South Birmingham

The Urban Repairs Club go Birmingham

Birmingham is well known for having poured investment into its city centre, tackling the legacy of its 1960s comprehensive redevelopment and creating the No.1 business conference and convention city outside London, as well as cementing its position as the undisputed regional capital of the Midlands for the arts and for shopping.  Its greatest coups have included Simon Rattle opening the Symphony Hall in 1991, hosting Clinton, Yeltsin and the G8 in 1998, and – perhaps the most impressive, for the retail worshipping English – the opening of a giant Selfridges in the completely replaced Bull Ring shopping centre in 2003.  Meanwhile, the steady development of the world’s greatest German Christmas Market should not go unmentioned – with a gluhwein in hand and Slade blasting out of the speakers, the embodiment of the 21st century English Christmas.

But the Birmingham beyond the major set-pieces feels less widely known.  As England’s second city, Birmingham hasn’t quite achieved the reputation of, say, Manchester, as a city that has really remade itself around a new downtown living and urban lifestyle “offer”.  Is that just because the Brummies aren’t as gobby as the Mancs?

The initial concept for the first full Urban Repairs Club expedition was to find and explore Birmingham’s bohemian quarters and 21st century urban villages – to see what had been achieved in our field of “organic urban regeneration” during the long nineties/noughties boom, and to take the temperature of how they are weathering the recession.  Not in search of glossy newbuild, but of quality restoration and interesting reuse of the buildings and neighbourhoods of the industrial heritage.

In the end, that’s not quite what we did, but we did establish some lines of inquiry for a future visit by a getting a taster of Digbeth and what Birmingham City Council’s Big City Plan calls the “Southside major transformation area”.

Instead, the visit evolved into a field investigation with a theme of urban transport options, in particular of two perennial problems in British transport planning:  what to do with traffic on Victorian & Edwardian retail streets doubling up as arterial roads, and the trials and tribulations of trying to do urban rail/integrated public transport on a shoestring.  We promised our hosts that we would seek out the positives rather than just carp or criticise, and this is what we tried to do – it feels like the right modus operandi for the Urban Repairs Club.

On the first topic, we compared and contrasted the A38 through Selly Oak with the A34 through Sparkhill, with quick visits to the A451 Stourbridge town centre ring road and  Birmingham city centre’s Moor Street (formerly part of the Queensway “concrete collar”) providing a couple of glimpses of the West Midlands’ distinctive history of city centre inner ring road building.  On the second, we experienced the Cross City line New Street to Selly Oak, the Moor Street/Snow Hill line to Stourbridge Junction, investigated the Parry People Mover Stourbridge Junction to Stourbridge Town, and had a taster of the bus network that serves as the alternative to urban rail across most of South Birmingham, where it is absent.

Birmingham is a large metropolis, and you can’t even get an overview in a single 24 hour visit.  Instead we tried to dig into a few issues, whilst leaving plenty more to look into on other occasions.  A systematic investigation of the Big City Plan’s six quarters surrounding the city core (Eastside, Digbeth, Southside/Highgate, Westside/Ladywood, Jewellery Quarter and St George/St Chad) is called for, as are detailed investigations of great Birmingham suburbs such as Moseley, Handsworth or Longbridge.  And that’s not to mention entirely separate trips to Coventry and the Black Country.  The threat of a return visit – possibly many – by the Urban Repairs Club must hang like a pall over the West Midlands.

Meanwhile, our sincere thanks go to our hosts and native guides from Birmingham’s Lunar Society, West Midlands Friends of the Earth, Pre-Metro Operations Ltd, the New Optimists and the Birmingham University School of Geography.

Birmingham New Street

We arrived at Birmingham New Street, which, since the demolition of the Bull Ring Centre, now epitomises the last remaining eyesores of 1960s Birmingham which, it seems everyone agrees, must be swept away.  The New Street station redevelopment is firmly in the tradition of Birmingham’s nineties/noughties era ambitions for the city centre, and will no doubt be a success, replacing today’s claustrophobia with a station atrium apparently of New York Grand Central proportions, and the great trophy of a giant John Lewis.

The problem with the new New Street is that it will not provide any new platforms, which would have been prohibitively expensive/impossible in its constrained site, a cutting between tunnels in the heart of the city centre.  Therefore the new New Street will be great for the station’s primary role as a major regional and national rail hub, but high frequency metro-service urban rail serving the inner city’s requirements will of necessity remain the poor relation.  Even HS2 will have to go elsewhere – to a new stand-alone station at Curzon Street in “Eastside” about half a kilometre away, simultaneously creating both a problem and an opportunity.  The Big City Plan is alive to this challenge, and aims to respond to it.

The new Bull Ring and into Digbeth

One of the celebrated achievements of the nineties and noughties was loosening the grip of the “concrete collar” of the Queensway inner ring road on Birmingham City Centre.  Unfortunately we didn’t have time to look at the various sites and schemes in detail.  However, we did inspect the changes at Moor Street on Day 2 (see section below), whilst on Day 1 we were able to take a look at the two great public realm achievements of the new Bull Ring – the bridging of St Martin’s Queensway outside the renovated Rotunda, and “Spiceal Street”, the new premium chain restaurant mecca which overlooks and wraps around St Martin’s Church in a way it would be churlish to deny is exciting.  It’s nice to imagine that Nelson, whose statue – the first in the country raised to the great Admiral after Trafalgar – presides over the scene, would agree.

Spiceal Street the property development is a big stakes commercial gamble on high volume and high margin chain restaurant dining retaining its popularity despite the recession.  Our guess is it that will succeed, and we wish it well.  The new steps open the route down into the promised land that is Digbeth in a way that the dotty, fascinating, but ultimately sterile, cliff face of Selfridges’ exterior doesn’t.  As an urban repair, the steps get top marks in their class;  all looks like it is going to work admirably.  Whilst the statue adds a touch of class admiralbly.

Digbeth and “Southside”

Digbeth was the Shenzhen of the late 19th and early-mid 20th centuries.  Not heavy industry, but light manufacturing: low to mid-tech, mass production of consumer items for the mass market.  The extent is impressive – block after block of small workshops and factories, which thrived right into the 60s and 70s.  Unfortunately, globalisation and actual Shenzhen has ensured that the business model for this old-style Birmingham manufacturing is completely busted.  Thirty years into a relentless trend of decline for British manufacturing, what is striking now is the acreage of redundancy and dereliction.  Many industrial premises remain, but in parts “Southside” feels almost emptied out, Detroit style.  If “the march of the makers” ever does really get under way, and West Midlands manufacturing does recover in response to the big fall in the pound, it’s unlikely that it will be doing it in this part of town.

However, throughout, a relatively fine grain of urban streets survives, and in Digbeth proper, a variety of heritage buildings with great opportunities for conversion and re-use, many of which have already been realised.  The canvas for organic urban regeneration is there, and a number of interesting people and organisations have already started painting.  The “Digbeth is Good” website gives a very good flavour of these impressive urban guardian angels.

Sadly, we couldn’t visit Digbeth’s organic regeneration showpieces, including the Custard Factory or “The Bond” canal warehouse conference centre.

Beneath the Moor St viaduct

We did however get to see the amazing spaces below the Moor Street railway viaduct (currently used as a car park), including Birmingham’s only Grade 1 listed urinals, before heading for dinner at The Warehouse Cafe, Allison Street.

The Warehouse is a former stable for police horses which later served as an abattoir, and is now the headquarters of Birmingham Friends of the Earth.  It’s a delight to visit – offering the chance to pick up leaflets on the range of Friends of the Earth’s campaigns in the West Midlands, before sitting down to a quality vegetarian feast at its welcoming and unpretentious café.  The rent from the café helps to fund the running costs of the building as a whole, a little green redoubt from which FoE’s campaigners can sally forth to do battle against the forces of earth destruction.  An environment and business model the more diametric opposite of Spiceal Street it is impossible to imagine.  The alcohol policy is the admirable B.Y.O., which we tried the patience of by bringing in a bagful of cheap Polish lager.  Try doing that in the new Bull Ring.

The Anchor Inn, Digbeth

Later, we inspected the excellent new National Express Digbeth coach station before repairing to the Anchor Inn, a serial winner of Birmingham CAMRA’s best pub award, and a stone’s throw away from the coach station.  It’s a template on how to take the heritage of 19th and 20th century Digbeth and make it into a genuinely enjoyable place to be in the 21st century.  Digbeth has sadly experienced a massacre of street corner pubs, with boarded-up but unburied corpses all over the place.  The Anchor Inn, we hope, shows a way forward for some of them.

Urban Repair suggestion no.1:  Could a civic activist organisation re-open a closed pub of real importance to Digbeth heritage on the same business model as the Warehouse, cross-subsidising a community/activist resource with drinkers’ dollars?  It would be nice to think so.  Maybe it’s already happened, we’d be interested to hear.

Our overnight stay was at the Paragon Hotel, Alcester Street, in Highgate Park, or “Southside”.  Formerly a “Rowton House”, as celebrated by George Orwell in Down & Out in Paris & London, this high class migrant workers’ hostel has to be experienced to be believed.  Nowhere can one get a stronger sense of what “Digbeth as Shenzhen” might have felt like in its heyday.

The hotel’s publicity, admirably, does not shy away from its dosshouse heritage.  As the hotel’s own leaflet says: “Rowton House thrived until the 1960s when it fell into a state of disrepair.  In 1993 the building was purchased by hoteliers and has changed hands and name several times since then.  The Paragon today is owned by the Dhillon Group and has a grade 2 listing to protect its impressive Gothic Edwardian architecture… With each year we are restoring another part of the old building with the dream that one day we make The Paragon hotel a stunning destination hotel”.

A veritable manifesto for the organic urban regeneration of Digbeth.  All credit to the Dhillon Group, and a challenge for all others – can you beat that?

Southside and the Big City Plan

The teams that meet in caffs

We breakfasted at the Moseley Street Café (232 Moseley Street, no website), and pondered whether the clientele were actual local factory workers on their break, or retired former local factory workers coming back in to their old stamping ground just for the crack.  Either way, they had a nose for good value.

Southside Major Transformation Area

The Big City Plan’s vision for Southside is “major transformation”, meaning comprehensive redevelopment.  It sees potential for a significant residential area, which – although it might feel slightly counterintuitive whilst gazing at the industrial scene – is probably right.  The plan boldly claims it wants to see urban family housing as well as one-bedroom flats.  It could be done – the canvas is large enough – but does one feel confident it will be done?  Certainly, much of the Big City Plan seems to assume that redevelopment can proceed at the pace of the noughties boom years, which feels anachronistic in our new age of austerity.

It would be good to see some early wins.  The Plan makes much of the opportunities for the further improvement of the Gay Village centred on Hurst Street and the Chinese Quarter around Bradford Street and the Arcadian Centre.  Sorry, we can’t report – we didn’t make it to either place on this trip.

Much more controversially, The Plan hangs its hat on the development of the 8 hectare site of the City’s wholesale markets, a move being bitterly opposed by FoE and some of the city’s fine dining restauranteurs.  The City Council points out that the 1960s wholesale market buildings are ugly and life-expired, and they cover up the potentially very interesting site of the original de Bermingham family manor house, with moat and frontage onto Birmingham’s native river, the Rea.  But FoE and the restauranteurs point out that the wholesale markets are a vibrant and useful part of the city’s modern gastronomic offer, as well as part of its tradition.

We didn’t see enough to take sides on this controversy.  Mostly now culverted, the Mississippi it ain’t, but opening up the Rea sounds on paper to be a noble aim.  But it does seem perverse to want to demolish the liveliest and most thriving marketplace in an area with plenty of other derelict sites.  Birmingham may have more miles of canal than Venice, but you don’t see the City of Venice threatening to redevelop the wholesale markets of the Rialto.  You can follow developments in the battle here: http://friendsofbullringmarkets.wordpress.com/

Mick the Meat

Network West Midlands

Birmingham has a quite limited urban rail network for a major European city.  New Street is the crossroads of the national rail network, and the range of destinations on its departure boards is striking – Aberdeen to Penzance, Aberystwyth to Penrith.  The downside is there is not much room on the available platforms and tracks for a dense network of frequent urban services.

For some reason, Birmingham’s go-ahead Victorian civic leaders never made a start on an underground rail network, and there is no “U-bahn” type network to the main inner suburbs, which are served by bus.  The Birmingham Integrated Transport Study of 1989 (of which more later) envisaged the development of a comprehensive network of urban light rail, with underground stations in the city centre, but it wasn’t built.  Instead, three projects went ahead:  electrification of the Lichfield to Redditch via New Street Cross-City line (1993), the Stourbridge to Solihull/Stratford route via Snow Hill & Moor Street (1995), and the Midland Metro tram (1999), following the old Great Western Railway route through the Black Country from Snow Hill to West Bromwich and Wolverhampton.

We sampled Birmingham’s attempt at developing an “S-bahn” network by riding out to Stourbridge from the 1990s-redeveloped Snow Hill station and returning on the same route to the nicely restored heritage environment of Moor St station.  We also sampled the Cross-City line with a ride from New Street to Selly Oak.

Midland Metro tram at Snow Hill station

The new Snow Hill is a functional big city urban metro station amongst an associated major office development.  Its status as the (current) terminus of the Metro tram feels like a well-kept secret.  Absurdly, the “London Midland rail network” maps displayed on the rail platforms at Snow Hill do not show the tram.  Although “Network West Midlands” exists as a concept and a branding, public transport in Birmingham seems to be advertised on a company by company basis, with little sense of a single city-wide public transport network.  We bought a Network West Midlands daytripper ticket (one day bus & rail travelcard) for a reasonable £5.50, but it didn’t seem that this was a ticket our booking clerk at Snow Hill sold very often.

Urban Repair suggestion No.2:  A widely-distributed simple map of the combined rail and bus network to the main Birmingham suburbs – Birmingham’s answer to the London tube map.

To Stourbridge and the Parry People Mover

We were told in no uncertain terms that a visit to Stourbridge had no place in a tour of Birmingham suburbs, and that, in daring to enter the Black Country, we were crossing a serious cultural boundary.  But we went anyway, as the guests of Pre-Metro Operations Ltd, to see the Parry People Mover, a flywheel and Ford Focus engine-propelled rail car.

Our route out to Stourbridge seemed to stay mostly confined to wooded cuttings, with the view from the train giving only glimpses of the Black Country’s jumble of towns and villages.  However, at Stourbridge, the railway is up on the hillside, with the town down in the valley.  The Victorians’ solution was the 0.8 mile long single track branch from Stourbridge Junction to Stourbridge Town, one of the steepest sections of track in the country.  It’s difficult for heavy rail to be economic on such a short branch, and it was a perfect application for the Black Country visionary J.P.M. Parry’s People Mover.

The Parry People Mover dates back to the renaissance of interest in trams or “light rapid transit” in the 1980s/90s.  The essential Parry concept is that power supply is a big problem for light rapid transit running through pedestrianised streets.  Diesel engines are too noisy and polluting, third rail electric requires an entirely segregated track, creating severance, and overhead wires are expensive and arguably unsightly.  Parry’s answer was a vehicle self-propelled by stored kinetic energy:  a half-ton onboard flywheel, revolving at 2,500 rpm, re-powered electrically at each station stop.  The concept offered a low cost, low noise and pollution-free light rail people mover for your town’s shopping street.  It could even run inside shopping malls and buildings.

The Parry People Mover

An application of the original pure concept remains wanting.  Instead Parry was able to offer a low cost option for the difficult economics of the Stourbridge Town branch line.  On sub-contract to London Midland, Pre-Metro Operations Ltd’s 16 seater Parry rail car provides the service in place of a standard British diesel train, ploughing up and down the branch every 15 minutes.  The rail car interior is reminiscent of London’s Docklands Light Railway (both are 1980s design concepts).  Like the DLR, the novelty for the punter is being able to get the forward view of the track ahead.  Unlike the DLR, there is a driver, but the absence of standard railway practice and union rules allows him to act as a friendly on-board host before taking the controls from the driving seat in the corner.  The power is from the on-board Ford Focus diesel engine running at constant speed, with the power surge to get into motion and to get up the steep hill being supplied by the flywheel.

The result is a curious mixture of rumblings from the engine and flywheel, and a rather swaying, bumpy ride, which is the fault of Network Rail’s track, clearly in dreadful condition.  (Apparently, the effect of the spinning flywheel is to damp down the bumping and swaying there otherwise would have been in such a light rail car.)  The overwhelming impression is of a gentle, jolly fairground ride which usefully and enjoyably brings you to and from downtown Stourbridge.

One could view the saga of the Parry People Mover at Stourbridge as a microcosm of Britain’s competitiveness gap in industrial design, manufacturing, industrial finance, transport planning and town planning, as we continue into the 21st century.  Alternatively, one could view it as a welcome and delightful addition to Little Britain’s treasure trove of unusual transport systems.  In the relentlessly positive Urban Repairs Club, we take the latter view.

Stourbridge Town

As said, Stourbridge has no place in a tour of Birmingham.  The demography and the economy are clearly different: older, whiter, slower – and giving off a sense of a lot of people of all ages in the town centre with not enough money and not enough to do.

Nevertheless, Stourbridge is one of the most prosperous of the Black Country towns, and it does show.  On the edge of the conurbation, it provides the local Waitrose for the well-heeled residents of the Worcestershire green belt.  The High Street has some appealing architecture and low levels of shop vacancies; the shopping mall is immaculately kept.

However, for the Urban Repairs Club, Stourbridge can only mean one thing: the extraordinary Stourbridge inner ring road.  The road provides another microcosm of British transport planning history – the saga of what to do with traffic in towns.  The Stourbridge ring road is a very West Midlands exemplar of one of the things the British have made such a mess of over the years: the town centre inner relief road.  The Stourbridge road, completed in 1969, is a pretty gung-ho example.  A one-way gyratory racetrack, with traffic leaving and joining from slip roads on both sides of the road, it basically turns Stourbridge town centre into the large central island of a roundabout.  With traffic exiting the slip roads at speed, the road geometry makes the damage to the old street layout profound.  All pedestrian crossing was originally intended to be by subway – unfortunately built as narrow, dingy ones in the British style.  At Church Street, the traffic engineers have been persuaded to allow the addition of a surface pedestrian crossing, but have not taken the opportunity to soften the road geometry.  Elsewhere, the road remains defended by heavy duty guard rail.

Stourbridge Old High Street

But it is not really the ring road itself that offends the most: it is the failure to use all that investment to actually get cars out of the historic and otherwise quite architecturally-appealing High Street.  The narrow High Street is literally full of cars.  Two lanes wide, one lane is for on-street parking and the other is for one way traffic, queued waiting to access the main town centre car park.  In order not to block the queued traffic, people needing access to premises on the west side of the street (the side with the double yellow lines) park on the pavement.  And it is not just deliveries: to my eye it seemed there was commuter parking on the pavement too.

It would be easy to level criticism at the way that, in transport planning and urban design terms, almost everything that can go wrong has gone wrong – and all in an unmistakeably British way.  But we did promise to look only for the positives, and here they are.

Centro is building a new bus station at Stourbridge Town railway station, and the bus-rail interchange will be much improved.  The leafy churchyard of the United Reformed Church, simultaneously provides a little oasis of serenity and a reminder of the Black Country’s nonconformist heritage.  The subway from station to the heart of the High Street is being done up, and will offer a seamless walking route when re-opened.  Accessible by both car and public transport, Stourbridge’s town centre has every chance of staying viable and lively as a retail centre in a decade when many others will be killed or left half dead by austerity and the internet.

Urban Repair suggestion no.3:  Make more of the Parry People Mover as a unique Stourbridge phenomenon.  And how about some ambition?  Get it across the ring road on a level crossing and run it straight down the old High Street, on flywheel power.

Moor Street and Eastside

Having ruled out a bus, there were two options for our rail route from Stourbridge to Selly Oak: changing at Smethwick Galton Bridge, or returning to Birmingham city centre, to walk between Moor Street and New Street stations.  We chose the latter and took the opportunity to take a have a quick look at progress in “breaking the concrete collar” of the old Queensway inner ring road at Moor Street, and a get a glimpse of the Eastside mega-redevelopment, linked to the project that is causing the most excitement in Birmingham at the moment, High Speed Two to Curzon Street in Eastside.

Moor Street (the railway station) is a great success – its Edwardian heritage well restored, with a new range of Chiltern Railway services to London Marylebone.  Moor Street (the street) is more of a work in progress.  Formerly part of the infamous inner ring road, it now carries a diminished amount of general traffic in one direction only – anti-clockwise along what was the old clockwise carriageway.  The other carriageway now carries buses only on the city centre bus loop.  The heavy lifting has been done, including the demolition of the large Masshouse Circus grade-separated junction.  We understand that the project to gain some of the city street environmental benefits of the road downgrade is about to start.  We look forward to it: at the moment one emerges from Moor Street station with the exhaust pipes of the remaining general traffic precisely at nose height.

Masshouse plaza development, Eastside

Eastside – which we glimpsed from a quick detour into the new Masshouse development – is such a mega-project that it is really beyond the scope of the Urban Repairs Club.  The development so far is more of the factory farmed regeneration genre than the Club’s preferred human scale organic urban regeneration.  Fair enough: the arrival of High Speed Two propels the area into the big league, and small scale is not the right thing here.  So far it’s early days and too soon to tell whether a unifying urban design theme is guiding the way, and a coherent new big city place of the Paddington Basin ilk will rise here, or whether it will remain a rather unhappy 21st century urban dystopia.  So it’s not wise to give a final verdict now, but suffice it to say that for the time being any Chinese investors will feel very at home here.

Selly Oak and Sparkhill – history

Our main investigation of the history of the West Midlands’ take on dealing with “traffic in towns” continued at Selly Oak and Sparkhill, in South Birmingham.  The aim was to look at contrasting responses to the problem of accommodating an arterial road with through traffic in an inner city suburban context.

Selly Oak is situated on the A38 Bristol Road.  It’s the first refuelling stop for students outside the gates of the campus of Birmingham University, and the enormous new Queen Elizabeth PFI Hospital is nearby.  Sparkhill is on the A34 Stratford Road and is famous for forming one side of the “Balti Triangle”.

Both suburbs grew up in the Victorian and Edwardian periods, and in both the commercial/retail centre grew up as a corridor along the main road.  In 1919, the aforementioned go-ahead Birmingham city fathers laid down plans for on-line widening of both roads to 120 feet – dual carriageway boulevards with green verges and tram lines down the central reservation.  All the buildings along both corridors were to be demolished in due course, upon arrival of the necessary funding.  Meanwhile, highways powers were deployed to establish a new building line for any new development, set back from the existing road, back to where would be needed for the widened road.  This blighted a swathe of the existing Victorian & Edwardian property along both roads, discouraging investment in its upkeep for decades.

On both roads north and south of Selly Oak and Sparkhill, sections can be seen where the highways engineers realised their vision.  But it is also clear how little of the vision was realised when the engineers hit the bottleneck of a successful suburban shopping street, built tight to the old road.  Of course, the traffic on the A34 and A38 was not just city traffic but long distance through traffic too in those days and traffic congestion got worse.  Trams, which had not got their segregated central reservation, were scrapped and replaced by more manoeuvrable motor buses, partly to help ease congestion.  But this provided no cure for the problem as traffic levels grew in Britain’s premier motor manufacturing city.

By the 1970s battles were being fought and it was getting pretty clear that on-line widening of the full network was never going to happen.  In Birmingham, as elsewhere, the creed of comprehensive redevelopment was replaced by council grant-funding for the renovation and modernisation of Victorian era property in dire need of investment.  The programmes were a great success.  Particularly interesting was the Birmingham tactic of making grants conditional on the participation of the whole terrace in the upgrade.  In Sparkhill, we saw excellent examples of the quality of restoration achieved at that time, still visible today.  They are a tribute to the quality of the people and ideas behind that historic change in policy.

Amazingly though, the 1919 building line still stuck in official plans until the 1980s/90s.  In Sparkhill, the South Birmingham Environmental Traffic Management Study of 1992 tackled the anomaly – the new approach was the downgrade the road as a through route for traffic, and simultaneously upgrade the pedestrian environment of the shopping centre, without actually providing any replacement road.  The key concept was that at low speed, say 20mph, a continuous chain of slow moving traffic could still provide the traffic capacity the traffic planners said they needed.

In Selly Oak, the revised policy was the more conventional one of a relief road or by-pass.  After a long wait, the Selly Oak New Road was finally officially opened on 13 October 2011.

Bristol Road, Selly Oak – impressions

That was the concept – but our delivery on the ground was a little more hit and miss.  Arriving in Selly Oak by rail, we found Bristol Road, but were utterly unclear as to where the relief road was, and if it had been finished.  There certainly seemed to be little evidence of any relief from heavy traffic.  In fact, the new road was open, but the environmental scheme to reap the benefit of reduced traffic on Bristol Road had not yet begun.  Later, confusion was introduced over whether we had even been to Selly Oak at all, or in fact technically had visited Bournbrook.

Bristol Road the retail street is reasonably thriving, and benefits greatly from having the student community to enliven it.  There are some interesting independent retail businesses, most of whom it seems make a play on the Selly Oak name – Selly Sausage, Selly Soak (launderette), and so on.  There is even branded Selly Oak civic pride, as we saw when we met some I Love Selly Oak student volunteers.  Let’s say we were justified in thinking this was Selly Oak.

Exhausted by our morning’s exertions, we piled into The S’Oak pub for lunch, and hit upon the students of Birmingham University celebrating the last day of term.

Either Selly Oak or Bournbrook

Bristol Road has endured years of narrow footways, resulting from the determined attempt of the highways engineers to maintain four lanes of thundering traffic (two in each direction) on a single carriageway 3½ lanes wide (32 feet).  The opportunity is now great to reduce the road to two lanes, and re-use the space to widen the pavements, allow the traders to make more use of their outdoor frontage space, introduce more street trees, and (even) to bring in some street parking.

It’s an interesting question to ask how badly the heavy traffic and ban on street parking has damaged the development of Selly Oak/Bournbrook’s retailers, cafés and pubs over the years.  The impression is that, like many main road retail streets in inner London (Upper Street Islington or Balham High Road spring to mind), traffic hell only feet away does not seem to hold back the development of an interesting mix, if the basic demand is there, and nicely sized, reasonably priced retail premises are available.

An even more interesting question is whether a street environment improvement can really help independent retailers and cafes/pubs in the age of austerity and Tescopoly.  What impact can it have, compared to the impact of student fees rising to £27k for a three year undergraduate course?  Surely students’ ability and propensity to spend three years supporting the local high street by spending most of it in the pub will now decline?

We love Selly Oak

Nevertheless the potential for a fantastic improvement is now there for the taking – as is the potential to cock it up with the wrong scheme.  Cost is probably not a major issue: a good scheme needn’t cost a lot; the crucial issue is probably avoiding a bad design.  A key decision will be whether to go for a “bus gate”, to make the old road unavailable to general through traffic.  Could an Exhibition Road, Kensington-style shared space work for Bristol Road?  Maybe, maybe not – but it would be good to see it aired as one of the design options.  We wish the City Council’s consultation on the scheme well.

The key message we took home from Selly Oak was that students are good news for urban repairs.  They are great at bringing life and a determination to make the most of the available environment.

Edgbaston Interchange

We set off to Sparkhill by bus, changing to the No.1 bus at “Edgbaston Interchange”.  Although the sculpture was interesting, some useful bus information like a network map would have been welcome.  We finally got under way, getting some intriguing glimpses of Moseley en route.

Stratford Road, Sparkhill

Sparkhill is on the A34 Stratford Road and we walked a decent section of it from College Road to Beach Road.  A major pre-1960s suburban shopping street, with evidence of former department stores, cinemas and city corporation facilities such as the library, park and police station along its length, Sparkhill’s life as a shopping street is now almost entirely a product of its role as a retail centre for the local Asian British population.

Stratford Road, Sparkhill

A similar street in a different context would probably be seriously struggling in this recession, with shop vacancies, abandonments and so on.  In Sparkhill, family-owned and run independent grocers, clothes shops and restaurants soldier on and appear to be thriving, although no doubt hard times are being experienced.  Putting on a good show with a superabundance of stock is very much part of the retail offer, and the outcome is impressive, whether the stock piled be fruit & veg or Hindu garlands.  The investment in exuberant restaurants, stimulated by the clustering and competition of the Balti Triangle is impressive – not quite Las Vegas, but the same general idea.

We checked out the palette of design measures from the 1990s environmental scheme: widened pavements, bus boarders, improved pedestrian crossings and entry treatments for crossing side roads, loading bays for deliveries to shops.  All have provided 20 years’ good service improving the environment for pedestrians, shoppers and bus passengers.

Urban Repair suggestion No. 4

What Sparkhill needs now is a relatively modest amount of continuing investment to maintain and refresh the renovation and improvement projects of the 1970s and 90s. 

Conclusions

According to the elderly proprietor of one of the specialist Asian clothing shops where we bought our guide a garland, what is needed is “the return of the Council grants”, and we are inclined to agree.  Birmingham is a big city that has a particular penchant for comprehensive redevelopment, and it may well be that its focus on the comprehensive redevelopment of the previous 1950s/60s round of comprehensive redevelopment has been precisely the right strategy.

But Birmingham also did itself a lot of favours in the 1970s when it decided it was going to invest seriously in the renovation of its excellent Victorian and Edwardian suburbs, such as Selly Oak and Sparkhill.  A way does need to be found to unlock a new round of investment in Birmingham’s inner suburbs, to keep the basic infrastructure of streetscape and building stock in good shape for the coming decades.  Can it be done?  Austerity, Tescopoly and the internet all make for a hurricane blowing down the High Street that is sweeping away independent retailers, traditional pubs and public funding for basic upkeep of the streetscape.  But on the other hand, there remains a fierce civic pride in Birmingham that can be harnessed to defend and improve its urban villages.

We at the Urban Repairs Club are convinced that urban village living – which need not be a preserve for the richest and the poorest only – is something there is a real desire and market for.  Some, but maybe not all, parts of the city will be able to remake their lifestyle offer to meet this pent-up demand.  We intend to follow the progress of the most promising places, and to celebrate the civic entrepreneurs who are going to make it happen.

England expects

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2 Responses to South Birmingham

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