In his second article on preserving the region’s heritage from wanton destruction and neglect, David Mahony wonders whether an initiative in the Jewellery Quarter could be the answer.
As the destruction of the Second World War drew to a close, a group of geographers set about imagining a land use strategy for the damaged cities.
The model for London became the guiding principle for a great city, but for the West Midlands the work of Dudley Stamp and a group of business leaders languished.
The study, Conurbation, stressed that our region had to solve its own problems – and it could if it worked together. It imagined land having to be put in storage and huge swathes were assigned “meantime” roles as public open space, allotment or pasture.
Whilst it may have been far-out for the likes of Cadbury, Kendrick and Chance “to get down” with such a hippy concept, it was the opportunity for the region to focus on rebuilding the distinct settlements and reinforcing that sense of place.
Imagine what a powerhouse the town of Dudley would now be if Merry Hill was a park and the town centre was doing what towns are supposed to do?
Two other geographers – Massey and Thrift - helped define this sense in a Passion for Place: “We all know it exists, that feeling of being in a place. That feeling of something happening here and beyond the main rush of existence.”
At the time Conurbation was published Dudley and places like Walsall, Wednesbury, Wednesfield and Willenhall had this in spades, but by turning away from the wisdom of geographers and placing ourselves in a complex planning system based on legalities, the conurbation arrived at a point where it seemed the only way to save them was to build a huge supermarket.
Last time I argued by reference to the burnt-down BOAK building in Walsall that when the system starts to have lax attitude to its heritage, it soon becomes endemic and incendiary events become acceptable, casual unfortunates, rather than criminal and social vandalism.
Then, inadvertently, we lose that richness and passion for place which we will never get back. If we care, perhaps we need to find a new tool kit?
The opportunity that the localism agenda presents is perhaps the best opportunity. Let’s not be cynical for, by definition, localism is reversing the top down trend of handing ideas down on tablets of stone to allow informed communities to define what they want rather than be mere ‘lip-service’ consultees.
This expects a big slice of pragmatism in the system which I am not sure most planning officers will find palatable.
But with political support groups like community development trusts they would not have allowed the horse to bolt twice on Great Barr Hall and might have asked why it is necessary to build a huge eight-storey 400-unit development almost next door to the BOAK with no interrelationship such that one site becomes overdeveloped, the other a 999 call.
Perhaps what we are trying to create in the Jewellery Quarter sets a precedent. Here the trust has invited the Prince’s Foundation to consider why half of the 200 or so listed buildings lie empty.
The solution is to make a neighbourhood development order to create opportunity in exceptional circumstances based on imaginative solutions and benefit to the community.
Birmingham City Council and the Homes & Communities Agency are supporting this venture, which is unique in the region, and I am convinced that the Quarter will be an even better place for it.