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Canals provide channel for Midlands' renewal

Christian Wolmar looks at the transformation of Birmingham's waterfront
Birmingham officially becomes "Britain's Canal City" today when the chairman of British Waterways, Bernard Henderson, launches a regeneration plan for the West Midlands based on its canals.

As part of the scheme, Birmingham is to get a World Waterways Centre, showing the history and development of canals. There are also plans to use canal frontages as the centrepieces of development schemes and to boost the number of visitors. Mr Henderson will say that the plan marks "the dawn of a new era for the canals, a renaissance that will transform the liabilities of the past into assets for the future".

Indeed, until relatively recently, the canals have been allowed to decay, with British Waterways patching them up only enough to ensure they did not cause flooding. This is the first time canals, which had a hey-day of barely 50 years, are to be used as the centrepiece of a wider regeneration strategy.

Birmingham's spin doctors like to say that there are more canals in the city than in Venice - 32 miles as against 28 - but one suspects this is an optimistic interpretation of the statistics. While gondoliers will never serenade along the Gas Street Basin, the development there and in nearby Brindleyplace illustrate just how much can be done with a little imagination and money.

Out of what 10 years ago was an abandoned stretch of dead water, its plant and fish life killed off by industrial waste such as copper and zinc, a thriving waterside scene has emerged. On Sundays there are so many visitors the tow-paths become blocked.

These projects near Birmingham's city centre began a decade ago with the improvement of the tow-paths and the opening of several pubs and restaurants at Gas Street. But the half-built Brindleyplace is a different scale of development - 17 acres bounded on two sides by the canal, with investment of pounds 250m planned by 1999 including a million square feet of offices, an aquarium and a hotel.

The Water's Edge centre, part of the development which boasts a host of eateries ranging from a Japanese restaurant to chains such as Cafe Rouge, and Pizza Express, has become an immeditate success since opening earlier this year and is designed to make the best use of the waterfront.

Alan Chatham, the director of Brindleyplace, explains the advantage of being next to the canal. "Not only does it create a very attractive environment, but it also solves the problem of what to do with the back door of a development. It creates a natural boundary." Brindleyplace has been helped by the fact that just over the canal bridge there is a new pounds 180m International Convention Centre and Symphony Hall and just up the canal is the National Indoor Arena, home of Gladiators.

British Waterways hopes to increase the number of visits to the region's canals from the present annual 39 million by 20 per cent, indirectly creating 600 jobs.

But barely a mile down the Grand Union canal, in Digbeth, there is a more typical canalside scene. The tow-path is overgrown, an abandoned factory trolley lies on its side in the murky water and a half-submerged supermarket trolley glistens in the sunlight. Regenerating industrial wastelands like Digbeth's and the many others in the region's 500 miles of canals poses a tougher challenge.