Birmingham’s Longbridge site has the potential to turn an employment tragedy into a development that could lead the region in a better direction. Its failing, however, is that current plans destroy any chance of re-opening the railway line from Longbridge to Frankley. John Hall explains the site's railway history and recent plans that have scuppered its reinstatement.
In 1905, Herbert Austin and his brother Harry raised capital of £37,000 to build cars that were rare things in those days. They took over an old print works, in Longbridge, which was then in the County of Worcestershire. In the same area, of what was then attractive and productive farmland, construction of Hollymoor Hospital (Rubery) was under way. Contractors brought building materials to the site by railway along the most convenient access point at the sidings at Rubery Station on the G.W.R./Midland Railway joint line from Longbridge to Halesowen.
By February 1915, a railway station had been built within the Longbridge works and expansion work included North Works that was built on land bounded by the Halesowen Branch railway. The River Rea that had co-existed with the railway, and which flowed eastwards towards the city, bisected the site so it was put underground in a culvert. The new West Works, commissioned fully in 1980, continued the practice of supply by rail with a link into the building bringing in body panels from the Swindon plant.
Completed in 2002, Great Park was a major development close to the Longbridge plant on a 200 acre former hospital site with offices, houses, industrial units, leisure facilities, a supermarket, health centre, and an area of public open space. It would seem to offer more than enough facilities for the area and nearby Northfield's new road was partly funded by a supermarket.
Dating back many years has been the plan for a railway connection from Longbridge to Frankley. Today, on the section between Longbridge and Rubery Lane, there are no obstructions and the track is in place from Longbridge station over half the length. Instead of running the whole length to Frankley, the railway could run only as far as Rubery Lane, adjacent to Great Park and down the hill from new housing at Hollymoor.
A study of the full extent to Frankley by professionals working for Centro had assumed that instead of having a level crossing, Rubery Lane would cross the railway on a bridge. People living near to Rubery Lane then had concerns that a new bridge and embankment would overshadow the houses, and objected. Added to this, the reinstatement of a rail line beyond Rubery Lane would impact on Balaams Wood. However, giving up on the full route to Frankley would remove the principal objections to the railway whilst still being much better than no railway at all.
When the car plant closed and scores of local businesses suffered, dynamic committees were set up that took the decisions and policies already in place, added proposals of their own, and then consulted on them. One idea, for instance, was that the A38 should be a technology corridor, with the vacant land at Longbridge offering a development opportunity. An unconvincing proposal, as there was already plenty of vacant land alongside major roads elsewhere in Birmingham – and no one queuing up for a slice. The outcome included a website www.future4longbridge.co.uk where the study and its proposals were stated.
Since then, an Area Action Plan (AAP) has been drafted, which is a planning document that supersedes everything that has gone before. In brief, it seeks to set up a new local centre, a major technology type employment site, some car manufacturing, housing, a Park and Ride, a new bus route to Frankley, road improvements, a new park, and opening up of the River Rea. Sadly, what has been dumped from the proposal is the long mooted reinstatement of the railway from Frankley to Longbridge.
Birmingham Friends of the Earth became aware of planning application S/01814/08/FUL, which innocuously takes the River Rea out of its culvert and also proposes to eradicate the railway. For those with an interest, it is worth viewing and commenting on the application. Birmingham Friends of the Earth has responded to the planning issues and believes it is important for individuals to think about what they want and to have their say.
The railway needs to be retained and the proposal for a car park needs to go. Putting the building costs for car parking into another fund, for example, a 25 year feeder bus contract, which would bring many more people to Longbridge Station with much less environmental cost. The BFOE response calls for forward thinking use of the land and development of planet-friendly manufacture and employment. But so far, the ideas lack the vision that is needed for Longbridge: the site of broken dreams.