A campaign to win World Heritage status for Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter is in danger of failing because planners are allowing inappropriate development to spoil its unique architecture, a conservation group claimed.
The Victorian Society has accused the city council of turning a blind eye to its own regulations which were drawn up to preserve the site’s “outstanding and unique” history, much of which dates from the beginning of the 19th century and is one of the city’s oldest industrial areas.
Barbara Shackley, the society’s chairman, said strict planning controls were being “changed by stealth” to allow unsympathetic restoration of existing buildings and new development that was out of character with the area.
Mrs Shackley warned the council would have to take a different approach if the Jewellery Quarter was to join the likes of the Great Wall of China, the Pyramids of Giza and Yellowstone National Park in America as one of the 851 Unesco World Heritage sites.
The World Heritage bid, backed by regional development agency Advantage West Midlands, is close to the top of the council agenda to attract tourists and promote Birmingham as a major international city
Writing in the society’s summer newsletter, Mrs Shackley says: “This is a bold move and would bring enormous prestige to the area, promote the area internationally and attract new visitors. It is a move we support but I think we should point out what needs to be done.
“The Design Guide, published by the city, if followed would retain the character. Unfortunately, this was not adopted in time and today is not enforced, some developers making up their own design rules.
“A high quality of design and of materials is imperative and the erosion of the quality of permitted developments should be prevented.”
Mrs Shackley adds: “What we should not do is prettify the area with lots of hanging baskets and ornamental trees. Light fittings should not be ‘pretty-pretty’ but muscular and vigorously designed.
“Dereliction in the quarter, a huge problem, has to be tackled.”
The council planning committee has found itself in recent years facing difficult decisions about the future shape of the Jewellery Quarter.
The decline of traditional industries saw many former factories and warehouses turned into loft-style apartments, leaving councillors expressing concern about preserving as much of the area as possible for existing and new jewellery businesses. A planning application in 2006 to demolish one of the quarter’s oldest factories, the A E Harris buildings in Northwood Street, and build flats, shops and small industrial units on the site drew a storm of protest from conservation groups.
But the planning committee approved the application after being told that A E Harris would go out of business if it could not sell the site and re-locate out of the city centre.
Council regeneration director Clive Dutton rejected the criticism.
Mr Dutton said that although some new buildings in the past 15 years had not been of the highest quality, the council was committed to preserving the Jewellery Quarter’s unique characteristics as far as planning regulations allowed it to do so.
He said one of the main advantages of acquiring World Heritage Status for the Jewellery Quarter would be the additional powers it would give the council to force developers to meet far more rigorous design and planning standards.
Mr Dutton added: “One of the reasons we have applied for World Heritage Status is that it would give us greater strength to require a much higher standard of design of buildings.”