The tectonic plates of regeneration are at last shifting in Birmingham, judging by the new partnership between the owners of the Bullring shopping centre and American property giants Hines.
While the city remains mired in recession with most major building projects mothballed, the Birmingham Alliance and Hines are at least giving some hope that progress can be made on the much-talked-about redevelopment of the 21-acre Wholesale Markets site in Digbeth.
It is safe to assume, given the names of investors behind a memorandum of understanding between the Alliance and Hines, that money will be no problem but only if agreement can be reached about a development that is both profitable and attractive to all of the partners.
When the likes of Henderson Global Investors, the Australian Future Fund, Hammerson and Hines come knocking on the door, it is time for city councillors and officials to sit up and take notice.
It is intensely worrying, therefore, to hear it being suggested that the council is not exactly falling over itself to make a decision about the type of development it wants to see on the markets site.
Such a state of unpreparedness would be understandable if the future of the site had only just cropped up. The fact is, however, that it has been known for several years that this strategically-important parcel of land would become available for development.
The prospect of an exciting scheme is explicitly referred to in the Big City Plan setting out future expansion of the city centre. Yet, as things stand, there is no masterplan to guide prospective developers. Difficult questions remain unanswered.
Should the land occupied by the markets be given over to shops, houses, flats, high-rise tower blocks, or a combination of all of these possibilities?
Until developers are given a firm steer, it is highly unlikely that companies are going to commit much money and time to drawing up plans that the council may then reject as inappropriate.
It is becoming repetitive and somewhat tedious to have to keep pointing out that Birmingham City Council has been without a director of regeneration since September, when Clive Dutton left to take up a new post in London. Assistant director Philip Singleton, the guardian of the Big City Plan, will leave Birmingham in the new year to join Mr Dutton.
To lose one regeneration boss is unfortunate, to lose two smacks of carelessness and failing to advertise Mr Dutton’s vacancy until last week suggests complacency, at the very least.
It is vital that investors of the calibre of Birmingham Alliance and Hines have a single point of contact at the council, a regeneration expert who should have a direct line to the leader of the council – which is exactly why Clive Dutton was so impressive.
A decision to give chief executive Stephen Hughes a watching brief for regeneration until a replacement can be found risks lowering Birmingham in the eyes of developers.
Mr Hughes, as this month’s Audit Commission study shows, has too many other worries on his mind to deal with regeneration.