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Thursday, September 21, 2006

Sound Familiar?

An opinion piece by Camilla Cavendish from today's Times:

"From Glasgow to Great Torrington, from Dartford to Darlington, citizens are arming themselves with pencils and tomes of planning law and campaigning to preserve their streets and their open spaces. Which in many cases means keeping out Tesco. Sorry, Tesco. Every little hurts.

I mention this not just because I too am beginning to feel oppressed by the Tescopoly (though I am fully aware of the arguments for consumer choice), but because some of these campaigns suggest a new way of thinking about how to value land that has been held in trust for the public, but which is now worth so much to developers that councillors start burbling about job creation at the merest hint of a cheque.

Nowhere demonstrates what is happening better than the battle of Hodge Hill in Birmingham. Less than a mile from where the council gave permission for another superstore only last week, and just over two miles from an existing Tesco, the company is trying to build another 65,000 sq ft of supermarket and 450 parking spaces on Brockhurst Road playing fields. Hodge Hill is not some trendy middle-class enclave that prefers to source its ciabatta from a farmer’s market. It is one of the most deprived wards in the country. That makes its playing fields an even more vital local resource. England has lost nearly 34,000 pitches to development in the past 13 years.

The Napoleons of Hodge Hill are not just nimbys fighting to preserve the status quo. They have a vision for the land. If they could own and manage it, they would revitalise it. Restore the disused tennis courts and bowling green. Build a health centre on the site of a crumbling warehouse. They seek, in short, to make much more of this community asset than the council has" (my emphasis).

If this doesn't sound familiar now, it may not be long before it does. There are two or more prospective developments in or near Moseley that relate to either the sell-off of council land or the efforts to develop/maintain social enterprise and/or social spaces. I don't know much about any of them, but think a mention is worthwhile, if only to make note of the situation. Of course, these also relate broadly to local planning issues, both short and long term, and are worth fitting into that context.

The schemes that come to mind include the (lack of) development at Haden Circus (the big parcel of open land at Moseley Road and the Middleway), the thoroughly vandalised Woodnorton House on Alcester Road between Moseley and Kings Heath, Chamberlain House between Queensbridge Road and Highbury Park, and perhaps the Meteor/Bristol Road car showroom development alongside the former Moseley train station. The issues at these sites range from lack of development to dereliction of duty in maintaining council properties (properties held in trust for us, the governed), to sell-offs and decisions that will foreclose future options.

However, my main concern is not with the absence of development, so the Haden Circus site (which is showing signs of activity) can be discounted for now. Nor is my current focus on the dereliction of Woodnorton House, which the council allowed vandals to destroy. In addition, the closing off of options regarding a Moseley train station is mainly a speculative response. Planning schemes that might impede redevelopment of the old station have, so far, not been approved.

So we are left with the question of whether the council plans to sell off Chamberlain House and a bit of land associated with Highbury Park, and whether there is good reason to keep Camilla's story in mind.  



It's already clear that the Council regard public open spaces as liquid assets, despite the efforts of campaigning organisations, residents, and its own planning guidance to convince them otherwise:

Councillors will shortly approve the sale of 1.7 acres of playing fields off Brockhurst Road, Hodge Hill - the first step towards enabling a 65,000 sq ft Tesco superstore to be built on the site. A decision to sell the land and the likely granting of planning permission would mark the final defeat for local residents who have campaigned for 15 years to save the playing fields. Last month, the council sold part of the Swan Shopping centre at Sheldon and adjoining land to Tesco. (via icBirmingham)

This despite vociferous objection by residents:

Birmingham City Council say that they will declare the fields surplus to requirement after the simple presentation of a satisfactory plan from Tesco. However, they may yet find another stumbling block with almost 60 per cent of local residents being opposed to the proposed sale. (via

and a basis in the Council's own policy:

Under the new Planning Policy Guidance note 17, apart from planners having to show that land is surplus to requirement, developers must consult the local community and show that "their proposals are widely supported by them". This appears not to be the case in Hodge Hill, with almost two-thirds of the population opposed. (via

 With regard to Chamberlain House, the story is that when the Chamberlains donated Highbury Hall and grounds to the city, a trust was set up with the intent to manage the property for the good of the community. I won't go into the history here - partly because I know very little of it. Suffice to say that the definition of 'good for the community' has a fair bit of latitude. Even so, the Charities Commission (apparently) decided that running some of the Council Social Services from Chamberlain House was not within the scope of that definition. (There's an interesting side-question here about an organisation called Four Seasons that's been moved on already.) So a new use for Chamberlain House is under discussion. One strand of discussion is about bringing bona fide community benefit to the site, either by using the existing building or by knocking it down and building a community-focused project. But another, as yet unverified, strand of discussion is about the council flogging the site for new housing. Given the evidence above, one is inclined to take this story seriously.

If the story of Hodge Hill is anything to go by, we can anticipate a similar performance in our part of town. But that is not necessarily in the best interests of the community. In clarifying that point, let me pick up Camilla's story where I left off, with the idea that local charitable organisations might make a go of running a scheme:

Is this possible? Absolutely, if they can leverage the value of the land to help to finance their plans to do good. That is what is called “social enterprise” — the new buzzword doing the rounds of both the Labour and Tory parties which will be repeated ad infinitum at the party conferences over the next two weeks. One of the most visible social enterprises is on the South Bank in London. There, a group of residents calling themselves the Coin Street Community Builders (CSCB) succeeded in buying 13 acres of car parks, derelict land and bomb sites in 1984 from the GLC.

Perhaps you know what Coin Street is. Or perhaps you've wandered through it without knowing. If you've wandered around the Oxo Tower and Gabriel's Wharf, between Blackfriar's bridge and the NFT, you were in the midst of a social enterprise.

While Chamberlain House is not the Oxo Tower, it is contiguous with Highbury Park, one of Birmingham's most significant open spaces. If the property were sold off privately, certain points of access would be lost forever, as would any number of potential community benefits. We can include the loss of wildlife habitat as well, since the largely wild area below Chamberlain House is also Highbury Trust land. (I have been told this is the case, but had better double check. Much about the Highbury Trust is a mystery: who the officers are, what the remit is, what it controls, and so on.)



This has been a rather long note to the effect that we should be paying attention to our local open spaces and Council disposition regarding those spaces. While the Council are obliged to consult, and to follow supplemental planning guidance, we can see that this does not deter sales of valued, necessary, socially useful places.  Furthermore, the bits and pieces of this story should serve as a bit of incentive to think about keeping those places in community use. Think about it in terms of which part of Camilla's story will come true: the part about the Council pocketing the money, or the part about defending the value of community space.