When history is at risk of repeating itself: regeneration and demolition in Ladywood

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On June 27 2023, the Birmingham City Council (BCC) voted to award to St Joseph, a subsidiary of Berkeley group, the regeneration of the Ladywood Estate, a neighbourhood of over 1900 households situated in close proximity to the city’s main landmarks, including Brindleyplace, the Birmingham Library, and the Sea Life Centre.

Construction publications celebrated the news, praising the Berkeley group for “bagging” a 2.2 billion worth regeneration scheme.

Residents of neighbourhood were not celebrating.

For them, the news of the regeneration came with a shock.

Sophie, a leaseholder, has lived in Ladywood her whole life. “I’m 66yrs old never lived anywhere else…I brought my property in 2003 as I knew I never ever wanted to live anywhere else now I’m being given no choice …ripping families and communities apart”

Sophie is not the only one to fear about the future.

In the 1990s, private developers built new houses at the edges of the estate, with some of them now worth over £300k. Edward, a homeowner in his 60s, is concerned that he would be forced to give up his home, without guarantee he would be able to have a house of equivalent quality and in a comparable location in the city.

Homeowners and leaseholders are, however, only a portion of the Ladywood estate. As of the 2021 Census, Ladywood Regeneration Project Area, or rather, the red line, includes a substantial percentage of households in socially rented accommodation, with social rentals ranging from 34.2% to 90.5%, and council rents between 29.4% and 81.9%.

Yusuf, a council tenant, and a father of two had moved into the area three years ago. He would like to stay. It is central and the community is welcoming. Michael, now a student in physiotherapy, feels the same. “I have been here since I was 16. This is home”.

Not everybody is against the regeneration, however.

Rosie, a retiree, has been living in the area for over a decade as a council tenant. “I cannot wait for these houses to go down”, she said. “The lack of repair and the poor quality of maintenance have made council-owned housing unliveable”. She hopes that the regeneration will provide her with a better home. 

Yet, announcements and communications from the council did not provide residents much clarity, further heightening anxiety and anger within the Ladywood estate.

On June 19 2023, twelve days prior to the Birmingham City Council’s actual vote on the project, a letter to the residents by Ladywood ward councillors bearing the insignias of the Birmingham City Council and Berkeley’s Birmingham subsidiary, St Joseph, stated that the Central Ladywood Regeneration was going to be “one of the largest and most exciting housing-led regeneration projects in the UK”. “Our local residents and community groups will lead on what a regenerated Central Ladywood would look like”, the letter ended.

A month later on July 20, the ward councillors,and a representative of Berkeley and the BCC called a meeting with residents, from which hundreds remained excluded as the venue was too small to contain them all. Ward councillors and representatives of Berkeley and the BCC exhorted residents to trust them and that the scheme will be for the better.

Since then, the messaging from the council and the developer has remained the same. Residents will be consulted on the future of the neighbourhood – nothing of relevance has been set in stone.

New homes but for whom?

Yet, something had been set in writing.

Over the past months, I have been reviewing the range of reports that the Birmingham City Council had produced in relation to the Ladywood Regeneration, while also talking with and interviewing residents, professionals, and community workers working and living in the area.

One of the main objectives of the regeneration scheme, the 2023 BCC to report to cabinet, stated, is to help the council to fulfill its obligations to deliver 51,000 new homes by 2031. This will be achieved by demolishing most of the existing 1900 homes in the area, and by building 7531 homes by 2044.

Of these new homes, 16.08% are earmarked as “affordable”. This will include the demolishment and rebuilding of 638 existing council-owned homes, the partial refurbishment of 628-council owned homes currently situated in seven high-rises in the area, the re-provision of 146 homes owned by Registered Social Landlords, and the construction of an additional 427 new affordable homes.

The 16.08% provision of affordable homes, as members of residents’ organisation, Ladywood Unite, have stated in multiple instances, insufficient.

Residents are right. The proposed provision is well below the 35% minimum threshold of affordable housing required in the BCC Affordable Housing Statement (BCC, Local Information Requirements for Planning Applications, p.9) as well as the scheme’s own aspirations and considerations as stated in the 2019 Big City Plan – Ladywood Report (7.3.4), the document that set out the vision for the areas ahead of the bidding process, which was voted by councillors but was not shared as widely with residents.

Moreover, affordable housing is not social housing.

As a 2023 research briefing published by the House of Commons, titled “What is affordable housing?” pointed out, there is a substantial difference between social housing and affordable housing. Historically, homes for social rent, or social housing, tended to be around 50-60% of market rents, while the affordability of “affordable housing” is calculated as being 80% of market value. As a result, affordable rents have been found to be double the equivalent of social rents in areas across England.

There is a possibility that these affordable homes will be for sale. Yet, house prices just 20% below market value may not guarantee their actual affordability for the Ladywood community.

The extent of consultation

Concerns over the provision of affordable and social housing unveil a greater worry. Will residents be enabled to shape the future of Ladywood? And will they able to return to the area if they so choose?

Residents’ representatives do not have a seat on the Ladywood Project Board, members of which are either from the Birmingham City Council or the Berkeley group.

A Visioning Document for the area, a document outlining the wider development principles and spatial principles of the regeneration scheme, was prepared prior to the bidding process without the consultation of residents.

Prospective bidders were then invited to develop their indicative Masterplan, according to a range of “minimum requirements & schemes aspirations and considerations”, concerning the site layout and design, residential use of the area, green spaces, and public realms among other parameters.

Three developers were invited to participate in the dialogue stage of the procurement process. Two withdrew and Berkeley was the only supplier left standing to enter the final bidding process, which required the submission of an indicative masterplan.

The unwillingness of BCC and the developer to share the visioning document or the indicative masterplan has heightened residents’ concern about the extent to which the residents’ consultation is already bounded by agreements and arrangements that have not been shared with the community.

Officials at the Birmingham City Council have repeatedly stated that there is not final a masterplan and urged residents not to draw premature conclusions.  

Meanwhile, the initiatives that the Council have taken to invite residents’ views, including the drafting of a Community Charter, has further eroded trust.

In principle, the Community Charter is a document that lists the council’s commitments to residents. As such, the charter sets out legitimate expectations and if failing to fulfill them, following common law, the council is potentially subject to judicial review.

For that purpose, BCC carried out a series of 12 engagement workshops in October and November 2023. However, the participation was capped at only 20 participants for each workshop, which limited opportunities for meaningful and inclusive engagement.

Moreover, the activities carried out at these engagement workshops were not sufficiently and appropriately designed to produce such a charter.

The workshop began with the council’s representatives delivering an overview of the project, and was followed by group workshops that aimed to elicit participants’ evaluation of their concerns, possible solutions, what they valued to be important, and what participants wished to know more about. Participants were asked to add sticky notes and circle and comment on any promising ideas on a large piece of paper.

The questions asked were too generic and the methodology used to elicit responses was too undefined to be fit for purpose. At the outset, the engagement workshops were presented and designed as information sessions and were not conducted as hands-on activities focused on producing an output, the significance of which was not fully explained to participants.

In a statement to Birmingham Live, Councillor Jayne Francis, Cabinet Member for Housing and Homelessness stated: “We want as many Ladywood residents as possible to be involved in the development of this charter, so a survey will also be conducted which will give all residents the opportunity to share their thoughts”.

A survey was then launched a couple of days before Christmas to last for six weeks. Structured in four parts, the survey invites participants to state their priorities over a range of topics from trust and the importance of community involvement to compensation, rehousing options, parking options, and green spaces. Four videos accompany each part detailing the range of feedback and suggestions BCC received in its workshops.

There is far too much information which makes the process very clunky and not very resident-friendly”, said Edward, a homeowner, about the survey.

To be forgotten once again?

In 1965 Norman Power, the vicar of Ladywood, authored a book and a documentary narrating how the demolition of the old Victorian neighbourhood and its replacement with the high-rise council towers resulted in the destruction of an old and resilient community.

An architect, academic, and author Joe Holyoak wrote, in the 1960s, “residents had no representation, but had planning done to them. The result was a community which was swept away, together with its familiar streets and landmarks”.

There is a risk of history repeating itself in Ladywood.

One of the largest and most exciting housing-led regeneration projects in the UK” as councillors described it, could indeed become a major council-led wave of dispossession and gentrification in a city, the finances of which have severely been troubled by decades of financial mismanagement.

Councillors’ stated that the existing community will be able to remain and, more importantly, benefit from the much-needed improvement of housing facilities in the area.

Meanwhile, residents argue that the insufficient provision of social and affordable housing in the proposed scheme raises doubts about the sincerity of the council’s assurances.

Both could be wrong and both could be right.

Yet, what really matters is whether Ladywood, and Birmingham as a whole, are going to be transformed for the sake of investors, developers, and the BCC’s creditors or for the benefit of its ordinary residents.

The names of individuals interviewed as part of the research project have been changed.

Dr Marco Di Nunzio, Associate Professor in Urban Anthropology, University of Birmingham. Contact: m.dinunzio@bham.ac.uk