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Leicester's City Challenge - An Essay by Lesley Gill

The decision to introduce City Challenge

In the mid 1960s the Inner City became the focus of attention for the Labour Party. People had been stripped out of Inner Cities but this was to change. There was a change in attitudes of development and society, and important changes in planning philosophy and practice. This was demonstrated at the end of the 1960s by a move from physical planning to social planning. The House Conditions Survey (1967) focused on and highlighted the poor condition of the Inner City. The Plowden Report (1967) identified education priority areas and the Urban Programme (1968) looked at the community as a whole, looking at the need for jobs and schools etc, leading to the Community Development Programme (1968). Peoples' opinions were being actively encouraged and the Public Participation Programme (1969) helped diffuse many difficult situations.

In 1979 Thatcher's government inherited a number of urban and regeneration policies which, although the 1977 White Paper had called for a more unified approach to urban policy, were modified into a 'patchwork quilt' of disparate initiatives (Shaw & Robinson, 1998) to fit the Conservative Party's political and ideological framework. The 'flagships' of these 1980s initiatives were the Urban Development Corporations (UDCs), which attracted much criticism for being too focused on building regeneration, ignoring the social dimension by failing to address a wider raft of policy issues such as education, training, housing, transport and technological change and often exacerbating the alienation of local communities. It was widely agreed that Urban Policy throughout the 1980s was primarily directed towards capital investment (Lawless, 1996). The results of this investment, the 'islands of renewal in seas of decay' spawned a series of 'new urban experiments' (Nevin, Loftman & Beazley, 1997) in order to regenerate neighbouring areas left behind by the so called 'spectacular' developments by the UDCs. City Challenge was one such 'experiment'.

At this stage, even Labour councils were pursuing the same broad urban regeneration objectives as central government and, albeit with many safeguards, more responsibility for regeneration was returned to local authorities. City Challenge epitomised the 'total approach' i.e. involvement and investment from the private sector, the voluntary sector and the local community, indeed, genuine involvement of all parties concerned had to be clearly demonstrated as part of any bid structure. This approach also addressed many hitherto forgotten social issues of urban policy such as educational and health inequalities, social exclusion and low esteem and disadvantage among the residents of socially excluded areas (Shaw & Robinson, 1998).

Leicester City Challenge

The Leicester City Challenge was launched in April 1993 having successfully bid against 53 other areas for £37.5 million of Government funding, and then raising a further £150 million additional investment of public and private funding. It promised to improve the quality of life of the people who lived in, worked in or visited the area by creating new homes and jobs, increasing open space and access to training, improving community facilities and making the area a greener and more pleasant place to live.

The Challenge Area

The Challenge Area had to be one continuous area ideally offering a large development opportunity with some buildings in need of refurbishment and a run- down council estate. The involvement of academic and Health Authority sites was seen as an 'added bonus'. Bede Island and South West Inner Leicester fitted the bill perfectly having:

The Challenge Aims and Objectives

City Challenge was just part, albeit a major part, of an overall plan to transform Leicester into a major European city with internationally recognised Environment City status, lasting racial harmony and the growing significance of its academic establishments. Whereas other bids lacked clear aims, Leicester was crystal clear about where it wanted to be and what it wanted to do.

Aims of Leicester City Challenge

  1. A complete redevelopment of the old Pex building and site
  2. A complete redevelopment of the Cattle Market site
  3. To build homes, for the first time, on the southern part of the Bede Island site
  4. To provide a five acre public park in the centre of the same site
  5. To build a high quality business/science park on the northern part of the site
  6. Reclaim the Freeman's Wharf site, with construction of the first phase of its redevelopment

(Leicester's City Challenge, Five Year Action Plan, 1996)

Along with the aims Leicester identified five key themes that would make its bid stand out from the others and give it a distinctive character:

  1. Improving the environment - linked to being the country's first Environment City
  2. Developing the local economy by assisting business locally, creating new jobs and providing training opportunities.
  3. Strengthening the community and in particular improving safety and security.
  4. Meeting the needs of ethnic minority groups.
  5. Encouraging tourism.

(Leicester's City Challenge Proposals, May 1992)

Out of these aims and themes came a Partnership Mission Statement which stated what the partners were working towards and was felt to represent the needs of the people who actually lived in, worked in and visited the Challenge area:

Partnership Mission Statement

To achieve by March 1998, sustainable improvement in the physical, economic and social environment of the City Challenge and linked areas; improving quality of life for the people who live in, work in and visit the area; creating a model for future regeneration.

(Leicester City Challenge Ltd, Annual Report 1994-1995)

The phrase 'Partnership and Commitment' was used at every opportunity. Leicester's City Challenge was very keen to be seen to be listening to the 'local voice' and the Bede Island Community Association (BICA) was formed having affiliation to 60 local groups, therefore encompassing many different viewpoints, interest groups and backgrounds ensuring that local people were involved at every stage. Regular meetings were held and were well attended.

Nine Strategic Objectives (SOs) were set through consultation with all directly concerned with achieving and sustaining the Mission Statement (see table below).

Strategic Objectives for Leicester City Challenge

  1. Environment: to create a better environment for people living in, working in and visiting the area, to increase awareness of the environment and to ensure that all developments are environmentally sound
  2. Homes: to provide, in co-operation with housing associations and private developers, new homes and to improve existing houses
  3. People: to ensure the fullest community participation in all City Challenge projects, to improve the health and well-being of all residents of the bid area, to improve opportunities and facilities for local ethnic communities and to stimulate self-help
  4. Safety: to reduce crime and the fear of crime for local residents and businesses by improving community safety and security throughout the bid area
  5. Opportunity: to transform the waterside areas of the City Challenge bid area through a series of flagship schemes which will in turn act as catalysts for smaller development projects
  6. Work: to develop and stimulate the local economy by attracting investment, assisting local businesses, improving skill levels and access to employment opportunities and to create new jobs
  7. Visitors: to develop tourism, recreation and arts facilities within the bid area for the benefit of residents and visitors
  8. Access: to improve access to, from and within the area through an integrated approach to transport, improving public transport, road infrastructure, pedestrian and cycleways, pollution control and reduction of traffic impact
  9. Education: to raise the level of educational achievements by using the local community and businesses with the City Challenge area as a stimulus to, and resources for, learning.

(Leicester's City Challenge Vision, p.12)

Although certain projects had to be modified, and some were delayed, those involved in City Challenge considered it to be a resounding success. There were valuable lessons learned and The Challenger (Spring 1998) wrote of "recent debate regarding the possibility of continuing to use practical experience of regeneration gained during City Challenge to identify and develop other opportunities for renewal in the city" (p.11). The same publication also stated that "Investment in Leicester won't stop with the end of City Challenge" (p.13).

Bede Island

A 32 hectare (26 acre) site situated in the centre of the City Challenge area containing 25 percent of the derelict land in the city, considered to be a major area of urban decline at the very heart of the city (see figure 2.1.i showing area five is Bede Island and area two is Westbridge Place); its riverside location and close proximity to the city centre and the De Montfort University, meant the site had significant potential for redevelopment. The river and canal link had long been regarded as barriers rather than bridges and a key aim was to unlock the area's leisure and tourism potential along the waterfront. Bordered by Eastern Boulevard which contained many old factories that could be converted/refurbished to residential use, Bede Island, and particularly Bede Island North, was considered to be pivotal to the City Challenge initiative.

Proposed City Challenge Funded Projects Within Bede Island Area:

Of the 68 projects to be undertaken within the auspice of the City Challenge, 25 took place on Bede Island North plus three complimentary projects. There were also a number of projects outside the study area but that impacted directly upon the community to be residing there. Appendix One lists all the projects applicable to Bede Island.

Effectiveness of Policies and Initiatives

By the end of the City Challenge five year period (Spring 1998) although some initiatives had not secured alternative funding to enable them to continue, e.g. the International Youth House, and certain initiatives had been modified en route e.g. the usage of the old Pex Building, all nine SOs had been achieved to a high degree where they applied to Bede Island North and Westbridge Place. Cllr Peter Soulsby, Chair of Leicester City Challenge Limited considered Bede Island North to be the flagship of the entire scheme.

The following section of this report concentrates on the four SOs that had particular relevance to Bede Island. These are Environment SO 1, Homes SO 2, Work SO 6 and Visitors SO 7.

On 28 March 2002 Bede Island was the subject of a series of observations (see Appendices 2 and 3), the results of which provide much of the qualitative and quantitative information included in the report below. As this initial visit was during the Easter Vacation period, a second visit took place on 10 April 2002 which confirmed earlier indications that the students have a high degree of impact, both positive and negative, on Bede Island and its immediate vicinity.

Environmental Improvements

Part of the vision of City Challenge was to address full face the environment issues affecting this area. In order to turn Bede Island into an area which would "embody the hopes and aspirations of a city to see the people living, working and relaxing in its midst around the clock" (Year 5 Action Plan p.12) it was acknowledged that there were a number of serious environmental problems to overcome: a poor environment with land contamination and pollution, traffic problems, a poor image and environment of the river and canal, outdated buildings and a lack of green and open space.

The Park is central to the image of Bede Island North. On the day the initial observations were taken (Easter Thursday, warm and sunny) the park was being used by children playing and people using all the footpaths. There is a lot of seating, both around the main park area and in small gated sitting areas. The seating was not being used on the day in question which, according to a local resident, was because the De Montfort University students were on holiday and it is normally they who use the seats. On the second visit the open space was being used by students playing football and relaxing on the grass. One major concern noted was the amount of litter. The litter observed in the park, open spaces, walkways and piazza was excessive. Litter bins, although plentiful, were overflowing. The overall appearance of the area was therefore spoiled. According to a local primary school teacher it is not unusual for children to report finding used syringes on the park. A further negative point was that although there are trees along the Old River Soar, the park area, which measures 1.9 hectares, is virtually devoid of shrubs and extremely exposed.

Pollution and Contaminated Land

In January 1997 the site was confirmed and certified to be decontaminated (Annual Review: Report of the year 1996/97, p.8). The footpath between Briton Street and Mill Lane (which crosses decontaminated land) is freely accessible, well lit and planted with an avenue of trees. Contamination was a consideration when planting and thus tree pits were designed accordingly, the trees have now survived for four years which can be taken as a measure that the land has remained free of contamination.

Reducing pollution from traffic was a key issue; Western Boulevard has been narrowed, and mini-roundabouts and traffic lights created to slow down and reduce through traffic. However the Business Park has meant more traffic requiring access. The walkways/cycleways and "Safer Routes to School" scheme provides traffic-free options.

Poor Image and Environment of River and Canal

The riverbank and towpath, particularly along the 'Mile Strait' had a poor image. It was felt to be an unsafe area. The canal has been dredged of rubbish and weeds and now has a clean appearance. The banks have been re-turfed and replanted, the towpath relaid. New seating and railings further enhance its appearance. The image is now extremely attractive and it was being used and enjoyed by many people on both the observation visits.

Outdated Buildings

On Bede Island North only one original building was left standing, the Pump House, now owned by Everards Brewery who spent £2 million on its refurbishment into a very successful pub. Along Eastern Boulevard many old industrial buildings were renovated and converted into flats and student accomodation. The old Pex building, now Westbridge Place, has been renovated to a very high standard and is fully occupied by the Land Registry. Although the aims to provide exhibition space and twelve new business units with living accommodation over have not been achieved, the target for the creation of 300 jobs has been exceeded and the building itself is extremely attractive and enhances the waterside.


The aim was to provide 150 new good quality homes with a range of tenure affording accommodation with between two and five bedrooms, safe access, designated parking areas and a small garden. There was also to be provision for families with special needs and student accommodation.

The first phase of building provided 71 family homes built to the above specification. These properties are now approximately four years old and appear to be in good repair although the whole development is devoid of greenery. There is a broad ethnic mix of occupants.

The properties bordering the park are owned by Leicester Housing Association for General Needs Housing. The Bethany Project for homeless women is in this section. There is a day nursery also. The Riverside flats on Western Boulevard, originally intended for private ownership, are now owned by Riverside Midlands Housing Association providing accommodation for families needing safe housing (CafCass). There is a high proportion of families with special needs in this small area, and domestic affrays are a regular occurrence. According to local residents, there is also a major problem with prostitution and drug dealing in this particular area.

Waterway Gardens, the second phase of 116 flats and houses at the Upperton Road end completed in 2000, owned by Derwent Housing Association, currently being marketed as rental properties for business people. When contacted, the sales office emphasised the division between these properties and those owned by the Leicester Housing Association. The site includes 15 six bedroomed student houses although the main body of student housing is on the other side of the canal, around Eastern Boulevard.

The objectives as set out in the original plan have been achieved, however the eclectic mix of people in such a small area appears to be creating its own set of social problems. These problems have had a direct impact on the aim to include private ownership in the range of tenure, which has not been successful.

Employment & Office Development

The aim of SO 6 was that the city's eroded manufacturing base would be replaced by new businesses supported by modern technology and information systems in a purpose built Science and Business Park on Bede Island, a target was set that 25 percent local labour to be recruited into the new jobs, to provide training to enable people to take up new opportunities, to create 1000 new jobs in total and to ensure that local people are kept informed of opportunities.

The Science and Business Park became the Bede Island Business Park. An oasis of bright extremely modern standardised buildings contrasting with the old renovated buildings. The Science element was developed away from this site, on the campus of the University of Leicester.

According to the Annual Review 1996/97 (p.11) the target of 25 per cent local labour recruited into the new jobs was met and exceeded. How many new jobs were created could not be determined from these observations, however it is obvious that there are many more jobs now than before City Challenge. The Bede Island Community Association was set up to provide the link between the community and the various City Challenge projects. It ensures that the aim of keeping local people informed of opportunities is met. Although the majority of companies are national, there are a small number of local enterprises eg. BI IT Services which set up in 1998 to provide computer support services to voluntary and community groups.

The Business Park, currently 80 percent completed, has one remaining unoccupied unit. (See figure 2.5.ii). All the companies are national with the exception of Bland Bankart which is Leicester based; all are service companies. There has therefore been diversification from the traditional economic base, however, there is now total dependence on the service sector for employment.

Retail Provision

The island itself has very few shops; around the plaza are a pharmacy, an off-licence (including general provisions) and three fast food outlets. There is no parking provision although accessibility is good on foot or cycle. The shops are not particularly attractive and would not attract passing trade. Narborough Road is within walking distance and has a wide range of shops and Safeways at the Cattle Market is also relatively easily accessible.

Entertainment Facilities

The City Challenge project aimed to unlock the waterfront's leisure and tourism potential; to generate more opportunities for leisure and tourism which will in turn generate more employment opportunities. The whole waterside area is very attractive with plazas, piazzas, walkways, bars and restaurants and a new footbridge leading to the Newarke Castle Gardens. It is now a thriving, vibrant area that attracts people from outside the locality and city.

What Next?

Undeveloped Land

It was noted that there were still pockets of undeveloped land on Bede Island North particularly around the Business Park, and the Great Central Railway Bridge.

The Leicester Mercury on 16 April 2002 headlined "£105m VISION" as it introduced a ten year plan led by De Montfort University to develop the land between the canal and the University continuing what City Challenge started.

Bede Island South

Bede Island South, which disappeared from City Challenge at the very beginning due to numerous problems, has emerged triumphant, claiming to be set to become 'Leicester's Docklands' (see figure 2.8.2.i). The Marina which appeared on the first draft of the bid may eventually see the light of day! However, it looks as though the ride will be a rough one as although the Leicester Regeneration Company is hailing the scheme as 'exciting' and 'high-quality', the residents' group Offside call it 'horrendous'.

Overall Conclusions

In the final analysis the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (DETR) felt City Challenge "was a ground breaking and very successful programme, which has provided the basis for a step change in regeneration policy. Many of its features have been incorporated into subsequent regeneration and area-based programmes. It provides important lessons for current and future regeneration activity." (DETR 1999, City Challenge - Final National Evaluation, p.8).

There were 31 City Challenge Partnerships which ran in deprived urban areas between 1992 and 1998. Over £240m was spent in each area. For every £1 of expenditure by City Challenge pulled in a further £3.78 of private sector funding and £1.45 from other public sector partners. This was considered to be a very strong achievement. Considerable credit was given to the private sector funding which was felt to be crucial in creating the conditions for sustainable regeneration.

The DETR's final evaluation (1999) identified seven overall key findings emerging from the evaluation that were vital to the success of local regeneration:

  1. Getting the local strategy right
  2. Getting the right people and leadership
  3. Involving the communityWorking with Partners
  4. Getting the right projects and the right project mix
  5. Effective delivery and forward planning
  6. Creating a Programme infrastructure that assists partnerships to deliver local regeneration

At local level the main factors that influenced performance were:

The DETR's interim evaluation (1996) had identified that City Challenge was encouraging "cross-sectoral understanding (and) stimulates more corporate working within local authorities. Partnership at programme and project level is bringing new alliances in other areas" (pp.1-2). Lawless (1996) confirmed this view. He considered that looking at evidence from many cities, the experience of City Challenge has created sustainable and equitable partnerships among key urban actors and agencies.

Broadly it was felt that all the Government's aims for the Programme were met. However, at a local level there were important concerns.

Leicester City Challenge Conclusions

Inevitably it was not possible for Leicester City Challenge to address all of the problems of the area and nor was it intended to do so, and like with many other City Challenges, much was left unfinished at the end of the five year term. Certain key projects, Bede Island North being one, were to be completed. John Nicholls, the Midland Director of English Partnerships however considered Bede Island North to be "one of the best urban regeneration sites in the country" (Meeting the Challenge, Jan 1996). Leicester's City Challenge took on an area in desperate need and gave it a new image and focus. That work continues today.

Some people felt let down; Martin Gage, Project Manager of BICA, stated that at the end of City Challenge "there is no doubt the community has gained much. However, many people remain disappointed". (Challenge, Spring 1998, p.3). ECOTEC's Final Evaluation of Leicester City Challenge (2001) found that "some of the more fundamental problems of the area identified in the baseline still exist and have worsened" (p.VI). Lawless (1996) felt that City Challenge creates well published winners but a larger number of losers; and sectorally there is considerable evidence to suggest that the disadvantaged have not gained overall from many urban initiatives.

Former Chief Executive of City Challenge summed up the view of many, "We never pretended we had delivered the whole vision but we do claim that Leicester has developed more of the vision than most City Challenge areas and at the end of the day we are being held up by agencies such as English Partnerships as a model of good practice for the future." (Leicester Mercury, 12 March 1999, p.17).

Appendix 1 - City Challenge Projects

City Challenge funded projects within Bede Island North:


ENV Environmental
HO Housing
EMC Ethnic Minority Children
YCH Youth Challenge
MS Milestone
TO Tourism
TR Transport

MS 28 Bede Island North Science Park
MS 30 Bede Island North Park
MS 27 Bede Island North acquisition and reclamation
MS 29 Bede Island North Housing development

HO 11 Emmaus Court (Bethany)

YCH 22 Youth House

ENV 2 Network of open spaces

TO 43 Leicester Rowing Club

TR 43 Transport consultation
TR 43 Road improvements
TR 43 Traffic calming
TR 43 Residents parking
TR 43 Cycle ways / footpaths

Complementary projects within Bede Island area:

TR 43 Highway improvements
TR 43 Safer routes to school
TR 43 Junction improvements

City Challenge funded projects within the immediate vicinity of Bede Island and having direct impact on the Bede Island community:

EMC 15 East West Project
EMC 16 Youth provision

Complimentary projects within the immediate vicinity of Bede Island:

HO 12 Student housing
HO 13 Student housing

ENV 5 Creation of Noise Abatement Zone
ENV 5 Kerbside recycling


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