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Why is the fine design of Port Loop lost on those who should know better?

Architect Joe Holyoak fights the corner for a major regeneration which wasn't universally loved by the city's planners

CGI of the first phase of development at the Port Loop site in Birmingham

In this column in February 2014, I reviewed the newly published masterplan for the residential development of Icknield Port Loop (since renamed Port Loop).

This is 37 acres of derelict, ex-industrial canalside land just one kilometre up the canal from Brindleyplace, and sitting at the base of the dam to Edgbaston Reservoir.

The masterplan was made by one of our best urban design consultancies, Urbed, and I suggested then that Port Loop could become the best place to live in Birmingham.

The joint developers are Urban Splash and Places for People, both award-winning companies with a national reputation.

Urban Splash in particular is a very progressive and innovative developer, with a record of transforming unpromising locations into desirable places to live and work.

It has built mostly in the north of England but its earlier projects in Birmingham are the conversions of the Rotunda and Fort Dunlop.

Phase one of the development, which takes up about one half of the island enclosed by the James Brindley and Thomas Telford canals, has been designed jointly by two excellent firms of architects - Glenn Howells Architects, based here in Birmingham, and ShedKM, based in Liverpool.

It comprises 207 dwellings, plus open spaces. About 60 per cent of the dwellings are houses and the rest are flats. It is a design of considerable quality.

How the Port Loop project will sit alongside the canal network

The plan is quietly simple: a grid of terraces of two- and three-storey houses, plus three blocks of flats no higher than six storeys.

Some terraces face the existing Rotton Park Street, some face Brindley's canal and most are built around rectangular shared gardens.

It is rather reminiscent of Georgian streets and squares in the West End of London, on a reduced scale.

But nonetheless it achieves a density of 66 dwellings per hectare, which is a very respectable urban residential density.

There are developments of city centre flats in Birmingham which are at higher densities but, for a scheme which is 60 per cent houses and which contains generous green open spaces, this is a considerable achievement, one which takes some skill.

The phase one proposal went before Birmingham City Council's planning committee for its consideration on October 26.

It is probably the best-quality, low-rise urban housing scheme to come before the planning committee for a long time and an exemplar for future developments, such as the council's own city centre Smithfield project.

One would expect such a high-quality scheme to be enthusiastically welcomed by the councillors responsible for the city's built environment.

Birmingham Post reporter Neil Elkes reported on November 2 what actually happened.

The proposal was subjected to misinformed, inaccurate and prejudiced criticism by a number of councillors and the planning application just scraped through on the chairman's casting vote.

Neil named the councillors in his report and I don't wish to personalise the matter unnecessarily.

The important point is that Birmingham came very close to rejecting a development of great quality, one which can set a new standard for places to live, because several councillors failed to understand what they were being offered.

CGI of the first phase of development at the Port Loop site in Birmingham(Image: Grid)

Extraordinarily, the terraced houses were condemned as back-to-backs.

It appears that, in the city which proudly possesses the museum of back-to-back houses, it is not understood what a back-to-back house is.

The houses at Port Loop have fronts and backs and private outdoor space on both front and back - quite conventional.

Incidentally, back-to-back should anyway not be an indiscriminate term of abuse.

In Leeds, which continued to build back-to-back houses until 1937, thousands of households live contentedly in terraces of back-to-back houses which have gardens and indoor bathrooms.

Here in Birmingham, in Highgate, there are some good modern back-to-back houses built in the 1980s.

At the planning committee, houses were inaccurately described as having "no gardens whatsoever", and the shared gardens were described as "courtyards", likening them to the brick-paved courts of 19th century back-to-back houses in Birmingham.

In fact, the three shared gardens at Port Loop, which are surrounded by private back gardens connecting to them, are generous spaces measuring 45 x 14 metres.

Early CGI of the Soho Loop development which forms park of the wider Icknield Masterplan

They will be pleasant and safe places for children to play and for neighbours to meet and socialise.

In addition, there are two larger public green spaces overlooked by houses, the Green and the Park, which go down to the bank of the canal.

One councillor criticised the scheme for looking like it was designed to win housing awards.This is a peculiar form of abuse. Housing awards, such as those awarded annually by the National House Building Council, reward good places to live which are intelligently designed. It is what Birmingham ought to be aspiring to, not dismissing.

The same councillor complained: "Why can't we build ordinary houses?"

I am puzzled by what he understands to be ordinary.

I suspect he means the kind of substandard, low-density suburban housing, encouraging the use of the motor car which is regularly churned out by mass housebuilders and which rightly wins no awards.

In fact, the Port Loop houses are eminently ordinary, in the best sense of the word. They draw on the best traditions of urban housing, established over the last few hundred years.

They are varied in their location and plan, offering a number of choices. They have a front door onto a street and a back garden.

They are well-designed, efficient and compact in their planning. As well as private outdoor spaces, they have communal spaces to share, encouraging neighbourliness.

It is dismaying that Birmingham's planning committee includes members who cannot read plans and cannot recognise good quality design when it is put before them.

This scheme was approved by the skin of its teeth. But, if Birmingham has aspirations to be a great city to live in, something needs to change.

Joe Holyoak is a Birmingham-based architect and urban designer

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