How University railway station’s redevelopment celebrates its Roman roots

Transportation has been at the heart of civilisations since ancient times. The Romans, recognising its importance, constructed over 250,000 miles of roads across Europe. Fast forward to today, and we find ourselves at the University railway station in Birmingham, standing on the historic Metchley Roman Fort, with a recent transformation that has blended antiquity with modernity.

Metchley Roman Fort is a designated scheduled ancient monument, protected by the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979.  There are restrictions on what can be done – especially when you want to dig, pile and build! The station, with its roots entrenched in Roman history, has long-awaited expansion. However, this endeavour posed a unique challenge due to its ancient significance.

But why did it need to expand? University station not only serves the University of Birmingham (the UKs 4th largest university), but also the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, one of the largest single-site hospitals in western Europe. As an extremely connected area, it’s no surprise that demand is expected to rise by 75% to 7 million passengers a year over the next decade, so it was vital to expand the station and find the delicate balance between progress and preservation.

In a collaborative effort, our planners worked closely from outset with Historic England, Birmingham City Council and the project archaeologist, Alex Jones, to navigate the complexities of expanding the station at this location on behalf of West Midlands Rail Executive (WMRE) and Transport for West Midlands (TfWM) who have ensured the station is fit for purpose and the future, as part of the West Midlands Rail Programme.  This programme is transforming the region’s rail network through investment in new stations and network improvements.

Over the past few years, a meticulous plan unfolded, addressing the diverse needs of the station’s users while cherishing and safeguarding its rich historical backdrop. It’s not always been easy though, a previous proposal many years ago to expand the station was not successful as its impacts on the nationally significant historical site were not considered enough. Lessons were learned and the design bought forward saw the location of a new station building in a less sensitive area of the scheduled ancient monument to limit and mitigate its impact.

“The key to the success of this is that we’ve had a great relationship with Historic England and Birmingham City Council from the outset and they had the confidence that we would manage the historical environment with care,” explained SLC Property’s Becky Greenhill who came on board to lead on engagement and consents for the project.

The site of this redevelopment is theoretically split into two historical areas, scheduled monument and ‘unscheduled’ (outside the formal scheduling boundary but regarded as potentially significant).  Birmingham City Council’s conservation team has been responsible for consents, through planning permission, for works on the unscheduled element of the site, and Historic England for consent to works within the scheduling boundary.

“As most of the development site sat within the scheduling boundary, once permissions and consent were in place, from a practical perspective the project took an approach to treat all of the site as if it were scheduled which helped the entire project be clear on what was needed and showed our stakeholders that we were taking utmost care to preserve and mitigate the impact of development on this nationally significant monument.” explained Becky.

“Construction does not have to come at a price of history, and I think this is something we’ve really been able to showcase with this project. The modernisation of University station is not just about meeting the demands of today but about seamlessly weaving the threads of history into the fabric of its expansion.

“The redevelopment has been about both connecting commuters and connecting eras, making history an integral part of its forward trajectory and our project has already added to what we know about the Roman Fort.”

The project has worked closely with stakeholders every step of the way, Birmingham City Council and Historic England had a pivotal role in the designing of the landscape around the station to complement a wider approach to interpreting the fort. The landscape of the public open space adjacent to Vincent Drive depicts the fort lines through its use of grassy mounds and changes to planting. In combination with the wider interpretation it helps to show visitors and passengers just how big and important this fort was.

History has had to co-exist throughout the redevelopment and it was considered in other aspects of the landscaping, as Becky describes: “We couldn’t plant big species of trees with evasive roots, so the scheme at all times had to look at landscaping designed to mitigate the risks of harm to the fort that lay beneath.  So even where we have put trees in, they are smaller species and the installation of root matting protects the underlying archaeology.

“Every time we have put a proverbial spade in the ground on the site, we have had to get consent for that spade. Every time we have wanted to do works above ground, including setting up the site compound, we have had to get permission to do that.  At all times, the project team, contractor and designers have had to consider and factor in mitigation for the hidden archaeology lying beneath. It’s a criminal offence to undertake works on a scheduled ancient monument without prior written consent. In total there has been over 300 days watching brief under the lead archaeologist.”

SLC Property, as lead consultant for historic environment consents, has undertaken a proactive and inclusive approach from outset. The dialogue didn’t stop with the granting of consent. As designs developed and responded to site conditions so variations to the consents where required, and often in parallel to submissions to discharge planning conditions. The consent team were very much on standby for most of the construction phase, whether it was notification of a find, a change of design or construction methodology, all consent was able to be obtained in line with the programme. Historic England clearly articulated from outset the information they required to make a decision; taking this on board made a real difference.

The redevelopment station has not only provided a transport hub that even the Romans would be proud of, but it has also celebrated an area of important historical significance, showing that history and future can work hand in hand.