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A major sense of betrayal

There is a major sense of betrayal over the way the Harvest Partnership seems to have reneged on pledges to restore part of the Lapal Canal and pay £6 million towards the construction of the Selly Oak New Road.

Coun Mike Whitby and Chris Templeman, head of property development for Sainsbury’s supermarkets, in 2007 at Harborne Lane Selly Oak site.

The grocer Sainsbury, through its Harvest Development Partnership, took the unprecedented step of placing a full page advert in the Birmingham Mail this week to challenge the critics of its proposed new store in Selly Oak.

The planning application, which includes a major new life sciences campus for firms making advances in the medical research and manufacturing, has prompted hundreds of objections from locals.

Joining the chorus of disapproval have been local councillors, including Brigid Jones, a member of the council’s Labour cabinet.

The main reasons for this volume of objections are not the scale or size of development, or even fears of the impact on independent traders, as they usually are with the many superstore proposals dealt with by planning departments every year.

Instead there is a major sense of betrayal over the way the Harvest Partnership seems to have reneged on pledges to restore part of the Lapal Canal and pay £6 million towards the construction of the Selly Oak New Road – which has a nice link road to the yet to be built store.

Both were linked to an earlier planning application for a supermarket and canalside development on the same site.

Sainsbury had already annoyed residents when it demolished the historic Guests Brass Stamping Co building on the Battery Park site in 2009.

And now it is adding to that bad blood by walking away from earlier commitments – a move described at a meeting in July by planning committee member Barry Henley as a ‘swindle’ performed on council taxpayers.

The Harvest Partnership has argued that in submitting a new planning application it can no longer link it to the Selly Oak New Road development as that has been completed.

It has added that it is putting in place measures to enable the future restoration of the old canal, but cannot fund it as such a cost burden would render the construction project no longer viable.

This is now a regular refrain from developers who use the downturn and desperation of the council’s economic development department for bricks to be laid and jobs to be created to walk away from earlier commitments.

Sainsbury argues that the people of Selly Oak are not being cheated and that this is the best way to ensure a development which will be good for all involved.

But one can’t help but wonder if a development is so close to edge of viability, how sustainable it is in any case and whether perhaps someone else might be better placed to make a go of it.

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On various websites and letters pages there has been as much negative feedback as positive to the decision to allow Malala Yousafzai to open the Library of Birmingham.

Apart from the outright racism, there has been criticism that she cannot claim to be a ‘true Brummie’.

Last year I sat through days of evidence to the council’s inquiry ‘Birmingham Where the World Meets’ - sub-titled ‘What Makes a Brummie?’ And on that score she is as much a Brummie as any.

It was mentioned that a little over 200 years ago this city was a collection of tiny villages with a few hundred people each.

It’s exponential growth during the industrial period was a result of taking the waifs and strays from the surrounding county towns – Stafford, Worcester and Warwick – where established Guilds placed heavy restrictions on business any many traders were excluded.

They sought refuge in Birmingham which was a free city welcoming all comers with bright ideas and a willingness to work to spur the city’s economic and cultural growth. A tradition which continues to this day.

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Politicians are not usually ones to predict the future, but the council’s deputy leader Ian Ward was bang on with one piece of crystal ball gazing.

A few years ago when the council’s cabinet meeting was agreeing a key stage in the development of library, the Labour councillor, who was then opposition deputy leader, spoke up in support.

He was thanked profusely by the then Tory council leader Mike Whitby. In fact Coun Whitby, who now goes by the name Lord Whitby, was so delighted with the cross-party show of support he turned to Coun Ward as said: “I will even invite you to the grand opening.”

Quick as a flash Ian replied: “By the time the library opens we’ll be back in control and I will be the one inviting you to the opening.”

And that is exactly what happened.

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On a positive note I understand that culture minister Ed Vaizey went away from the library opening with some very good news about the way Birmingham had handled this major infrastructure project.

We are all aware of the propensity of public sector projects to drag on and arrive late and over budget – the most celebrated of which has been the Scottish Parliament – three years past the the deadline at ten times the initial cost.

Instead Birmingham’s new Library came in about £5 million below the initial £193 million budget, with an added 2,000 square foot of space compared to the initial specification - partly due to a more competitive construction pricing following the economic downturn.

Also included in the budget are maintenance costs for several years to come, meaning that the building won’t be left to rot if something falls off or breaks down.

A Birmingham City Council insider said: “The message was given loud and clear. There are Government departments which could learn a thing or two from this.”

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