Coventry: A ghost town no longer

City living is still in its infancy in Coventry, but sensitive regeneration is attracting a new wave of buyers and investors. Chris Arnot reports
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The Independent Online

Back in the early 1980s, estate agent Clive James found himself on a coach with some disgruntled bank workers. They were Londoners, being sent to Coventry by employers who had decided to relocate to the West Midlands.

"We were trying to give them an idea of the residential properties available," he recalls, "not only in the city but also in [nearby] Kenilworth, L eamington and Warwick. The general consensus was: 'We might have to work in Coventry, but at least we're not going to have to live there.'"

Their lack of enthusiasm for what had once been the New Jerusalem of post-war Britain was understandable. The collapse of manufacturing industry had hit the city hard. "This town is coming like a ghost town," wailed the Specials during the incendiary summer of 1981. That single caught the mood of the times but landed their home town with a label that has stuck for nearly a quarter of a century. Is it still justified?

Well, yes and no. Coventry has two universities with around 35,000 students between them. Rather confusingly, Warwick's campus is within the city boundaries and boasts the biggest, busiest arts centre outside London. But it stands over three miles from the middle of town, on he edge of the Green Belt, surrounded by new enclaves of executive housing with block-paved drives, double garages and price tags ranging from £380,000 to £590,000. Properties like these have helped to stem the flight of prosperous Coventrians to Kenilworth or Leamington.

All the same, it's difficult to imagine coach-loads of relocated Londoners wanting to live in the city centre. Not yet, anyway. "By 2008 we'll have a much better idea as to whether Coventry will have the facilities to sustain the apartments that have belatedly started to appear around the town," says David Shortland of the Shortland Horne agency.

Right now, the core of what was the fourth biggest city in England during the Middle Ages is undergoing its biggest transformation since the end of the Second World War. Millions, if not billions, of pounds have been pouring in from a range of bodies, including the Millennium Commission and the European Regional Development Fund. In the circumstances, perhaps it's not too surprising that Ikea has chosen to build one of its new city-centre stores on the site of a Co-op. "Ikea will pull in people from all over the region," Shortland predicts.

But won't they pick up their self-assembly bookshelves and drive out again?

"Not if they catch sight of the Belgrade Plaza just down the road," he believes.

Much is riding on the £11m redevelopment of the Belgrade Theatre, complete with a second auditorium. Work has already started on the 3.5-acre site around it, which will include a casino, a couple of hotels, shops, bars, some much-needed restaurants and at least 320 one- and two-bedroom apartments.

City living is still in its infancy in Coventry, but an impressive standard has been set by Ian Harrabin, who runs Complex development projects (CDP) in London and is brother of the BBC Radio 4 environment correspondent, Roger Harrabin. Another brother, Brian, runs the family building business back in Coventry. Together, builder and developer produced the city's first loft apartments in a long-derelict ribbon factory. One was sold recently for £228,000, an increase of £58,000 on the purchase price in 18 months.

There are more Harrabin-built apartments nearby, fanning out on either side of Priory Place, which was designed by the London-based architects McCormack Jamieson Pritchard. Ian Harrabin, who lives in Farringdon, has bought a pied-à-terre here with a balcony overlooking the cleverly stitched together blend of the modern and the mediaeval around Sir Basil Spence's post-war cathedral.

A mile or two across town, meanwhile, the brothers have produced some attractive live-work apartments by the side of the Coventry Canal. Electric Wharf is based in the city's first power station and incorporates its sandblasted bricks, crane rails, roof trusses and other distinctively industrial characteristics. Aluminium roofs, made from recycled drink cans, are among several environmentally friendly features.

"We wanted to provide a focus for the city's creative community," says Ian Harrabin. "You'd be surprised how many there are. The first 17 apartments in the Turbine Hall sold very quickly. Only two of the 20 residential units in the Generator Hall are left and we've sold half of the 36 apartments in the Boiler House, which isn't finished yet."

Among the residents are incomers from Leamington, Warwick and, in one case, London. Which might bring a wry smile to Clive James, the estate agent who took those relocated Londoners on a coach trip nearly 25 years ago. These days he manages the Brian Holt agency in Earlsdon, where the majority of properties are Victorian or Edwardian.

Along with the elegant avenues of Stoke Park, Earlsdon is distinctive among Coventry suburbs. "Despite a chronic lack of parking spaces, people will pay between 15 and 25 per cent more to buy into the lifestyle here," James explains. "It's a self-contained community with its own theatre, library, tennis club and golf club." Not to mention a delicatessen, organic shop, book-shop and some very lively bars.

Too lively for some residents at weekends. But at least nobody would associate Earlsdon with a ghost town.

For enquiries about Electric Wharf and Belgrade Plaza, contact Shortland Horne on 02476-220444.

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