If ever there was a place ripe for regeneration it must be the former Ravenscraig steelworks. Sonia Soltani looks at the dreams for Scotland’s largest brownfield site – and the legal challenge that might prove a nasty wake-up call

It has been designed as an idyllic mixed-use community to rejuvenate a 445 ha site 10 miles south-east of Glasgow. If things had gone according to plan, curtains would be hanging in the windows of the first phase homes and new residents would be spending their weekends in the soon-to-be completed retail hub, enjoying the sports and leisure facilities or strolling in the luxuriant parks that were to make up half the site.

But the regeneration of the former Ravenscraig steelworks has been delayed by two years by a legal challenge to the retail facilities that form such an essential component of the proposed sustainable community (see “The life and times”, below). Irrespective of the House of Lords’ verdict, due this autumn, on this aspect of the scheme, development of the site will begin in earnest next month with the appointment of a contractor for the first phase and the start of infrastructure works.

It will be a landmark date for regeneration. Ravenscraig is Scotland’s largest brownfield site and its size offers a rare opportunity to create a truly sustainable settlement. The stakes and expectations for the £1.2bn project being masterminded by a joint venture of landowner Corus, agency Scottish Enterprise Lanarkshire and developer Wilson Bowden couldn’t be higher. As David Hogg, director at Turner & Townsend, cost consultant on the project, says: “The scale of the space and what was there beforehand mean the whole country is looking.”

Housing represents a fifth of the whole site and the first phase of 800 homes – out of a total of 3500 homes – will be a test for the project team. It has to succeed to give the place the impetus it needs to attract retailers and businesses for ensuing development. Under the Ravenscraig joint venture agreement,

two-thirds of the 3500 homes are to be built over a 20-year period by David Wilson Homes, the housebuilding arm of Wilson Bowden. Jim Fitzsimmons, development director of Wilson Bowden in Scotland, sees Ravenscraig as the golden opportunity to re-balance the area’s social mix. He says: “The pressure is on to create more private housing because it will hold families and young folks with a higher spend profile here who at the moment tend to drift away from the area.” About 10% of the housing will be for the social sector.

David Wilson Homes has ambitious plans for the homes. The housebuilder has conducted a character assessment of the Scottish vernacular that it will reinterpret for the three to four-bedroom detached units that will spread across 30 ha of the site. Tim Peach, masterplanning director of David Wilson Homes, says: “We’re going in two directions. We want both references to the past and to recognise that a fresh beginning is about to take place.”

The housebuilder is aiming to achieve an EcoHomes rating of “very good” and is looking at some of its English projects, such as Upton in Northampton, which achieved an “excellent” rating, to aid product selection. The later phases of housebuilding will comprise higher-density accommodation – two to three-storey townhouses and more cutting-edge urban designs for apartments. More precise details have yet to be finalised for a scheme expected to include three housing market cycles during its 20-year creation.

With such a large number of homes to be built on an immense expanse of land, there is a danger of creating a soulless sprawling estate in which people might not find a sense of direction or identity. The project team aims to tackle this by introducing diversity of housing types and street layout and clearly designed public squares to help foster a sense of community.

Fitzsimmons is also considering hiring an artist in residence to create works of art to provide a sense of orientation. He says: “An artist would look at the scheme as it goes up to make something relevant and integrated to Ravenscraig.” He cringes at the idea of a steel structure on top of a hill as an evocation of the site’s former use, but understands it might just happen.

Just as the housing project aims to differentiate itself from the existing drab stock in the surrounding area, so the retail, leisure and business parts will be different from the surrounding development monoculture, exemplified in the nearby Glasgow Fort shopping centre and the Eurocentral business park. Ravenscraig will be a place where people live, work, shop and play. Besides housing, the £200m first phase includes facilities for Sports Scotland and Motherwell College.

Spanner in the works

Almost all the local people supported the scheme when it was launched nine years ago. Local authorities are all backing the joint venture and every single planning consent has been granted. The legal obstacle has been posed by developers Land Securities and Standard Life, anxious about the emergence of a competitor close to their own retail centres. Fitzsimmons says: “The Land Securities thing is an annoyance. It will not stop Ravenscraig happening. It’s too important.”

Until its closure, Ravenscraig was purely an industrial site, albeit an employer of more than 30,000 people. Transforming the site into a sustainable community has presented a planning conundrum. In Scotland, according to NPPG8 (the equivalent to PPG6) retail and leisure developments can only be built in existing town centres. This status was granted to Ravenscraig by the Scottish executive in November 2003 through an amendment to the Clyde Valley Structure Plan. The reasoning behind this decision was that as Ravenscraig is planned to be a mixed-use development, it needed a retail and leisure heart. Far from undermining neighbours Motherwell and Wishaw, it was hoped that it would help boost the whole Lanarkshire area.

Land Securities and Standard Life haven’t seen it that way. Ravenscraig’s town-centre status would entitle it to grow indefinitely in the future, and even at its planned size they considered it a threat to their shopping centres in East Kilbride and Hamilton. The battle has resulted in an appeal to the House of Lords.

Adrian Smith from consultant Muir Smith Evans, planning adviser on the scheme, says: “We’re not doing this under a separate new town planning regulation but through the system as it is at the moment. We had no choice. Scotland doesn’t have the New Towns Act to use.”

Ironically, the Ravenscraig partners have gone beyond Scottish norms to ensure that best practice is enshrined in the plans for their community. They worked with Muir Smith Evans and masterplan architect Llewelyn Davies to come up with early parameters for the site – housing density levels and development height levels are set down, for example.

Smith says: “This makes it easier to discuss with councillors and planning to make sure that the area complies with the outlined plan.” This will be a form of design code for developers working on the site, helping to maintain a consistent standard and approach throughout the settlement’s development.

Despite the legal challenge, Fitzsimmons remains contagiously enthusiastic about the project. As he looks at the site he dreams of the day when a £1m house will be sold there as testament to its commercial success. The day when the glossy brochure comes to life seems, finally, to be drawing near.

The life and times of Ravenscraig

British Steel (now Corus) opens its steelworks

Final closure of the steelworks; 8500 workers lose their jobs

Scottish Enterprise Lanarkshire and North Lanarkshire council publish a regeneration strategy

Reclamation of the contaminated site

Nov 1997
Masterplan by architect Llewelyn Davies is launched; consultation starts

Wilson Bowden selected as preferred partner

June 2001
Planning application submitted

April 2002
Ravenscraig carriageway opens

April 2003
Planning application approved by North Lanarkshire council

January 2004
Town-centre status decision challenged by Land Securities and Standard Life. If Ravenscraig doesn’t have town-centre status, it won’t be able to expand in the future

March 2005
Standard Life and Land Securities lose their case at the Court of Session

May 2005
Planning consent issued; new challenge by Land Securities to Scottish High Court. Land Securities loses

July 2006
Challenge brought to the House of Lords

Autumn 2006
Infrastructure works expected to start on site

October 2006
House of Lords decision on town- centre status expected.

Phase one housing completion expected, relocated Motherwell College and a new regional sports facility

Town centre expected to open for trading

Estimated completion of project

Ravenscraig in figures

  • Project value £1.2bn
  • Land area 445 ha
  • Housing 3500 homes
  • Business park 100,000m²
  • Industrial campus 116,000m²
  • Retail and leisure area 84,000m²
  • Multi-purpose indoor arena 10,000 seats
  • New jobs expected to be created 12,000

Who’s making it happen

Ravenscraig Limited is a public-private venture between three stakeholders: “sleeping partner” Corus, which owns the land and spent £33m reclaiming it after it closed down its steelworks; Scottish Enterprise Lanarkshire, responsible for maximising the benefits for the community, getting access to public sector funding (for the first £20m access road it secured £10m from the European Union and matched it); and Wilson Bowden, the developer responsible for the long-term development opportunities.