Birmingham made cars and cars made Birmingham. The car factory at Longbridge was, for a time, the largest on earth. In dutiful respect to the motor industry – which kept thousands of Brummies in work – the city fathers diligently ripped up swathes of postwar Birmingham, crossing out Victorian streets with red pencils on maps and putting dual carriageways and car parks and high rise flats with underground garages in their place. No other British city was so in thrall to the combustion engine.
Longbridge was ground zero for Britain's Motown. Henry Ford built a factory straddling the River Rouge in Detroit and Herbert Austin built one straddling the River Rea in Birmingham. Here for a hundred years, between 1905 and 2005 cars were built by Brummies with strong arms and strong views. The cars wore various badges over the years: Austin, Rover, MG. But the end of the dream was swift.
Nowadays the resurgent Chinese own the remainder of the car business. A corner of the vast Longbridge site belongs to Shanghai Automotive. Here they screw together new MG6 cars, which, perversely perhaps, arrive in kit form off the boat from Shanghai.
Brownfield housing is the other name of the game at today's Longbridge. On the site where renowned union leader Red Robbo once intoned to the British Leyland workforce with such passion that MI5 decided they had to get him, an ambitious and costly plan to build 2,000 new homes – as well as a college, shops and offices – has swung into action. The Longbridge vision will transform this down-at-heel corner of Birmingham, which is a long way from Selfridges and the showy apartments built around the canals in the city centre. The scheme, led by regeneration specialists St Modwen, is costing £1bn. Clearly, some developers are standing to make a lot of money out of this scrappy site.
Already there are results. The Park View section of the project was launched in September. This first phase comprises 115 houses and flats, with two beds starting at £114,995. "It's a very popular location as it's close to the Lickey Hills and the M42 and M5 motorways," says Julie Zivkovic, residential sales manager at the site. But there's a personal connection for many Brummies, Zivkovic included: "My grandfather was a steam train driver at Rover and he drove the Vulcan and Victor engines," she remembers. "My father also worked at Rover, along with many of my friends. The area has played a very big part in my life. We have buyers that worked there too and the car company meant a lot to each of them."
One of those buyers is Lian Purnell.
"I now work for an automotive component supplier, but I previously worked at Longbridge myself," he explains. "It is tremendous to see the regeneration of the area take place. I felt an instant connection with the development because it's on the site of the former Longbridge general office building. The show home is built on the exact location where my father used to work, my new home is on the spot where my grandfather worked. I saw this as a once in a lifetime opportunity to live in a home which has such strong and unique family ties."
Is brownfield housing development a panacea? The Council For The Protection of Rural England (CPRE) published a report last month claiming that brownfield sites in Britain could accommodate an extra 1.5 million homes. The Home Builder's Federation, on the other hand, is lukewarm about the idea. The CPRE, while promoting ecological interests and the protection of the greenbelt, also allows itself to look Nimby-ish. Those who have a few trees near their house understandably want the green belt protected. Poor families living in cities have no such luxury.
The Joseph Rowntree Foundation published interesting findings last year, saying that "the increased level of brownfield housing development in the most deprived neighbourhoods is mirrored by strong housing market performance in those areas." So brownfield development, as well as gentrifying poor urban areas, can also act as a catalyst to house prices in the area surrounding the development.
"I haven't seen any sign of increased house prices in Longbridge yet, but it's early stages here and these things take time," cautions Ian Williams, partner at estate agents Robert Oulsnam up the road in Northfield. However, Williams is optimistic: "Long term, the redevelopment must have a positive effect on prices. We've had many years of the site being derelict and now we've got progress. It's an excellent mix of residential, business and other uses." Longbridge is ripe for transformation, but some people feel the demise of one way of life is sad. "I was involved with the campaign to save Longbridge and it's deeply upsetting that large-scale employment has gone,"says Carl Chinn, a Professor of Community History at Birmingham University and broadcaster on the BBC's West Midlands local radio station. "The working classes seem to be marginalised economically and politically even more. We need to engage with them." It's the history of the site that Chinn is keen to preserve: "We don't want to leave rubble. This country needs more houses. But I'd urge the developers to bring in public art and even a museum that recognises the workers; the designers. We need to make sure our children and our children's children know about Longbridge and about the pride and status of the place."
Regeneration is also not as simple as it looks. Battersea Power Station in London has been plagued by problems, with yet another would-be developer collapsing into administration earlier this month. Incredibly, the 40 acre brownfield site – slated for 3,400 homes under a £5.5bn plan – has stood empty for almost 30 years, with successive home-building plans falling like houses of cards.
Further, what does this regeneration say about Britain today? Our urban landscapes may be shinier, smarter, newer – but the architecture of our cities is shifting.
And not always for the best. Instead of mighty Edwardian brick buildings and bold industrial architecture, we're often getting boxy flats and traditional pitched roof houses chucked up in the generic vernacular of the suburbs.
There's no point in getting nostalgic, yet these new developments very clearly underscore the end of Britain's mass manufacturing era. But if they provide much-needed homes for working people, well at least it's a case of land well used.
Former glory: New homes
Lotus Village, Banbridge, Co. Antrim
Another former car factory in Northern Ireland (no, not DeLorean, more's the pity) has also got the housing treatment. Banbridge's Lotus factory made sports cars with the legendary British marque, but then stood derelict for a decade. But 163 new homes have transformed the site.
£95,550 to £149,500 for two to three bedroom homes (btwcairns.com).
Vulcan Village, Newton-le-Willows, Merseyside
The mighty old Vulcan Foundry built locomotives that plied the long tracks of America, India and the spectacular Ffestiniog Railway in North Wales. And the ones that Julie Zivkovic's dad drove at Longbridge (see main story).
Sadly, the works couldn't be turned around at the start of this century. Its replacement? New homes as part of a £100m redevelopment package.
Tetley's Brewery, Leeds
Beer giant Carlsberg (now the owners of the Tetley's brand, right) brought nearly 190 years of brewing in Leeds to an anticlimactic end this summer when they shut the doors on the city's sprawling brewery, pictured left in 1849. Carlsberg has an odd plan to build a car park there, but furious Leeds planners and architects published a paper last month setting out their alternate vision of eco-homes being built on the now abandoned site instead.