We need a cunning plan…

On Wednesday I attended a ‘scoping day’ hosted by MADE at Newhall Square and involving the Prince’s Foundation, local groups and (mainly creative) businesses. The question we discussed was: ‘What does the JQ need to ensure a desirable, sustainable future that conserves the essential nature of the JQ?’ Actually that’s my interpretation of what the question was.  That’s certainly what was discussed. Ostensibly the day was about Neighbourhood Plans, and whether the JQ should go for one, but that question is contingent on knowing whether we – the people who live and work here – can agree on a way forward.  The planning vehicle we use to get there is secondary.

Here’s the big surprise (to me at least): there was a remarkable degree of consensus about the way forward. For those of you who don’t know, planning and development in the JQ are governed largely by a couple of planning instruments: Jewellery Quarter Conservation Area Design  Guide (2005) and Jewellery Quarter Conservation Management Plan (2002)*. The latter zones the JQ into areas where certain kinds of development are allowed and others are not.  It seems, from those who have been around a while and were involved in the original drafting of that document, that the time has come to review some of the more stringent conditions, particularly around the zones called The Golden Triangle and The Industrial Middle, where no residential development is permitted (except maybe live/work studios).  An example (there are many) in the case for review is Vittoria Street, where good-looking buildings have been empty for years and are deteriorating all the time.

It’s easy to blame Birmingham City Council for some of this and, it’s true, they are the planning authority and some of the empty and derelict buildings belong to them. But University College Birmingham is also a significant landlord here and have bought buildings in more cash-rich times with a view to expanding their campus at some point.  Well that point has arrived with their development in the George Street area, so their intentions with these other ‘Cinderella buildings’ aren’t clear.  You’ll have seen the results of their apparent indecision in Legge Lane and Ludgate Hill (two of the last three buildings before you cross the red footbridge into the Colmore area are theirs).  So part of the way forward is less about master-planning and more about getting building owners to decide what they want to do with their buildings, be it development, refurbishment, sale or asset transfer to a community organisation. Sitting on them while they crumble into the ground isn’t an option.

I was asked ‘what do the residents think?’ That seems a reasonable question to ask the Chairman of the JQ Neighbourhood Forum, but I replied that I’d consider myself extremely arrogant to say that I know what nearly 5000 people think. Which is where you, dear blog reader, come in. The JQNF has no real traction without feedback from residents. Get in touch through this website or through @JQNF and tell us what you want the JQ to be like. I continued my reply to that reasonable question by saying I knew of no-one who wants the JQ to be preserved in aspic as some relic of Birmingham’s bygone manufacturing past (and less of the ‘bygone’ please). Neither did I know of anyone who wants to live in a residential dormitory estate of thousands of cheap, nasty flats, with a blue plaque somewhere saying ‘this used to be Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter.’ Our path seems to lie along more subtle, nuanced lines. The trouble with subtle, nuanced lines is that they’re not easy to find, and the more people standing around the map the harder the process is. But that just serves to make the search more rewarding. You can be a part of that search; you can help decide how the JQ develops in the next few years and beyond. Previous attempts at ‘top-down’ planning have had mixed success and the Localism Act (and here for those of us without a law degree) gives us – the people who actually live and work here – the chance to shape the JQ’s destiny, and along with it, our own. The Prince’s Foundation needs a forum to document the process that started on Wednesday and I volunteered this site and by implication, the JQNF, to help with that. Keep checking back here, follow us on Twitter, join the email list, just stay in touch with the forces shaping the world around you.

* (The files on the BCC website have two extensions, .pdf and .gif. You need to delete the .gif extension to make it work. I wouldn’t like to think how much that website cost us…)

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