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Architects predict work surge from Birmingham’s £2bn China pact

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A deal struck between Birmingham City Council and Chinese developer Country Garden will bring new opportunities but also carry risks, architects have said.

Earlier this month city council leader John Clancy signed a joint statement of investment commitment with Country Garden that aims to rapidly bring forward new housing on major development sites. It has been described by the authority as being worth ‘up to £2 billion’.

Guangdong-based Country Garden specialises in ‘high-end township developments’ and has developed more than 300 such schemes across China, Malaysia and Australia.

Birmingham said it wanted to initially ‘explore large scale investment opportunities’ across the city region, ‘with particular focus’ on regeneration and investment options related to HS2. It also identifies ‘delivering significant new housing stock’ as a priority.

The authority is currently targeting the delivery of 89,000 new homes by the end of 2031, and last week tabled a package of measures aimed at reducing landbanking and bringing vacant properties back into use to help it hit the figure.

Councillor Clancy has stressed Country Garden’s interest in the opportunities outlined in the authority’s recently published Smithfield Masterplan, which earmarks the delivery of 2,000 new homes as well as leisure, retail and cultural space on a 14-hectare city fringe footprint that includes the site of Birmingham’s the soon-to-be relocated wholesale markets.

Last year’s Birmingham Curzon HS2 Masterplan, outlined the potential for 4,000 new homes and 600,000 m2 of new employment space in close proximity of the new rail link, scheduled to open in 2026.

Birmingham based architects told the AJ that the deal with Country Garden could kick-start the redevelopment of neglected parts of the city centre and had clear potential to deliver against the council’s growth targets. Their main concern was the extent to which the vision for rapid delivery could be woven in with city’s existing fabric.

Glenn Howells, founder of Glenn Howells Architects, said the China deal could be ’a game-changer of the magnitude of the 2012 Olympics for Stratford’ if it was pursued in the right way and properly masterplanned.

‘At the moment, Birmingham has areas that are still affected by low-density uses, like surface car parking,’ he said.

“We’ve got a housing shortage in this city and it would be terrific if we could start to move through more high-quality affordable housing with this deal.

“But when you start to bring forward this quantity of homes, it’s not just new housing it’s the infrastructure that also supports it, the schools, the shops, the roads and the public spaces.

’The real challenge in all of this is creating not just architecture but neighbourhoods in which people choose to live.

’The downside would be if it happened in isolation and wasn’t properly plugged in to what’s happening in the other parts of the city.”

Howells said the design requirements for ’a huge number of homes’ would be great for UK architects.

Alessandro Columbano, senior lecturer at Birmingham School of Architecture and Design, shared Howells’ optimism over the work pipeline related to the deal.

‘Undoubtedly there will be a lot of work for architects,’ he said. ‘It would be more sustainable and enriching for the city if work went to a range of smaller or younger practices as well as to larger or more established firms.

‘That would ensure a diverse range of ideas are explored to create a dynamic and sustainable urban environment for residents and young creatives in the city.’

Columbano said particular issues for accelerating development in the city centre would include ensuring the quality of architecture was maintained, and retaining the character of the Digbeth and Eastside areas, which still have light industry alongside emerging arts spaces.

‘The design challenges for architects will be how to try and stitch together all of these difficult sparse sites around Eastside, bringing together existing communities with character and a coherent urban environment’ he said.

Columbano also urged Country Garden and the city council to consider the inclusion of elements such as co-operative housing.

Architect and placemaker Philip Singleton, former assistant director for city centre development at Birmingham City Council, said his former employer would need to use the planning and land-disposal regime with ‘real muscle’ to ensure its ambitions were delivered.

‘Like anything that comes your way promising the allure of cash, experience tells you that you have to get the rules of engagement very clear from the start,’ he said. ‘Investment is good, but it has to come with a strong place-making ambition.’

Singleton, who is now managing director of self-build specialist the Graven Hill Village Development Company, said a poorly-planned development rush designed to capitalise on HS2 would be a missed opportunity for Birmingham.

‘Placemaking needs to be holistic and grasp the context,’ he said. ‘I welcome HS2, but if you leave the world to engineers to stride across the urban grain it can create a chaotic legacy that will never be untangled.’

’The scale of change promised is great’

’Birmingham has a spirit, a huge creative community that looks out and connects with every continent of the world - so its people have to be engaged relentlessly about change, quality, timing, honesty, risk and openness.

‘The scale of change promised is great, but it has to connect with the fabric of the place. It has to be led with a plan and with people.’

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Readers' comments (1)

  • Their main concern was the extent to which the vision for rapid delivery could be woven in with city’s existing fabric.
    So true. Come down to Vauxhall Battersea to see how not to do it.

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