It was a delight to meet Laura Nolan of The Nuthouse Bakery at the Secret Coffee Club taster event on Wednesday (3rd December).
Hailing from Rhodesia, Laura has moved from the casino industry and established her own business making gorgeous cakes: cupcakes, wedding cakes, cutting cakes…every type imaginable.
She’s even worked hard at establishing a new business giving classes and one-to-one tutorials for aspiring Great British Bake Off winners. Judging by the delights she had on sale on Wednesday I’m sure her courses would be worth every penny.
There was something else she said which captured my attention.
A great place to live
Laura lives in a terraced house in new homes behind the Merry Hill centre and adjacent to the Pedmore Road. She told me that after initially renting she had bought the property and thought it was a great place to live. It is just across the road from Saltwell’s Nature reserve, has all the facilities of Merry Hill within easy strolling distance, and she loves walking along the canal at The Waterfront. Many of her neighbours work at the shopping centre and love their homes too.
It was music to my ears.
In 2003 the whole of Brierley Hill was placed in a planning ‘white zone’ – ie subject to national planning rules but not local plans – until the future of Merry Hill was determined. Retail development was prohibited.
Chelsfield, inspired by David Lock, had embarked on a plan to unite Merry Hill, Brierley Hill Town Centre and The Waterfront into a new united town with a mix of facilities to be expected in a traditional town: homes, leisure facilites, offices and a range of other mixed uses. Against a great deal of scepticism a deal had been done with Selbourne Homes to develop land adjacent to the Pedmore Road for houses.
The planning application for the homes had been submitted in the days when I was the leader of Dudley Council.
Members of the planning committee were informally telling me that they were minded to turn down the plans as they would never sell as the homes didn’t all have gardens and no-one would buy a home that close to the Merry Hill Centre. I had to explain that whether they would sell or not was not for the planners to take into consideration. That was a risk for the developer. What the planning committee had to decide was whether the homes complied with planning legislation. They did. The planning application was duly passed.
What happened next was extraordinary.
The homes were all sold before they were even finished building. Contrary to the urban myth at the time, they weren’t all bought up by Chelsfield, Westfield and other big business. On the contrary it was small investors who wanted to live there.
Gavin Warr, proprietor of Selbourne Homes who developed the site, told me that a plumber working on the site bought one to live in. He told an electrician who also bought one, and bought one to rent out.
The anecdotes were there.
Then, now in the role as CEO of Brierley Hill Regeneration Partnership (BHRP), whenever I attended meetings I was told more anecdotes about what a great place it was to live. This needed exploring and so BHRP commissioned a report to try and get some systematic evidence of what was actually happening. You can read the report by Ecotec below.
The key points were that the majority of purchasers were under the age of 34, and 63% had incomes of over £25,000 a year. 70% were in the AB social group which is significantly under-represented in the Black County. 53% expected to still be living in Dudley Borough in ten years time.
Top reasons for living next to Merry Hill
The top three reasons for choosing to live at Merry Hill were: the homes were good value for money (even though the price was above the borough average); to be near their place of work; and to be near the leisure facilities of Merry Hill and The Waterfront.
At that time (2006) this was very exciting. The Black Country councils were forming their vision for the future of the area – a future which needed to reduce reliance on travelling to work, which kept more high earners living in the borough instead of moving out, and provided more high density homes to meet the increasing demands of a growing population.
The planning battle
Major strategic plans have to be examined in public by planning inspectors to make sure that the comply with legislation and meet the demands of the area’s residents.
The Black Country strategic went to examination in public in January 2007. This was very important for Brierley Hill, as success would set the planning context upon which the town could be designated as a strategic centre, and the potential job creating expansion of Merry Hill could take place.
It was a thrill when towards the end of the tribunal one of the inspectors held up a copy of the Ecotec report and, referring to how sustainable towns can be developed, said “…we’ve been to Brierley Hill, we’ve seen the new homes there, this is an example to everyone of how new homes can be built”.
Brierley Hill was granted strategic centre status and now awaits the investment envisioned. The new homes were a key part in arguing that an out of town shopping centre could be turned into a ‘proper’ functioning mixed town.
Time for review?
Interestingly though, Laura also indicated that although the houses were popular, the flats were less so. Perhaps it’s time for a new study?
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