Highbury Hall, the former home of Joseph Chamberlain, has fallen into £4 million of disrepair, Paul Bradley looks at what lies ahead for the famous property that has been left to decay for more than 20 years.
In it’s heyday the world’s press would focus it’s attention on Highbury.
The 70 acre estate, which was perched on the edge of the city when it was built in 1880, was the family home of radical unionist Joseph Chamberlain.
From here he crafted speeches as the Chief Minister of the British Empire, warning South Africa in August 1899 about its behaviour ahead of the Boer War and arguing for tariff protection and building up of British industry to secure jobs for British workers in 1903.
It was the place where Joseph’s son, Neville, spent his childhood years before he became Lord Mayor of Birmingham and then Prime Minister in 1937.
In short, the grand building, with its labyrinth of studies, hallways and boudoirs, holds the secrets of the most influential political family ever to reside in Birmingham.
It comes as no surprise then that Highbury is at the centre of an impassioned debate over how to revive it.
The future of this forgotten gem of the city lies in the balance with some predicting that it could be demolished within the next ten years if immediate action is not taken.
Birmingham City Council is the sole trustee of the Highbury Hall Trust and has been accused of neglecting its charitable duties by not ensuring the upkeep of the building.
When surveyors were asked to put a value on the extent of the neglect to the hall and neighbouring Chamberlain House, they revealed that the property was leaking water through the roof and the electrics needed a substantial overhaul.
They estimated it would cost a minimum of £3.85 million to bring the building back to a respectable condition.
Restoration work to return it to its Victorian glory days would cost more again.
Community groups and interested parties formed a coalition with the common goal of making Highbury Hall a national landmark to be enjoyed for decades to come.
Leading them is Mary De Vere Taylor, great granddaughter of Joseph Chamberlain.
She has become so concerned with the state of affairs that she has asked to become a trustee of the charity trust, thereby reinstating the Chamberlain family’s formal interest in the property.
Mrs Taylor, who grew up in Edgbaston but now lives in Devon, said: “It is vital that Joe’s legacy is honoured in the way it was intended.
“It’s not simply about restoring our ancestral home but continuing our family tradition of social reform and attempting to offer something important to the people in Birmingham.
“I think there is a great deal of untapped potential at Highbury.
“Under a new governance structure it could attract quite sizeable grants.
“My vision would be for Highbury to be a hustling and bustling interactive museum.
“I want people to get a real flavour of what Highbury was all about in Joe and Neville’s eras.
“I think we can have horticultural projects bringing life back to the gardens and former greenhouses and we can help start up a number of school projects.”
But Mrs Taylor’s enthusiasm is tempered by her disillusionment regarding the management of her family’s former home.
She added: “I’m surprised and disappointed that the council have failed to engage with me in dialogue so far.
“But I am thrilled that so many people in Moseley care so much about Highbury’s future.”
While Highbury was being left to decay, Birmingham City Council, as sole trustee of Highbury Charity Trust, rented the buildings to itself as a local authority.
It then hired out the grounds for weddings, banquets and functions, pocketing the proceeds and putting them back into the local authority’s coffers.
The financial well-being of the trust has not been made public and nobody knows for sure what financial gains the council made from the charity.
But Councillor John Alden, who chairs the Charities and Trusts sub committee, has estimated that the amount owed in back rent exceeds £2 million.
“One of the major problems here is that there is a conflict of interests when it comes to running Highbury Hall,” said Tony Thapar, chief executive of the Moseley Community Development Trust.
Mr Thapar, a trained landscape architect who has worked in the charity sector for 19 years, is calling for the council to change the way the charity is run and let more people have a say in its day to day running.
He said: “The council as sole trustee decides the rates to which it hires the venue to itself as a local authority.
“This simply is an awful way of running a charity or a business.
“The governance needs to be improved which means setting up a new committee, a solid constitution and crucially getting Mary De Vere Taylor and the Chamberlain family involved again.
“We need to make Highbury Hall a living museum. We understand money needs to be raised and perhaps some weddings can continue and the council can run some of its services as long as it pays the right rent.
“But they simply must understand that the property was given to the council for the benefit of the city and not just the city council. To do this we need to see Highbury running charitable activities involving community, not just those who pay to hold functions there.”
In 2004 a Charities and Trusts Sub Committee was set up to shake up the way the council ran more than 100 charitable organisations.
But Mr Thapar has questioned the committee’s status claiming it was acting Ultra Vires unless paperwork could be produced to show that the 120 city councillors voted for it to take over the reigns of power.
Coun Alden, who chairs the committee, has worked tirelessly to resolve the debacle which came to be long before his tenure. But when approached by the Birmingham Post Coun Alden refused to comment.
Cabinet member for leisure, sport and culture, Martin Mullaney, who is also a councillor for Moseley, has vowed to turn things around at Highbury by 2014.
He has devised a plan that seems to be a compromise between the current situation and the ideals of the Moseley coalition.
Coun Mullaney said: “I want to deliver on my campaign to restore the hall, which is what I promised to do when I was elected.
“The council can borrow £2 million which we can use to carry out repairs and landscape the gardens.
“But in return the council would want to rent the property for free so we can make the money back by hiring it out for weddings and functions.
“I think we can then start to attract investment from the Heritage Lottery Fund to make up the deficit of an extra £1.85 million that the surveyors say we need.
“If that means it needs to be run as an independent trust then I’m open minded.
“I’m happy for local people to handle the day to day running of Highbury.”
Chamberlain family historian Professor Peter Marsh, who has read more than 10,000 letters between the sons and daughters of Joseph Chamberlain, believes Birmingham could benefit hugely once the work is carried out.
Prof Marsh said: “Children don’t have a clue about the history that they can unearth here.
“It would be great for them to learn about the great traditions and the civic gospel.”
In October a public meeting was held where more than 100 people voiced their opinions on Highbury.
There was a consensus that it should be saved, restored and opened so schools, colleges, community groups, locals and visitors from around the world could learn about it’s rich history and enjoy its beautiful gardens and buildings.
But there is also an underlying anger at the council for letting things slide.
If the Moseley coalition can put its bubbling fury to one side and the council can be transparent while embracing the efforts of Mary De Vere Taylor and her associates, then Highbury could yet have a very bright future.