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CP4SO: Battery Park plan simply “not good enough”

CP4SO: Battery Park plan simply “not good enough”

🕔11.Sep 2013

Andrew Schofield writes in his capacity as a member for Community Partnership for Selly Oak (CP4SO), a community group opposed to the current plans for development of a Life Sciences park on the derelict site of the Birmingham Battery and Metal Company. In light of the Birmingham City Council Planning Committee’s decision to defer judgement on the planning application, Andrew explains some of the reasons for the opposition to the plans in their present form.

On Thursday 5th September the Councillors on the City’s Planning Committee voted unanimously to defer a decision on an outline planning application to redevelop the derelict site of the Birmingham Battery and Metal Company in Selly Oak asking the developers to come back with a better plan.

What makes this decision remarkable is that everyone, including those who object to the plan, wants to see the site developed in much the way proposed. The plans include a Life Science Campus which was itself proposed by the City Council, and the planning officers fully supported the plan. The development will clean up a contaminated site that has been derelict for years and create an estimated 2,700 jobs. So what’s wrong with the scheme?

The Committee’s collective ambivalence towards the scheme is well summed up by Councillor John Clancy’s statement: “I very much want to approve this [proposal] but I’m sad to say I just don’t think it’s good enough”. The six members who spoke gave a range of reasons for deferral but when pressed seem to find it hard to identify exactly what should be changed.

The key requirements of the plan are clear: a mixed use site with a Life Science Campus for the council; a replacement supermarket for the site owners – Sainsbury’s; some additional retail to boost value; and a residential component. All these elements are present but somehow the plan does not work as a whole. The reasons for this can only be understood through the history of the site and of Selly Oak itself. A history largely dominated by poor planning decisions.

The district of Selly Oak is an amalgamation of two villages. Selly Oak Village sits on top of a hill and is separated from its close neighbour in the valley, Bournbrook, by a mainline railway; the Worcester and Birmingham canal; and the remains of a strip of factories including the Battery Site. Bournbrook is full of student rented accommodation; The Village much less so. Bournbrook’s end of the High Street (the Bristol Rd) is student focused but mostly works; The Village centre is a planning disaster strangled by a complex gyratory system and blighted by around 160 metres of ‘dead frontage’.

The current plan splits the Battery Site into three. The Life Science Campus to the North; two thirds of a typical edge-of-town shopping centre in the south; and a student hall of residence by the Worcester and Birmingham Canal (three towers – one sixteen storeys high – in a district with no building over five storeys). The once to be reinstated Lapal Canal has disappeared under the Sainsbury’s store; a full reinstatement deemed unaffordable. The unattractive Selly Oak gyratory system, which would have been removed in previous plans, is to be left in place, but widened to take more traffic. No plans have been put forward to improve the existing Sainsbury’s site. And the final insult, the new Sainsbury’s will have its back to the Worcester and Birmingham Canal, its side facing the Bristol Rd, and the dead wall of a service yard on the High Street. History repeated.

And what about pedestrian and cycling routes to link Bournbrook to The Village? The site is permeated by such routes leading onto the site but do they don’t provide good links through it. A future route for the Lapal Canal is preserved as a green walkway leading from Selly Oak Park to the Rail Station but is spoilt by going under Sainsbury’s. An alterative route leads to the Library but first wends its way around the retail park. The developers admit that neither route is meant for cycling; cyclists must dismount. In any case the only way to get to and from the Bristol Rd is via stairs or lifts. But more importantly the Sainsbury’s store and the retail outlets are inward looking and form a zone separated from the student residences and the Worcester and Birmingham Canal – an additional barrier.

So this is why the current plan is not good enough. It’s not good enough because the developers don’t understand Selly Oak. They are satisfied that they’ve managed to fit their edge-of-town template into a difficult site. Sainsbury’s will face its car park like the design manual says it should; where else should it face?

It’s not good enough because the planning officers have blinked. They’ve secured the Life Science Campus for the City, but in doing so have shunted the rest of the development hard up against the Bristol Rd leaving the service yard nowhere else to go. The resultant dead frontage is only short, they say, but that’s not the point. It adds to the 160 metres we already have.

It’s not good enough because student halls are not like houses or flats – they work differently. They form a space where only students feel welcome. And the district does not need any more student rooms anyway.

It’s not good enough because cyclists heading from Selly Oak into the city along the canal will have to dismount.

It’s not good enough because people with pushchairs and wheelchairs heading from the bus stops and rail station on the Bristol Rd will have to go down a lift to canal level, under the supermarket, and then back up a travellator into Sainsbury’s.

It’s not good enough because the Lapal Canal – a symbol of regeneration – won’t be reinstated; and if not now when?

It’s not good enough because it’s not right for Selly Oak and its time to do right thing for Selly Oak.

The Planning Committee made a very good decision last Thursday. Their unanimous deferral sent a clear message to the developers that something better is needed whilst at the same time leaving the plan active. The developers need to respond with more than just gestures and promises. In the words of Cllr Clancy the site needs a “fundamental redesign”.

The service access on the Bristol Rd must go somewhere else – even if it breaks up a neat, corporate retail park. The student residences must go. A much lower building with a hotel or apartments, or combination of the two would be more useful locally with the Hospital, University and new Life Science Campus all drawing in visitors. Long term the gyratory system must go. Not to deal with traffic volumes but to release Selly Oak from its strangle-hold. Finally the Lapal Canal should be reinstated on the site. The junction between the two canals will add a unique feature to this otherwise unremarkable design, enhance the urban environment, increase visitor numbers and improve the recreational opportunities in the area.

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