Words & pics by Ed King
Just over a year ago, the campaign to ‘Save Short Heath Playing Fields’ began in earnest – as a community galvanised to challenge Council plans for a new housing development on the beloved green space.
After the original blueprint was scrapped, and a community counter proposal deemed unviable, a ‘compromise’ is now back on the table – as Council Leader Ian Ward met face to face with local residents to present the city’s latest plans.
Council Leader Ian Ward promised the city would “work with” the local community over the proposed Short Heath playing fields housing development, stating “this is only the beginning of a conversation with you, the local community; it is not the end of that conversation.”
Addressing local residents at a public meeting on Friday 20 August, held on the green space earmarked for development, the Council Leader also stressed homes built on the site becoming HMOs “just wouldn’t happen.”
Promises for a ‘green corridor’ connecting Short Heath Road to Bleak Hill Park were reiterated, alongside a potential £1million investment for ‘off-site provision for sports and recreation’ including ‘new football pitches and a small changing room.’
Brokered and chaired by Jack Dromey and Short Heath Fields Trust (SHFT), the Leader’s public address follows a year of negotiations between local campaigners and the Erdington MP – who brought the concerns of residents direct to the Leader’s office.
Over an emotive three hours, around 50 people took time off on a Friday afternoon to debate with Council officials – voicing worries over infrastructure, traffic, parking, public safety, the strain on local services, and the irreversible loss of parkland used by young and old across the community.
Concern the 3-5 bedroom houses could end up becoming HMOs was a hot topic, as 50% of the proposed estate would be sold on the commercial housing market.
Stockland Green, one of the wards the playing fields sit in, already has one of the highest numbers of HMOs in the city – with residents and action groups alike crying out for Council intervention.
Both Council Leader Ian Ward and Head of Housing Development Colette McCann made assurances no new houses built on Short Heath playing fields would be granted HMO licence.
Cllr Ward told Erdington Local: “We have what’s called an article 4 direction in place in the case of HMOs, so you’d have to apply for planning consent to covert a property into a House of Multiple Occupancy (HMO).
“It would be absurd for the planning authority to grant half the homes on this site to become HMOs, that just wouldn’t happen.”
Colette McCann added: “Homeowners buying our new build schemes tend to be first time buyers… we try and support first time buyers as much as we can through that sales process.
“The type of properties we’re building – family, 2,3, and sometimes 4 beds – don’t necessarily lend themselves to that type of provision anyway (HMOs).”
Cllr Ward addressed the crowd and answered questions before making himself available to individuals for a further two hours, then touring the site with SHFT Chair Stephen Hughes and Estelle Murphy from the Short Heath Residents Action Group (SHRAG).
The Council Leader was further “happy to look at” a list of brownfield sites that could potentially offset the number of houses built on the playing fields.
Estelle Murphy had previously submitted a portfolio of brownfield site alternatives to the Council’s Housing Development Team, although this had not yet reached the Leader’s office.
Cllr Ward requested Ms Murphy resubmit this list directly to him, with Erdington MP Jack Dromey also asking to see it.
After opening the meeting by praising the campaign for being “one of the best examples in Birmingham of local people saying, ‘damn it, we’re not going to have our world changed without having a say,’” Jack Dromey also stayed on the playing fields to talk directly to residents.
He told Erdington Local: “The important thing about today was the community was able to have its say. There’s a recognition on behalf of the community that has seen movement from the Council, but there’s also concern that the Council need to go further at the next stages.
“I think it’s absolutely right that people were able to have their say; I think it’s welcome that Ian Ward, as Leader, came personally to hear their concerns.
“I believe it’s not beyond the ability of man or woman to construct an outcome that delivers both badly needed homes and green space and better facilities for the community.”
But the community’s response was led largely by anger and upset, with many hoping for more significant cuts in the number of houses from Birmingham City Council’s original plans.
The Council’s recognition the site could end up in the hands of private property developers, who could look to maximise profits by building even more houses on the green space, was a further concern.
In his address, the Council Leader stated: “One way or another we are going to have to reach a compromise about what we are going to do on this site. If we don’t, I envisage what the Council will end up doing is selling the land to a private developer.
“I’d like to avoid that; I’d like to work with you (the community) to ensure that doesn’t happen.”
Josette and Derek Loughead, who live on Short Heath Road, told Erdington Local: “We’re being hung over a barrel – basically, if you moan, we’re going to take the whole park. And we’re going to give you a little ‘corridor’ that people are just going to dump stuff in (fly tipping).
“Plus, the people down there lose their park (Bleak Hill Park) to the playing fields – so really they’re just robbing peter to pay Paul.”
Local resident Shelia Appleby, who’s house overlooks the playing fields, and who engaged in a passionate debate with the Council Leader, had prepared a handwritten letter – asking Cllr Ward to ‘be a man’ and not ‘take away our park and breathing space’, especially as the area is so close to the spaghetti junction.
Shelia is a founding member of the Short Heath Wombles, a group of retired residents who clear litter from the playing fields in their own time.
Her letter went on to say: ‘Even with the pandemic, you would not cut the grass for people to come to the park or give kids a play area for ball games.
‘It is a human right to breath fresh air. People need houses but there are brownfield sites for you to build on.
‘When you have taken this park and Brum’s green lungs, and left us with concrete jungles, they are gone forever.’
Erdington ward Councillor Robert Alden also expressed concerns over the Council’s revised plans, having challenged the proposed developments even before a local campaign was formalised.
He told Erdington Local: “The Council’s latest proposal to still build on Short Heath Playing Fields is a huge betrayal of the Erdington community. They have spent a year claiming they wanted to hear resident’s alternatives yet have rejected everything the community has put forward.
“Now it is clear they were secretly using the consultation time to finalise Labour’s plans to build on the fields. Residents are rightly saying they feel conned by Birmingham City Council now.”
But the battle to ’Save Short Heath Playing Fields’ is set to continue, with all sides recognising more negotiation needs to happen.
In a statement from the Short Heath Fields Trust, Stephen Hughes told Erdington Local: “Short Heath Fields Trust made a promise to the community to get their voices heard and today they made themselves heard.
“There was an obvious disappointment shown to the proposal put forward by Ian Ward at the meeting, showing that only a fifth of the land being a ‘Green Corridor’ is not enough green space being saved.
“What is important is that Ian Ward said any land saved would be safe and made part of Bleakhill Park and would not be built on in the future. Also, that this is a starting point for the Trust to continue to work and negotiate to find a compromise all parties will be able to live with.”
In a statement from Short Heath Residents Action Group, Estelle Murphy added: “The Council’s reduction to 66 houses is welcomed as a step in the right direction, but for our community that step isn’t far enough. That piece of parkland is essential to their health and wellbeing.
“The proposal put forward by the Council has alarmed many residents feeling it would worsen many already existing problems and hot spots in the area and bring more crime with it.
“We are worried that without investing in the people already living in the area and solving existing issues, adding more people to the area will only make things worse.”
PICTURE GALLERY: Council Leader meets local residents on Short Heath playing fields
For more on Short Heath Fields Trust visit www.shortheathfieldstrust.godaddysites.com
For more on the fight to ‘Save Short Heath Playing Fields’ click here to visit the campaign’s Facebook page.