The upbeat enthusiasm from developers St Modwen for Birmingham’s huge £700 million Longbridge regeneration scheme is understandable and entirely laudable. There is little point surrendering to the recession, even if it is the worst in living memory, when you are responsible for delivering a transformation which has a 15-year lifespan.
It is possible, though, that St Modwen may be a little too optimistic about the chances of Bournville College being built anytime in the near future.
Perhaps the company knows something that we don’t know. Or possibly, it doesn’t know something that we and the rest of the country do know – that the financial mess surrounding the Learning and Skills Council has put the Bournville project, and similar college expansion schemes across the region, at risk.
A government inquiry chaired by former Audit Commission chairman Sir Andrew Foster found that the money reserved for Bournville and the other schemes had already been spent or committed by the LSC. Asked whether there was any chance of these projects going ahead, Sir Andrew conceded there was not – although a formal government decision is yet to be made.
It is difficult to overstate the negative impact on Longbridge were the college plan not to materialise. Not only will the project create construction jobs in the short term, it will provide much needed opportunities for skills training and re-skilling in an area blighted by high unemployment since the collapse of MG Rover.
The college lies at the heart of an ambitious vision for the Longbridge community, which includes new industry, homes, a brand new town centre, landscaped parks, improved public transport and a total of 10,000 jobs. Few people will have truly understood the scale of the building work being proposed, which is equivalent in size to 22 Brindleyplace developments.
What’s being talked about here is nothing less than the birth of a whole new town on the southern flank of Birmingham.
St Modwen are right to take the doom-mongers to task, by pointing out that the current dire economic circumstances will not last for ever. There are in any case things that can be done on the site in preparation for recovery, including the provision of infrastructure in the form of new roads, street lighting and public buildings.
What Longbridge needs and must have, however, is a statement of intent from the Learning and Skills Council and the government about the future of Bournville College. Can the money to build the college be found this year, or not? If the answer is no, what is the future for both the college and Longbridge?