Green dreams, empty coffers shape Nottingham’s rebuild

As city centre redevelopment plans rumble on, Siobhán McGuirk asks if the east Midlands city can put people before private interests

June 28, 2022 · 4 min read
An artist’s impression of the Broad Marsh project by Heatherwick Studio. Image: Heatherwick Studio / SWNS

Big changes are afoot – and underfoot – in Nottingham. Or at least they might be, if funds can be found to fulfil ambitious plans to transform an abandoned shopping centre into a pedestrian-friendly complex of housing, retail, and green public space.

It all sounds great in the press release. Big names attached to the recently announced council proposal include Thomas Heatherwick, the man behind the 2012 Olympic cauldron and the Coal Drops Yard redevelopment in King’s Cross.

Sustainable design features promise to help fulfil the city’s aspiration to be carbon-neutral by 2028 (though not as much as a rejected Liberal Democrat-Green Party counter-proposal would have done). Officials in other cities are keenly monitoring plans, anxious to deal with their own moribund malls.

The white elephant of the Broadmarsh shopping centre has not disappeared, however, instead entering the room as a large ‘£’. Vague talk of potential ‘partners’ is raising red flags, with Conservative councillors openly pushing for swift and increased private investment in the project, damning Labour for threadbare council coffers.

Yet the city only controls the project because of a private partner’s failings. It reluctantly inherited the partially demolished site when owners Intu went bust in 2020, leaving huge physical and financial holes in its wake. Intu’s ‘vision’ had included a new cinema, bowling alley, restaurants and shops – amenities that residents neither wanted nor were likely to use.

When the council took over, its ‘Big Conversation’ public consultation – prompted by grassroots groups such as Nottingham Climate Assembly – received over 3,000 submissions and 11,000 comments. Overwhelmingly, people wanted wildlife parks, affordable housing, access to heritage sites and opportunities for local businesses. The council, unlike Intu, had to listen.

Listening, however, is not enough. Nationwide, councils decimated by government cuts are beholden to the same leaders’ whims when allocating its ‘levelling up’ funds – grants even the Financial Times notes have been prioritised for ‘prosperous Tory-voting areas’.

Labour-controlled Nottingham City was unsuccessful in its 2021 bid for £20 million to progress the Broadmarsh project and refit its central library. The latter project is long underway but delayed by new financial pressures. Due to open last year, Nottingham will now be without its largest and most-used library until 2023, with three outer-city libraries threatened with closure in an attempt to generate funds.

The council’s interactive map of ‘major developments’ reveals numerous projects that are mainly or fully in private hands. Offices and residential blocks proliferate, notably student accommodation which generates income for private landlords without boosting council tax revenue.

Everywhere, city centre ‘retail destinations’ are emptying out – a long, slow process driven by online shopping and out-of-town industrial parks, accelerated by lockdowns and cost-of-living crisis. While residents dream of green space in which to commune, not spend, developers retain the upper hand – ever-ready to ‘help’ fill holes left gaping by private folly and state neglect.

Developments in Nottingham – my hometown – highlight the challenges of ‘urban regeneration’. Proposals that tick the right boxes slowly but surely unravel as work gets underway.

The proportion of affordable housing drops as contracts are ‘renegotiated’; ‘sustainability’ gives way to greenwash; the public becomes private. We must scrutinise plans every step of the way, and ‘build back better’ for people, not business.

Siobhán McGuirk is a Red Pepper co-editor and lecturer at Goldsmiths, University of London

This article first appeared in issue #235, Spring 2022, Educate, agitate, organise. Subscribe today to get your magazine delivered hot off the press!

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