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Tuesday, June 29, 1999 Published at 17:36 GMT 18:36 UK


New signs of life in the city

Loft living: New, good quality homes in inner Manchester

Ten years ago, life in inner city Birmingham was a distinctly nine to five affair.

At the end of each working day, thousands of white-collar workers deserted the heart of England's self-styled "second city" for the suburbs and beyond.

With its car-congested central streets and tracts of abandoned industrial land alongside a largely disused canal, there was little to attract homebuyers.

Even the custom-built Symphony Hall, the new National Indoor Arena and the relocation of the Sadler's Wells ballet from London, initially failed to tempt migrants.

Yet in 1999, downtown Brum is booming. Twenty-four-hour city it is not, but there is life well after teatime.

[ image:  ]
New shops, museums, restaurants, music venues and pubs, have attracted property developers to build on brownfield sites - mostly disused factory space. It is urban regeneration 1990s-style, with "mixed spaces" combining residential and business developments.

Birmingham's Symphony Court, the epicentre of its current revival, with 143 apartments, is the sort of project the Urban Task Force wants to see more of.

The task force, led by the Labour peer and celebrated architect, Lord Rogers, has listed more than 100 recommendations designed to revive England's decaying urban areas.

Many of the suggestions are aimed at promoting new inner city housing initiatives, and thereby easing greenfield development in the overcrowded countryside. It has applauded efforts at regeneration by Ipswich. Leicester, Nottingham and Portsmouth.

However, the report highlights persistent decline in many other urban areas. (Click here to read the other side)

The government, faced with projections of nearly four million new homes over the next 20 years, is expected to include many of the proposals in future policy.

Manchester makeover

In central Manchester, trendy loft-style apartments are a key part of the city's 1990s renaissance.

Six years ago only 200 people lived in the city centre. That has risen to 10,000 and is expected to double over the next two years. What is more, they are buying high quality housing that is increasing in value.

[ image: Under development: Old warehouses are becoming new homes]
Under development: Old warehouses are becoming new homes
"We lived in s**t and thought that was how God made it. But man made it, and man can unmake it," is how one developer has summed up the spirit of the city's renewal.

With his company Urban Splash, Tom Bloxham has been one of the leading lights in Manchester's regeneration.

The young developer of loft-style apartments has even been awarded an MBE for his work in helping revive some of the most run-down areas of the city.

It takes nerve

There is no secret to the strategy that has made Mr Bloxham a millionaire and helped put Manchester back on the map. Others have never had the "balls to invest their money and make something happen", he says.

Where Urban Splash has ventured, public money has followed, breathing new life into the surrounding area, and so drawing in other developers.

Yet Mr Bloxham is first and foremost a businessman, and there are some areas even he fears to tread, because of the social problems caused by "unemployment, deprivation and history".

[ image: Birmingham has more miles of waterway than Venice]
Birmingham has more miles of waterway than Venice
In the case of Hulme, it has taken huge public expenditure of £250m to rescue the crime-blighted area and save 1,600 old terraced homes.

Birmingham still has some way to go before it catches up with the likes of Manchester, says David Fenton, of international property consultants Knight Frank.

The company moved to the West Midlands metropolis 18 months ago. "Leeds and Manchester were already off the blocks, about three or four years ahead of Birmingham," says Mr Fenton.

His cites the current conversion of the Royal Mail Sorting Office - "the biggest mixed use scheme in a single building in Europe" - as evidence of the city centre bright future.

[ image: Bill Clinton sups a pint in Birmingham's Brindley Place before last year's G8 conference]
Bill Clinton sups a pint in Birmingham's Brindley Place before last year's G8 conference
The development will include a four-star hotel, 140 apartments, shops, offices and restaurants.

"There has been a complete change in attitudes."

Alan Middleton, of the University of Central England, agreed that Birmingham had managed to "turn itself around".

"It doesn't have large problems of dereliction and the disappearance of people that you see in other cities," said Mr Middleton, co-director of the Centre for Public Policy and Urban Change.

"There are no empty streets in Birmingham. The city has had reasonable success in the past few years of turning itself around."

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29 Jun 99†|†UK
New life for Britain's cities

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01 Mar 99†|†UK Politics
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