Fears have been raised over the future of Birmingham’s historic buildings as the city council cuts its Conservation Group. Neil Elkes looks at the consequences.
When the phrase “disband Conservation Group” appeared in the council’s 2010 budget it sent a wave of fear through Birmingham’s heritage groups.
The saving of £350,000 from a recession-hit planning department budget could not be worth more than the prospect of Birmingham giving up its control of historic buildings, they screamed.
The group, a team of specialist planning officials, work closely with a committee of expert volunteers on the local authority’s Conservation and Heritage Panel to ensure that the bulldozers of developers do not ride roughshod over the city’s rich architectural heritage.
The volunteers are drawn from a range of interest groups including the Victorian Society, Civic Society, Jewellery Quarter Association, Moseley Society, 20th Century Society and Sutton Coldfield Civic Society.
The advice from both the group and the panel has shaped many major projects in recent years such as the restoration of the Town Hall, Fort Dunlop and Baskerville House.
Recently their advice ensured that internal pillars were retained in a redevelopment proposal for the Central Methodist Hall in Corporation Street.
Their views have also been made clear on the varied developments in the Jewellery Quarter, as many former and much loved factories are finding new uses as offices and apartments.
But they have also proved influential on hundreds of smaller developments including extensions and alterations to historic homes, revamps of industrial buildings, looked after the city’s conservation areas and their lobbying secured legal protection for many buildings under threat.
Many an architect has gone away with their criticism ringing in their ears, among them renowned designer Trevor Horne, who was told his proposed Beorma Tower was: “Abominable. Like a punch in the face by an architectural fist”.
The panel’s Liberal Democrat chairman Coun Paula Smith felt so strongly over the threatened cuts that she refused to back the budget, the only member of the ruling Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition to abstain.
She said: “They have such a passion for what they do. It’s unbelievable. Each member brings a specific knowledge to it. However many conservation officers we have, we can’t match their depth of knowledge.
“They will go above and beyond on research, visiting sites and talking to people about buildings.
“In the Jewellery Quarter we have guidelines about what is allowed and what is not. But, where the apartment blocks are concerned, the guidelines are quite muddy and they have helped cut through that.
“They do not hold back. But often the council does take it on board and the plans come back and you think ‘they have listened’,” she added.
Coun Smith was however heartened to hear that the conservation function will be preserved, with the officers absorbed into the general planning department and the panel will continue.
But she will not be entirely satisfied until a list of questions over the future organisation of the group and panel are answered.
Cabinet member for regeneration Neville Summerfield (Con, Brandwood) admitted the budget had used a “clumsy phrase which set a lot of hares running”.
And appearing before the panel with planning committee chairman Peter Douglas Osborn, he tried to allay fears and insisted that conservation in Birmingham is not under threat.
The cutting of the Conservation Group is prompted by the retirement of its inspirational leader Chris Hargreaves and the need to cut £1.2 million from the planning department budget.
Coun Douglas Osborn said: “If you look at the skyline the cranes have stopped, there is little development and our planning application income has dropped. We have to cut our cloth accordingly.”
He pointed out that reluctantly he had to consider privatising the conservation function under Government guidelines, but added that he did not believe that as a quasi-judicial area of work planning regulation should be outsourced.
Andy Foster, of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, attacked plans to consider outsourcing conservation.
He said: “We must have a conservation group to defend our heritage. This should be carried out for the public good. We have to be wary of making short term decisions during a recession which could have long term consequences.”
A key area of work for the group has been to protect buildings, run a local list of historically significant buildings and also recommend buildings for statutory listing to English Heritage and the Government.
This week details of two 1920s art-deco cinemas, the Royalty in Harborne and Kingsway in Kings Heath and two houses, the early19th century Harborne Hall and a late Victorian house in Edgbaston were sent to the Department of Culture, Media and Sport to be considered for statutory listing. The cinemas are both the work of architect Horace G Bradley, opened in 1925 and 1929.
Panel members were particularly impressed at the internal decoration of the Royalty, now a Gala Bingo Hall, with it bright vibrant colours and original art-deco style features in tact.
Eva Ling of the 20th Century Society described it as “spectacular”. The Kingsway, currently empty with prospects of a new life as a Chinese restaurant, boasts ornate ceilings, an impressive dome and many original exterior features.
The early 19th century Harborne Hall, described as a “hidden gem” by Coun Smith, has a large Tuscan porch and, thanks to later extensions is a combination of gothic and classical styles.
As heritage watchdog, it has also raised concerns over the prospects for the Jewellery Quarters bid for World Heritage Site status – which would put the area on the same United Nations global list as the Pyramids and Parthenon. It again challenged Coun Summerfield over council plans to close its Jewellery Quarter office and information office hours as part of a cost-cutting drive.
David Mahony, chairman of the Jewellery Quarter Association, said that it sends the wrong message to UNESCO which will judge the bid.
“We have craftsmen working in the same way as they have for 150 years. In any other European city this would be a major tourist trap. If we lose representation in the Jewellery Quarter, UNESCO will believe we are not taking this seriously.”
Coun Summerfield explained the staff will still be working on the quarter, but not in an office which costs £30,000 a year.
“The council is committed as it always has been, we are just doing things in a different way,” he told the panel.