The value that local authorities bring is partly in their institutional memories. But if a council forgets what it once used to do well, then it’s in trouble, writes Joe Holyoak

Joe Holyoak

Source: Ben Flatman

Joe Holyoak

In 1947, Birmingham City Council, by the direction of its Chief Planning Officer the now-notorious Herbert Manzoni, declared five Comprehensive Redevelopment Areas, that together almost encircled the city centre. Within these areas almost everything would be cleared away – streets of terraced houses, courts of back-to-back houses, factories and workshops, corner shops and pubs – and rebuilt on largely new street layouts. It was the arrival in the city of modern town planning.

One of the five areas was Ladywood, immediately to the northwest of the city centre. Clearance during the 50s and 60s was indiscriminate, enabled by the use of Compulsory Purchase Orders: good housing as well as slum housing was demolished.

It was replaced by a diluted form of municipal modernism that the Council called Mixed Development: some high-rise tower blocks in grassy spaces, some four-storey maisonettes, some flat-roofed two-storey terraced housing. The resulting overall density was about half of what it had been before the clearance, so many residents were removed to new edge-of-city estates such as Castle Vale or Chelmsley Wood, or to “overspill towns” such as Redditch or Telford.

This caused huge social disruption, which was the subject of a book published in 1965 by the vicar of Ladywood, Norman Power, called “The Forgotten People”. It is a devastating critique of the top-down planning which was practised at the time, in which residents had no representation, but had planning done to them. The result was a community which was swept away, together with its familiar streets and landmarks, and replaced by a thinly-spread one-class population, without the doctors and teachers and other professional residents who had lived there before.

Having lived through this postwar period of doctrinaire modernism and experienced its damaging consequences, we now know better. Or do we? The way the City Council has performed in Ladywood up to now raises doubts.

The City Council failed in an effort to consult residents on the plan

In 2019, the City Council announced the Ladywood Estate Regeneration Scheme. The term regeneration can mean anything you like, more or less: this is a proposal to employ a commercial developer to comprehensively densify and transform Ladywood.

The commercial opportunity was advertised at MIPIM that year (so developers in Cannes knew more about what was going on than residents in Ladywood), and St Joseph Homes, a subsidiary of the Berkeley Group, was appointed. St Joseph was apparently the only developer to make an acceptable bid.

The Covid pandemic paused the scheme’s progress, but now the proposal is making headlines. A report to Cabinet in June this year proposed that the number of dwellings within the red line be increased from 1,976 to 7,531. This is an increase by 281%: greater than the 250% increase in the residential density of the city’s central area which is proposed in the Our Future City policy document, which I wrote about recently in this column.

The policy of depopulation that was practised in the 1960s was driven by health-related modernist rhetoric about the absence of green spaces in the inner city. It is interesting to see a reversal of this policy, informed by arguments about both urban sustainability and the carbon emergency, appropriately so.

But neither Our Future City nor the Cabinet report contained any indication of how such a huge density increase is to be physically and spatially achieved. Inevitably it will necessitate much demolition in Ladywood, of council housing (64% of the existing total), owner-occupied housing, and other properties.

The Cabinet report sought approval of the use of Compulsory Purchase Orders to achieve this. There has been an absence of information, and consequently widespread anger and anxiety among Ladywood residents.

The 2019 Cabinet report contained positive assurances about the active involvement of existing residents in the process. It said “The first thing the partners will need to do is work with the local community to develop a plan for the area”.

However, this did not happen. The June 2023 Cabinet report stated that St Joseph had prepared a masterplan for Ladywood, and the detailed housing figures appeared to support this.

But nobody in Ladywood saw this plan, despite numerous requests. The City Council failed in an effort to consult residents on the plan.

Hundreds of residents were unable to get into a meeting in July, intended to be the first of several: these have now been shelved. It was described as a consultation meeting, but in fact was a meeting to give information. Since the July meeting, the Ladywood MP, Shabana Mahmood, and the two ward councillors have been noticeable by their absence.

Giving people information about, and consulting them on a plan made by others are not the same as enabling participation in making the plan. Informing and Consultation are classed by Sherry Arnstein, originator of the famous Ladder of Citizen Participation, as being in the zone of the ladder she calls Degrees of Tokenism.

Does anyone in the City Council remember what it did in Ladywood in the 1990s?

However, on 12th September, the Council publicly took a big step backwards, and apologised to Ladywood residents. It said that in fact there is no plan, and that the only decision that has been made is the choice of delivery partner, Berkeley Homes.

It then said “We understand that the start of our engagement has caused frustration, and we are committed to making sure that we do things differently in the future, so the community can genuinely feel involved in the process”.

All this confusion is surprising, given what happened in Ladywood 30 years ago. This was the Ladywood Regeneration Framework, a £35m (£80m in today’s money) project to improve the existing council housing, funded by the government’s Estate Action programme.

It was a pioneering model of partnership between council and residents, and it worked very successfully, within the limits placed by the Estate Action spending rules. (I was part of it for five years). Partnership is two rungs above Consultation on Arnstein’s ladder, in the zone she calls Degrees of citizen power.

Does anyone in the City Council remember what it did in Ladywood in the 1990s? I don’t think so. The Council has no memory.

It ought to remember something successful that it initiated 30 years ago, and use it as a model for what it is doing now. But it can’t, as it has forgotten.

So it risks repeating the mistakes it made in the 1960s. It might be now taking a different and better route, but there is a lot of lost goodwill it needs to recover.