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Bailing out the builders

Dave Harvey | 10:48 UK time, Monday, 23 November 2009

Call them what you like, Urban Splash are no cowboys.

They've become famous for taking the toughest industrial eyesores and transforming them into fashionable apartments, desirable hotels, eye-catching office blocks.

Chips Re-development, Manchester

They started out as a few funky young guys in Manchester, trying their hand at the property game. Now, when they give advice on urban regeneration, ministers listen.

Yet today they must wait on tenterhooks for a government bail-out to get them building again.

Why? What's happened to Britain's coolest developers?

I meet Tom Bloxham in Sheffield

"It's not Urban Splash's fault, it's not our customers' fault, it's not even our banks fault," the chairman tells me. "It's the world's fault."

Tom Bloxham has a reputation for straight talking, so I shouldn't be surprised at this. I met the Urban Splash founder and Chairman at an astonishing site in Sheffield, Park Hill.

Park Hill Flts, SheffieldThere's plenty here to stop you in your tracks. Just look at the place. But for me, the amazing thing is the builders.

They are, well, building.

Everywhere else, they've stopped. At Watchet Harbour, in Somerset, plans for the marina development have stalled. Birnbeck Pier, off Weston, has had the Urban Splash hotel/apartment blueprint agreed, but there are no diggers here.

And the biggest mothball of them all is at Imperial House, in Bristol. I've been investigating what's gone on here for Inside Out West, our documentary series on BBC One, and you can read the story here.

Imperial House, now known as 'Lakeshore', South BristolBut in a nutshell, it's another iconic industrial relic - this time the former offices of Europe's largest cigarette factory at Hartcliffe. And once again, fancy flats were promised - and sold. And a year ago, all evidence of building stopped dead.

People who bought the flats have their lives on hold. They paid deposits of around £8,000, which usually means most of their savings. They expected to be in by this summer, but have now been told it will be 2011 at best.

The odd thing, though, is Urban Splash have sold more than 200 of the 400 apartments. So, crunch or no crunch, surely this project could go ahead?

The problem, as ever, is not sales but debt. The company's latest accounts (which only cover the year ending March 2008) reveal debts of £201m. And total equity in the firm is just over £92m. When property accountants see a debt-to-equity ratio of more than two, their eyebrows start to twitch.

"What you have to do is stop spending money." That's the advice I get from a respected Bristol accountant, Mike Warburton. "Stop building apartments you haven't sold, and even stop building places you have sold. Hang on to your funds."

When you hear that, the silence in Hartcliffe sounds different. Looked at by a banker, the absent crane and the dearth of diggers is a perfect scene. No money is being spent, that debt is getting no bigger. Eventually, people will start buying apartments again on the completed projects, and then the glaziers and joiners will return.

Scaffolder at work, Park Hill, SheffieldSo why, then, is Sheffield a hive of activity? Huge concrete and steel balustrades are being winched into place. The windows are going in. Miles and miles of scaffolding creep up the building like ivy.

But this is government cash - £39m from the Homes and Communities Agency, part of the so-called "Kickstart" programme. Park Hill is deemed a vital community project. It will lift the area, deliver affordable housing, bring jobs. So ministers are backing it.

Lakeshore, as the Bristol project is called, is also waiting for a bail-out. I understand that they've asked for up to £20m, and insiders say the signs are looking good.

"We're very hopeful," insists Tom Bloxham, atop his government-backed 13-storey block in Sheffield. "We're hopeful that very soon you'll see the HCA backing Lakeshore, and work going back on track, and hundreds of jobs coming to Bristol."

Hopeful? I ask. Can you do better than hope?

He shrugs, a little frustrated, you feel. "Look, I wish I was in charge of the economy, of the world situation, but I'm not. All I can say is, ask me next week and I'll be more definitive."

He runs a huge company, built on imagination, enterprise and bankers ready to lend. Now he must wait on Whitehall. Wait to see if his business fits the agenda of ministers and civil servants. Wait, in short, for a bail out from the taxpayer.

Sound familiar?

Have you been caught out by the property crash? I'd love to hear other tales of how the massive fall in flat sales has affected you. Join in the conversation here.


  • Comment number 1.

    It is a very bad situation to be in.

  • Comment number 2.

    A friend and I bought a unit on this development and are extremely frustrated and dissapointed with Urban Splash's lack of communication with its buyers. Through monitoring the HCA website it appears that they haven't got the kickstart funding so what does that mean? Will they have the curtesy to tell us?
    Our lives are on hold and we will either have to buy another property (then try and sell that when lakeshore completes) or continue renting until when?, who knows.

  • Comment number 3.

    Hi I also bought on the launch date - has anyone managed to get there money back from Urban Splash? Without the additional funding I don't see this completing for at least two three years minimum.


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