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  • Writer's pictureKaren Fletcher

Regional report: Birmingham - building the future city

Updated: Mar 20




It’s unfortunate that recent news about Birmingham has centred around the City Council's financial crisis. Yet Birmingham’s business community has been at pains to highlight that the Council is not the city—Birmingham’s businesses are still growing and strong.


And the construction works currently underway or planned for the near future in Birmingham certainly bear that out. In September 2023, Birmingham City Council issued two Section 114 notices to warn of its dire financial problems, but construction projects across offices, build-to-rent, student accommodation, and industrial projects are booming.


It’s a strange picture that contrasts both situations. While the public sector is making swingeing cuts to save £300 million between 2024 and 2026, the West Midlands property market saw £2 billion of investment in 2023, according to research by Innes England.


Deloitte’s Birmingham Crane Survey for 2024 highlighted 44 projects on-site and 20 new starts in 2023. This includes around 600,000 sq ft of office floorspace delivered in the same year and just over 1500 student beds. As Deloitte noted: “It’s been an excellent year for Birmingham. The city is a hive of activity with construction at historically high levels.”


According to figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), Birmingham is home to around 1.14 million people, making it the second-largest city in Britain. The city and the wider West Midlands areas are also home to 30,000 companies, the largest concentration outside of London. These include international brands such as Jaguar Land Rover, Kraft, and Amey.


When considering current and future built environment developments in Birmingham, it’s useful to keep in mind one of the main tenets of its Future City Plan. This highlights the Council’s focus on not simply developing central Birmingham but ensuring that the wider city also sees the benefits of new-build and refurbishment works.


The Plan notes: “As we look forward to the next 20 years, Our Future City Plan will incorporate the entire Central Birmingham area from city core to inner-city suburbs, going beyond the ring road to promote and link opportunities and investment that meets the growth needs of more communities.”


This means that development plans incorporate not only Broad Street and Colmore Row, but also Five Ways, Ladywood, Edgbaston and others. Despite the Council’s current financial problems,  its stated aim is to retain this objective, with some resets to budgeting and timelines.


Meanwhile, developments continue across the city, with offices, build-to-rent and student accommodation developments dominating. Several of these are being delivered as mixed-used developments that combine elements of all three, alongside retail, leisure and public spaces.


In addition, architects and developers are maximizing Birmingham’s industrial heritage by converting old warehouses and factories into modern, sustainable offices and homes. This is contributing to the changing face of Britain’s second city.

 

Offices

Birmingham’s office construction sector has been a whirlwind of activity in the past few years, delivering four times as much floor space in 2023 as the previous year. The work includes both new-build projects and refurbishments, which represent a significant amount of work in the city.


In the city centre, one of the most prominent developments has been around Paradise and Chamberlain Square, developed and managed by MEPC.


Paradise Square development

This is a mixed use project but includes significant new office space including One Chamberlain Square which is now fully let to PwC. Close by is One Centenary Way with 280,000 sq ft of office space as well as Two and Three Chamberlain Square which together provide 372,000 sq ft of office space.  


Three Chamberlain is one of the first buildings in the UK to achieve NABERS UK 5* Design Reviewed Target Rating, in addition to its BREEAM Outstanding certification.




Three Chamberlain Square: NABERS and BREEAM rated

But Birmingham is not only attracting corporate tenants. Creative industries are also being targeted to make Birmingham their home. This is particularly true in Digbeth, an area of the city which was once full of factories in Birmingham’s industrial heyday. In past decades, refurbishment has reinvigorated the area for a very different set of occupants.


For example, the BBC is set to move into new studios in Digbeth’s The Tea Factory. Designed by architects Howells, and with construction delivery from BAM. This will be a net zero workplace for the broadcaster and will bring a 100-year-old industrial building back to life.


The refurbishment retains much of the original building to save embodied carbon, adding elements such as rainwater harvesting and solar PVs. The film studio is the first step in a wider masterplan which will see the regeneration of the 20-acre Warwick Bar site into a thriving creative quarter including over 900 new homes


In the same creative quarter, Stanhope commenced construction of new studios for cooking show MasterChef in 2024. The studios will be housed in the historic Banana Warehouse, which will be converted into state-of-the-art premises.

 

Build-to-rent

Birmingham needs to expand its housing offering. The Economy 2030 Enquiry report on growth for Birmingham highlighted that the Birmingham Urban Area (an area that covers Birmingham and Wolverhampton) will require 116,000 additional homes to achieve the growth needed to keep the city powering forward.


Demand for homes in the city centre is driving significant growth in the build-to-rent sector. In February, the Curzon Wharf 1 million sq ft mixed-use scheme from the Woodbourne Group received final planning approval from Birmingham City Council. This includes what will be Birmingham’s tallest tower block (53 storeys) of BtR apartments.


Tall buildings are a theme in the city centre. In March 2024, developer Regal Property was granted planning permission for a 47-storey BtR scheme on Birmingham’s Broad Street. It will include 525 apartments along with facilities such as a cinema, dining rooms and a gym.


Similar projects in the planning process include the 33-storey 100 Broad Street BtR scheme from Urban Vision, which was approved (subject to conditions). The scheme, known as The Hundred, will offer 294 BtR apartments and is designed as an all-electric smart building with reduced carbon footprint.


Although there is pressure to grow the number of homes in and around Birmingham, the city has an impressive track record in the past few years. Deloitte’s Crane Survey noted that 1,908 homes were completed in 2023, slightly down from 2022’s record of 2,398. However, the next two years look to go beyond that in terms of volumes delivered with BtR projects also growing rapidly.


For example, Winvic has completed several build-to-rent projects around Birmingham over the past few years and is currently working on Holloway Head. This is a 484-apartment BtR scheme across four blocks ranging from 8 to 14 storeys. The project, valued at around £70 million is due for completion in April 2025.




The Octagon by Glenn Howells Architects

Glenn Howells Architects designed the 49-storey Octagon (part of the mixed-use Paradise development). It is the first octagonal residential building in the world. Contractor Midgard is set to deliver the project in 2025, and it will offer 370 BtR homes.

 


Student accommodation

Birmingham has around 80,000 students and its major universities include Birmingham, Aston, Birmingham City and University College. Several of these institutions have increased their intake over the past few years, and like many other cities across the UK, Birmingham has a shortfall of student accommodation.


There is currently a demand for just over 43,000 student PBSA beds, but a supply of only 25,052. Growth is therefore on the cards for this sector. There are already a number of projects which have been granted permission for development or which are already underway.


The Curzon Wharf development, for example, includes a 41-storey PBSA tower with 721 student flats. University College Birmingham (UCB) submitted plans in 2023 for its own PBSA development (a redevelopment of an existing site) to provide 1,207 student flats. Although this is not a major increase in the amount of accommodation, the university aims to consolidate student housing on a single site and with more modern facilities for residents.


And McLaren Property has received planning permission for a PBSA scheme at Queen’s Hospital Close. This will see the restoration of two Listed buildings alongside a 750-bed PBSA scheme (and 189 apartments in a neighbouring BtR provision).

 

HS2 – still arriving in Birmingham



Artist's impression of the completed Curzon Street station

Although the northern leg of HS2 was cancelled, cutting out Manchester, Birmingham will still see the arrival of high-speed trains from London. Birmingham Curzon Street will be a major new station on that line – the first intercity terminus built in Britain since the 1800s. HS2 worked with WSP and Grimshaw Architects LLP on the design for Curzon Street, which is inspired by the great arched roofs built by the Victorian railway pioneers.


The station is due to be completed in 2028 and is designed to be net zero carbon in operation and to achieve BREEAM Excellent. Sustainable technologies include 2,800 m2 of solar PVs on platform canopies.


Once complete, HS2 will almost halve the journey time between London Euston and Birmingham to just 49 minutes, with trains running north via the existing rail network to destinations such as Manchester, Liverpool and Glasgow.

 

Sustainable Birmingham

Birmingham City Council committed to a 60% reduction in carbon emissions by 2027 (against 1990 figures). Several mechanisms are in place to help achieve this objective including requiring new developments to reduce CO2 and water consumption, along with the use of low- and zero-carbon energy sources and technologies.


The Council’s Development Plan includes the use of combined heat and power (CHP) particularly as part of district heating schemes in the city.  The Plan notes that large residential developments on sites over 200 units in size and new non-residential developments over 1,000 square metres offer the economies of scale necessary to include CHP generation or a network connection to an existing CHP facility.


CHP generation is already in use in several projects around the city. For instance, the Broad Street District Energy Scheme serves many of the City Centre's most prominent buildings including the ICC, NIA, REP Theatre, Council House and Town Hall. A large CHP engine in the ICC boiler house and heating mains link the various buildings to the energy centre.

The scheme will result in cost savings for those linked to it and reduce the City Centre's CO2 emissions by 20%. A similar scheme is also proposed in the Eastside area of the City Centre.

 

Conclusions

Birmingham is a city with a long history of adaptation and change, and the 21st century has been no different. Before its Section 114 declaration, the Council was confidently planning a future that would continue to attract significant inward investment for new developments, while drawing in new industries such as science, tech and media to formerly run-down areas of the city.


Whether the council is the city or not, its financial state will impact the delivery of some of these goals. Although contractors have been assured that current agreements with the Council will be met, the next few years of cost constraints may see some goals pushed back.


But Birmingham has bounced back before. In the 1960s and 1970s, the city was so successful that the central government felt compelled to slow its growth lest it be too much of a competitor for other northern cities (or London), which is a policy that seems unthinkable in today’s economy. Despite this deliberate hobbling, the people of Birmingham showed their resilience.


So it is to be hoped that whatever the state of local government, the property and construction industry will continue to deliver innovative projects across dynamic sectors such as BtR and student accommodation – and to bring those industrial warehouses and factories back into use as stylish developments for modern industries.


Birmingham Timeline

1086 – Bermingeham (sic) appears in the Domesday Book as a hamlet worth 20 shillings


1166 – Peter de Bermingham obtains a market charter from Henry II


1300s – the de Bermingham family allows their tenants the freedom to develop trades, encouraging the growth of small-scale smithing and metal working.


1400s – trade in the town continues to flourish, with records showing sales of iron, linen, wool, brass, steel and cattle.


1530 – Birmingham has a population of 1500 people in 200 houses with one main street, markets and many smiths selling goods all over England


1642 – 46 – Birmingham supplies swords, pikes and armour to the Parliamentarians in the Civil War.


1731 – Birmingham’s population reaches 23,000 and its thriving manufacturing businesses, becoming the industrial centre for the region.


1750s – Birmingham begins to play a key role in the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution. Organisations such as the Lunar Society exchange forward-thinking ideas in technology, medicine, philosophy and natural history.


1760s onward – Birmingham becomes a centre of the canal system, providing transport for raw materials and finished goods.


1837 – the railway arrives in Birmingham with the opening of the Grand Junction Railway linking the city with Liverpool and Manchester. In 1852, Snow Hill station is opened by the Great Western Railway. Birmingham New Street open in 1854, constructed by London & North Western Railway and the Midlands Railway


1800s – Birmingham’s wealthy industrialists build larger factories and enhance the city by funding construction of Birmingham Town Hall (1834) and the Botanical Gardens (1832).


First World War – Birmingham plays a crucial role in manufacturing weapons for the first mechanised war


1918 – The City Council decides to build modern housing across the city to rehouse families from inner-city slums, delivering 50,000 council houses by 1939.


Second World War – Birmingham’s manufacturing capability again plays a critical part in delivering munitions and military equipment. The city is heavily bombed and almost 13,000 buildings are destroyed.


1945 –Birmingham continues to grow, but the UK government sees this prosperity and success as potentially damaging for other areas of the Midlands and the North. A series of central government measures set out to deliberately slow Birmingham’s development.


1950s and 1960s  - Despite government restrictions, Birmingham’s industry continues to flourish, particularly around the motor trade and electrical equipment


1960s – Birmingham’s service sector grows rapidly and the city becomes the focus outside London for a post-War office building boom.


1964—Yet again, central government regards Birmingham’s success as a threat and effectively bans further office development in the city for almost 20 years. It even forces thousands of residents out of the city centre into the suburbs. This policy also forces the city to rely heavily on the motor trade for employment.


1970s to 1980s – Birmingham falls on hard times with the economic collapse of the manufacturing sector. As late as 1976, the city has the highest GDP outside of London but within five years it becomes the lowest. And 200,000 jobs are lost between 1971 and 1981.


1990s – Birmingham begins to rebuild and redevelop, including opening the International Convention Centre.


 2000s – the Bullring Shopping complex opened in 2003 and since that time, the city has focused on developing not just the central area of Birmingham, but also its four outer regions.

 

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