Star Interview: ‘Channel 4 at Park Hill would be great – and I’d love to do more in Sheffield’: Urban Splash chief on 25 years of regeneration

Tom Bloxham
Tom Bloxham

“It’ll never work,” reads the slogan on a badge pinned to the lapel of Tom Bloxham’s workwear jacket.

The name of an exhibition surveying 25 years of Urban Splash, the development firm he founded, it’s a phrase Tom has heard repeatedly when embarking on schemes – the most prominent and ambitious of which is the huge regeneration of Sheffield’s Park Hill estate.

Reviving the largest listed structure in Europe has taken much longer than first thought – more than a decade and counting – and the ongoing job has evolved.

Gone is the idea of revamping the Brutalist, concrete building to simply provide new apartments, workspaces and retail; now student flats and a major arts venue have been added to the mix.

And Park Hill could become home to another innovative occupier. Last week it emerged Sheffield is offering Channel 4 a space at the site as part of its bid to attract the broadcaster, which is to open ‘creative hubs’ and newsrooms around the country to satisfy Government demands to increase its presence outside London.

The thought seems to have occurred late in the day, and two other city centre locations are up for consideration.

“We’ve been very loosely involved,” says Tom, ordering an espresso at South Street Kitchen, the vegetarian café fast becoming a lunchtime destination since it launched last month at the estate’s first completed phase.

The first he heard of it was in a phone call from Richard Caborn, the former Sheffield MP and ex-sports minister who is leading the bid.

“He said ‘I think Park Hill is the sort of building Channel 4 want to go in, can we use it as a cover story?’ I said ‘Of course you can, it would be great’. We’re at the very early stages. What’s interesting, though, is for the first time Sheffield is using Park Hill as a positive and a draw into the city.”

Tom already has ideas as to where the TV channel could be accommodated. “There’s still two buildings which are unaccounted for and we’ve purposely left them fluid to see what happens. I would have thought they’d go on the lower floors – a lot of those are already filled with studios and office space. That’s a possibility. Or a new build.”

It is a gamble, but Urban Splash has never been afraid of going out on a limb. The firm has invested more than £1bn in projects, starting by creating apartments in old industrial buildings in Manchester and Liverpool, then branching out into ever more bold ventures, from a remarkable overhaul of the Midland Hotel in Morecambe – an Art Deco gem that was left to crumble on the North West coast – to restorations of the Royal William Yard, a Grade I-listed ex-Naval base in Plymouth, Lister Mills in Bradford and part of Saxton Gardens in Leeds.

Defying predictions of failure seems to spur Tom on. “It’s one thing us just talking about it – some people believe us, some don’t,” he says, explaining his approach. “But when we make it real, then things start to happen.”

It is a warm, sunny day, and Tom’s wearing all black, including a scarf and a corduroy trilby, but he doesn’t look flustered – quite the opposite, in fact. He’s reputed to own 100 hats – is this true?

“It sounds a bit extravagant, like Imelda Marcos. I’ve never counted them. I like to buy hats when I go on holiday and lots of my friends buy them for me. My grandfather told me, ‘If you want to get ahead get a hat’, so I listened to him.”

Park Hill, he thinks, has reached a ‘tipping point’. “From the first day I saw it, I thought it had real potential. It was just unappreciated. It was like Marmite, I guess, in Sheffield – a few loved it, most hated it. There was a consensus that it should never have been listed, and should have been knocked down. In my lifetime, I remember when I was a young kid people were demolishing Victorian mansions because they had draughty windows, bad electrics and rising damp. You’d never dream of doing it today. Now people are knocking down some very good 1960s buildings.”

Tom doesn’t solely admire Park Hill for its distinctive style – there’s the view, for one thing, and the way it manages to maintain the same level roof line despite the topography of its elevated position. “Every flat is a duplex, double aspect, with a south-facing balcony which gets the sun.”

The place has been animated with a community of residents, a free nursery for children and creative companies like Warp Films.

“The transformation is amazing. But none of that’s come about by chance. We had a big vision. The easiest analogy is the Barbican, that’s now one of the most desirable places to live in London.”

Urban Splash could have walked away from the whole endeavour when the recession hit in 2008, harming progress. But that would have gone against the grain for Tom, who toughed it out, even managing to complete a warehouse conversion in Manchester during the worst of the slump.

“Most people in our situation did throw the keys back. It’s not our style. We believe it’s worth fighting for.”

Tom, aged 54, was born in Fleet, Lincolnshire, and started his career in business by selling fire extinguishers door-to-door, ‘commission only’. Potential customers were regularly confronted by Tom setting fire to his briefcase, then putting it out, in a reckless sales pitch.

He moved to Manchester in the 1980s to study politics and history at university, and made money by selling posters in Afflecks Palace, the city’s indie emporium. He was the first to sign a licensed poster deal with Happy Mondays and the Stone Roses, key bands of the ‘Madchester’ era.

“I’m pretty unemployable,” he claims. “I’ve always wanted to do my own thing.”

Tom established and sold a radio station, Crash FM, and did the same with the Baa Bar chain, which made an eight-figure sum.

In 1993 he met architect Jonathan Falkingham; acting on a shared feeling that old, empty buildings were perfect homes for creative entrepreneurs, they launched Urban Splash with a mixed-use scheme, Concert Square in Liverpool.

“It was literally two men in a shed. We did one project to see what happened, and 25 years later we’re still here. When I was a kid I thought politics could change the world; it probably still can, but as I got older I thought you’re better off trying to do something physical.”

Tom champions culture, acting as a trustee of the Tate galleries and chair of the Manchester International Festival, and was made an MBE in 1999.

“When we started, ‘urban’ was a dirty world – urban decay, urban blight. Then we were told cities would disappear because everybody would be working on the internet. Rubbish. The reason cities have survived is they’re about random meetings between individuals. You meet people, you fall in love, start businesses up...”

Married to jewellery designer Jo, with two children, he lives the life he sells – home is a stylish apartment in Castlefield, Manchester, and he has residences abroad.

Tom is fond of reciting a quote from ancient Greece: “We will leave this city not less but greater, better and more beautiful than it was left to us”.

Leaving Sheffield, though? Hopefully the trials of Park Hill haven’t put him off working locally again?

“We’d love to do more in Sheffield,” he says.

Urban Splash has begun manufacturing modular housing, properties built in sections off-site for assembly on plots of land, and bought its own factory in the East Midlands earlier this year.

“It’s like Grand Designs, you can design your own house on a budget. It’s not all gone smoothly, but we’re getting there.”

Two modular schemes in Greater Manchester are completely full, which suggests people are all in favour. “We’ve not a site yet in Sheffield but hopefully someone can find us one. We want to be building these all across the country.”

It’ll Never Work is running at RIBA North in Liverpool until June 16, and is coming to Sheffield soon. “It makes me feel old,” says Tom. “And proud, and a bit nostalgic.”

‘I believe in council housing and want to reinvent it’

The perceived rights and wrongs of the Park Hill redevelopment are likely to be rehearsed again when a musical telling the estate’s story is staged at The Crucible next year.

Singer-songwriter Richard Hawley is writing the score for Standing At The Sky’s Edge, while elsewhere the writer Owen Hatherley has claimed the scheme is a ‘political scandal, a public asset transferred to private profit at great public expense.’

“As Oscar Wilde said, the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about,” says Tom Bloxham. “I love the way Park Hill was built, and I’ve got sympathy with people who look back on that with fond nostalgia. I believe in council housing and want to reinvent it. The fact of the matter was, when we came it was an absolute tip. Nobody wanted to live there, the only people who did had no choice, and it was a pretty dangerous, depressing place to live. Something had to happen. If the council had their way, they would probably have demolished it.”

Existing residents were offered new flats ‘on the same terms’, and Help to Buy loans were available, as well as the option of shared ownership. Two-bedroom homes were sold outright for £140,000.

“For almost anybody in work they’re relatively affordable. Are we talking about political dogma, that anything from the private sector is bad and the public sector is good? I disagree with that. But whatever you think about it, debate is great. If it starts a new set of municipal housing, I’m all for that and we’d love to be involved in those discussions.”