The forgotten suburbs

Alan Clawley has a question to ask council leader Sir Albert Bore.

I wonder, when did you last leave the comfort of the Council House offices to spend time looking round and talking to residents of our forgotten inner city neighbourhoods?

I include the ward of Ladywood which you represent as a councillor. Like Mike Whitby you’ve been busy dreaming of grandiose building projects that will put Birmingham on the world map and replace Birmingham’s old metal-bashing industries. That is, when you are not worrying yourself sick about the city’s failing Child Protection service.

There was a time when Birmingham’s inner city was a focus of your and the government’s attention. The Home Office started the ball rolling in 1970 with the Community Development Project in Saltley. Politicians were worried that the inner cities could become a hotbed of rebellion of the kind seen in Los Angeles. The CDP was followed by the Department of Environment’s more managerial Inner Area Study in Small Heath in 1973. This resulted in the Birmingham Inner City Partnership Programme which ran until 1992, handing out grants to hundred of voluntary and community groups in the inner areas. Some of the money went to help start housing co-operatives that are still going strong.

In the 1980s Urban Renewal and its famous Envelope Scheme came to the rescue of the inner city. Housing officers and planners came from far and wide to see how it was done. The council even made an award-winning video that was shown at international conferences on urban renewal. Despite all this good work the Handsworth riots of 1985 forcibly drew your attention to one inner city neighbourhood, at least.

You were very keen on community credit unions in those days, but today only the Small Heath one struggles on – with no help from the council.

Then through the 1990s there was Michael Heseltine’s City Challenge in Aston and Newtown, after which the Single Regeneration Budget returned to Saltley and Small Heath. The titles of the programmes – Sparkbrook, Sparkhill and Tyseley Area Regeneration Initiative (known locally as SSTARI) and East Birmingham and North Solihull Regeneration Zone – got longer as the money got shorter.

You believed that the inner cities would benefit in the end from big capital projects by a process known as ‘trickle-down’. Starting with the National Exhibition Centre, you moved on to the International Convention Centre, the Hyatt Hotel and the Symphony Hall, followed by the National Indoor Arena and the Library of Birmingham.

Unlike Chamberlain’s version of municipal enterprise, no profit from these schemes was ever ploughed into the council’s coffers. If it had been you would not be selling them off. You have even talked about closing the doors of the ICC to party political conferences because they cost too much to subsidise. And, although the Library of Birmingham does benefit your constituents because it stands in your ward, it comes at the cost of losing the community library at Springhill which you have closed down to save money.

If you were to take a bus ride on the number 8 you would see streets that you would be ashamed to show to a visitor. Litter lies on the ground for months on end. Cars are parked on pavements. Heavy traffic congestion pollutes the air. Car repair businesses spring up at seemingly at will. Derelict buildings and vacant sites await redevelopment.

The publicly-funded improvements that were made to the thousands of pre-1919 houses in 1984 were meant to give them a life of 30 years and are now due for a second round of Urban Renewal. But there is no sign of anything on the political horizon. Whereas the council, with your support, borrowed millions to build a new super-library and to stick shiny decorative cladding on the NIA and New Street Station, when it comes to spending money on the inner city neighbourhoods you plead poverty. If you have a plan for these neighbourhoods I would love to hear about it because without another round of public intervention conditions will only get worse. If ever there was a case for Prudential Borrowing this is it.

Your stewardship of council-owned buildings such as Moseley Road Baths, the Central Library and Small Heath Park does not make me optimistic. You have a policy of deliberate neglect that makes demolition a self-fulfilling prophesy and provides an easy way out in difficult times. But, in the case of the inner city neighbourhoods, you can’t run away from the impact such neglect has on the daily lives of the people who live there.

Isn’t it time to make that visit?

The front page photo was taken by the writer in Small Heath, 1984.

One thought on “The forgotten suburbs

  1. I believe that Sir Albert will be in Saltley, Washwood Heath and other parts of inner city East Birmingham sometime in 2026, riding on the inaugural HS2 service.

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