Blitzed by the Luftwaffe, scarred by 1960s tower blocks, and abandoned by industry under Thatcher – Coventry has had its share of suffering. But now £4bn of regeneration is giving the city back its lifeblood

Exorcising the ghost town
Exorcising the ghost town

The people of Coventry were dismayed last month when their flagship Phoenix Initiative was beaten to the Stirling Award by the gherkin-shaped Swiss Re skyscraper in London. Very likely, they cherished the idea that winning Britain’s top architectural award would give the West Midlands city an internationally recognised icon for the 21st century – just as the Guggenheim did for Bilbao in the 1990s.

In truth no single building, regardless of how spectacular it was, could have solved all the problems of an industrial city on the skids.

The crucial and lasting achievement of the Phoenix Initiative, as designed by MacCormac Jamieson Prichard, is that it palpably brings the historic but abandoned city centre back to life by drawing in dwellings, restaurants, offices, a BBC studio and a visitor centre, all linked by an absorbing sequence of richly landscaped courtyards and squares.

Certainly, Coventry has been in need of major regeneration, even though it has already been through the process twice within the last century. At the start of the 20th century, the city became the cradle of car manufacturing on the strength of its mechanical engineering prowess. Fifty years on, it rose phoenix-like out of the ashes of the Second World War with a new cathedral and a pioneering car-free office and retail complex. However, after another 30 or 40-odd years, the car industry had moved elsewhere, leaving the city to slide into major economic decline.

At the start of the 21st century, a new phoenix is arising in Coventry – one that is spreading across the whole city of 300,000 people and complementing the city-centre development. “Some £4bn is being poured into regeneration,” says John McGuigan, the city’s development director. “We’ve never before had this scale of investment. Some £2bn worth has already happened, and another £2bn is in the pipeline.”

The optimism is shared by local building practitioners. “There’s quite a buzz in the city – in quality and extent of development,” says Tony Clewitt, director of local quantity surveyor Osborne Clewitt. “Coventry should be a strong development area,” he continues. “The city is strategically very well placed, it has a large skilled labour force, and it is shedding the outside view of it as a very industrial city.”

In Coventry’s case, being strategically well placed cannot be dismissed as mere marketing hype. The city is located just a few miles from Meriden, supposedly the dead centre of England, and it is superbly accessible by five motorways, umpteen trunk roads including a new north–south link road, the mainline railway and two airports. Little wonder it is home to Europe’s largest single building, a Royal Mail sorting office completed in 1998, Tesco’s largest superstore in Europe, due to open this month, and possibly one of the first of the proposed new breed of super-casinos.

As is widely acknowledged, Coventry’s current regeneration is largely driven by the city council itself. Its development plan of 2001, which extends up to 2011, espouses all the current tenets of urban regeneration – mixed-use, high-density, sustainable development, use of brownfield sites, revitalisation of rundown areas (starting with the city centre), and high-quality Urban Design. The fact that much of the land is in public ownership or directly owned by the council helps the process. And in the case of public housing, this was packaged as the first big stock transfer from an urban local authority – and the recipient, Whitefriars Housing Group, has taken a similar pioneering role.

Even where work is undertaken by private developers, the council takes a proactive role.

As Richard Dakin, regional director of national contractor HBG Construction, says, “We believe the council is doing a lot to encourage developments. They take a very positive attitude, which is not necessarily the case elsewhere.”

The net result is that Coventry can look forward to a full spectrum of public and private sector developments in the pipeline and beyond. The much praised Phoenix Initiative has acted as a catalyst for regeneration spreading out from the city centre. Stretching out to either side and to the north of the new Millennium Square is the city’s largest project, the 60 ha Stanswell Initiative, which is to be comprehensively regenerated over 15 years at a cost of up to £1bn. An ambitious regeneration masterplan drawn up by Urban Initiatives is currently out to public consultation. Taking a leaf out of Birmingham’s book, it proposes demolishing the ring-road flyover that cuts the area off from the city centre and transforming it into a cosmopolitan tree-lined boulevard. The first of a mix of new developments will be a £15m community “learning quarter”, bringing together a primary school, a secondary school and vocational college including a building technology centre. With tenants’ approval, council tower blocks are being demolished to make way for 2000 new homes, mainly in low-rise courtyard formations.

There's a buzz in the city, in the quality and extent of development ... Coventry is shedding the outside view of it as a very industrial city


A land belt stretching from north of Coventry as far as Nuneaton in Warwickshire, where most of the area’s deprivation is concentrated, has been designated as a regeneration zone and has been earmarked for some £30m of funds over four years from the regional development agency, Advantage West Midlands. However, Advantage West Midlands seems to have fallen behind other public regeneration agencies in the area, as it was criticised last month by the West Midlands Regional Assembly for communications breakdowns and reductions in funding.

Not surprisingly, several former carworks are in the current line-up of major development sites. Massey Feguson’s 35 ha old tractor works at Banner Lane has been bagged by housebuilder Persimmon, which in September submitted a planning application for a mixed-use scheme. Peugeot’s 26 ha works at Stoke has been earmarked for another mixed-use scheme for which two developers are currently vying. A 12 ha site adjacent to Jaguar’s research and development centre at Whitley on the northern city boundary is being developed as a business park. Less welcome was a shock decision by Jaguar in September to abandon its original home at Brown’s Lane, throwing the site open for another redevelopment.

The city’s two universities, Warwick and Coventry, are active in developing knowledge-industry spin-offs such as science parks – Warwick is currently searching for a site for its third one. The largest office development will be Station Square, next to the main railway station, where a private developer and Network Rail are in discussion over 100,000 m2 of office space, combined with a transport interchange.

On the housing front, the city development plan envisages nearly 9000 dwellings being built between 1997 and 2011. To deliver the council’s housing strategy, the Coventry Housing Action Partnership has been formed by the city council, local experts, private developers and housing associations. The biggest single housing provider is Whitefriars Housing Group, which this winter is due to complete £240m of maintenance and the improvement of dwellings to “decent homes” standards. Whitefriars also has an involvement in plans for some 2000 mixed-tenure affordable dwellings in Swanswell and another 3500 at Henley Green under the government’s New Deal for Communities programme.

When it comes to building procurement, much of the work is packaged in big parcels, which inevitably go to large national contractors, often under framework agreements. The largest single building contract in the area, the £450m PFI hospital at Walsgrave, was won by Skanska. Whitefriars’ £240m housing refurbishment programme is split between Wates and Lovells. The £30m Tesco superstore on the Arena site is being built by HBG Construction, and the 32,000-seater stadium by Laing O’Rourke.

Coventry’s central location and easy accessibility brings both benefits and challenges. It assists the supply of materials and specialist tradesmen. But as Dakin of HBG Construction says: “The Midlands has always been a very competitive area, as a lot of companies try to establish a base there.”

It also follows that local consultants and contractors feel that they are being muscled out of the action by the big boys. Undeterred, and with the encouragement of the city council, these firms formed their own club of 70 members in Coventry and Warwick called Force in 2000 to promote their services.

Clive Benfield, founding chairman of Force, accepts that small and medium-sized local companies such as his own Benfield Group cannot compete with large national contractors “who have the financial muscle to take risk”. Instead, he notes that national contractors now operate as construction managers and subcontract virtually all of their work, so that local firms can pick up work “at the lower end of the supply chain”. Surveyor Clewitt, another Force member, adds: “We have set up a strong networking organisation, so we can pick up leads of work coming in to ensure local firms are in the running.”

The club also serves as Coventry’s Forum of Constructing Excellence, linked to the Learning and Skills Council. “Part of our job is to drive through improvements in the industry to ensure our contractors come up to the standard required,” says Benfield. “And the council is very supportive. They ensure that there are training and employment opportunities, and they put pressure on national contractors to engage local firms and labour.”

The powerful Whitefriars Housing Group takes a similar line. It was the first housing association to adopt Sir John Egan’s Rethinking Construction principles, and ensured that its two framework contractors, Wates and Lovell, sourced their supply chains locally and worked in partnership with major suppliers, even as far as investing in their businesses. This arrangement helped smooth the flow the £240m housing refurbishment project – so much so, it is due to be completed this winter, one year ahead of schedule.

This development bonanza stretching well into the future might be enough to persuade developers, builders and consultants that all roads lead to Coventry. And that when they get there they may find many doors open to public authorities and perhaps even private developers. But they may also find a lot of their competitors have found their way to Coventry too.

Old school to loft luxury: Folehill's mixed-use scheme

Coventry's housing associations are active players in all sorts of regeneration. At Foleshill, the poorest area of the city, a Victorian school building, is being converted to a mix of uses to serve local needs by Touchstone Housing Association, part of the Keystone Group.

The scheme is intended to provide housing and at the same time to encourage enterprise, help boost the local economy and bring a sense of pride back to the area.

So far the upper floors have been converted into loft-style live–work units, while alongside it a glass-fronted young persons' centre provides IT facilities, a recording studio and meeting rooms. Behind these linked buildings, there are 29 affordable homes. Still awaiting final funding is a proposed enterprise centre on the ground floor to help young people start up their own businesses.

The housing association's architect and engineer, BM3 and BK Consultants, won a local authority competition, coming up with a modern design that contrasted with the Victorian school and the dismal surroundings. The scheme relies on a cocktail of funding from Single Regeneration Budget, Advantage West Midlands and Keynote's own coffers. Bullock Construction was the project's contractor.

The ripple effect ...

1 Swanswell Initiative
Coventry's most ambitious development covering 60 ha and costing £1bn. The council's masterplan, including 2000 dwellings and school-cum-college, is out for consultation

2 Station Square
Combined 10 000 m2 office development and transport interchange under discussion between developer and council

3 Coventry University Technology Park
High-tech premises, with 1.3 ha site remaining

4 Paragon Park
Mixed-use development spread of more than 20 ha

5 Peugeot Stoke
Mixed-use development over 26 ha, with two developers currently in negotiation with City Council and Peugeot landowners

6 New Century Park
Large 60 ha site available with outline permission for offices, industry and warehouses
7 Cyan
Three ha site available for industry and/or distribution warehouses
8 Coventry Business Park
One plot remaining of 39 ha business park

9 Whitley Development Site
40 ha site for high-tech and R&D development, jointly owned by council and Jaguar

10 Binley Business Park
Offices and R&D premises proposed by several developers, leaving one 1.2 ha plot remaining

11 Cross Point Business Park
Mixed-use business park with 2.2 ha land remaining

12 Ansty
49 ha mixed-use site currently owned by Advantage West Midlands

13 Aldermans Green Industrial Estate
2.7 ha of land available on established industrial estate

14 Arena
32,000-seater stadium and Tesco superstore under construction on 29 ha former gasworks

15 Prologis Park
Plots totalling 25 ha available for high-quality offices, production space and distribution warehousing

16 Agco
Proposals for 35 ha site under discussion between developer and council

17 University of Warwick Science Park
Two plots remaining on university’s high-tech science park

18 Stoneleigh Park
101 ha Royal showgrounds to be redeveloped as mix of business, innovation, learning and pleasure

19 Middlemarch Business Park
Two plots remaining alongside Coventry freight airport

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