Heritage Fears as Council Conservation Group Cut; Fears Have Been Raised over the Future of Birmingham's Historic Buildings as the City Council Cuts Its Conservation Group. Neil Elkes Looks at the Consequences

Article excerpt

Byline: Neil Elkes

When the phrase "disband Conservation Group" appeared in the council's 2010 budget it sent a wave of fear through Birmingham's heritage groups.

The saving of pounds 350,000 from a recession-hit planning department budget could not be worth more than the prospect of Birmingham giving up its control of historic buildings, they screamed.

The group, a team of specialist planning officials, work closely with a committee of expert volunteers on the local authority's Conservation and Heritage Panel to ensure that the bulldozers of developers do not ride roughshod over the city's rich architectural heritage.

The volunteers are drawn from a range of interest groups including the Victorian Society, Civic Society, Jewellery Quarter Association, Moseley Society, 20th Century Society and Sutton Coldfield Civic Society.

The advice from both the group and the panel has shaped many major projects in recent years such as the restoration of the Town Hall, Fort Dunlop and Baskerville House.

Recently their advice ensured that internal pillars were retained in a redevelopment proposal for the Central Methodist Hall in Corporation Street.

Their views have also been made clear on the varied developments in the Jewellery Quarter, as many former and much loved factories are finding new uses as offices and apartments.

But they have also proved influential on hundreds of smaller developments including extensions and alterations to historic homes, revamps of industrial buildings, looked after the city's conservation areas and their lobbying secured legal protection for many buildings under threat.

Many an architect has gone away with their criticism ringing in their ears, among them renowned designer Trevor Horne, who was told his proposed Beorma Tower was: "Abominable. Like a punch in the face by an architectural fist".

The panel's Liberal Democrat chairman Coun Paula Smith felt so strongly over the threatened cuts that she refused to back the budget, the only member of the ruling Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition to abstain.

She said: "They have such a passion for what they do. It's unbelievable. Each member brings a specific knowledge to it. However many conservation officers we have, we can't match their depth of knowledge.

"They will go above and beyond on research, visiting sites and talking to people about buildings.

"In the Jewellery Quarter we have guidelines about what is allowed and what is not. But, where the apartment blocks are concerned, the guidelines are quite muddy and they have helped cut through that.

"They do not hold back. But often the council does take it on board and the plans come back and you think 'they have listened'," she added.

Coun Smith was however heartened to hear that the conservation function will be preserved, with the officers absorbed into the general planning department and the panel will continue. But she will not be entirely satisfied until a list of questions over the future organisation of the group and panel are answered.

Cabinet member for regeneration Neville Summerfield (Con, Brandwood) admitted the budget had used a "clumsy phrase which set a lot of hares running".

And appearing before the panel Critical of for the with planning committee chairman Peter Douglas Osborn, he tried to allay fears and insisted that conservation in Birmingham is not under threat.

The cutting of the Conservation Group is prompted by the retirement of its inspirational leader Chris Hargreaves and the need to cut pounds 1.2 million from the planning department budget.

Coun Douglas Osborn said: "If you look at the skyline the cranes have stopped, there is little development and our planning application income has dropped. …