Ready steady vote - Balsall Heath Neighbourhood Plan

While the recent opening of the redeveloped New Street Station and Grand Central has garnered media attention on Birmingham's regenerating city centre, two miles away another exciting development will see the 15,000 residents of Balsall Heath vote on a neighbourhood plan for the area on Thursday 8 October.

The question residents of the area are being asked is "Do you want Birmingham to use the Neighbourhood Plan for Balsall Heath to help it decide planning applications in the neighbourhood area?"

The vote is the result of the area being chosen by the Government in April 2011 as one of the first areas in the country to pilot Neighbourhood Planning.

Brought in under the 2011 Localism Act, the plan will set the development agenda for the 2km sq area for the next 20 years, allowing people who live there to decide how the land around them is used. While other similar schemes have been voted in across the country, Balsall Heath is said to be the first in an urban area to go to a referendum – a testament to the kind of collective activism more often associated with villages.

Balsall Heath is said to be the inspiration for David Cameron's Big Society and it's change from notoriety for crime and prostitution twenty years ago to example of community engagement today has seen visits from David Cameron, David Blunkett, and Jack Straw.  The transformation came about from pickets of local people opposed to prostitution which brought the community together and from which sociologist Dick Atkinson turned into a forum bringing together representatives from local churches, mosques, synagogues and gurdwaras as well as trades unions and residents.  The Balsall Heath Forum was set up in 1994 and now has six paid employees as well as 500 volunteers and which transformed the area so that in a 2008 survey 70% of people felt they could influence what happened in the area and 89% felt satisfied with their local area,

I am a resident of Balsall Heath and proud to say I live here, first moving to the area while a student at the University of Birmingham and returning after moving around south Birmingham.  Balsall Heath for me represents Birmingham itself in an urban village, a great mix of people of all ages and backgrounds that gives the area a real buzz.

The present residential district took its name after the laying out of Balsall Heath Road in 1829 as a speculative building investment that was initially aimed at attracting Birmingham’s growing middle class. The developers had ideas of creating another Edgbaston, but the estate lacked the strict controls imposed by the Calthorpe family. Plots were freehold not leasehold and consequently there were no restrictions on the quality or density of housing.

The vote on the neighbourhood plan turns some of the community engagement into a tangible form, with architect Joe Holyoak who has worked on the plans showing how it can guide the development of the area but most importantly give the community ownership of the area.

Architect Joe Holyoak, who has spent three years putting it together, says: “Under the old system, when planning officers make plans, they consulted local people,” he says. “But the planners and local politicians had the ultimate responsibility. Now that is entirely with the community. 
“For instance, one of things that came up again and again were the parks. There are seven and they are very well used, because this is an intensively residential area with a high proportion of children. But they have been under invested in.” But there are also more ambitious items: a railway station for Balsall Heath, a transformation of the the local river – currently blocked off by concrete walls and fences – and a new town square.

Local filmmaker Haqi Ali has made a short film of interviews with residents on why they'll be voting in the referendum.

You can read the development plan at the Balsall Heath Forum,

It's fitting that local residents get to vote on how they want the area to develop nearly 125 years after the area voted in October 1891 to amalgamate with Birmingham, encouraged by the lower council rates in the city and the promise of a public baths and a free library.

The Moseley Road Baths which came from the amalgamation, are the focus of a campaign to preserve the building for swimming,, against City Council plans to shut them.  The neighbourhood plan includes a policy regarding historical buildings and it is hoped this will ensure that the building gets the necessary focus while it's future is still in doubt.

The uncertainty over the future of the baths has seen international artist Tim Etchells' neon text work installed on the building as part of the Fierce Festival.

Reproduced from the Fierce Festival 2015 programme,


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