We’ve responded to a couple of consultations about planned developments in Digbeth recently, and whilst many of these kind of visioning documents never come to fruition, it is important we push planners to think more sustainably. As part of the Birmingham big city plan, the council have provided a supplementary planning document laying out an intention to turn the Cheapside area of Digbeth/Highgate into a more liveable place they are naming the Rea valley urban quarter. Meanwhile, there has been a ‘framework for future development’ document released by Oval real estate, who own the Custard factory and numerous buildings around Digbeth, particularly in the Floodgate street area. We have also recently heard of the Irish centre moving elsewhere (to be replaced with what?) whilst there is talk of planned developments at Camp Hill, the old wholesale markets site and the ‘Beorma quarter’.
Oval estates seem to have done plenty of community outreach recently with their installation of lighting all the way down Floodgate street and trendy graffiti (they have created their own typeface – digbeth sans). Whilst posing as the area’s benign, cool godfather, they are proposing to add extra storeys to the custard factory, build a five storey apartment block over the river from the custard factory on Floodgate street, and two seven storey office buildings on the W.J. Wild works site between Floodgate street and Milk street. But they also propose to open up arches under the Bordesley viaduct, turn lanes and yards into greener paths and courtyards, enhance the river Rea and canal and transform the Duddeston viaduct into an elevated park.
The Rea Valley urban quarter development also proposes re-naturalising the river Rea and putting in a green corridor between Highgate park and a new park within the Smithfields (wholesale markets) development.
Unfortunately these plans lacked serious attention to making developments carbon neutral through using efficient and local building materials, renewable energy generation or high standard insulation in refurbished buildings.
Whilst Digbeth and other inner city areas need an awful lot of work to move away from the bleak post-industrial landscapes they may have become, it feels unlikely that all these developers have societies best interests at heart. We’ve heard a number of the more positive ideas before and they haven’t yet materialised. The people who have generated any positivity and wealth around Digbeth in recent decades are the artists who have brightened it up and made use of abandoned buildings, followed by charities and the small businesses. They’ve made it cool, and whilst developers may want to cash in on that and HS2 by building buy to let apartments, the area remains a concrete jungle. The council and developers should really be prioritising making the area liveable with much more green space and sustainable development than is currently being committed to.