Middlehaven development battles on through downturn
- 15 May 2013
- From the section Tees
The recession stalled regeneration projects around the country. In Middlesbrough, the rug was pulled from underneath the town's ambitious plan for the future. But what happens to grand designs when the cash dries up?
Alan Blackburn pauses as he looks out from his front garden, just to prove how peaceful it is.
In this part of Middlehaven, rows of houses were demolished to make way for a massive redevelopment.
The bulldozers will move in on Mr Blackburn's home before long too.
"My intention was to be here for retirement and beyond," the 66-year-old says. "But the council just wants us to move away."
Middlesbrough Council in the process of securing a compulsory purchase order (CPO), eager to make the land marketable to investors.
Officers from the town hall call by most weeks, Mr Blackburn says.
"They keep saying 'are you thinking about moving?' and I say 'do I have to?' and they say 'eventually you will'.
"Why should I have to move when there's nothing going on?
"All my memories are here. This was the first house me and my late wife bought together and we brought our kids up here.
"We've got nice views, you can see over to Great Ayton on a day like this, it's tree-lined. People pay a lot of money for these views."
The views were to be dramatically changed by a "masterplan" designed by architect Will Alsop in 2004.
His vision was for hotels, leisure facilities and thousands of homes sprawling from the waterfront.
It was intended to breathe new life into the old St Hilda's area, referred to somewhat suspiciously in the town as "over the border".
A developer, Bio-Regional Quintain (BRQ), was soon found to turn the artist's impressions into reality, only to pull out in 2011 after its parent company decided to concentrate on London interests.
BRQ finished the Community In A Cube apartment block which, along with the £70m Middlesbrough College, offers a reminder of how eye-catching some of the original proposals were.
A refined plan for the area's future was rubberstamped this month and the CPO on Mr Blackburn and his neighbours' homes, as well as a handful of businesses, is seen as "key" to progress.
"It's a shame to see these houses like this," Mr Blackburn says. "They're only 25 years old and they want to flatten them. It's sacrilege really, unbelievable.
"If everything had gone to plan it would have been well established by now but it's just been stalling and stopping and starting.
"They have all these big ideas but nothing's really happened because of the recession."
Charlie Rooney, Middlesbrough Council's executive member for regeneration, has sympathy for remaining residents, but insists the land needs to be cleared.
"When it's in small parcels and owned by lots of other people it's difficult to market," he says.
"We are still talking to people. We are genuinely trying to give people the best deal we can."
Grants of up to £30,000 are available to support moves.
Less housing is now planned for Middlehaven - about 750 homes are now proposed compared to the original 2,500 - but Mr Rooney said the development had to be realistic.
"The original plans were of their time. Builders will only build where they can sell and if they can't sell, they won't build."
Philip Barnes, a town planning economist based in the North East, said there were three factors that drove schemes like Middlehaven.
A move towards building more apartments, demand for office space and a ready supply of funding for public sector buildings made the area ripe for development, he said.
He believes creative thinking from the council and developers can still make Middlehaven attractive for house buyers.
"You could have nice houses looking over the dock only a short walk away from town," he says.
Mr Rooney says businesses based in Middlehaven's Boho Zone are brimming with confidence and one company has recorded a £0.5m profit in its first year of trading.
"We're not talking about small-scale family businesses," he says.
"The new industries aren't steel or even manufacturing, but there is a creative sector working internationally."
Mr Rooney is confident the transformation will go on.
"For too long Middlesbrough turned its back on the area, but now we're looking towards its future."
Mr Blackburn, meanwhile, accepts he will have to move on.
"I've been to see the council and if I see something I like, I'll look at it."