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Birmingham’s conservation crisis

Birmingham's problems attributed, at least in part, to the 86% fall in the number of conservation officers employed by the Council over the last five years.

The Victorian Society has warned of a crisis for Birmingham’s historic buildings. 30% of Birmingham’s conversation areas, 12 Grade II*-listed buildings, and a Grade I listed building are on English Heritage’s recently published 2014 ‘at risk’ list. The Victorian Society attributes these and other problems, at least in part, to the 86% fall in the number of conservation officers employed by the Council over the last five years.  This is perhaps one of the worse examples of a wider national trend which has seen a 35% drop* in the number of Local Authority employed specialists providing conservation advice since 2006. The Society recognises that Birmingham Council’s current funding environment is extremely challenging and cuts have to be made, but calls on the Council to quickly appoint a second conservation officer and to re-state its commitment to the conservation of Birmingham’s historic buildings.

Stephen Hartland, Chair of the Victorian Society’s Birmingham and West Midlands Group said: ‘One conservation officer cannot possibly deal properly with all the work from Britain’s second city. Birmingham Council must act now to ensure that, at the very least, the existing conservation officer vacancy is filled in the immediate future. Cutting the conservation budget to this extent is a false economy. For the city to succeed, it must be an attractive place to relocate to and invest in. It’s extremely worrying that conservation is not mentioned once in the Council’s premier HS2 regeneration scheme which straddles two conservation areas. A properly resourced conservation team could ensure that this omission is rectified and that the city’s mid-20th century planning mistakes are not repeated.’

Insufficient Council staff to safeguard Birmingham’s listed buildings and conservation areas.

Birmingham currently has just one conservation officer. Five years ago Birmingham had a team of seven. A second post, vacant for four months, has not yet been advertised.  The Council must act quickly to ensure the vacancy is filled. However, even two conservation officers cannot carry out the Council’s statutory duty to protect the city’s 2,000 listed buildings and 30 conservation areas.

English Heritage has identified Birmingham’s valuable heritage as at risk of being lost.

English Heritage has included 30% of Birmingham’s conservation areas on its 2014 register of listed buildings and conservation areas ‘At Risk’. The condition of four of these is graded poor, and five are graded very bad. In addition, 16 listed buildings in Birmingham on the ‘at risk’ register include 12 Grade II* listed buildings, and one Grade I listed building.

The Council’s own crumbling historic buildings are being neglected and in some cases put up for sale.

Moseley Road Baths is a building of international importance, and the only Grade II*-listed working municipal swimming baths in the country. However, it is one of those graded poor on the At Risk register. The Council proposes to close it permanently in September 2015, and has no plans to either repair the building or to find alternative uses for it. The Grade I listed Curzon Street Station is also on the ‘at risk’ register. Shockingly, although the station is located just a few metres away from the proposed HS2 terminal, there are no proposals for its reuse. Another historic Council-owned building, the 1892 Grade II listed Bloomsbury Library in Nechells, which closed in 2013, was sold at auction by the Council last week.

Conservation absent from Birmingham’s regeneration policy.

For Birmingham City Council’s bold programme for future economic and physical growth to succeed, the city needs to be an attractive place to relocate to and live in. The conservation (and reuse where necessary) of historic buildings and areas is an essential component of this process**. However, the Council appears not to understand this, as demonstrated by the severe cuts to its conservation team, and its recent regeneration policies. A striking example is the Council’s most ambitious urban regeneration programme, the Curzon Masterplan, centred on the proposed HS2 terminal. About half of the masterplan site is in two Digbeth conservation areas (both are included in the nine ‘At Risk’ conservation areas, graded poor and very bad). Yet the programme for the masterplan’s implementation*** does not identify the conservation areas within its maps, and the word conservation cannot be found once in the document. We conclude from this that the Council considers that conservation has no part to play in economic regeneration, or perhaps is even an obstruction to it.

*Historic Environment Local Management: a sixth report on local authority staff resources, 2014.

**Regeneration and the Historic Environment, English Heritage, 2005.

***Birmingham Curzon: Strategic outline programme, Birmingham City Council, 2014.

Wednesday 5 November, 2014

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