leaders claimed the ambitious plans would reverse the fortunes of a town once known as the "leather capital of Britain" that has suffered economic hardship in recent times.

Tom Ansell (Con Aldridge Central South), leader of the authority, said: "This will drive Walsall forward into the 21st century and move away from the desecration that was caused by the industries closing down.

"Now it will be like a phoenix rising from the ashes. This is definitely going to happen. It is long overdue, but we are now ready to start digging the ground up."

The Walsall Regeneration Company leading the drive has identified eight projects key to the ten- year programme.

They are:

* A new waterfront quarter designed by regeneration gurus Urban Splash that will include 650 designer homes, offices, restaurants, bridges and public spaces along the canal and Town Wharf;

* A town square outside the New Gallery with restaurants and cafe-bars;

* An office corridor around Littleton Street;

* A business, learning and retail zone including a new college;

* A quality service sector-led business park at Darlaston on reclaimed contaminated land, focusing on logistic firms and creating up to 4,500 jobs;

* City living-style apartment schemes with ground-floor shops around Digbeth and George Street;

* Upgrade of transport links at Bradford Place including a new "civic space";

* A chain of upmarket homes clustered alongside revitalised canals north of the town.

Dr Peter Cromar, chief executive of WRC, said the drive was essential if economic decline was to be tackled and Walsall "put on the map" again.

"There is a problem with demographics," he said. "If we don't do anything Walsall will lose seven per cent of its population by 2015. We will lose that skill, enterprise and talent.

"The town centre is not performing very well at present. We need to address that. It needs to be a powerhouse of employment, culture and leisure. We need to see the town centre climbing the league table. We need to exploit our location here in the centre of the country."

Dr Cromar said it was vital to improve the "quality and choice" of housing available and create an "office market".

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