“Bags of sugar would appear on doorsteps” sounds like a cliche of community spirit in hard times. But on the St. Modwen development at Longbridge, near Birmingham, during the pandemic that’s what happened. “People were really rallying round,” says 64 year old Mike Pattison, who has lived there for six years with his wife, and in lockdown adult son Alex too (the garage at the four bed detached house is “currently full of his stuff, so that’s handy”, Pattison laughs). After two decades of investment something other than homes have been built at the former MG Rover plant. Shared lives, not just shelter. Community fundraising launched a children’s charity with a local couple who lost their two infant sons, even before Covid. “There’s a dynamic mix of professions and backgrounds living here, the local hairdresser to engineers,” Pattinson says, “and open places where they can all get together”.
Aston Villa’s local ground at Villa Park would fit into the Longbridge site 227 times. But unlike some vast red brick forests without a newsagent in sight, residents say Longbridge works because it gives people things they need. As well as 1,000 mixed sized homes (326 affordable), with 3,000 more to come, there are 50 acres of reserved green space to encourage biodiversity and human interaction. Business parks and favourites like Marks and Spencer have brought 3,000 jobs (with a further 7,000 expected). State-of-the-art Cofton Village Hall doubles as a fitness centre, and on the Bournville College campus 2,000 apprentices a day attend vocational courses. “We’re looking at it as a whole living, breathing place,” says Rob Flavell, director at St Modwen, of the site’s human centred design, “starting from scratch to build neighbourhoods”.
Tucked behind the college campus, in the Innovation Centre, part of Longbridge’s 9,000m2 serviced office space, is 55 year old managing director Ian Weston and Mark3D UK Limited. Making high-end 3D printers, materials, and software, Weston is part of an engineering renaissance at Longbridge, central to everywhere; two hours to London and Manchester, 30 minutes to Birmingham, 20 minutes to the city’s airport and from there Europe. “It was that attractive we moved in 22 days after starting the business in January 2018,” says Weston. He plans to expand. “We won’t look further than the local area, it’s got the lot,” he says.
Like the students walking past his office, Weston was an apprentice here. “Four years from 1982, electrical and engineering, from the welding lines to the boiler house,” he says. He likes how quotes from former workers appear on road signs. Plans are underway to turn the imposing steel frame of the old car assembly plant into a plaza, and the styling studio into a shared work space. “The heritage of this place was a big pull too”, says Weston.
In 2005, MG Rover collapsed, a symbol of the UK’s changing industrial role in the world. It finally closed in 2016. Six and a half thousand people lost jobs immediately and tens of thousands more in the supply chain. “A lot of shops closed,” says Weston, “flats fell empty, house prices really suffered”. St Modwen has revived the area, he says: “It’s brought people back, including me.” The developer has calculated (pre-pandemic) this includes a 53% growth in new businesses, a 100% increase in employment (2012 to 2016), and house prices up 29% since 2005, more than Birmingham (26%).
Gary Sambrook, MP for Northfield, where Longbridge sits, has even bought his own home there. After 15 years driving passed a decaying reminder of their loss, he says a redeveloped Longbridge is about neglected promises made when MG Rover collapsed, finally being fulfilled. “It’s the phoenix from the ashes”, he says, “we’re redefining ourselves as a place where job prospects are diverse”. This gives people more pay packet security if something happens with their employer, he says: “People can look at Longbridge now and think, ‘this is going to provide me, my children and my grandchildren with opportunities – for many, many years to come’.”