Making a splash

The philanthropic millionaire Tom Bloxham owns large chunks of Manchester and Liverpool and creates homes for 'decision-makers'. Not bad for a Young Socialist who started out flogging posters.
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Tom Bloxham looks like he sweats adrenaline. Becalmed briefly, on a curvy contemporary sofa, his bony frame jack-knifes in an impression of repose, but one jigging knee keeps time to his furious internal rhythm. "Some people are good at football, some are good at making money," he says in a voice as fast and efficient as a teleprinter. "I could never play football."

At 35, Bloxham is one of the biggest names in property development. His self-made millions sit easily on him. He has never apologised for his personal wealth, amassed in the old-fashioned way, of buying cheap and selling dear. Yet his blueprint for urban regeneration in Manchester and Liverpool has earned Bloxham folk-hero status as a kind of rock'n'roll Robin Hood. His company Urban Splash has taken derelict, industrial and commercial sites and built them into "lifestyle destinations". In areas where, only a few years ago, the Rottweilers went in pairs, you can now buy 15 flavours of cappuccino.

Grumbles about yuppification are effectively silenced by the growth in the local job market and the massive hoik in surrounding property prices. A generous sponsor of young businesses and the arts, Bloxham sits on innumerable civic committees, is a trustee of Big Steps, the Big Issue charity and advisor to the Tate Gallery in Liverpool. And it did Bloxham's street-cred no harm at all, when, convoked by Prince Charles to deliver a talk on "regeneration through heritage" he left the reception early to catch the start of a Man United match.

"To become a citizen of ancient Athens, you had to swear the oath: 'We will leave this city not less, but greater, better and more beautiful than it was left to us,'" says Bloxham, "and that sums up my philosophy." He is far too cool to stick his thumbs in his braces, but there is a civic dignity to his manner that suggests an awful lot of after-dinner speeches. "What's interesting about Urban Splash," he continues, "is that we are more profitable than most property-developing companies but, at the same time, our output, in terms of what we put into the community, is comparable to a lot of not-for-profit developments.

"If you're working in an area where large numbers of the indigenous population are totally dispossessed, then you have to get that sorted, because if you don't, you'll end up destroying everything you have done. Having a successful business and being a force for good in the community - the two have to go together."

This muscular paternalism, chiming so well with New Labour, is a far cry from Bloxham's early political leanings. The son of an army captain, he spent his teenage years in Sutton, Surrey, where he was chairman of the Young Socialists. (The membership, he quickly admits, was not extensive). Studying politics at Manchester University in the early 1980s, he was soon disillusioned by Militant and re-invented himself as a running dog of capitalism, buying and selling records in the Students' Union.

In the time it took for this early venture to fail, Bloxham noticed that the posters which came free with the records of cult bands such as the Smiths and the Buzzcocks were at a premium with students bored with the ubiquitous images of Che Guevara, Michael Jackson and the tennis player with the itchy bum. His poster business, based in the dilapidated Afflecks Arcade in Manchester's Oldham Street, soon became a world leader, and the arcade, sub-let by Bloxham, became an "alternative shopping centre", offering everything from home-knitted muesli to body piercing.

By this time Bloxham was making more money selling space than he was by selling posters and in 1993 he teamed up with architect John Falkingham to create Urban Splash. Their first project was Liverpool Palace, a 36,000sq ft complex of shops, offices and recreational space developed from derelict Georgian warehouses which they snapped up "for the price of a terraced house". The Palace, and the nearby Concert Square development, which includes the Baa Bar, arguably Britain's trendiest bar, revitalised an exhausted area of the city, attracting bandwagons full of investors to the newly dubbed "creative quarter".

Bloxham repeated the experiment in Manchester with Ducie House, a Victorian petticoat factory which had been due to be razed for car parking and which is now the Urban Splash HQ. Architects, fashion and graphic designers, record producers and musicians have all found a congenial home in Ducie House.

"It makes sense to set up a community of businesses which can all service each other," says Bloxham. "That's how you keep your margins down." He has the amiable habit of talking as if you, too, are just one lucky dollar away from your own multi-million pound empire, and is known as an indefatigable "fixer", as prodigal with contacts as he is canny with cash. "The big difference between Manchester and London, is that if you're successful in Manchester, you get to meet everyone; you meet the politicians, the artists and musicians, and because the city is that much smaller you're at the heart of the business world and the social community at the same time."

The loft-style apartments that feature in Urban Splash's sumptuous brochure are spaces of improbable purity; homes for the terminally tidy, with grand pianos marooned on pristine woodblock floors, see-through fridges featuring frighteningly trendy beers and plants with pebbles round the stem. Liverpool's Concert Square and Manchester's Sally's Yard (a converted paper mill) and Smithfield Buildings (formerly the Affleck & Brown department store) are the flagships of Bloxham's urban regeneration scheme. These are not the kind of homes you would bring your kebab back to. "These," Bloxham points out "are homes for decision-makers".

"The history of housing in Manchester," he continues, "is that over the last three decades, all the decision-makers moved out. What we've got to do is to put that sense of ownership back into cities, and I don't just mean that literally. Everybody in the city has to get involved, whether it's joining pressure groups, forming local societies, or just picking up litter and complaining about nuisances. We've got to reclaim our cities as places to live in."

By now, Bloxham looks ready to leap on to the hi-tech, rubber-wheeled coffee table in his office and go scooting down to the city centre to raise his standard this very minute. He is not remotely abashed by the fact that he lives with his wife and two small sons in the leafiest of suburban settings. This, he explains, was his wife's decision. She thought it would be better for the children. "It's only in England, though, that we have this thing about having our own front and back garden. In Europe and America, people have been raising families in city-centre apartments for years."

The interiors of Urban Splash's apartments are uncompromisingly modern. "Contemporary design isn't widely appreciated in this country," he admits. "Traditionally, it has been the preserve of the cognoscenti. But look what's happening to clothing. Ten years ago, designer labels were only available to the very rich. Now we're all wearing them. Twenty years ago, all home furnishing was Laura Ashley. Our mission is to do for housing what Conran and Ikea have done for furnishings."

One of Bloxham's natural advantages is his ability to scan a project and caulk the gaps where money might trickle out. As well as supplying its own architects and surveyors, Urban Splash has its own construction team including contract managers, site agents, joiners and labourers. When it came to advertising, Bloxham cut out the middleman in suitably grand style, by acquiring a radio station. "When I used to advertise in something trendy with national coverage, such as The Face or i-D, I was basically wasting 90 per cent of that coverage. If I used the local press I would be advertising to a load of grannies and wasting 80 per cent there. So to have a way of advertising that was both local and trendy was obviously appealing." Crash FM, an Indie/dance station run by DJ Janice Long with Bloxham as major shareholder, is now looking to expand into the North-east. "Media, says Bloxham is an area I'm keen to develop."

The grinning spectre of Richard Branson can no longer be ignored. "I would be terrifically flattered by the comparison," says Bloxham evenly, but he will not be setting off round the world in an Urban Splash submarine. "Someone once told me that the secret of having a public profile is for everyone to know your name but for no one to know what you look like," he says. Given Bloxham's almost vertical trajectory to date, this seems implausible.

"It's funny," says Bloxham, and it looks like he's really enjoying the joke. "Five years ago, we were considered the lunatic fringe. Now it looks like the world wants to come into the asylum"

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