Residents of the Beech Lanes area of Birmingham, which lies in the Quinton ward on the border with Harborne, have been left feeling shocked and very angry after learning that Birmingham City Council’s plans to sell off a much loved local community facility are at an advanced stage, in spite of assurances to the contrary for many months from senior officers and councillors.
Local people who live close to the Martineau Centre on Balden Road, a former school building donated by the Martineau Trust to the Council which has been used for a combination of training, conference and community activities for the past 20 years, were alerted to the possibility of the centre’s closure and demolition over 5 years ago but council officials have continuously and persistently refuted the suggestion that such a plan was being put into action.
Some concerned residents and centre users even set up their own campaign group in 2009 called The Martineau Ten, made up of local people who feel that decisions were being made about the historic building without proper consultation with stake holders such as service users, local citizens or centre staff. But group members say their concerns have been continually dismissed by local councillors, with the response “no decision has been made about the future of the Martineau Centre”.
In spite of public denials and reassurances from councillors and senior officers, it became obvious to local people that the writing was on the wall for the Martineau Centre when the building was allowed to go into disrepair. In 2007 a child-friendly learner-sized swimming pool in the centre was left permanently out of commission following the collapse of roof sections in the middle of the night – just one example of what locals describe as a wilful catalogue of neglect in preparation for its sale and demolition.
In a shock development in June, local people attending a Ward Committee Meeting in the area learnt that a decision was made last year that the building was surplus to requirements as an office and that the survey and valuation company DTZ Birmingham were appointed in summer 2010 to evaluate its sale. Locals have now been told verbally that a report has been prepared by DTZ without their involvement for a new housing development and a speedy consultation period is now likely to be rushed through in order to rubber stamp the Council’s own planning permission requirements.
Local resident and parent Pete Millington, a member of The Martineau Ten group, whose children enjoyed using facilities at the centre for football training and swimming lessons, said, “What annoys us is that until now our elected representatives in the area have not been transparent with us about the future of this excellent community amenity. It’s a great place, it’s in good shape structurally and is largely accessible, I have organised conferences and charity events there in the past myself and five years ago it was a thriving community hub. We have many unanswered questions. Why for instance wasn’t Martineau considered for the relocation of the fitness gymnasium following the closure of Harborne Baths? There’s a purpose built gymnasium at Martineau but instead the fitness equipment was all squeezed into the Quinborne community centre against the wishes of many regular service users there.”
“More recently the Martineau Centre could have been used as temporary accommodation for pupils from Harborne primary school following the dreadful roof fire. But rather than using this purpose built school building that actually belongs to the Council, we understand pupils have been relocated to an expensive and privately administered conference centre. Junior and infant school places are in short supply in the area anyway, so this was an ideal opportunity to develop Martineau”.
“But in spite of the evidence of our own eyes, all we’ve heard for the past two years are repeated platitudes, their very own words being “no decision has been made yet about the future of the Martineau Centre”. The viewpoints of ordinary citizens are clearly an inconvenience to the Council and we’re now being drip fed what was obvious to staff at the centre and ourselves all along, the historic Martineau Centre is threatened with being bulldozed. As usual our politicians seem to know the cost of everything and the value of nothing”.
David Grainger, who is chairman of the Beech Lanes Neighbourhood Forum, has written to the newly elected Quinton councillor Matthew Gregson expressing local concerns. He said:
“I was extremely concerned that a decision made last year was not communicated to interested parties. As you know the Martineau Centre is situated in the area covered by the Beech Lanes Neighbourhood Forum and therefore its future is of concern to us”
Mr Grainger has requested that the City Council convene a public meeting at the Martineau Centre so that a full presentation of the DTZ proposals can be discussed. He has also requested an extension of the period of public consultation so that local people can more fully digest and comment on the proposals and requested that the City Council has regard to the provisions of the Localism Bill currently before Parliament concerning neighbourhood involvement.
Rwth Hunt, another member of the Martineau 10 group added, “This is a disgracefully procrastinated admission which only became public after a number of petitions from the local community led to a newly elected councillor, Matthew Gregson, making enquiries and being invited to give a verbal update at the Ward Meeting. Senior officers and councillors have been denying that any such plan existed for over eighteen months. We are disappointed though not surprised at Birmingham City Council’s determination to avoid involving local people in their own communities”.
Further clarification on the plans for the Martineau Centre was provided by three councillors for the Quinton ward, John Clancy, Peter Smallbone and Matthew Gregson at the June meeting of the Beech Lanes Neighbourhood Forum. The councillors said that decisions about the future of the Martineau Centre have been made by Birmingham’s council cabinet and that other parties were kept in the dark until certain council staff were informed in February 2011.
The councillors also confirmed that DTZ were appointed by the cabinet last summer to carry out the feasibility study and have considered several options for the site, including a hotel, but are recommending the building of 170 new houses including up to 5 executive type houses. DTZ are hoping to make their scheme available for public consultation on the 6th July.
At the meeting Councillor Clancy said that DTZ should not be given the go-ahead for their public consultation on the specific housing scheme until a proper and legal public consultation is carried out on what local people would like to be done with the campus. Mr Clancy suggested that there should be a 6 month delay by DTZ. All three councillors at the meeting expressed sympathy for the option that the Martineau Centre be protected for community use.
After the meeting, local resident and retired architect Alun Evans, who was a founder member of The Martineau Ten group, said, “It will be interesting to learn what DTZ are proposing and whether there is a multi-use option somewhere between housing and community use. We are skeptical about whether DTZ will fully acknowledge the strong heritage value of the buildings. Our own conclusion is that the Council’s cabinet are trying to rush this through without proper consultation because they have run out of money. At the root of the Council’s problem is its commitment to so many capital projects such as the new Library, New Street Station alterations, improvements to the Art Gallery and other projects, whilst the monies provided by the Government are being cut back drastically. They are having to sell off assets in the suburbs, including many of Birmingham’s heritage buildings, in order to cover the debt”.