We’ll Do It Our Way: Council Boss On How Birmingham Gets It Right (And Maybe Manchester Gets It Wrong)
A new skyscrapers policy, a massive new extension of the city’s tech sector, more family-friendly leisure and retail to accompany new city residential — and all of it done Birmingham’s way.
In an exclusive interview with Bisnow — and without once uttering the dreaded M-word — Birmingham City Council Strategic Director for the Economy Waheed Nazir explains how Birmingham is getting residential regeneration right. And maybe other places aren’t.
There was a time — not very long ago — when Birmingham's claim to be England's second city was unchallenged. Alas, those days are over. Since the mid-1990s Manchester has been on the march. It is not hard to find Brummie frustration about the constant chatter around its shouty northern rival.
Today — with the 2022 Commonwealth Games and the arrival of HS2 in 2026 acting as spurs and targets — Birmingham is fighting back. The Big City Plan, launched in 2010 to provide up to 5,000 new homes, is now bearing fruit and according to City Council Corporate Director for the Economy Waheed Nazir, the 15M SF, 20-year development strategy is coming together (literally, all at once).
“Everything seems like its happening at the same time, but we’re now getting delivery on things that have been happening since 2010,” Nazir said. “I remember the launch of the Big City Plan — a difficult time, at the bottom of the cycle — and people thought I was bonkers. But the cycle turns and you have to be clear about where you want to be.
“Expanding the city centre by 25%, for instance, expanding the core into neighbouring areas, expanding the central business district using its two bookends, Paradise and Snowhill. This has all been a clear strategy, it’s not ad hoc.”
The opportunities of the Commonwealth Games and HS2 — especially the games — are inspiring. HS2 will be about feeding of the universities and creating a new knowledge district around the Curzon Street station.
“The important thing will be to ask what occupiers you are talking about. Colmore Row and Snowhill — that’s all about financial and professional services. Curzon Street will be more about innovation and tech, perhaps a bit like the King's Cross redevelopment in London,” Nazir said.
There is also action at the 42-acre Smithfield wholesale markets site, where talks with a major leisure occupier are in progress ahead of a November choice between potential preferred developers Delancey and Lendlease. Up to 3,000 residential units are planned.
Regulation, No Thanks
So, with the Birmingham city living, PRS and build-for-sale markets roaring ahead, how is Birmingham going its own way? Nazir is insistent he can't comment on other cities, but there are three clear areas of difference.
First, regulation looks different in Birmingham. In 2013 Manchester City Council secured a legal exemption for parts of the city centre from the permitted development rights that allow offices to be converted to residential use. Birmingham did not. Now Manchester is preparing an Article 4 direction that would widen the area covered by the exemption and make it permanent. Birmingham isn't.
"This is a question of building quality and management," Nazir told Bisnow. "We have had some very robust conversations with developers over the last two years, and we've sometimes refused consent or threatened to refuse consent on the grounds of design quality. And the real challenge has been on residential conversions from other uses. Yes the permitted development rights mean we have limited control but I would not do an Article 4 direction. I'm quite relaxed about converting secondary office space to residential, Article 4 directions are not necessary."
Nazir says residential conversion will only happen where office space is no longer viable.
"Regulation should be a last resort. It is better to work with the private sector to understand their challenges, and to help them understand ours," he said.
Conservation Areas Matter, Skyscrapers Matter Less
Second, conservation and tall buildings policy have a different flavour in Birmingham. Manchester has endured some bruising bare-knucke fights over conservation issues. Most recently the Gary Neville-led consortium behind the £200M St Michael's residential, office and hotel project has encountered stiff opposition to proposals to build a 39 storey tower in a conservation area, within a short distance of the Grade I listed Town Hall and within 250 metres of 72 Listed Buildings.
Nazir did not want to comment on the St Michael's plan, but he is clear that in Birmingham designated conservation areas will not be compromised.
"If you want to put [a] 40 storey building slap in the middle of a conservation area in Birmingham, I'll say no thank you because there is a reason why we have conservation areas. It's not that we're opposed to towers — we've given approval to very tall structures like Moda's 42-storey proposal for Broad Street — but we will only support in the right locations, not in the wrong ones, and not in conservation areas," Nazir said.
"You have to work with the property industry, but that doesn't mean you lie down and do whatever they want. I've had people buy plots in the city in conservation areas assuming they could have 20 or 40 storey towers, and it just isn't appropriate."
Nazir says the key is not height, but density. "We've already pushed density to 70 dwellings per hectare, and over 100 in the city centre, it doesn't have to be about skyscrapers but about getting average building heights up," he said.
The city is preparing a new development planning document which, along with the design guide, will offer new guidance on tall buildings.
The Big Picture On Affordable Housing
Manchester City Council has come under sustained pressure to increase the provision of affordable housing and to come down harder on developers who say making affordable housing provision is unviable. The campaign — sometimes from the ruling Labour Party's own backbenches — has resulted in proposals for the publication of viability assessments (in some circumstances) and a long list of pre-validation questions designed to make the planning process more transparent. It could also make escaping from affordable housing obligations more difficult.
In Liverpool, related concerns about who is developing residential schemes, and their ability to deliver, has led to the suggestion of police checks ahead of planning applications.
"I can't comment on what other cities do, but we work with the property industry to understand their challenges and to articulate ours," Nazir said. "You shouldn't be trying to achieve that by regulations. We try to engage with the property industry, to explain that quality building is important, and how good management is best, and we do our best to simplify the planning process becauses the risks and delays involved can be expensive."
"If developers have thought about quality issues, and affordable housing, and placemaking, and do that before they apply for permission it will be easier. It means we can keep up our record of deciding 90% of major planning applications in 13 weeks."
Nazir points out that Birmingham City Council is itself a large-scale developer of affordable housing, and that this changes the dynamic when talking to private sector developers.It has built 3,000 homes for rent recently.
"Birmingham City Council is not just a regulator, we are a participant in the property market."