History of Brierley Hill

Local industry

Brierley Hill has relied on heavy industry for most of its history. Since the 1620’s it has played host to some of the countries biggest companies.

Brierley Hill’s industrial activity was so intensive it reminded people of the depiction of Hell

When the devil stood on Brierley Hill and all around him gazed he said, “I never more shall be at the fires of hell amazed!”

Marsh and Baxter’s in it’s hey day was the biggest meat processing plant in Europe. They installed the first refrigerating machine erected within the UK and then the first ammonia-refrigerating unit, which was even more reliable than its predecessor. As improvement followed improvement it meant the great curing houses were controlled at the right temperature all the year round. They made sausages, pork pies and cooked meats, and cured hams and bacon (up to 30,000 at any one time). The plant had the capacity to process thousands of livestock each week.

The former Round Oak steel works in particular was a huge local employer with over 10,000 people working on the site in its peak. While elements of the wider Black Country economy diversified into higher value machine tools and specialist metals and forging, Round Oak continued to produce steel.

The recession of the seventies and industrial shake out that resulted led to massive changes to the Black Country economy. Nationally the manufacturing sector was hit hard. On 8th December 1979 Marsh and Baxter’s closed its doors for the last time and the huge iconic building that once employed over 1500 people was demolished in June 1980. The Round Oak Steel Works closed its doors in December 1982 which meant the towns two major employers had folded within 2 years and within a traditional industrial area such as Brierley Hill this hit local residents hard. Whole families were suddenly out of work and the unemployment levels in Brierley Hill rocketed to over 25%. By 1984 the borough of Dudley had the highest increase in unemployment in the UK.

Enterprise Zones

In the early 1980s the Government was experimenting with ways it could stimulate regeneration in high unemployment areas. The main strategy was Enterprise Zones. An enterprise zone is an area where the payment of rates and certain taxes were waived and planning restrictions lifted to make the area more attractive to developers.

Initially Dudley Council supported an Enterprise Zone in Brierley Hill. Those who voted in favour of the zone thought it would bring industry back to the Borough. In hindsight this was perhaps a naïve assumption. Some local politicians were uneasy about the lifting of planning regulations and viewed it as an attack on the authority of local councils. In spite of these reservations two Enterprise Zones were created.

The first Enterprise Zone was established in 1981 on the land that the Round Oak Steal works were planning to tip waste on. This area included the Merry Hill Farm. The Round Oak Steal works had landscaped the banks along Pedmore Road with trees to mask the view of the tip it had created. The banks and trees were early casualties of the bulldozing clearance of the site, only to be replaced with new landscaping once the buildings had been erected.

A second enterprise zone was established in 1984 based on the area where Round Oak steel works and it satellite buildings once stood. These buildings were still in use during the development of the first Enterprise Zone but had since become abandoned.

The plots of land were purchased by the Brierley Hill born Richardson twins. The early units (where B&Q and MFI are now situated) were originally built as light industrial factory units. After failing to attract industry to the area, MFI approached the Richardson’s because they saw an opportunity to use the end unit as a flagship store. The Richardson’s agreed and this set the ball rolling. Allied Carpets and B&Q followed shortly afterwards. Seeing an opportunity for developing retail in the area the Richardson’s quickly changed their plans and the Merry Hill Shopping Centre was born.

Meanwhile the local political consensus broke. Many local politicians felt that shops at Merry Hill would not create new jobs, but would transfer them and shoppers from existing town centres in the borough.

As the centre grew and became more popular local residents had to suffer the traffic problems the development brought. At its worst traffic queues to get to Merry Hill stretched as far back as the Cattle Market in Hagley which is about six miles away. Because the main routes to Merry Hill became clogged, many drivers used side roads as rat runs to get to the shopping centre. This resulted in these roads being blocked too. By 1992 it took an hour and a half at weekends to drive from Stourbridge to Brierley Hill!

Many residents feared that more retail development would make matters worse. Local residents saw the new centre as a symbol of everything that was wrong with the area.
The site had previously provided generations of families with well paid jobs, and it was now perceived to have been replaced by ‘low value’ jobs, horrendous traffic and environmental problems.

Due to the continued problems that the centre caused, the relationship between the Council and the Richardson brothers became strained, which meant that these issues were not resolved.

The success of the Merry Hill Shopping Centre gave the Richardson’s the commercial confidence and money to move on to new schemes. As there were no real top class offices within the area the Richardson’s decided to build the Waterfront office development. This has always been viewed by those involved as successful and is now seen as an examples of commercial excellence, which other boroughs use, as a bench mark for their own developments.

In 1992 the Richardson’s sold the Merry Hill centre to a company called Mountleigh. Shortly after the purchase Mountleigh went into receivership. For 18 months the future of the centre looked uncertain. In 1993 Chelsfield plc a London based commercial property development company brought Merry Hill from the receivers.

New Owners – new approach

Chelsfield plc had developed an approach based on partnership working, through long term investment and belief that the areas they operated in would improve. By the time Chelsfield had bought Merry Hill from the receivers in 1993 Enterprise Zone status had run out and the site was once again under normal local authority planning rules and regulations.

Chelsfield ran a market research campaign to find out what shoppers thought of the Centre. This revealed that shoppers only stayed for very short periods of time compared to other similar centres. After receiving this information Chelsfield approached the council for planning permission to expand the centre by adding an upmarket department store and providing better refreshment and eating facilities for shoppers.

What was unusual about Chelsfield’s approach to planning was they had also offered a ‘win’ for the local council. They had originally agreed to contribute £24 million towards bringing the Midland Metro to the area, contribute towards road improvements to improved cycle and walk ways and to solve the traffic congestion experienced by the area. Finally they offered to pay for a new car park in Dudley town centre and the pedestrianisation of Stourbridge Town Centre. They felt that increasing the strength of the local towns would strengthen what was on offer in Brierley Hill and Dudley. By doing this Chelsfield broke down barriers – a strong partnership was born and the Council agreed to back Chelsfield’s proposals.

Much opposition was encountered when the plan became public. Surrounding Councils, who thought that Merry Hill had damaged their own town centres, joined together to fight the planning application.

Local residents were angry because they thought that traffic problems would get even worse if there was an increase in retail.

Due to all the media attention the application was called in by the Government. In the middle of 1997 the planning application was refused. This was disappointing as it meant the problems the centre was creating had no immediate solution.
On reflection regeneration experts now think that this was the best thing that could have happened as it forced all parties to look for a new and different solution to the problems.

The New Plan

During the enquiry into this planning application a senior government planner had walked along the canal towpath running between Mill Street and the Waterfront. He suggested that there was another way forward for Brierley Hill and its three unconnected parts - the High Street and its hinterland, the Waterfront and the Merry Hill Centre. By joining up these three it would be possible to create a “new town centre” and thus increase the opportunity to attract new businesses and increase the number of jobs within the area.
Plans for this ‘Greater Brierley Hill’ were then included in the Council’s Draft Unitary Development Plan. However, this approach failed as it was felt to allow the hotly disputed retail expansion in through the back door. Also, it was a top down approach, developed by planners and the developers without any real local community or wider public support.

However the seed had been sown. The cooperation between the Council, Chelsfield and local politicians continued and strengthened. From these new beginnings the regeneration plans developed. The High Street Traders Association, Dudley Council, Chelsfield and the Brierley Hill Community Forum worked together to establish the Brierley Hill Regeneration Partnership, which was launched formally in November 2002.

The Brierley Hill Regeneration Partnership’s plans involved road improvements, the introduction of a new tram system, facilities for relaxation and entertainment, public squares, over 325,000 sq ft of office space and 65,000 sq ft of retail expansion. Around 2,800 new homes would be built and more than 10,000 new jobs created.
This approach was based on the principle that all partners including Chelsfield, the local communities, Dudley Borough and the wider Black Country had to benefit from the regeneration of the area.

In 2005 Australian retail development company Westfield took ownership of the Merry Hill Centre. Since coming on board Westfield have honored all strategic and financial commitments began by Chelsfield, including the £36.5 million commitment to the Metro extension. Westfield work very closely with BHRP and are a fully active member of the BHRP board. With several other land owning interests in the Waterfront and the town as a whole Westfield will continue to play a positive, integrated role in the future growth of Brierley Hill.

The Black Country Study

At the same time the Black Country Authorities, Dudley, Sandwell, Walsall and Wolverhampton were working together to create a 30-year vision and spatial development plan for the sub-region. This approach was encouraged by the Government as part of a review of the West Midlands Regional Spatial Strategy.

This result is the Black Country Study – a blueprint for the regeneration of the Black Country for the next 30 years. It seeks to build on the sub-region’s strengths and address its weaknesses to ensure improvements in its economic performance. This will form the basis for improved quality of life for its residents.

The study addresses the major transport issues faced by the sub-region, the need for economic growth, the role of strategic and town centres, the quality and location of the significant new housing required to tackle outward migration, the need for significant environmental improvements, and the need to raise educational and skills if economic growth is to take place.

The Government sees the study as a ground-breaking approach to regional planning.
Within this work, a great deal of effort has been expended to demonstrate that the regeneration of Brierley Hill will benefit not just local residents but also those of the Borough of Dudley, the whole of the Black Country and even the West Midlands Region.

The Study has tested all the assumptions and future plans for Brierley Hill and placed them in a sub-regional context. It is anticipated that through this process the regeneration of Brierley Hill will gain widespread understanding and support. Public consultation on the Black Country Study was undertaken in the second half of 2005 and the final plan presented to the Secretary of State in September 2006.    

An independent inspector held a public enquiry into the Study, in January 2007. Following the enquiry the inspector issued recommendations approving the Study and recommending that Brierley Hill become a strategic town centre to allow it to grow to its full potential. Further progress was made in September 2007 when the Secretary of State broadly endorsed the findings of the inspector. BHRP and everyone with an interest in the town are now waiting for the final adoption of the RSS revision, expected early 2008.