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Birmingham's Blandification: A Real Risk In 2019?

Birmingham has been keen to erase the planning mistakes and concrete-themed architecture of the 1960s and 70s.

But with questions being asked about the future of both the Jewellery Quarter and the Gay Village, is the sweep-it-away mood in danger of going to far?

Could Brutalist Birmingham be about to morph into Bland Birmingham?

The Jewellery Quarter, Birmingham

Change always comes at a price. Most of the time it is a price worth paying, but how do you tell when the bill is simply too high?

During 2018 a series of disputes, many of them in some of Birmingham's more characterful neighbourhoods, began to raise serious questions about the pace of change in the city centre.

They were dramatised in October 2018 when Birmingham's Blackbox nightclub, Lower Trinity Street, closed just weeks after reopening, with the owners citing the difficulty of co-existing with new residential development, Counteract reported.

Changes to legislation in 2016 were intended to protect existing venues from noise complaints from more recent residential development, but their impact has been blunted. Some fear that independent nightlife is being sacrified to "boring-bastard cleanshirt office drones trying to get eight hours sleep," Counteract said.

The Blackbox controversy came soon after another dispute, this time in the Gay Village, was narrowly averted.

An agreement was reached between the city council and Galliard Homes and Apsley House Capital, developers of the 379-unit Timber Yard scheme, to improve soundproofing. The arrangement helps to  guarantee that popular venues like the Village Inn and the venerable Nightingale Club would not be harmed by noise complaints from their new residential neighbours.

Now two new disputes have surfaced, in the Jewellery Quarter and in the Gay Village, which threaten to raise further concerns about the character of redevelopment.

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A proposal to dispose of city council properties as part of a revised property strategy is at the root of concerns in the Jewellery Quarter.

Residents are concerned that the city council risks erasing Birmingham's Jewellery Quarter from the map if traders are forced out by the sell-off plan, The Birmingham Post reported.

Local craftspeople are concerned about the future of their businesses after a list of sites to be sold was released. These include 58 -60 Caroline Street which includes a car park and two Grade II listed buildings containing workshops; 18-23 Summer Hill, a vacant hotel; 51 units at Vyse Street; and 23 shops and workshops at 11-17 Pitsford Street.

Council leaders said the proposals are not intended to hurt the area, but to help it, by preserving heritage and the creative industries. More space is proposed for the area’s craftspeople.

"The council has been approached by a consortium who wishes to invest in the area to re-energise the unique creative cluster, to benefit the region and to develop an innovative network which links social housing, support services and creative workspace,” councillors were told.

Across the city in Southside the dynamics are dominated by the booming residential sector.

The dispute in the Gay Village centres on proposals for 116 apartments in a 12 storey tower on a street at Kent Street.

The proposal by the Gooch Estate and Prosperity Developments is close to a large number of popular venues, and council officials thoughtfully measured exactly how far.

Direct distances from the application site to the nearby late-night entertainment
venues are:

• Nightingale Club, Kent Street – 12m
• Medusa Lodge 139-147 Hurst Street – 45m
• The Fox, Lower Essex Street – 45m
• The Loft, 143 Bromsgrove Street – 62m
• Sidewalk, 125-131 Hurst Street – 66m
• Equator Bar, 123 Hurst Street – 78m
• The Village Inn, 152 Hurst Street – 115m
• Missing, 48 Bromsgrove Street – 116m

The proximity of the historic Nightingale Club provoked a powerful backlash among the local LGBT community. It could "rip the heart" out of the area, according to protesters reported by Birmingham Live.

"This is our LAST CHANCE to STOP further development and safeguard our community! BUT we must ACT NOW!" the protesters wrote in a submission. "The LGBTQ+ community have used the area around Hurst Street for in excess of 50 years. It is our safe space. It is the lifeblood and heart of our community and we should refuse to be marginalised or pushed out."

The city council's planning advisor concluded that "the proposal would materially change the character of the area," and drew attention to a recent successful appeal against a council decision on noise issues at the Unitary and Armouries site, to the north of The Nightingale.

Birmingham Council House, Chamberlain Square

Disputes like these pose a real dilemma for Birmingham's political leaders. Crack down too hard on development and investors take fright. Yet fail to respond to resident concerns and the prospect of electoral losses begin to loom which, in a swing city like Birmingham is never to be taken lightly.

Change always comes with a cost and as Birmingham's councillors may soon discover, it is one ultimately paid at the ballot box.