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Revealed: council sold Harborne’s Martineau Centre for housing two years ago

Revealed: council sold Harborne’s Martineau Centre for housing two years ago

🕔04.Sep 2014

A former Birmingham primary school and playing fields at the centre of a bitter planning battle was secretly sold to a house building company by the city council in 2012, Chamberlain Files can reveal.

For two years Quinton Labour councillors have been campaigning to stop Persimmon Homes from building houses on land occupied by the Martineau Centre in Balden Road, Harborne.

But it can now be revealed that the Labour-controlled council has already sold the land to Persimmon, subject to planning permission being granted for housing.

In order to seal the deal with the council, Persimmon agreed to provide an all-weather sports pitch at nearby Lordswood School to compensate for the loss of playing fields.

A copy of the sale contract from November 2012, seen by Chamberlain Files, states that the deal will go ahead if Persimmon Homes planning permission both for housing and the new sports pitch.

It also requires Persimmon to pay a deposit to the council by the end of March 2013.

The battle by Quinton residents to save the Martineau Centre is symbolic of Birmingham’s wider issues with housing development. The council says it needs to build up to 80,000 new homes in and around the city to address an acute housing shortage but most applications spark noisy protests which then places local councillors under pressure to oppose development.

Campaigners in Quinton began to suspect in 2009 that the then Tory-Lib Dem controlled council was lining up the Martineau Centre for disposal. The building, most recently used as a training and conference centre, had been closed for some time and poorly maintained.

A protest group called the Martineau Ten sprang up in an attempt to retain the building for community use, but the council appointed surveyors to value the site in 2007 and then moved quickly, but secretly, to dispose of the land for housing.

Birmingham city council planning committee rejected Persimmon’s application to build 129 houses on the site last summer after Labour councillors in Quinton argued that development on playing fields was contrary to council policy.

The council’s planning policies state that development can only be permitted on sports pitches in exceptional circumstances. Persimmon’s application, though, was backed by Sport England who said the new all-weather pitch at Lordswood School would make up for the loss of playing fields.

Persimmon Homes has appealed against the refusal and the matter is now in the hands of the Planning Inspectorate which will consider the appeal in October. The company has also submitted a further application for planning permission to build 121 houses on the Martineau Centre site.

Former Quinton Tory councillor Peter Smallbone is questioning whether the council has a conflict of interest, having sold the land subject to approval for development being granted by the council’s own planning committee.

Mr Smallbone, who lost his Quinton seat in June 2012 five months before the council agreed to sell Martineau Centre to Persimmon Homes, said: “For nearly two years Labour politicians have been campaigning to ‘save the Martineau Centre’ when the Labour-controlled council had already sold it.

“To my knowledge, the ward councillors, all Labour, have never revealed the existence of this contract despite innumerable meetings and other opportunities to do so.

“The detail of the contract makes reference to the approval of two planning applications before the money is handed over, so it is quite clear that what we’re currently seeing regarding planning applications for the site is a deliberate strategy that was agreed with the council from the outset.

“As the council is also the relevant planning authority, this may actually give rise to a conflict of interest.”

Mr Smallbone is organising a residents’ petition asking the council to cancel its contract with Persimmon Homes.

Quinton Labour councillor Caroline Badley is also organising a petition that opposes Persimmon’s latest attempt to secure permission to develop the site.

She said in a letter to a constituent that she was “confused” as to why Persimmon had submitted a fresh application when the firm’s appeal against refusal of planning permission was yet to be heard.

Cllr Badley said she believed Persimmon hoped to get the new application approved by the city planning committee in the summer “when lots of people are away” and save them the cost of the appeal.

* Update, 4th September 2014: Birmingham City Council Planning Committee has approved demolition of Martineau Centre and approved development of 121 homes. 

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