Driving regeneration

Regeneration of the Longbridge car plant will have beneficial repercussions beyond the confines of the plant itself, says Mitchell Ball

It was the end of an era for MG Rover’s Longbridge plant in Birmingham this August when the plant’s famous conveyor belt bridge over the A38 motorway was taken down. Although it marked the end to another chapter of MG Rover in the Midlands, the region is, however, on the brink of a radical change that is expected to breathe life into the West Midlands.

The conveyor belt bridge, which linked the old Rover North and West works, has been a landmark in the West Midlands for more than 30 years and is symbolic of its industrial heritage, which spans back more than 200 years. For this reason the bridge’s dismantling spoke volumes about the ailing car industry in the region.

In its heyday some 360,000 cars a year would pass across the Bristol Road from one part of the huge Longbridge site to another. The bridge was erected 34 years ago as part of the Austin Allegro project and did at least outlive the square steering wheel.

The Longbridge site amounts to several hundred acres of industrial land, eight miles to the south of Birmingham city centre. It was once part of the biggest manufacturing plant in the world. The site became redundant after MG Rover went into administration last year.

Employee numbers had fallen over the years, but even at the time of the administration some 6,000 were employed at the plant, with even more people estimated to be employed in supply industries and a further 8,000 in the dealer network. These jobs desperately need to be replaced and redevelopment of the site is crucial in order to create workspace for the newer industries.

The Longbridge site is now in the ownerships of St Modwen Properties, a quoted development company that specialises in regeneration, and Advantage West Midlands, the regional development agency for the area. The landowners have acquired their interests in the site over recent years as MG Rover’s need for space gradually reduced.

The good news is that Longbridge is now undergoing a much-publicised major regeneration aimed at bringing life back to a part of the region whose community was shattered by the collapse of MG Rover. Not only did those who lived and worked locally suffer, but businesses based locally and regionally also hit troubled times as a consequence.

As to the future, Brummies are delighted that some car production will continue. Nanjing Automotive has signed a 33-year lease for part of the plant comprising approximately 100 acres, from which it plans to restart production of MG sports cars in 2007.

In April 2005 Advantage West Midlands obtained outline planning consent for the redevelopment of some 60 acres of the old car plant. A start has been made on the Old North Works and is intended to form a significant point of focus along the A38 Technology Corridor, which runs from Aston Science Park in the Centre of Birmingham to Malvern in Worcestershire.

The proposed Longbridge Technology Park will comprise some 600,000sq ft and will include a district centre and medical centre with nursery and crèche, to be brought forward by Advantage West Midlands acting with St Modwen.

The process
As part of the regeneration process, Advantage West Midlands sought Section 106 planning agreement, which is needed to unlock the outline planning permission. It has also dealt with the preliminary road agreements needed to support an early start to phase one, which is now under construction. The Section 106 planning agreement, negotiated with Birmingham City Council, netted various ‘planning gains’ for the local community, including refurbishing and enhancing shop fronts of existing businesses within the area, construction of public artwork and, perhaps most importantly, encouraging recruitment and training opportunities to be made available to the local workforce.

As you can imagine, for any property lawyer this type of regeneration project is not only fascinating, but it is also crucially important that they appreciate how complex it can be. Regeneration is about consequences and what happens to a region that has been transformed. It is not just about a site’s value for redevelopment, but about economic improvement being generated by the public sector intervention. The goal of regeneration is to create employment, or at least to protect existing jobs, hopefully for local people. It is crucial to see beyond the paperwork and understand that a regeneration project of this nature can establish new industries and re-establish the area for employment.

Longbridge is only one of a number of regeneration projects of regional importance currently underway. The i54 Technology Park northwest of the conurbation is one further example. Located at Junction 2 of the M54 technology corridor between Telford New Town and Wolverhampton, and still under construction, this 220-acre former sewerage farm will provide one of the region’s three major investment sites using half of the site, as well as a 100-acre regional investment site on the other half.

It is vital that the regeneration of Longbridge preserves both the industrial heritage of the region whilst ensuring that the region is transformed to bring in a new life and sense of optimism to the region.

Mitchell Ball is a partner at Hammonds