Community and Culture – learnings from Covid and looking to the future in Birmingham

As we emerge out of lockdown, to say that Birmingham is a hive of development activity is quite the understatement! 

With HS2, plans for next year’s Commonwealth Games, the expansion of the Midland Metro, and the Smithfield and Paradise developments to name just two, there’s much to be excited about. On Friday 28 May, our Planning Director Paul Woods, chaired the Built Environment Networking’s ‘Future Development Plans – Birmingham’ webinar. A fantastic event with contributions from the Council and leading developers, Cordia Blackswan and Galliard Homes, read our brief summary of the event.

Cllr Sharon Thompson – Birmingham City Council

With the City Council launching their consultation to plan for a greener, prosperous future for Birmingham, Cllr Sharon Thompson, shared their vision. Placemaking is firmly in the heart of the development plan for Paradise and with five live schemes in the Jewellery Quarter alone, the buildings are just part of the story. It is also about the environment, movement around the city in different ways, seeking to create sustainable neighbourhoods, and making the most efficient use of the land available.

The redevelopment of Curzon St is being driven by HS2, with the new train line a catalyst for living and working in a vibrant city centre. The masterplan, a 25 year vision, is one of the biggest regeneration projects taking place in the UK – 140 ha of the city centre, seeking to create 600,000 sq m of new business space, 4,000 new homes, 14,0000 new jobs; totalling a huge £1.3bn economic uplift for Birmingham. In Sharon’s words, we are “..a city that puts our people first.”

The council’s ambition is to grow the city beyond the ring road, focusing on building good quality homes that are green, affordable, and sustainable. Driven by clear principles – green, equitable, liveable and distinctive – with access to high quality employment in local areas, engaging with communities – truly engaging – will be the key to creating a better Birmingham for all.

Marcus Hawley – Cordia Blackswan

Cordia Blackswan was founded by Marcus Hawley 2009, becoming part of the Cordia family in 2020. They are well respected as the go-to BTR and mixed-use property developer in the Midlands. Their development pipeline is in excess of £600 million in GDV, comprising 1,800 homes, as well as more than 350,000 sq ft commercial space across the West Midlands.

For Marcus and Cordia Blackswan, success is founded on creating great buildings, placemaking and community, and a huge part of this is creating positive social impact. They have six projects on Great Hampton Street alone, spanning heritage, new build, commercial, retail and food & beverage. Marcus acknowledges the huge impact of Covid-19, but sharing Deepak Chopra’s quote, “All great changes are preceded by chaos,” he sees that the loss we have experienced has created space for growth. The gaps in our high streets and our city centres will be filled, and it is our chance to be more customer focused. The tech sector is booming in Birmingham, with the Midlands responsible for two thirds of  national patents in 2020. In April Goldman Sachs announced that they are opening a new office in Birmingham, with a specific focus on the technology, engineering and manufacturing industries. Covid-19 has in fact offered us the opportunity to ‘sling shot into the future.’ Sadly though, Marcus surmised, the built environment still lags behind. In general terms our industry lacks ambition and vision. And so we need to change – think big picture, not bottom line; create a legacy rather than follow short-term trends; all founded on a clear strategy.

Jonathan Bloom – Galliard Homes

Galliard Homes never build the same development twice, explained Jonathan at the start of his presentation. Becoming part of the local community and ensuring each development interacts positively with the local environment, is fundamental. An inclusive developer, Galliard runs many initiatives, charity work and join ventures, as well as running several talent programmes to nurture their internal team. With five developments across Birmingham, 2,800 residential units in the pipeline, and 200,000 sq ft of commercial space, Galliard recognises the huge potential of the city. And with HS2, New Street station redevelopment, the expansion of the airport and Alexander Stadium, to name just a few multi-million (billions in the case of HS2) pound investments in the city and surrounding area, this is only set to increase.

Questions & Answers session 

A Q&A session followed the presentations. Questions centred around the importance of community engagement, with Sharon explaining that we cannot simply tell people what is happening, we need to ensure they are part of the process. While the long term sees the creation of  new infrastructure, the short term message is also important – for example, talking about jobs, the impact of the development during construction.

With John Lewis closing their Grand Central Store  Paul considered whether we will be repurposing vacant commercial space for residential development. Will the new permitted development rights that come into place in August 2021 be an opportunity or a red herring? 

Marcus was clear that there shouldn’t be a knee jerk reaction. Many buildings aren’t suited to be converted from retail or commercial to residential. His personal opinion, that we’ll see increase in vacancy levels in the short term, but in 4-5 years we will get back to 2019 levels. 

Sharon sees it as essential to repurpose out of the pandemic. We need to work with the new needs of people as well as considering what will contribute better to the local economy. How can we learn lessons from the past year and adapt? For example, the pre-pandemic city centre had very few spaces for people to sit outside. This is now available in abundance and is something that must be kept. 

Jonathan agreed that the way we live and work will most certainly change. And Marcus considered how this will affect design. Cordia Blackswan is going back into planning for some of their developments to add in balconies wherever possible – and communal spaces are being landscaped professionally, creating space for residents to enjoy rather than simply move through.

Paul asked the panel about their zero carbon targets. With buildings the largest emitter of carbon, how are the panellists responding to the challenge. The council, Sharon explained, are looking at their stock and considering the wider issues around regeneration, refurbishment, and energy. Galliard is working towards net zero 2030 targets, but that certainty of government policies is a consideration. Marcus said that the improvements in building regulations means that the base level of developments compared to existing stock is significantly more sustainable. We need to consider how we deal with existing stock. This is where technology can help, for example, by using building management technology to improve peoples’ habits.

How can culture be used to drive regeneration?

Sharon – we are getting better at working across sectors and not in silos. Culture is important, with City of Culture, Coventry and with plans in progress for next years’ Commonwealth Games. We will certainly see more live/work spaces.

Has COVID given you reservations about development of certain types? 

Marcus – Covid has hit the hospitality industry hard. And yet Cordia Blackswan has several new units for food and beverage, and the feedback is positive, that people want to go in there. However the landlord / tenant relationship needs to change, potentially thinking about turnover rents as a future solution. That way everyone has a vested interest to make a place work.

Jonathan – Birmingham is a young city and we see people who are excited to get back. Outdoor space will be crucial as is creating communities. The city is ripe for post-Covid living – just look at the Soho Loop scheme that will open up the canal system leading into the city centre. People are excited to come back into the office – whether full time or with some home working – the office breeds innovation and productivity, not to mention the social side of working that has been missed over the last year.

A fantastic event that showed how much the city is bouncing back after the effects of the last year. This was just one of Built Environment Networking’s 450 virtual events held in the last 12 months! With their live events starting this summer, we are now looking forward to the Midlands Development Conference in September. 

Working across the Midlands, in Birmingham city centre, past the ring road and beyond, the Woods Hardwick team – planners, architects and engineers – is looking forward to supporting developers and landowners as we continue to build back better. And at the heart of all our activity will be a focus on community, engagement and placemaking. These are the building blocks of our shared future.