Consultation is dead, big plans are deader

So today the good people of Birmingham learned two thing. Firstly, we’re getting a shiny new train station next to the venerable Moor St and incorporating (in name at least) the geriatric Curzon St to serve the high speed rail link to London. This was announced with no warning by a visit to the city by the Prime Minister accompanied by a torrent of detailed plans indicating this is actually going to happen.

Here’s part of the plans showing the station and platforms between Moor St and Curzon St (taken from this PDF which is from this page).

Curzon%20Station%20in%20Eastside%20plans

Secondly we learned that the Big City Plan and the consultation surrounding it isn’t worth the price of Mike Whitby’s absurd tie. All it takes is a well considered national strategy to fall into place and a decade or more of “planning” for the area can be torn up and forgotten about.

I’m actually fairly upbeat about this turn of events. I think the station is a good idea and the location a fine one. The only casualty I can see is the new Birmingham City University campus but that doesn’t worry me. The city has been suffering from BCU-creep for a while now and putting the brakes on that will be a relief. (I’ll just let the phrase “BCU-creep” just sit there without explanation so you might speculate as to what I mean.)

Now, rather than an inward looking university campus (that’s not a dig – all university campuses are inherently inward looking in my experience and so they should be) we get a transport hub. Certainly the main purpose of the station will be relatively expensive trains for the relative few but the halo effect of this should be dramatic, both for the local transport infrastructure and the Digbeth / Eastside area. Because now Digbeth will have a purpose – serving the station.

For a year or so I lived behind Waterloo station in London. That bit of Southwark is quite a bit like Digbeth – off the beaten track, full of railway arches and industrial pockets, yet right in the middle of the city. It was a good place to live because it was 10 minutes walk from the South Bank yet reasonably quiet for such a central location. And while it didn’t have every amenity most of what you needed was provided by the shops, cafes and miscellany that fed off the periphery of Waterloo.

I wouldn’t want to say Digbeth will evolve in the same way but I think a massive train station (especially when considered in aggregate with New St, Moor St and the nearby coach station) will give the area a genuine reason to develop and change rather than a spurious regeneration agenda, one which has demonstrably shown itself to be fragile when the financial climate changes. (What exactly is happening to the stretch of land cornered by Rea and Bradford Streets? If the answer is nothing can we have it back?)

Development%20Stalled

Birmingham as a city has been far too overplanned. It suffered this in the 60s and, despite cries to the contrary, the Big City Plan was to be a corrective measure using exactly the same tactics. Big plan, big vision, big big big. And yet I have an inkling this sort of approach is doomed, or at least flawed. I keep thinking of desire paths – the gradually eroded paths that indicate where people want to walk as opposed to where the planners expect them to walk.

Just for fun, here’s my desire path from Fazeley St to Moor St Station involving a patch of wasteland and a car park. If you ever need to make that journey consider this my gift to you:

Digbeth%20-%20Google%20Maps

I’m also reminded of Peter Ackroyd talking about how London is inherently unplannable. My memory is hazy and probably inaccurate but here’s something I found from 2006 outlining his fatalistic approach to cities:

“Power and money are what have made it both ugly and voraciously successful,” insists Ackroyd. “It’s a largely unplanned city, with buildings that come and go. Little or nothing stays still in London. The drive for money makes it a restless creature, forever biting off its own limbs and watching them grow back in new, bigger and shinier forms.”

As, for example, in the case of the cluster of new skyscrapers planned for the City of London. Ackroyd will not be drawn on the merits of their designs; he simply underlines the point that London has an organic character. It has always changed and always will. “If it stops changing, it will die. It’s a monster, yet I accept it all. No part of London is alien to me. I love walking it at random every day, after writing, and watching the changes take place before my eyes. But, as to whether change, architectural or otherwise, makes it a better or worse place than it was – how can any of us really know?”

London is a clusterfuck of a city, and yet it’s quite successful at what it does, be it finance, culture or whathaveyou. Partly this is due to its elephantine size but I suspect it’s got a lot to do with it’s flexibility.

One of the exciting things about Birmingham for me is the relative freedom it offers you to just get on and do stuff. There’s very little power here and the leaders tend to follow rather than lead. While Birmingham has a lot of pride it doesn’t manifest itself in the aggressive, defensive posturing of Manchester. Rather it’s a welcoming, appreciative pride. When I do stuff in Birmingham people don’t ask me why or question whether it fits into the Birmingham way – they just take it, or leave it. Sometimes they say thanks. Sometimes they say “it’s about time someone did this” so I tell them it wasn’t that hard really.

(Sidebar – I remember Noel Dunne talking about moving here decades ago. He memorably said it takes three generations before Manchester will accept you as a Manc but you’ll be a Brummie in three months. True that.)

Mike%20Whitby%20in%20a%20taxiThe thing is, I see the obsession with city planning as a threat to this. I suspect the reason Brummies have, in recent history, been a little reticent to get on and do stuff is the top-down infrastructure of the city hasn’t encouraged it. From the physical stranglehold of the road network to the intellectual void of the council chamber the Brummies have been held back by a sense that it’s not worth the effort. And with the Big City Plan we were faced with another monolithic attempt to get the city “right”, an endeavour that is surely missing the point. Cities aren’t got right. They evolve based on the needs, wants and desires of the people who make them. The thing is, no-one knows what those needs, wants and desires are until they have something to bounce off. You certainly can’t plan for them with high-falutin concepts.

I’m being a bit knee-jerk in my ranting here. I know that some planning is essential and I know I don’t have the language to explain exactly what I mean (hence the knee-jerk) but I think that planning needs to be adaptive. Have a look at what we’ve got, see what people are doing around it and encourage that. Don’t demolish a much loved cafe because it doesn’t fit the big plan – build the plan around the cafe. Rather than give a hugh trance of land to a university or shopping centre or Bennie Grey (god love him) divvy it up into small plots and create a bit of competition between the landlords. A hive of Bennie’s.

Cities are chaotic and vibrant and alive. They cannot and should not be controlled. Certainly they should be safe, well lit and well connected but you can’t plan for what they’ll be used for. What you can do is drop in some nice big coral reefs and see what sort of fishes start gathering around them. Then you feed the fishes.

I think our new station, a structure that has a use and a purpose, could be that reef. It’d certainly be more of a stimulus than Millennium Point, a structure as effective as a breezeblock in an aquarium.

And on that note, I’ll stop.

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14 Responses to Consultation is dead, big plans are deader

  1. Simon says:

    Pete . . . If I wore a hat I would take it off and doff it in your general direction! I don’t think I’ve ever read a better written peice on planning and development in Birmingham (and cities in general).

  2. I agree 100% with this Mr Ashton. Excellent stuff.

    This morning, as he dribbles the choclately milk from his Coco-Pops all down his front, Mike Whitby will breathe a huge sigh of relief through his mouth. This announcement provides him with two solutions for the price of one.

    The Big City Plan was a massive exercise in paying lip service and anyone seriously expecting their ideas to be listened to or implemented was quite demented. As you point out, Pete, it can now be forgotten about because of the Shiny Trains. The only positive to come from the whole (doubtless very expensive) exercise was that it gave focus to a conversation normal people were already having.

    The ongoing ‘Eastside’ (re)branding project reminds me of a very long brainstorming session taking place in a dull and uninspiring advertising agency, but that’s just a personal opinion. Now that a massive train station is going to be dropping in the area I would expect the ‘luxury flats and shopping malls’ that the council have really wanted to build there all along to finally put the concept out of it’s misery.

    Back in the real world, if anyone thinks this train station is going to be good for ‘The Digital District’ / ‘The Creative Quarter’ (or whatever it’s called) in it’s current location then I fear you are going to be disappointed. The shear size of the station, and it’s overspill of roads, transport links, secondary building developments and the like, means you’ll probably be relocating to the cheaper parts of town.

    Despite sounding like a miserable bleeder, I am generally happy about this. I think it will broadly be ‘a good thing’ for the city…it’s just a crying shame that we don’t have a council with the vision and intelligence to match the size of the opportunity.

  3. simon gray says:

    in principle i definitely support a cancellation of the plan to move the conservatoire down to that end of town – as well as having its internal function as a place where there are practice rooms, recording studios, & lecture / seminar rooms, a fundamental & essential part of its function as a building is to be a cluster of concert halls. anonymising those concert halls amongst a wider general university campus just serves to remove it from public perception even more than it currently is; the place for the conservatoire is where all the other concert halls are at westside – ie, more or less where it is now; a better plan would be to use the paradise forum development to increase the profile of it in its current location rather than to bulldoze a perfectly good building, some parts of which are only 10 years old, with the main parts still only 15 – 20 years old.

    if by bcu creep you mean the popping up of campuses all over the place or the taking over of existing institutions, don’t forget the history – the city of birmingham polytechnic was formed as a federation of independent colleges from all over the city in the first place – creep is a process which has been going on for 45 years !

  4. focalplane says:

    I was immediately reminded of a post of yours a few years ago which introduced the ARUP Group concept of Birmingham Grand Central Station. This was their answer to the regeneration of New Street, in particular the solution to the bottleneck tunnel at the east end of New Street.

    Well, lo and behold! ARUP is part of the High Speed 2 partnership! See their name on the bottom right of the map. It looks as though High Speed 2, Railtrack and the City Council have all been working independently – your tax dollars at work!

    Seriously though, I liked the Grand Central Station concept and welcome the proposals (that’s all they are, remember). But I am not sure I really go for the junction out by Birmingham International that would allow trains to bypass Birmingham altogether. I liked the idea that all trains would enter Grand Central terminus and then leave again once the driver had sprinted down 415 meters of platform to the other end! Seriously, this would allow Birmingham to finally become the hub of Britain’s rail network – all tracks lead to Brum!

  5. Russ L says:

    “westside”

    Oh lord.

  6. simon gray says:

    @russl – i figured that since everybody knew where it referred to, it was easier to type ‘westside’ on my mobile device than to type ‘the area around the town hall, rep, symphony hall / icc, new library, & possibly the alex’. & better than typing ‘the entertainment quarter’. sorry if that annoyed you…

  7. simon gray says:

    @focalplane – according to martin mullaney, the fundamental problem with the grand central design & location was that it didn’t actually deal with the bottleneck problem, because there are bottlenecks on both approaches to new street station; & also the grand central location would have involved demolishing other historic buildings (i think the gun barrel proof house was mentioned). does this new plan deal with those ?

  8. Pete Ashton says:

    @Simon – the plans imply that the new viaduct will pass by the gun barrel proof house before joining the existing rail routes, presumably because there’s only 3-4 lines rather than the 12 or so for Grand Central.

  9. Dave Harte says:

    I hate your diagram. The arrows at the bottom might as well say: “moral high ground this way”.

    I hate your ‘BCU-creep’ phrase as well. It stains what’s otherwise an interesting take on some of the planning issues on that side of town. But hey, it allows us a glimpse into your position which is fine.

    For the record ‘Millennium ‘fucking’ Point’ is somewhere my kids and plenty others get excited about industrial history, about science and, partly, about cinema. It’s where they look through the glass into the design and fashion classrooms of Birmingham Metropolitan College and get excited about creative education. It’s where a researcher for Birmingham City University is investigating the fermentation of algal biomass as an alternative fuel source. It’s full of researchers actually; doing their best to contribute to knowledge and meet real-world challenges. Not inward-looking at all.

    Your sexy, interesting bits of Digbeth aren’t under threat in any way so I don’t know why you want to create some kind of us and them divide. In fact its “chaotic” nature is valued enough to make it subject to protection as a conservation area. Sure there are issues and tensions as the area resists a creep towards gentrification but the place is much the same now as it was when my parents arrived in this city 50 years ago and drank in its pubs (although note, it took them a lot more than three months to become a Brummie – there was much racism targeted at new communities, it wasn’t always so welcoming)

    Being generally excitable about anything that involves railways, I too think the new rail line is positive and this seems good site for a terminus. I’m not mourning the loss of the City Centre campus in particular and if this scuppers elements of the Big City Plan a bit then that’s no bad thing either.

    But your position here just confuses me overall. Are you advocating a market-led approach? Less planning restrictions? Even more reliance on private landlords to decide the future shape of our city?

  10. focalplane says:

    @Simon, Pete answered your question just as I had finally got round to checking exactly where the Gun Barrel Proof House is!

    The consensus in the news media and among railway circles is that 250 mph is probably overkill in what is a relatively small country. So in many ways the plans still come back to the Grand Central Concept with or without High Speed 2.

    The main bottleneck is to the east of New Street, under the Bullring. The tracks to the west diverge and therefore offer more space to get trains in and out of New Street. Grand Central would reduce the number of through trains, simply because a train on the West Coast Main Line would reverse direction before continuing on its way north or south.

  11. Russ L says:

    “For the record ‘Millennium ‘fucking’ Point’ is somewhere my kids and plenty others get excited about industrial history, about science”

    The science museum was free once upon a time, prior to Millenium Fucking Point. As such an far greater number of kids were able to get excited about industrial history and science there. I was one of them.

    (This is not to say that it moving to MFP is why they now charge for entry now, or anything like that. I just hate to hear anybody ascribing too much in the way of positive social value to Think Fucking Tank, given that it replaced a superior entity that was free for all to attend).

  12. focalplane says:

    I owe my inquiring mind and love of science and technology to the old Museum of Science and Industry on Newhall Street. As a kid I was free to roam that part of the city and often popped in to browse around and admire all those steam engines, etc. It was lovely place, complete with dirty windows looking out on the canal behind. Partly because of the significance of the old museum to my upbringing I have never wanted to visit the Think Tank, which is not to say it has no value to young people today. But as Russ L pointed out, the old museum was FREE!

  13. John Heaven says:

    I think there’s a new Birmingham brand emerging here — put the ‘f’ word in every Birmingham event and new development. The Town F’ing Hall, or Bull F’ing Ring; they could even create a ‘Central F’ing Park’. ‘Arts F’ing Fest’; the Staffordshire F’ing Hoard’.

  14. I would just like to comment that your desire line is spot on, I travel that was to work regularly, taking exactly that route, cutting through the car park and past the newly vacant land on fazeley street across the road from the proposed BCU site.

    I’m in agreement with David Harte too, in as much as i’m not entirely sure where you stand and whether or not you advocate a market led approach? Im a planning student, at BCU incidentally and to me the Eastside Campus actually represented a move away from what you term ‘BCU Creep’ the campus was always meant to unite the several campuses located around the city.

    I also think your arguement with regard to the station giving Eastside a purpose is flawed, as a university in the area would also need the local area to serve it…we might have seen some of the older industrial buildings converted in to accommodation, bars and clubs would have attracted the newly located affluent students.

    Also a 250Mph train in this country seems a bit OTT as another poster has stated, is it really necessary?

    It would also be interesting to hear other peoples views on the ‘new’ location for BCU as noises from the WMRDA seem to suggest they will assist with finding a new suitable site, and university bodies suggesting they will do everything they can to make a city centre campus a reality.