Culture with a capital C

Associate Tom Dyckhoff chats with Tom Bloxham

You want to get Tom Bloxham going? Mention the phrase “cultural strategy”. “Yeeeeaaas,” he says, before pausing (a rare moment of silence; he’s quite the chatterbox). And – he’s off, in his staccato sentences. “I’m fairly sceptical about them. They’re necessary to get planning nowadays. But most artists don’t want them. They don’t want a strategy. There’s a real danger in overplanning places that way. Just let artists get on with being artists…” He could go on. But let’s put Tom on hold for a moment.

It’s true. Urban Splash, the property development company Bloxham founded in 1993 with Jonathan Falkingham, is not big on cultural strategies. Unless you have, shall we say, a broad definition of culture: loft-style apartments, bars and clubs, dinky shops selling modern design – the DNA behind most of Urban Splash’s developments. And why not? There’s arguably as much cultural development going on amid Jagerbombs and hen dos in Liverpool’s Soho Bar on a Friday night as surrounded by Mark Wallingers in a white cube. Culture in this most broad of senses – urban hedonism – has been central to Urban Splash’s success. It didn’t pioneer the cocktail of coffee bars and aspirational inner city living for the middle classes that has become the new norm around the world – far from it. That had been going on in big cities like New York and London since the 1960s and 1970s. But Urban Splash pioneered it in provincial Britain.

Back to Tom. “What I saw when I left university were all these warehouses, beautiful bits of architecture, being overlooked by the council or developers. And then I saw creative people, with nowhere to live or work. I just put the two together.” This core business plan that Urban Splash applied to Britain’s provincial cities hasn’t changed in essence since its earliest projects in the mid 1990s, such as Concert Square in Liverpool, and Manchester’s Smithfield Buildings: providing the creative class – defined with enormous breadth, Richard Florida-style, as anyone from suffering artist to ad salesperson – with board and lodging and a long-term financial investment. It has simply rolled out the formula from neighbourhood to neighbourhood, town to town, wherever loft living remains exotic, and coffee has yet to move on from Gold Blend.

Manchester remains Urban Splash’s muse, the city that formed its outlook and its founders, and the city that remains its headquarters. Bloxham began his professional life as a consummate salesman there in the late 1980s and early 1990s, making money like many at the time from the flowering of hedonistic youth culture that grew out of Manchester’s economic decline in the 1980s. He sold records and posters – from Joy Division to The Smiths to the Stone Roses – until, as Urban Splash’s origin myth has it, he realised he could make more money by subletting the space in his shop, than selling stuff inside it.

And lo, a property empire was born, one whose business plan, whether applied to Manchester, Liverpool, Sheffield or Birmingham, does one thing: sells space by associating it with the thrills, spills and bellyaches of youth culture. This strategy has underpinned gentrification since its birth in 1950s New York and London, where the now hackneyed mantra for real estate brokers, ‘follow the artists’ was born. Manhattan SoHo real-estate lofts in the late 1960s and early 1970s, for instance, were routinely sold by associating them with the countercultural, rather less chichi lofts (derelict warehouse space) sought by abstract expressionist or pop artists a decade before. ‘Buy this space and live life with the freedom of the artist’, even if you worked on Madison Avenue.

This youth culture, whether that of Madchester or the electronica and psychedelia of Liverpool or Sheffield’s music scenes, might originally have been rooted in a generation trying to make sense of, have some control over – or, if all else fails, escape – their hometown’s economic decline. But through some deft appropriation and rebranding, in Urban Splash’s hands it soon became a way of selling flats to those members of their generation who, like them, began to get lucky as Britain’s economy started to grow in the mid 1990s. It made for a peculiar cultural mix that came to define the so-called “urban renaissance”: property development, home ownership, clubbing and hedonism.

At the time, Bloxham remembers, “everybody else was doing cul-de-sacs in suburbia. Urban was always a negative word, urban blight, urban decay.” But not to him. He saw which way the wind might blow. And as it did, Urban Splash became adept at negotiating the public-private partnership that defined New Labour’s economic strategy: the state backing of private companies to rebuild or renovate economically declined cities. Twenty years later, this strategy has taken some bashing. On the plus side, money and the middle-classes have returned to the central and inner cities of provincial Britain. But this has come at a hefty cost: rising land values and cultural conditions that marginalise or exclude existing residents, or displace them.

Bloxham is mindful of the negative effects of the kind of gentrification that Urban Splash is encouraging. “You can see it in London, which is in danger of killing itself, but also increasingly in Manchester too. But developers have to be optimists. Maybe this can be the catalyst for regeneration in other places?” As those lower down on the economic spectrum – including artists and those in the creative industries – are displaced, suggests Bloxham, maybe they will spread regeneration wherever the wind blows them. Follow the artists, again. This, though, will be cold comfort for many.

Still, Bloxham is only doing what Bloxham does. He is a salesman. A very effective salesman. He is a property developer. A very effective property developer. He is in the business of making money, and he does so in the same way property developers have done since the invention of speculative development in 16th century northern Europe: selling land by marketing it to the middle classes in whichever way taste at the time dictates. He does not, therefore, somewhat inevitably, believe in regulating the market in land to put the brakes on gentrification – through greater taxation on developer profits, for instance, to support public good in whatever form, or rent control, or whatever. “Regulation usually deadens.” Indeed, Bloxham, like an old-skool Thatcherite prefers “de-regulation”, such as when Manchester loosened its licensing laws, “which allowed the Gay Village to get established”, he says.

Bloxham believes, instead, that the conditions for encouraging a cultural community are threefold. First, he says, “you need other artists. Bankers need other bankers, lawyers other lawyers. Artists need other people like them. Community. Second, “you need space. You need property.” Cheap property, of course, I add. Third, “you need a local authority or a city that recognises the importance of culture and are willing to put money into, say, art galleries.” Get all three, he says, “and you begin to get a virtuous circle.”

But Urban Splash’s own strategy keeps culture at arm’s length. It may be reliant on this virtuous circle, on the broad cultural class to buy its apartments. But, mostly, it is not explicitly within its business plan to encourage or create spaces for cultural industries. Hence his attitude towards cultural strategies. Instead, he prefers to “let artists get on with being artists. They are resourceful, lateral thinkers, they can make any place work.” Indeed, he adds, “comfort doesn’t necessarily create good art. But hardship often makes good art.” This is, of course, a moot point.

It is only after work that Culture with a capital C gets a look in. It has become Bloxham’s extra-curricular activity. He’s been on his own learning curve about the arts since being invited onto the Arts Council North West. Years later, he sits on the boards of Tate, Manchester’s International Festival and his current favourite project, The Factory, “Manchester’s Village Hall,” he explains, “where we can show the most important bits of art” but more importantly, to him, a place in which art is actually produced – not a passive gallery one that produces, “so the next generation get to learn and experience it”. They get the benefit of his wisdom, his commercial nouse: “the skills that I’ve learnt working with tight budgets. My judgment, my connections, a conduit onto people on the council, and also to give the outside world some confidence that there’s someone [on the board] who knows a bit what he’s doing.” He gets the glow one gets doing good: “it’s great to make a difference, and it’s great being around artists, what’s not to like?”

For all his modish interest in creative communities, and, indeed, the risk-taking Urban Splash undertakes (backing factory-made, modular housing is their latest venture), there is something oddly old-fashioned about Bloxham and the figure he cuts today. Nineteenth-century mill owners in Cottonopolis would recognise his world view, his business strategy and his philanthropic approach to culture. This has served him well, financially. Urban Splash came close to going under after the 2008 economic downturn, but they restructured themselves and carried on doing what they have always done. Keep calm and carry on.

The question is, though, whether that downturn was simply an augur of different times yet to come. Even within property development, schemes designed to foster community rather than nurture one’s bank balance and pension pot, schemes even with that dread thing to Bloxham – a cultural strategy – are emerging. The wind may indeed be changing again. Is Bloxham canny enough to detect it?

Tom Bloxham MBE is a British property developer, co-founder of urban renewal property development company Urban Splash and member of the judging panel for RIBA’s Stirling Prize in 2007. Trustee of Tate and Manchester United Foundation.