Since Tom Wagner and Knighthead took the reins at Birmingham City the word has been of how they are looking to transform the club.
One doesn’t have to look far around St Andrew’s to see the fruits of this transformation.
The repairs to the lower tiers of the Kop and the Tilton are now nearing completion, while the construction of The Alliance lounge in the Kop has taken the space available to entertain new investors and partners to a whole new level.
However despite all of this work, St Andrew’s remains a constrictive footprint.
The stadium is littered with reasons why Blues under Knighthead could quickly outgrow it.
For example, within the stands the concourses are too small to properly deal with demand for refreshments from the concessions; while the proximity of the railway to the Gil Merrick means there is zero room to develop to that side of the ground.
Logic thus dictates that if Knighthead want more capacity within the stadium as a venue not just for football but potentially for other sporting and leisure events, then the only solution is to move.
This is where the Wheels site comes in.
At 51 acres, the Wheels site is nearly seven times bigger than the 7.5 acres that St Andrew’s occupies. This would help enable not only the building of a bigger stadium, but potentially ancillary developments around it much like the Etihad Campus occupied by Manchester City.
As news has emerged that outline planning permission has been sought to turn the Wheels site into warehousing units, there has been some concern from Blues fans that maybe this idea of moving to a super Stadium is once again a pipedream.
With this in mind, I’ve done what I can to talk to people who are more knowledgeable about these things to try and put this news into perspective and work out just what is going on.
What do we know?
The story starts back in 2021 when Birmingham City Council were finally able to move on with plans to develop the site following a year long battle to evict the Wheels Park tenants.
The land was not in a great state.
Although it had been fine when in use as a go-kart track or for people to do their Compulsory Basic Training to ride a motorcycle or moped (as I did on that site back in 1999), the land was contaminated and needed extensive remediative works.
Previous use as a brickworks meant there was brick walls hidden underground, while Japanese knotweed had taken root and needed wiping out. There were even potential issues with things like unexploded ordnance from World War II; in short, a lot of work needed to be done.
In January 2023 the Government confirmed that it had approved £17.145M of funding to remediate the site as part of the Bordesley Park Area Action Plan, with Leader of Birmingham City council Ian Ward quoted as saying:
“The creation of a high quality and sustainable employment site at Bordesley Park, with opportunities for the local community at its heart, is a fundamental part of this vision.”
However, by May 2023 Ward may well have been convinced of a different vision for the Wheels site.
There’s never been any official confirmation that Blues have been looking to move ground but there have been a fair few reports in the press that it’s something Knighthead want to do.
This report from the Mirror on May 8 talks about how Knighthead were looking at developing the Wheels site and converting the St Andrew’s site into social housing.
The rumour going around at the time was that as the Wheels site was unsuitable even after remediation for housing, Blues could do a deal with Birmingham City Council whereby they swapped the parcels of land to give the council the land they needed for council housing.
Whether Knighthead did do that deal with Ian Ward or not is now moot.
While Ward was removed from his position as Council leader by Labour’s National Executive Committee on May 23, worse was to come when it was confirmed that Birmingham City Council was effectively bankrupt in September.
That meant the Government had to appoint commissioners to help address budgetary and organisational challenges at the council. Lead Commissioner Max Caller CBE and his team were appointed by the Department of Levelling Up, Housing and Communities in October of 2023.
The appointment of the Commissioners has forced a change of focus for the council.
Every decision that the Council now makes has to be with the focus of bringing money in to help return the council to solvency.
Thus it’s not that surprising that outline plans have been submitted to get on with the remediation work at the Wheels site prior to selling it for warehousing use or similar.
What do we know about the plans?
As one would expect, the plans submitted for the Wheels site are available online on the Birmingham City Council website and can be viewed at this link.
There are a total of 54 documents available which cover not only the outline plans but all the environmental statements, supporting information and other info required for the application.
Thankfully, the redacted application form contains a very short synopsis of what the plans entail.
Hybrid planning application for industrial and employment led redevelopment comprising:
Full: Demolition of all existing buildings and structures, site clearance through the removal of vegetation, decontamination and remediation of land and the creation of four development platforms together with access improvements, landscaping and all other associated infrastructure works.
Outline (with all matters reserved): Development of up to 83,175 square metres of B2 (General industrial) and B8 (Storage or distribution) commercial floorspace.
What that means in English is that the council have applied to complete all the remediation / decontamination work which funds have already received for; and for outline permission to build units suitable for warehousing or general industrial use.
While the first part is to be expected, it’s the second part that has got people up in arms because it doesn’t mention anything about possible planning permission for a stadium.
However, it’s important to understand the context of why this planning application has been made.
I’m thankful to knowledgeable posters on smallheathalliance.com such as Rags who quickly provided a great amount of context. He posted that
Commissioners are aware of interest in the site and the application is on behalf of BCC (who are now the Commissioners) and it shows that the site is being prepared to be put up for sale. Obviously from the Commissioners point of view then the asking price will be greatly increased if there is already outline planning permission on the site.
Since that post was made I’ve spoken to my connections at Birmingham City Council and have received largely the same answer.
The important thing to understand here is that the Council are doing what they can to improve the value of the land prior to sale.
While the remediation and decontamination works will make it ready for sale, having outline planning permission granted ensures that the land is more valuable for developers.
We’ve seen evidence of this in the past thanks to our old friend Wang Yaohui (aka the elusive Mr King). Companies connected to him in the UK purchased at least two plots of land and applied for planning permission to then be able to flip them on for a profit.
However, being granted outline planning permission doesn’t necessarily mean that there will be warehousing built on that site.
I spoke to longstanding supporter of this site John Jowitt of PJ Planning, who offered his expert opinion on the hybrid application. He told me that:
“Legislation requires that decisions on planning applications are made in accordance with the policies of the development plan, subject to all material considerations. In this regard, the key documents are the Birmingham Development Plan (BDP, 2017) and the Bordesley Park Area Action Plan (AAP, 2020).”
The Bordesley Park Area Action Plan in particular is interesting, as it notes that it includes:
The existing leisure facilities in the area provide an important offer for local people as well as attacting visitors. Improvements to provision of and access to leisure use will be supported. Where proposals have the potential to affect operation of or necessitate the relocation of existing sports and leisure uses, including the Wheels site, the Council will work to ensure appropriate support to help them continue. St Andrew’s Stadium, home of BCFC, is a major visitor attraction and the stadium and its surroundings have scope for enhancement.
The plan also notes that Birmingham City were likely to remain in place at St Andrew’s, but it noted the aspirations that the club had to expand the capacity of the stadium and the issues that Blues already have on match days with parking, traffic and disturbance to the local neighbourhood.
In fairness, the plan does also talk about jobs that could be created in the area, specifically mentioning the Wheels site as a place where industrial units could be created.
While I’m just a layman, I think what it must come down to now is the appetite Knighthead have for the Wheels site and how much they wish to fight for it.
There has been a public bid for the land which has been rejected out of hand. Businessman Lyndon Rushby made a “multi-million cash” offer to take the land off the council but it was rejected by Savills who are working on behalf of the council, saying
“At present we have no formal instructions to sell the site and BCC are progressing with remediation works.”
“Unfortunately the level of your offer is not sufficient to change the council’s strategy. Should we receive instructions to bring the site to market I will be back in touch and invite you to be part of any process.”
In my eyes this is good news, as it confirms that there is no “fire sale” happening, despite the Commissioners being in control.
What do we know about what Blues want to do?
The short answer to this question is that we don’t know anything officially.
This kind of information is too substantial to be shared on a blog let alone a tweet or a gif on Twitter, and as such I’m not surprised I’ve not received any response from my contacts when asked about the plans or what they mean.
While it doesn’t do much for my reputation as someone who is supposedly “ITK”, I’m actually glad I don’t get told this kind of info.
For too long Blues have been run by unprofessional people and the changes that Knighthead have brought to that situation have been incredibly pleasing to me at least.
However, despite the lack of official information there are some interesting things happening that are worth noting.
One of those is the sale of a property known as Medco House, which is next to the Birmingham Wheels Park site. Medco House is a 6.86 acre site formerly occupied by Connect Distribution Services until they fell into administration.
This report from The Business Desk confirms that the site was sold for a sum in excess of the £5m List price by the administrators – and there has been some chatter online that the purchasers were Blues, Knighthead or someone connected.
While the Land Registry is known to be slow to update information, I have been able to confirm via their property search just who bought the site and when.
The title register I obtained from the Land Registry confirms that the site was bought on August 31, 2023 for a sum of £7.57M (ex VAT) and that the registered owners were a English company called Red Fox 2023 Limited.
Companies House confirms that Red Fox 2023 Limited is a relatively new company.
It lists one solitary director; an American by the name of Tara Delgado; and a company called Vistra Cosec Limited as company secretary.
The service address for Delgado matches that of the London office of Vistra.
Interestingly, while Delgado was named as a previous person of significant control (PSC), there is now a statement confirming that there is no longer a PSC or a registered legal entity which is the beneficial owner of the company.
This is perfectly legal, as is outlined on Vistra’s own website here.
I’ve drawn a blank on linking Delgado to anyone else, but my supposition is that the company has been set up as an investment vehicle to buy the property on behalf of someone else.
Whether that someone else is Birmingham City is almost impossible to prove but there are a number of rumours that reckon it is.
It would make sense for Knighthead to buy Medco House even as a speculative investment.
It would give them more land next to the Wheels site to build a bigger site if that was the intention; and if it all fell through, then it could flipped onto to someone else.
While I’ve not been able to find a link between Delgado and Blues, I did find another company set up by her in October 2023 which is named Winter Sun 2023 Limited.
Like Red Fox 2023, it gives its service address as Vistra’s offices, and its nature of business as “Buying and selling of own real estate”.
Again, it proves nothing but it does gives me that tiny little spark of hope that something is happening for Blues.
All of this has led me to the conclusion that like a lot of things, it’s not worth worrying about these plans for Birmingham Wheels Park just yet.
As much as I know patience is somewhat thin on the ground with Blues fans, I think this whole idea of a stadium move is something we’re going to have to hold tight on.
I’m sure that if and when there is news for us, Knighthead will tell us with the same standard of proper communication that they have told us everything else.
Until then I guess we cross our fingers.