A Local Plan for Local People
On October 8th we had the referendum on the Balsall Heath Neighbourhood Plan, of which I have been the coordinator for the Neighbourhood Forum. We had a 90 per cent Yes vote on a 22 per cent turnout, and I let out a big sigh of relief and had a beer. We were one of the first 17 Frontrunners designated by DCLG in 2011, but after a good start, progress slowed considerably and we eventually ended with referendum No. 100. There were various reasons for the four-year duration, mostly not under my control, but one of them was the complicated nature of the neighbourhood.
Balsall Heath is one of the few inner-city districts to have prepared a neighbourhood plan. It is ethnically diverse and exhibits all the usual indicators of economic and social deprivation. But despite them, it has a resilient and socially cohesive community. There are a lot of 100 year-old streets of terraced byelaw houses, many of them renovated in the 80s under Birmingham City Council’s enterprising ‘enveloping’ programme, at no cost to owners. But many others were swept away during the 60s and 70s, in a less enlightened period of so-called ‘slum clearance’. They were eventually replaced by new housing, much of it with a Radburn-layout, but many residents, including Abdullah Rehman, the Chief Executive of the Forum, spent their childhoods playing among derelict houses and demolition rubble. The political emphasis was on rehousing the previous tenants in peripheral new estates and overspill towns, not on regenerating the inner city.
In July there was a fascinating exhibition in Balsall Heath of photographs of these streets about to be demolished, taken in the late 60s by the American photographer Janet Mendelsohn, then studying at the University of Birmingham’s Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies. The exhibition was called Ghost Streets: streets that now exist only as memories of places that are no longer real. It is easy to get too romantic over these images of grimy working class streets with their corner shops and pubs: the way of life there was hard and the rewards limited. But they are evocative of an urban community where the public space of the street, obstructed by few cars, was its playground and social arena, and I am very susceptible to their appeal.
In 1969 I was working for the City Council architect’s department, my first job after leaving architecture school. It was the peak year of municipal housing production in the city, when nearly 11,000 dwellings were built. This production was assisted by high level corruption, and the City Architect, Alan Maudsley, was later convicted and imprisoned for it. Maudsley asked me to help mount an exhibition, in which photographs of rundown inner city streets, in Balsall Heath and elsewhere, were contrasted with architects’ perspective drawings of new housing. I had a minor epiphany, in which I realised the illustrations were the wrong way around: what was to be demolished was a better environment than what was to replace it. I was so moved by this that I wrote an article and sent it to the Architect’s Journal. The editor didn’t publish it: if he had I would surely have lost my job and achieved my later notoriety much sooner. But he nevertheless sent me a cheque for four guineas. The gesture and the currency are very eloquent of a distant time.
The byelaw streets which remain in Balsall Heath are now thriving, and lined with parked cars. Even Cheddar Road, which was a notorious red-light street with Amsterdam-style prostitutes sitting in bay windows, is an entirely respectable place. Thirty years ago Balsall Heath was red-lined by building societies, and many residents wished to leave. Now house prices are rising faster than in other parts of the city. The Neighbourhood Plan aims to consolidate the community and improve the streets, encouraging residents to walk and cycle more and use their cars less. I hope that grassroots local planning can enable the return of some of the positive aspects visible in Mendelsohn’s photographs, without the accompanying hardship and poverty.
Balsall Heath’s neighbourhood centre in the late 60s. Photo Janet Mendelsohn
The same location today: place and people have disappeared. Photo Joe Holyoak
Joe Holyoak is an architect and urban designer, working in masterplanning, site planning, area regeneration, historic conservation, and community participation.
He is also on the Editorial Board of the URBAN DESIGN journal.