Reach for the sky: The young developer with a towering ambition

Paul Vallely
Wednesday 29 October 2003 01:00 GMT

Why, you may be forgiven for asking, have we not heard of Stephen Beetham before? He is rich (a multimillionaire). He is colourful (an escapee from a religious sect). And he is, at just 28, transforming the skyline of Britain's major cities (Liverpool, Birmingham, Manchester and, coming soon, London).

This week, he announced what will be Britain's highest residential building, a 47-floor, £150m skyscraper containing a five-star hotel with 200 apartments and penthouses in Manchester's Deansgate. Work begins in January, but similar towers are rising in Liverpool, where 27 storeys should be complete next year, and Birmingham, where 39 storeys will be ready in 2005.

Each will be the tallest building in their city. Indeed, Birmingham would have been higher but for the airspace rules of the Civil Aviation Authority.

In the past few days, Mr Beetham has exchanged contracts for a site in London, though he is coy about saying exactly where. Each structure is called Beetham Tower. The name is important to him.

He was born Stephen Frost. (His father, Hugh Frost, is the Beetham company chairman). But he changed it to an ancestral family name. One of his ancestors, Sir Ralph de Beetham, gave his name to a tiny village in Cumbria; another, Edward Beetham, invented the Royal Patent Washing Mill, the forerunner of the washing-machine.

The name change came after he left the sect into which he had been born, the Plymouth Brethren, a group of Christians so fundamentalist that they are waiting for Jesus to come and whisk them into the skies at any moment, leaving the rest of us behind.

They are so puritan that they will not take up any job not mentioned in the New Testament. (Property developer is thus a bit of a slap in the face, unless you take it to be an extrapolation of carpenter.)

When Mr Beetham was seven his father left the sect and his parents divorced. Nine years later, young Beetham ran away too, and fled to Liverpool. It was not exactly a rags-to-riches story because his father had already set up a company doing up flats and houses in the poorer parts of the city. But with his son's extraordinary drive, the business changed gear.

The company, Oastdren Investments, moved from the suburbs to the city centre and it too changed its name to Beethams. In the centre of Liverpool, Mr Beetham began to see opportunities all round him. He was told he "must be mad" when he decided to convert a former polytechnic library into luxury flats in the heart of the business quarter which became silent and deserted in the evenings after the offices shut.

It was a roaring success. And it gave the first clue, his father says, to Mr Beetham's singular talent. "He is a visionary," Hugh Frost says. "He sees potential where others can't." The story was repeated with an ugly Sixties office block opposite the Royal Liverpool Building. No fewer than 85 banks refused to back the £8m conversion. But he persisted and Beetham Plaza is now among the most desirable addresses in Liverpool with a Paul Heathcote restaurant on site.

Then he conceived the first Beetham Tower, on the site of Liverpool's former eye hospital in Old Hall Street. It set the model for a mixed development of hotel, offices and luxury penthouses. The city's great footballer Michael Owen bagged an early apartment.

The Liverpool tower is to be 300ft. Birmingham will be 400ft. And Manchester 520ft. Mr Frost has a prosaic explanation. "It maximises the intensity of development and people's access to city-centre amenities," he says.

His son offers a different explanation. He looks back to the sect into which he was born with its "strict and bizarre" regime. "Once you leave you are cut off and told you will be a failure. People have told me that's the reason I'm so successful. Maybe that is why I have strived for such high buildings."

The odds are that his next tower, in the capital, will be his highest. Father and son are not saying. But this is a pair for whom the sky is literally the limit. No doubt we will find out soon enough.

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