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Birmingham focus: Will Ladywood learn the lessons of the past?

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The sprawling post-war housing estate is earmarked for an ambitious regeneration scheme – but there are concerns that its residents’ voices will not be heard. Ella Jessel reports

Welcome to ladywood sculptur charles blondin by elliot brown cc by 2.0

In 1965, a grainy, monochrome news bulletin captured the Birmingham district of Ladywood in the midst of slum clearance. The broadcast showed rubble-strewn streets and half-bulldozed terraced houses before panning to the brand-new tower blocks built to replace them. This was the city at the peak of modernisation. 

Just over 50 years on, the Ladywood estate is once again undergoing huge change. In its biggest current residential project by some way, Birmingham City Council has decided to redevelop the entire 1,000-home estate, located just west of the city centre. But this time around the local authority’s reduced coffers mean it will require help from the private sector. 

A search for a development partner is under way – the opportunity was unveiled at MIPIM in March. Yet, with an ambitious target to more than quadruple the number of homes on the estate, potentially adding a further 4,000 units, there are concerns about how the views of the estate’s existing residents will be factored in to the plans.

Architects on the bidding developer teams will be asked to design new social housing to replace Ladywood’s ‘obsolete typologies’ – a phrase which makes it sound like demolition could be on the cards. But the estate was upgraded in the 1990s, and expensive works on its tower blocks are under way following the Grenfell Tower fire tragedy. So do they require demolition?  

Today, Ladywood has a surprisingly suburban feel for an area just a 20 minute walk from Birmingham New Street station. About 1,000 homes are spread over 62ha. About two-thirds of the homes are council-owned.

Its jumbled architecture follows the formula of inner-city renewal repeated across the city between the 1950s and 1970s – rows of two-storey houses, deck-access maisonettes and concrete point blocks. The lack of density is striking, with tower blocks surrounded by wide moats of green space. 

Birmingham estates

One of the estate’s two central areas, St Vincent Street West, runs across the top of a large green with a primary school hunched at one edge. It comprises a tired shopping parade, with a string of takeaways, newsagents and barber shops. It was here, right outside the Ladywood Community Centre, where 23-year-old Dante Mullings was killed in a drive-by shooting in May. A shrine with flags and messages dedicated to the young father still clings to railings near where he died. 

The estate has long suffered from decline and scores badly on national indices for poverty, unemployment and crime. Ladywood is placed fourth in End Child Poverty’s ranking of areas of deprivation. The council’s own profile of the estate describes high levels of crime and health indicators below the city average. 

But Alexander Paton, 69, who has lived in Truro Tower, one of Ladywood’s seven remaining high-rises, for 30 years, says that although the estate regularly tops lists of the poorest part of the UK, it does not feel like an impoverished area.

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Truro Tower

‘I’ll be in the pub having a pint and thinking “I’m not poor”,’ he says, adding that, for the most part, the community feels safe to live in. Paton says much of the area’s decline is down to closures of the places in which people used to meet and socialise. The tiny Vine Inn, on the ground floor of a house on Ruston Street, is the last remaining pub in Ladywood.

‘There were 10 pubs once. The Pied Piper is now the Confucian Centre; another is now a doctor’s surgery. The centre of Ladywood used to be the social club. It closed down in March last year. If you don’t evolve, you die, and that’s what happened there.’

Paton says he would welcome investment in the area but that there is no need to pull down the tower blocks, which are still in good condition. ‘I think it [his flat] is sound, I love the place,’ he says.

Others are more sceptical about the regeneration plans and their consequences for the estate’s residents. ‘We are not foolish,’ Latanya Lewis told local newspaper Birmingham Live in June. ‘Ladywood is so close to town. We are right on the canalside leading to the city centre. This location is gold.

‘We need change, and we need help,’ the 26-year-old added. ‘But will we be able to come back if they move in and knock down everywhere?’

As Lewis points out, with such a desirable central location, it is little surprise the area has been picked for regeneration. Blocks of private flats have been cropping up on the fringes of the estate and in 2017 Ladywood was named the area with the fastest-rising house prices in the UK.

Any developer will need to build a significant number of private flats at Ladywood to make it worth investing in

Two-thirds of homes on the estate are council-owned. This means that any developer will need to build a significant number of private flats at Ladywood to make it worth investing in. This is clear in the council’s procurement brief, which outlines plans for a ‘higher-density’ residential area.

Joe Holyoak is a local architect who worked as a consultant for The Ladywood Community Forum, which represented the resident voice during the period of the Ladywood Regeneration Framework, a £35 million programme of works that took place in the 1990s. 

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Ladywood Community Centre

According to Holyoak, the council worked in partnership with The Ladywood Community Forum during the overhaul, which focused on improving existing stock and building extra community facilities. But the group has since dissolved and no local democratic body has replaced it. 

This time around, Holyoak is concerned that the developer’s ‘spending clout’ will mean residents are put in the back seat. He says: ‘As there is no clear community voice, it is not clear how their views will be represented. The council talked about focus groups, but who chooses those? 

‘The developer will surely want to be building a lot of new housing on the estate, so I’m afraid residents’ priorities might end up in second place. There clearly is a danger of displacement.’

He adds: ‘The reality is that we [Birmingham] need that private money. But that has to be balanced by the corner of the triangle that represents the existing community, which has a big stake and a voice that should be heard.’

There are lessons to be learned at Ladywell from the regeneration of the Druids Heath estate south of the city, according to Rebecca Winson, an organiser from think-tank the New Economics Foundation. 

Winson, who has been working to support the Druids Heath residents’ forum, says regeneration projects can be ‘incredibly stressful’ to live through and the onus is on the council to engage properly. 

Engaging in regeneration does not simply mean consulting residents, but genuine negotiation with them from the start

She says: ‘Engaging in regeneration does not simply mean consulting residents, but genuine negotiation with them from the start. This includes accepting that it means spending time with them regularly on the estate, and ceding some powers and decisions to residents’ associations and forums – such as design of new properties, timescales for development and deciding the mix of tenures.’

Winson says that if these bodies do not currently exist on the estate it is the responsibility of the council to facilitate them. She adds: ‘Such an approach, taken from the start, is far more likely to result in a plan which meets the needs of Birmingham and delivers a scheme with minimum upset and maximum benefit to communities.’

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Urban Splash’s modular housing at Port Loop

Central to any discussions about the future of the estate will be the question of whether the existing buildings should be retained. Some have already been demolished. Many of Ladywood’s tower blocks were upgraded during works in the 1990s, while they are also currently being improved for fire safety as part of the council’s post-Grenfell works programme looking at the city’s 213 high-rises. 

As the council points out, 10 per cent of the country’s local authority high-rise blocks are found in Birmingham and no other local authority has faced the same level of risk. It is spending £31 million on sprinklers, a projected spend of £28 million on replacement balcony and window infill sections and is looking at a further £34 million in costs if regulations change to require upgrades to fire doors in high-rise tower blocks.

The council’s procurement brief for Ladywood explains how it hopes to tackle problems identified in Birmingham’s Big City Plan, where the estate is described as of ‘variable quality’, with issues of ‘poor design and layout, under-utilised open spaces and poor pedestrian routes’.

The estate was upgraded in the 1990s … so do its buildings require demolition?

Meanwhile, a project brief explains how the council wants to see new high-quality social housing replace the estate’s ‘existing obsolete typologies’. This could spell trouble for Ladywood’s towers, according to Holyoak.

‘I can only guess that top of the list might be the high-rise point blocks. Birmingham was a huge builder of tower blocks in the ’60s, but there are now fewer than half the amount there used to be. They were expensively and thoroughly upgraded in the Ladywood Regeneration Framework. I don’t know what the demand is, but I’m convinced [their] liveability is good.’

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Make Architects’ Birmingham Cube

The council declined to comment on its plans for Ladywood. However its brief for the estate does stipulate there will be a requirement for 35 per cent affordable housing across the site, with one-for-one replacement of any council homes which may be demolished as a result of the regeneration. 

It also says that there will be a requirement that all existing residents be given the opportunity to return to the area, should they need to be ‘decanted’ during works. 

In the 1965 news bulletin, Canon Norman Power, the vicar of Ladywood, who wrote a book about the redevelopment of the area called Forgotten People, warned that the clearance programme would result in the loss of a ‘balanced community’ and turn Ladywood into a ‘one-class district’. 

Today, with land values rising and the prospect of gentrification, there is the possibility that wide-scale regeneration could once again leave the estate’s residents behind. 

There is hope, however, that as the scheme progresses, council planners and developers will learn lessons from the successes and failures in Ladywood’s not-too-distant past.

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