A conservation group has accused supermarket giant Sainsbury’s of reneging on a deal to restore a section of a Birmingham canal as part of a huge development plan in the city.
Roy Burgess, chairman of the The Hales Owen Abbey Trust, claimed the store chain was trying to backtrack on an arrangement to improve a stretch of the Dudley No.2 Canal, known as the Lapal Canal.
He said the deal was contained in the original planning consent granted to the firm for its Selly Oak development five years ago.
Proposals for the former Battery and Medals site include a major store, 20 shops, cafes, restaurants, bars, offices, student housing, two hotels and a petrol station.
But a Sainsbury’s spokeswoman confirmed the latest plan did not contain proposals for the restoration of the Lapal Canal.
Mr Burgess said: “The announcement by Sainsbury’s that it was to abandon its previous commitment to fully restore that section of canal is a disappointment.
"The planning gain achieved by the canal restoration was a factor in that approval and neither Sainsbury’s nor Birmingham City Council should renege upon the public expectations arising from the original plan.”
Mr Burgess said the restoration of the five-and-a-half mile Lapal Canal was of “vital importance” in terms of leisure, recreation and economic growth and the restored stretch of waterway would be a “national asset”.
The Dudley No.2 Canal was opened in 1798 and was built to join the Dudley Canal with the Worcester and Birmingham Canal.
The main line was nearly 11 miles long but it proved expensive to maintain and the Lapal Tunnel – Britain’s fourth-longest canal tunnel – was dogged by a series of roof collapses, the last of which happened in 1917.
The approaches on either side of the tunnel became increasingly under-used and were decommissioned in 1953, leaving only the western half of the canal in use today. The Lapal Canal Trust is working towards the restoration of the decommissioned half of the canal and is being supported by The Hales Owen Abbey Trust.
Mr Burgess said the changes to the Sainsbury’s scheme meant money had been wasted on a new canal bridge built below Selly Oak’s recently-opened bypass.
“Millions of pounds of public money has recently been spent on the new Selly Oak bypass, which will provide logistical support to the new store,” he said.
“The bypass includes a new canal bridge constructed in readiness for the Lapal Canal/Sainsbury’s scheme.
“Taking into account that major public investment and effort, where is the sense and planning gain if the approved Sainsbury’s scheme, including restoration of a strategically important section, is not fully implemented?
“The scheme cannot be considered in isolation,’’ Mr Burgess added. ‘‘The restoration of the five-and-a-half-mile derelict canal is of vital importance in terms of leisure, recreation and economic growth, not only to Birmingham but also to neighbouring districts. It will be a national asset.”
The Sainsbury scheme will also feature a waterfront on the Worcester and Birmingham Canal, which the company said would re-establish Selly Oak as an attractive destination.
The site has been earmarked for redevelopment for the last four years and, following the completion of Selly Oak New Road the company is ready to begin construction on the store, designed to replace the existing Selly Oak branch.
Developer Land Securities has teamed up with Sainsbury’s on the project and a new planning application will be submitted after consultation.
Sainsbury’s said: “Following on from our public exhibition held on September 30 and October 1, a meeting has been held with the Lapal Canal Trust to reaffirm that, while the current scheme does not include the restoration of the Lapal Canal, sufficient space will be allocated along a proposed pedestrian ‘greenway’ running from the Birmingham and Worcester canal through to Selly Oak Park so as not to prevent a canal reinstatement to take place along this route in the future.
“In the meantime, our latest plans do include the enhancement of the existing canal where it is proposed that a canal-side square with restaurants and cafes be created with direct public access from Bristol Road, much to the benefit of the local community.
“The regeneration of a 13-hectare site to deliver 3,000 job opportunities is unique in the economic climate. In bringing forward this revised proposal we have rightly had to take into consideration the viability and deliverability of the project, along with what we think will make the most positive difference to Selly Oak residents.
"We still welcome feedback on the plans from the local community.’’
*The plans are online at www.sellyoak-regeneration.co.uk