When the lights go out

Recently, there has been some debate locally about reclamation of former industrial sites, and the role of developers and local government. In all the cant and bluster, it’s often lost that most of these projects are hugely successful and take an awful lot of work. Andy Dennis, reader and long time contributor to the Brownhills Blog, was for many years a council officer at Walsall involved with regeneration and town planning. Several months ago, Andy offered to write a piece on how the Reedswood site, in North Walsall, was redeveloped.

Sadly, due to time pressures, that piece has sat in my mailbox for eight weeks waiting for me to compile a post, for which I heartily apologise to Andy. Keeping this blog running sometimes is a challenge, and long involved posts often get neglected for a while. Again, my apologies.

Birchills, or Reedswood power station in 1978. Picture taken from Peter Barker's Flickr photo stream.

Reedswood was the site of Walsall’s very own power station. Wedged into land between Birchills, Reedsword Park and The Beechdale, it generated electricity for about 70 years over the course of two separate stations. Wikipedia has this to say on the station’s history:

The first power station on the site was built for Walsall Corporation. Work began in 1914, and electricity was being generated by 1916, although the project was not officially completed until 1922. Cooling water was supplied by a pumping station on the Anson Branch canal, equipped with two Mather and Platt pumps capable of delivering 10.6 million gallons (48 Megalitres) per day. Spent water was discharged into the Wyrley and Essington Canal. Ownership of the station passed to the West Midlands Joint Electricity Authority in 1927, and then to the British Electricity Authority following nationalisation in 1948.

Construction of a second station, Walsall B, began soon after nationalisation. The station was officially opened on 30 September 1949. Comprising six cooling towers and six chimneys, the station burned ‘slack’ coal, which consisted of fragments of coal and coal dust. Coal was delivered by road, rail and canal. Water from the canal was used for cooling. The station closed in October 1982 after 33 years in use, and the stub of railway serving it was closed at the same time. The power station was closed as it was no longer deemed to be efficient.

It stood dormant for nearly five years afterwards, finally being demolished in March 1987.

Andy has written a fascinating piece which I welcome, and I encourage him, as I hope readers will too, to write about the reclamation itself. I promise not to leave that one in the inbox for eight weeks maturing…

It’s good to get the opposite side of things out into the public domain, and whilst developers and commercial interests are often seen as the villains – I’ve not been happy with Parkhill Reclamation over a number of things, mainly the Ryders Mere development proposals – one cannot deny the success of the Reedswood project and the necessity in the current climate to involve such companies in large reclamation projects.

Walsall Power Station cooling towers seen from junction 10 (M6) plus an ex Kingston Upon Hull Atlantean 1975

Walsall Power Station cooling towers seen from junction 10 (M6) in 1975. Photo taken from Walsall1955's Flickr photo stream.

Andy writes:

As promised, a few words about Reedswood. It seems rather superficial to me, but when you are inside the wood the trees can be hard to see! I’ve had a go at something about the reclamation and development phases, but it’s not yet ready for sharing. What follows is all public knowledge. There may be some minor inaccuracies arising from the normal human frailties and using round numbers, for which I apologise, but I’m sure there is nothing spectacularly wrong.

Walsall Power Station

The power station site in dereliction, and being demolished in 1987. Image taken from My Old Scanned Pics Flickr photo stream.

These are simply recollections of a former Council officer who was heavily involved. I make no claim to speak for anyone but myself.

City Challenge

In the early 1990s, the Government allocated around £1 billion towards a programme of regeneration schemes labelled City Challenge. Councils in the major urban areas were invited to form local partnerships and bid for a share. These “beauty contests” never seemed to me a fair approach, not least because of the heavy investment of time and money made by the losers, but at least in this case Walsall was one of 20 successful applicants in Round 2. The 20 were chosen to show that many types of deprivation could be tackled by the ability of these local partnerships to create imaginative plans quickly.

The key advantage, however, was simply that funding was guaranteed for 5 years and could support even longer running projects. Walsall had previously done relatively well out of Derelict Land Grant, but, as I recall, the risk in embarking on more difficult projects was that obtaining grant for year 1 was no guarantee that funding would continue for subsequent years. This led to projects being abandoned after after 1 year of a 3 year programme. Derelict land reclamation is often a time consuming and expensive business! Reedswood would take 28 months and cost about £15 million.

Walsall’s Bid

Briefly, the City Challenge bid required bringing together people who had never worked together, including some previously unknown, appoint people to oversee the bid process, and in about 6 or 7 months draw up a fully costed business case to spend in the next 5 years more than £150 million on a diverse range of regeneration projects. In addition, the winners would be announced in February with work to commence in April 1993. None of Walsall’s team had done anything like this before.

The basics of City Challenge were that the Government would provide £7.5 million per year for 5 years to contribute to projects that would make a major difference to an area, attract private sector investment, create jobs, and establish working relationships that would continue into the future. Together with other projects this led to well above £50 million public funding coming Walsall’s way.

The overall bid had to be for one area, not scattered all over the borough. The obvious targets were derelict sites at Pleck Gasworks (heavy metal contamination), Town Wharf (abandoned limestone workings) and Reedswood (derelict power station site). The bid was designed around these 3 “flagship” schemes with the canal as a spine. There was never any prospect of these sites being redeveloped by private enterprise alone.

Walsall Town View

The behemoth of industrial architecture dominated the local skyline for years. I can remember looking at it from Shire Oak. Photo taken from Mervyn_w's Flickr photo stream.


Seeing an opportunity, Parkhill Estates Ltd (PEL) purchased the derelict Reedswood Power station site and sometime in 1992 came to discuss with Council officers, including me, the future development of the site. The power station site itself was about 32 hectares (80 acres), heavily contaminated and riddled with old mine shafts, which would have to be dealt with up front. The clean up cost was estimated at about £12 million. Another hazard was that local yobs were setting fire to the high voltage cables and causing power cuts – even Brownhills was blacked out once.

To get a feel for the scale of funding that might be needed we divided the site into retail (to reflect the fact of a planning permission), housing and business with the remainder for a spine road and metro line. After estimating the likely sale value of finished development, costs and profit assumption, we concluded there would be a shortfall of about £8 million. In other words the developer would make a massive loss without financial assistance. We discussed this with PEL and they did some detailed cash flow calculations and arrived at a similar number. This was for an expanded scheme to include some open space owned by the Council and known as “The Bayou” (presumably not the inspiration for Roy Orbison’s song!), a bit of Reedswood Park and a new access and extension for Barton Engineering (to relieve Miner Street), mainly to make the reclamation more economical, but it did extend the range of benefits. The reclaimed open spaces were later returned to the Council. This larger project (now 50 hectares) was included in the successful bid to the Government.

Walsall’s bid succeeded. The Reedswood project was supported by £8 million Government funds made up of £5.75 million grant and £2.25 million loan. The overall investment was expected to exceed £50 million. Work in earnest began in October 1993.

That’s probably enough for now. Obviously, the outcome is there for all to see, either in real life or virtually – search for Reedswood Way, Walsall WS2 8XA.

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17 Responses to When the lights go out

  1. Steve Wilcox says:

    Excellent article and photos ! ! – many thanks, Bob, and also to Andy.

    Both of my grandfathers worked at the power station, and I remember the place well. One grandad lived on the Beechdale, and we used to often pass the towers in my dads car en-route to his house.

    My other grandad used to take me fishing at the 2 pools there – they were at the back of what is now the Matalan store, surrounded by spoil, pylons and railway sidings. I can remember crossing Rayboulds bridge to get to the gatehouse, where the security guard would give us the key to the gate to the pools. I remember there was a small golf course on site, and one of the holes was outside the gatehouse ! !

  2. Andy Dennis says:

    There is a fishing pool there today, but it’s by the Ash Track towards the west end of the site. This was part of the reclamation scheme and acts as a balancing pool.

  3. stymaster says:

    Thanks to both for this: I’d forgotten that it was relatively recently that Reedswood was demolished, and had no inkling of the huge cost of cleanup- it goes to show that there’s hidden complexities to almost everything, but especially dealing with the waste from old industry. Andy, please keep this up, and Bob, keep posting it. Nice old photos from Flickr too.

  4. clive says:

    Thanks Bob and Andy, enjoyed reading about the old power stations in wersall where I come from many moons ago.
    cheers clive

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  8. rwhiston says:

    Was Reedswood P/stn a design that incorporated “district heating” ie combined heat and power (CHP) for the local area ? I seem to remember being told it was at one time but that the pipework had been disconnected. Please can you let me know ( robertwhiston1@sky.com ).

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  13. Fascinating stuff about the Power Station, Bob.
    I was led to the site in the search for information about my Great Uncle – James Patrick Hannifan who was Gatekeeper there in the late 1940s – early 1950s. He married Helen or Ellen Everall (nee Herbert) in Walsall Register Office in 1927 when living at 86 Stafford St – she died in 1951 when they lived at 86 Oxford St. He died in 1959 and his brother, John Edward Hannifan was a Policeman in Walsall and my Dad, John Patrick was born there in 1928 and has very little memory of him apart from being taken by him to see Wolves play.
    I know it is a long shot but would be very grateful if anyone knows anyone who might have known or remembers James Patrick.

  14. David Wright says:

    Well I came across this article quite by accident.I was sitting in front of my computer and thought I would do a little research on Walsall Power Station.As a boy I lived in Cavendish Rd.(at the top end)My Father worked shifts in the Power Station.I can still rememember the evenings when in bed,listening to the clanking of hammers,the hum of the generators the trains shunting along the sidings bringing in the coal.I used to stare out of the bedroom window mainly in darkness and try and imagine what was going on inside.A lot of the windows were missing,my father said ‘they were deliberately broken’ to allow cold air in because it was so hot in there.I think my father worked there from 1954 till it closed and then went into the gatehouse at Green Lane on security until he retired.There was a golf course around the cooling towers,9 holes going out and 9 holes coming back,I know I played there once.As a boy we used to fish the canal outside the old power station,an area we called the ‘wobbles’ due to the flow of water from under the towpath.Wasn’t bad fishing due to the temprature of the water.I remember the coal barges bringing coal into the power station,Horace Kendrick bringing coal in with his Foden 8 wheelers.
    I am 63yrs old now and I remember those times with so much fondness.We left Beechdale in 1964 and went to live in Ogley Hay,we moved there just as they were finnishing Silver Court and Victor Value was opening.
    I left Brownhills and the Midlands in 1976,and I now live in Newquay in Cornwall.
    I have always been proud of my Black Country Heritage.

  15. mick archer says:

    my late father was 0ne of two guys who worked for the old cegb at green lane and were the last two members of staff to do security on the site im his son and still live local dad had to wewld up steel doors and make sure sub station was secure because of vandles i have just mountain biked it up the canal from cheslyn hay to reedswood today.my dad was then transfered to cottom in north nottingham the closer to home to rugeley a he had well over 25 years service and i joined him at rugeley a until the the start of the shut down there in 1993 so it brings back so many good memories to me i found the rear gates with the sign still attatched to the original gates with the english rose on them so i took photos on my phone happy days.

  16. Peter Wilson says:

    Hi All, I am interested in Walsall Power Station. Apparently an Uncle of mine was chief engineer there for a time, his name was Harry Tooke. Anyone know if there is a rollcall anywhere or any information on when he was there. Unusual surname so maybe not so hard to find. The period was probably late 50’s through 60’s. He was also on the Kariba Dam project. BR Peter Wilson.

    • Andrew Neenan says:

      Yes, I remember Harry Tooke. I spent the early part of my student apprenticeship based at Walsall power station from 1967. My memories of him are as a quite fearsome character who did not suffer gladly foolish young apprentices like me. I can remember being castigated by him on one occasion for having my hands in my pockets!

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