LOCAL OPINION: How a community came together and made themselves heard

Words by Estelle Murphy – Short Heath Fields Trust / Pics by Ed King & Estelle Murphy

12 months ago, Estelle Murphy joined a growing campaign to Save Short Heath Playing Fields, a beloved green space in Erdington that Birmingham City Council had earmarked for a housing estate.

A year later, as Short Heath Fields Trust prepare for a meeting with Councillor Ian Ward and the heads of planning, Estelle tells Erdington Local how “picking a fight” with the council can change your world, forge friendships, give you grey hair, frustrate you beyond reason, and fill you with pride.

This time last year I would never have dreamed of picking a fight with Birmingham City Council, but these are strange times we are living in.

When the council decided to build on Short Heath Playing Fields, ignoring alternative brown field sites, our community were outraged. Many generations have spent their childhoods on those playing fields and wanted them kept safe for those yet to come.

Modern day life has seen my community drift apart. Rarely looking up from their own worries to say hello, overcrowded HMO’s, unemployment, and families unable to make the choice between heating or food. My community has been tired and fractured.

But a small group of people decided to stand up for right, against wrong. The fight to stop the council building on Short Heath Playing Fields began with a chance encounter of myself and Stephen Hughes, which within an hour grew – adding a few of our neighbours and galvanising into Short Heath Fields Trust.

Fellow campaigners and I got front row seats as we watched our community break and mend itself all in the same breath. Tempers had snapped, and the playing fields became the final nail in the coffin. Our community had watched their way of lives, and neighbourhood, slowly erode – and frustrated people, sick of being ignored, stood side by side, straightened their backs, found their voices and roared. Together as one.

We are nowhere near the end of the fight to save Short Heath Playing Fields, but we do now have a “seat at the table”, a phrase used by Jack Dromey MP. We have had to learn new skills, write proposals, meet councillors, spend hours researching documents, deeds, and legislation.

Staring at laptop screens into the small hours, day after day. It really is like being in a maze; dead ends, wrong turns, blocked pathways, feeling hopelessness, frustration, and despair. I have got lost only to find myself coming back round another corner. I have cried. I have screamed. All because I have stepped into a world where I do not understand the rules of the game.

But then I open my door, step outside, and realise this is not just my fight. It has shown me that the kind of people who step up and stand shoulder to shoulder with you, who fight as hard as you, each in their own unique way, still exist. This is a community fight.

And this fight bought a community together. From the HMO tenants to their neighbours and pensioners, people have picked up litter, cleared overgrown pathways, and cut back brambles. They now laugh, joke, and work together again.

I have seen a young family living in an HMO grateful enough to ask those clearing the entrances to sign small wooden hearts for their new-born son, then proudly bring him to meet the community who organised a Halloween pumpkin hunt on the playing fields.

I have seen OAP’s picking up extra toilet rolls (when we all went mad and emptied the shelves_ leaving them on a young family’s doorstep. There are now families cooking an extra meal every Sunday, to make sure someone alone has something warm inside them.

I have seen my community stand together in the middle of Storm Eric, protesting the council’s refusal to cut the grass on the playing fields, when we asked for the space to be cleared so we could be outside safely in the middle of a pandemic. They were armed with handheld gardening tools determined to do it themselves if they had to.

Now I can’t walk down the street without being asked: “how are we doing” or “any news?” Despite how hard it has been, we have got through it together, and will continue forward together because we are a community. It is inspiring to see and humbling to be a part of.

And I have learned that when you ignore people for long enough, they come together to stand up, to be counted, and to make themselves heard.

For more on the campaign to Save Short Heath Playing Fields, visit www.shortheathfieldstrust.godaddysites.com – or click here to visit the ‘Save Short Heath Playing Fields’ page on Facebook.

NEWS: Birmingham City Council agree to ‘move forward in partnership’ with Save Short Heath Playing Fields campaign

Words & pics by Ed King

On Friday 11th December, the campaign to Save Short Heath Playing Fields took a significant step forward – following a meeting with Birmingham City Council Leader, Cllr Ian Ward.

Set up by Erdington MP Jack Dromey, the meeting was also attended by Cllr Sharon Thompson (North Edgbaston / Cabinet Member for Homes and Neighbourhoods), Cllr Penny Holbrook (Stockland Green) and Cllr Josh Jones (Stockland Green) – with Stephen Hughes and Estelle Murphy from Short Heath Fields Trust representing their community.

In 2019, the 2.71 hectares green space situated between Bleak Hill Park and Short Heath Road was earmarked for a new housing estate – with planning application sought to allow up to 108 new homes to be built on the beloved playing fields.

Following botched community consultation, alongside objections from Erdington Councillor Robert Alden at Council meetings, the local community established themselves as Short Heath Fields Trust to fight the proposed developments and establish a two-way debate about the best use of the open space.

Earlier this year, a proposal was written by Short Heath Fields Trust outlining an alternative use for the green space and submitted to Birmingham City Council – following an intervention by Jack Dromey MP.

Birmingham City Council are now bringing the proposed development plans back to the table, with Council Leader Cllr Ian Ward looking to revisit the concerns of the community – following a meeting with campaigners last week.

Birmingham City Council leader Cllr Ian Ward said:  “This was a very constructive meeting and, having listened to the proposals, we are keen to engage with residents to find a way forward that meets Birmingham City Council’s objectives and delivers for the local community.”

Looking to strike a balance between the increasing frustration from his Short Heath based constituents and the Council’s wider agenda for social housing, Erdington MP Jack Dromey has been acting as a go-between in a fiercely contested situation that had previously looked gridlocked.

Jack Dromey MP said: “I’m pleased with the positive and constructive meeting between Birmingham City Council and Save Short Health Playing Fields campaigners to discuss the plans for Short Heath. 

“The campaigners gave a passionate and detailed presentation that outlined their vision for Short Heath Playing Fields. Throughout this process I have been impressed by their vision and determination, and these are why the campaign has generated the momentum it has. 

“I’d like to thank Birmingham City Council for agreeing to the meeting and for how responsive they have been since I first contacted them on this matter. The meeting showed they are listening to the community and that is warmly to be welcomed. 

“Both parties have agreed to move forward in partnership to build a plan for Short Heath Playing Fields that the community can be proud of. They have my full support.” 

Whilst social and affordable housing is an issue across Birmingham, a wider problem not unrecognised by Short Heath Fields Trust, the decision to tear up an urban oasis and area of natural beauty has been severely questioned by local residents.

Birmingham City Council’s own Strategic Housing Land Availability Assessment (SHLAA), published in December 2019, made no mention of Short Heath Playing Fields as a possible site for development – whilst citing various alternatives to meet the City’s need for social housing.

The initial consultation further failed to include residents of Short Heath or Perry Common, only inviting those from Stockland Green who neighboured the playing fields.

Following months of campaigning, amassing support from people across Erdington, the 11th December meeting with Birmingham City Council seemed to mark a reversal of fortune for the beloved green space.

All those present at the start of the meeting, including Council Leader Cllr Ian Ward and Cabinet Member for Homes and Neighbourhoods Cllr Sharon Thompson, have agreed to work alongside Short Heath Fields Trust to find an alternative – one that would meet both the need of social housing and to secure valuable green space for the community.

However according to the members of  Short Heath Fields Trust present on 11th December, Cllr Josh Jones (Stockland Green), who arrived late to the meeting, is still maintaining his position that the entire of Short Heath Playing Fields should be used for social housing development.

On behalf of local residents and the Save Short Heath Playing Fields campaign, Short Heath Fields Trust said:

“As a community we have fought hard and while the battle is not over, positive first steps have been taken towards a solution that would see sports and community back on the playing fields as it always should have been.

“Councillors Ian Ward and Sharon Thompson have agreed to come and meet our community in the New Year, finally giving them a voice, with a view to building a plan for the playing fields that meets the needs of everyone.

“In Jack Dromey’s own words our community is no longer banging the door to be let in, we now have a seat at the table.

“Short Heath Fields Trust made a promise to our community to get their opinions heard and moving forward will continue to do that – working with the Council and local residents to find a solution to this problem.”

For more information about the campaign to Save Short Heath Playing Fields, visit the group’s Facebook page: www.facebook.com/groups/1007069176404521

To further support the Save Short Heath Playing Fields campaign, you can donate through the official GoFundMe fundraising platform: www.gofundme.com/f/save-short-heath-playing-fields

NEWS: Erdington parents ‘threatened with fines’ for children not returning after half term

Words & pics by Ed King

Ed’s note… The images used in the article are archive pictures of schools in Erdington and ARE NOT RELATED to the people who have supplied quotes or their children.

If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this article, or have any updates or developments from a school in Erdington, please get in touch – you can send us a direct message via the Erdington Local Facebook page or email sue@erdingtonlocal.com

As schools reopen after the half term holidays, families across Erdington are being ‘threatened with fines’ if they still feel the classroom is not COVID-19 safe and keep their children at home.

Despite another national lockdown closing the country from 5th November, parents and carers are being told that all young people must go back to school this week – or literally pay the price for any absences.

Birmingham City Council had previously taken the stance to not impose the fixed penalty notices, which had been set by the Department of Education in July, electing to wave the fines for the first half term.

But as school gates open for the last few weeks of the Autumn term, families keeping their children at home could be charged up to £120 for every empty chair they now leave in the classroom.

With increased concerns over the rising cases of coronavirus, many Erdington parents and carers feel they should be allowed to choose what is best for their children – without facing even more debt due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Natasha Court has two children at primary school in Erdington, she says: “I believe it is completely wrong that the City Council are threatening parents with fines for actively carrying out their duty of care to protect their children whilst still ensuring they are being educating them at home.

All children need an education, 100%, but a ‘one size fits all’ approach is not appropriate, particularly in the midst of a worsening health pandemic.”

She adds: “I have two children with health conditions who would both be at heightened risks of serious complications should they catch COVID-19. I have my own health conditions too. No matter what schools do, they cannot protect our children in a class of 30.

Fines will hit the financial and mental wellbeing of the families who are already struggling. So the ‘alternatives’ they are left with are to send them to school and be put at risk, or de-register and be let down by the system that is supposed to help ALL children get a strong start to life through education. This is not right nor fair.”

Another Erdington parent, who wished to remain anonymous, said: “I have been threatened with fines from the Council if I now don’t send my child into school.

This is completely unfair. How can they tell me school is safe for my child when they have already had cases in the school?

With cases and deaths rising sharply now all I want to do is protect my whole family, yet I am unable to do that due to potentially being fined.

Attending school during a pandemic should be the parents’ choice to make.”

Schools across Birmingham open for the final weeks of the Autumn term from Monday 2nd November.

As set by the Department of Education in July this year, fixed penalties of £60 can be imposed for any absentee child – increasing to £120 if not paid within 21 days.

Minister for Education, Gavin Williams, announcing fines on LBC Radio (first broadcast on July 29th)

For the latest information on coronavirus restrictions in Birmingham, issued by Birmingham City Council, visit www.birmingham.gov.uk/coronavirus_advice

For the latest information on the lockdown starting from 5th November, issued by Government, visit www.gov.uk/guidance/new-national-restrictions-from-5-november

NEWS: Erdington Rugby Club wins ‘Gallagher Rugby Club of the Season’ national award

Words by Adam Smith / Pics supplied by Erdington RFC (all team pics wrere taken before coronavirus and social distancing regulations)

Erdington Rugby Club (RFC)’s work combatting knife crime, through working with local youngsters, has gained national recognition – after winning the first ever ‘Gallagher Rugby Club of the Season’ award.

Erdington RFC beat over 100 rival clubs to win the award, which was decided following a public vote and panel selection, after the success of its Changing Lives Through Rugby scheme – which saw volunteers offer free coaching to youngsters in danger of entering a life of crime and gang related violence.

The award, devised by Gallagher Insurance – which sponsors Premiership Rugby, is all the more impressive as the club had to start from scratch in 2016 after the club house was burned to the ground in 2003.

The England & British & Irish Lion, Harlequins legend, and Gallagher ambassador, Ugo Monye, paid a surprise visit to Erdington RFC this week to speak to club representatives about what winning means to them and the wider community.

The international rugby star said: “There was only one winner for me for this competition. Erdington RFC shone amongst the rest of the shortlisted finalists due to their profound commitment to their community, and most notably youth participants, both on and off the pitch.

To overcome such adversity in 2003 and get to the point they are at now is quite astounding and proves Erdington RFC is a fantastic winner of the Gallagher Rugby Club of the Season award.”

For winning the inaugural ‘Gallagher Rugby Club of the Season’ award, Erdington RFC – which plays at Spring Lane Playing Fields – were given £2,000 worth of Gilbert training kit.

Andy Trueman, community officer at Erdington RFC, said: “We are absolutely thrilled to be crowned winner of the Gallagher Rugby Club of the Season. Our club means everything to us and the surrounding community, and we are very grateful to have been recognised for our work in using rugby to make a positive impact in North Birmingham.

As well as having the honour of winning this award, we’re also delighted with our enhanced training kit prize, which will allow us to touch the lives of even more people within the community.” 

Changing Lives Through Rugby got volunteers to take part in coaching rugby in local schools, as well as providing outreach support in North Birmingham in partnership with the local police.

An after-school club, targeting pupils with known behavioural issues, the scheme helped youngsters build their teamwork skills, control aggression, respect authority, as well as providing them with a hot meal afterwards. All membership, kit, and match fees are waived for club participants as part of the sessions, and transport costs are covered for those who need it.

Sarah Griffiths, Director of Communications for Gallagher in the UK, commented: “Giving back to our local communities is incredibly important to everyone at Gallagher and so we created this award to recognise the often life-changing work that is being carried out by grassroots rugby clubs across the country.

We are thrilled to be presenting the Gallagher Rugby Club of the Season award to Erdington RFC who were voted the unanimous winner by all our judges.

The club does so much in their local community, despite having such little resources, and it really is not just the lifeblood of their community but also offers a potential life-line for young people by providing them with support, coaching and opportunities to thrive. A truly deserving winner.”

Erdington RFC also offers free dinners, alongside international and national league tickets to at risk youngsters – and in partnership with Birmingham City Council, further provides rugby tackle demonstrations at after-school violence hotspots in the city. 

The club also is planning to engage more mothers and daughters to take part in rugby, through their development of a separate touch rugby coaching session.

The original Erdington Rugby Club was forced to close in 2003 after its clubhouse was burnt down; Erdington RFC was reformed in 2016 with no facilities or players.

Now the club has grown to include over 100 U18 players, a squad of over 50 senior males, and a mixed gender touch rugby team.

Ugo Monye visits Erdington RFC

For more information about Erdington RFC, visit www.erfc.uk   

For more on Gallagher Premiership Rugby, visit www.premiershiprugby.com/gallagher-premiership-rugby

EXPLOITED: Part 3 – The unchallenged rampage of HMOs and shared houses, wreaking havoc for a profit across our community

Words by Adam Smith

In the third instalment of EXPLOITED, Adam Smith looks at the oversaturation problem in the HMO and supported living sector – hearing from the top of two housing associations and going right down to the root cause of the misery.

It’s a license to print money,” one former employee of a housing association tellingly revealed.

And it stands to reasons where there is easy money on offer there will be a queue of people ready to take it.

On the Birmingham City Council website there is a list of HMOs where landlords can charge the benefits system £900 for a room, which often can be more than £500 over the private rented market value. And the list runs into the thousands.

Across Birmingham there are 2345 HMOs with six or more people living in them, with applications pending for another 758 properties – including houses in Mere Road, Queens Road, Chester Road, Hillaries Road, Norfolk Road, Kings Road, Slade Road and George Road in Erdington.

As well as the licensed HMOs there are thousands more smaller HMOs and shared houses which fall into the category of ‘exempt’ or ‘supported’ accommodation. There are hundreds of companies which can apply for an HMO license in Erdington, many of which have been arguably set up just to take advantage of the system.

Spring Housing Association (SHA) is a Birmingham based Housing Association which operates HMOs, hostels and social housing – an organisation that has been referenced in previous Exploited articles. SHA has close links to Birmingham City Council and is one of the biggest housing associations in the Midlands, managing or owning more than 700 properties.

SHA, which has Edgbaston MP Preet Gill on its board of directors, has lobbied the Government to tighten up regulations and is now even turning shared houses into family homes.

SHA group chief executive and founder, Dominic Bradley, told Erdington Local there should be tighter regulations on the mushrooming number of companies which can run HMOs and shared accommodation.

He said: “We believe that there is over saturation of exempt shared housing provision in Birmingham. This is not to say that this type of housing doesn’t have an important part to play in the prevention of homelessness in all of its forms. In fact it’s essential.

However, we have long recognised that in parts of the city we are over saturated with this style of housing – which is disruptive to local communities. Stockland Green is an obvious example of this.”

Dominic added: “It’s one of the reasons we are about to purchase a shared house in Erdington and convert it back to a family home. We are aiming to do something similar in Edgbaston, which has had similar community issues to Stockland Green.

Whilst this is a start and one we are keen to develop further there are wider more systematic issues that need to be tackled around strengthening existing regulations about what we mean about care, support and supervision and work with providers to curb the current unmitigated growth and target provision linked to local strategy which we know Birmingham City Council are very keen to achieve.”

In the last article, Exploited – Humans Must Obey,  we outlined the rules tenants have to follow whilst living in supported housing and HMOs.

In the housing sector the term used is ‘Exempt Accommodation’ because in 1996 Housing Benefit regulations were changed to include ‘non-commissioned EA’ which were defined as ‘accommodation which is…provided by a non-metropolitan country council, a housing association, a registered charity or a voluntary organisation where that body or a person acting on its behalf also provides the claimant with care, support or supervision.

‘If a provider or landlord meets these criteria, they are exempt from rent restrictions within the private rented sector and are able to yield rent levels, paid for from housing benefit, far in excess of ‘general needs’ social sector rents and, often, market rents.’

These two paragraphs provided the starter of the sector gun, as landlords and housing associations realised they could charge more rent without the hassle of tenancy agreements – and the introduction of Universal Credit in 2012 massively increased the sector. The Conservative government’s change of rules, that the tenant received the housing benefit and not the landlord, meant it made sense for landlords to claim their houses were ‘exempt’ so they could get the cash directly as had been the case for decades.

The last Parliamentary research into HMOs, published in 2019, revealed there were more than 497,000 HMOs in England in Wales in 2018. And that number is growing.

Spring Housing Association, the University of Birmingham, and Commonweal Housing combined to produce a 60 page report – Exempt from Responsibility? Ending Social Injustice in Exempt Accommodation – which detailed the shocking state of housing provision and detailed how thousands of people were stuck in negative housing situations across the city. 

Ashley Horsey, chief executive of Commonweal Housing, a charity formed to ‘implement housing solutions to social injustice’, described the damage exempt housing is doing to tenants and communities.

He said: “The findings of this report are stark. That over 11,000 people in Birmingham – and many thousands more across the country – are living in potentially unsafe and unsuitable ‘exempt’ accommodation should concern us all.

Residents interviewed for this report described feelings of ‘entrapment’ in financial instability; exclusion from decision-making processes; lack of control over where, and with whom, they are housed.

At the same time, the nature of too many of the business models involved in this space are causing some concern, not least inflation linked leases from property owners requiring ever rising rents.

In addition, the deficit-based tenant modelling – talking up your tenant’s weaknesses to justify your income stream – is all too common, and a tricky place to be morally. Especially where there remains little oversight.”

Ashley added: “The ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ nature of some of the governance and regulation of this sector is alarming. Of course, everyone accommodated in the exempt accommodation sector is in need of a home. But asking no questions simply because this sector is putting a roof over a head is not good enough.

In particular, the exempt accommodation sector is too often the only housing available for the marginalised, the overlooked, the undervalued and the de-valued in society. They are the women who find themselves here after fleeing domestic violence, as their only housing option.”

The next instalment of EXPLOITED will reveal the shocking stories of women who have either lived in, live in, or have been affected by HMOs, exempt, or shared housing.

To read Exempt from Responsibility? Ending Social Injustice in Exempt Accommodation, visit www.springhousing.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/Spring-Housing-Final-Report-A4.pdf

To read the 2019 Parliamentary briefing paper on HMOs, visit www.commonslibrary.parliament.uk/research-briefings/sn00708 

For more on Spring Housing Association, visit www.springhousing.org.uk

For more on Commonweal Housing, visit www.commonwealhousing.org.uk

If you have been affected by HMOs or any of the issues mentioned in this article, we want to hear your side of the story – email Erdington Local on exploited@erdingtonlocal.com

NEWS: Erdington Academy given green light for £6.8m expansion to cater for 300 more pupils

Words by Adam Smith

Erdington Academy has been given the go-ahead to increase the number of its pupils from 900 to 1,200 after Birmingham City Council agreed to inject nearly £6.8 million into the school.

The Kingsbury Road secondary school will be refurbished and a brand new two story teaching block will be built on site – with work beginning next month and completed by Christmas 2021.

The new teaching block will include science labs and prep rooms, a drama teaching space, staff work rooms, office space and new staff and pupil toilets.

Birmingham City Council’s cabinet approved the £6,825,463 capital investment after a report from Dr Tim O’Neill, Director for Education and Skills, which said the authority had “a statutory duty to ensure that there are sufficient pupil places.”

The near £7m bill will be paid for from the Department for Education (DfE) Basic Need Grant and School Condition Grant.

However, consequential revenue costs arising from additional places including additional staffing, utility costs and any on-going day to day repair and maintenance will be the responsibility of Erdington Academy.

Balfour Beatty has been chosen as the construction partner for the scheme and ground is set to be broken at the school on November 23.

Councillor Jayne Francis, cabinet member for education, skills and culture, backed the new investment into Erdington Academy.

She said: “We have a duty to ensure that sufficient school places are available in our city.

Erdington Academy currently has 900 pupils, and the proposal is to expand two forms of entry to 1,200 places for pupils aged 11 to 16 years old.

There’s been a slight delay with planning, so it will be heard toward the end of September and once secured we will be able to carry on with completion of the work.”

Erdington Academy (formerly Kingsbury School and Sports College) converted to an Academy within the Fairfax Multi Academy Trust (FMAT) in 2016.

To find out more about Erdington Academy visit www.erdingtonacademy.bham.sch.uk

For more on Fairfax Multi Academy Trust (FMAT), visit www.fmat.co.uk

NEWS: Socially distanced ‘grass cutting protest’ to be held on Short Heath Playing Fields

Words & pics by Ed King

On Saturday 3rd October, around 50 local residents are holding a socially distanced ‘grass cutting protest’ on Short Heath Playing Fields in Erdington – continuing their fight to save the ‘beloved parkland’ from property developers.

Meeting at 2pm, friends and families from the local community will organise themselves on Short Heath Playing Fields – cutting the overgrown grass with handheld gardening tools and scissors.

The ‘grass cutting protest’ is being organised after Birmingham City Council’s refusal to cut the long grass, or to allow privately owned motorised equipment onto the land – such as lawn mowers.

Organised by the Short Heath Fields Trust (a recently formed community action group, dedicated to protecting the 26,912 square metres of cherished green space) the demonstration will be following all the coronavirus crisis guidelines – ensuring the community endeavour is fully COVID-19 safe.

Campaigners are wanting to help make the area more accessible for local children and elderly residents, by stripping back the long grass and thistles to encourage healthy outdoor activities for people of all ages.

In a statement from Short Heath Fields Trust, representing the wider community, protest organisers Estelle Murphy and Stephen Hughes say:

We have asked Birmingham City Council to cut the grass on Short Heath Playing Fields, so that whilst our community cannot meet in their homes and gardens (due to coronavirus restrictions) they have a space to be outside and safe.

There is a fight going on to save Short Heath playing fields, as Birmingham city Council want to build a housing estate on the beloved park land. But in the interim we can see no reason why the green space cannot be used to help keep local residents healthy and happy during this global pandemic.

As the Council have refused to help make the playing fields safer and more accessible, and won’t allow any third party to help with the appropriate motorised equipment, we have organised this grass cutting protest to help everyone in our community.”

The ‘grass cutting protest’ is the latest challenge to Birmingham City Council, following outrage across the community about the proposed housing development on the park land.

There have been further concerns about the lack of community consultation, with many local residents not being informed about the huge housing development that would take place on their doorstep.

In July 2019, Birmingham City Council sought approval to ‘dispose’ of the park land from the Department of Education’s portfolio – where it had been held as playing fields for local schools, including Court Farm Primary and St Mary Margaret Primary.

So far, the campaign to Save Short Heath Playing Fields has attracted thousands of supporters across the Erdington constituency – including a petition signed by 1500 local residents, that was presented to Birmingham City Council on Tuesday 15th September.

Erdington Councillor and leader of the Birmingham Conservatives, Robert Alden, has also been challenging the proposed developments in Council meetings for months.

Short Heath Playing Fields are vital to the local area,” says Councillor Alden. “They are a green lung – that helps clean our air, helps provide residents with an area to go to help exercise, and improve their physical and mental health and wellbeing.

In the post Covid-19 world even the Council admits that it is vital to provide green space yet despite us making it clear to them at numerous Council meetings and in petitions presented to Council that Erdington and Perry Common have a shortage the Council refuse to scrap their crazy plans to build on this valuable green space.”

Erdington’s Labour MP, Jack Dromey, has also called on the Council to listen to the concerns of local residents.

It is clear the Council have not done a good enough job of consulting with concerned residents,” states Jack Dromey, “and local people understandably feel that they have been ignored and the sense of anger is palpable.

Going forward, I will continue to argue that it would be wrong to go ahead with these proposals without proper consultation that involves local voices at every stage.”

Campaigners continue to challenge Birmingham City Council’s plans to develop a housing estate on Short Heath Playing Fields.

For more information about the campaign to Save Short Heath Playing Fields, visit the group’s Facebook page: www.facebook.com/groups/1007069176404521

To further support the Save Short Heath Playing Fields campaign, you can donate through the official GoFundMe fundraising platform: www.gofundme.com/f/save-short-heath-playing-fields

NEWS: Save Short Heath Playing Fields campaigners call for ‘common sense’ collaboration with Conservatives and Labour

Words & pics by Ed King

In a rare show of solidarity, the campaign to ‘Save Short Heath Playing Fields’ has grabbed the attention of top local politicians from both Labour and Conservatives – Erdington Local can reveal.

In exclusive quotes about the campaign to Erdington Local, both Jack Dromey MP (Labour) and Erdington Councillor Robert Alden (Conservative) came out swinging – with each elected official challenging Birmingham City Council for their disastrous first attempt at a public consultation.

Jack Dromey MP stated: “It is clear the Council have not done a good enough job of consulting with concerned residents, and local people understandably feel that they have been ignored and the sense of anger is palpable.”

Whilst Councillor Robert Alden said: “Short Heath Playing Fields are vital to the local area. They are a green lung in the middle of our community and it is disgraceful that the Labour Council wishes to rip out that green lung that helps clean our air, helps provide residents with an area to go to help exercise and improve their physical and mental health and wellbeing.”

But the two local residents spearheading the campaign, Steve Hughes and Estelle Murphy, want a commitment that Labour and Conservatives will work together on the issue.

In an email to Jack Dromey MP and Councillor Robert Alden, sent earlier this week, the campaigners asked both politicians ‘to write jointly to Councillor Ian Ward’ – expressing their concerns directly to the leader of Birmingham City Council.

Speaking to Erdington Local, Estelle Murphy and Stephen Hughes said in a joint statement: “We have said it before, and we will keep saying it because it is the simple truth, this isn’t political, this is about our community.

We have simply asked two of our communities most influential people, who are in a position, and have both offered their support and help, to join together and work for our local community. Surely that’s just common sense.”

Councillor Robert Alden has previously raised concerns to the Council about the proposed developments on Short Heath Playing Fields – including the lack of a robust public consultation.

The top Birmingham Tory has also met with campaigners, joining them for a day of litter picking and talking directly to local residents.

Jack Dromey MP met with Steve Hughes and Estelle Murphy on Saturday 5th September – the first time the MP’s constituency office has been opened during the coronavirus crisis.

Following the meeting, the MP told Erdington Local: “Steve (Hughes) and Estelle (Murphy) agreed to draw up a proposal on behalf of the community that would then be presented to the Council for consideration.

I will ensure that they are alongside me. Their views, along with those of the local community, will be central to these discussions at every stage.”

As of yet, Erdington Local is unaware of any meeting with the ‘Save Short Heath Playing Fields’ campaigners where both political parties have been present.

The next campaign community meeting, held under COVID-19 safety restrictions, will be held on Short Heath Playing Fields on Saturday 12th September.

To sign the petition to ‘Save Short Heath Playing Fields’, visit: www.change.org/p/birmingham-city-council-birmingham-education-department-bob-beauchamp-jack-dormey-save-short-heath-playing-fields

To further support the Save Short Heath Playing Fields campaign, you can donate through the official GoFundMe fundraising platform: www.gofundme.com/f/save-short-heath-playing-fields

FEATURE: Promised land – a community unites to save Short Heath Playing Fields and fights to be heard

Words & pics by Ed King

All we’re asking for is the Council to be honest with people, we’re not asking for the Earth. We’re asking for them to be honest with the community and tell them what’s happening.”

Three weeks ago, Steve Hughes and Estelle Murphy had never met – despite living round the corner from each other, one on Short Heath Road and one on Court Farm Road. A familiar tale of neighbours yet strangers.

Now it Is difficult not to see them together, clearing up the green space between their houses – championing the cause that brought them and the wider community together.

Save Short Heath Playing Fields began as a campaign to do just that.

But the signs, slogans, banners, and banter that now surround this urban oasis have already achieved something else, something powerful – galvanising a community into action. Real action. The kind of action that changes things.

And what started with a simple question – namely, did you know about the proposed development on Short Heath Playing Fields? – is now a clarion call for an increasingly empowered and united neighbourhood.

Community is what this is all about,” tells Steve. “It’s a community thing, and it’s massive now. And it’s not just here – I’ve just been talking to a lady who lives over there (Streetly Road, Edgware Road, Marsh Lane) and people are talking about it over that side of the park as well.”

People are stopping us in the street and asking how it’s going, what we’re doing, where we’ve been, who we’re speaking to. Throwing ideas at us,” adds Estelle – after a long weekend with a community cleaning up the park on their own time.

We’d got kids over here litter picking, old age pensioners litter picking… it didn’t matter if you were 7, 17, 27, or 77, everybody was out – all pulling together.”

It’s spotless if you walk around it now,” continues Steve, “it’s amazing. We’ve had the Erdington Litter Busters here, and the Short Heath Wombles. Then we’ve joined in and done our bit… people are talking to each other again.”

Since Steve and Estelle joined forces, after both spending several months independently challenging the proposed development of 84 houses on Short Heath Playing Fields, hundreds more local residents have banded together – bringing a unified fight to Birmingham City Council’s plans to ‘dispose’ of the public land, previously earmarked for local schools.

Over recent weekends, and following the correct COVID-19 safety precautions, scores of residents have routinely descended upon the open green parkland – initially to hear about the campaign, and the proposed development, but then turning their hands to maintaining the ground themselves.

From litter picking to landscaping, people power has been filling the void left by over a decade of Council neglect.

We’ve done everything by the book,” explains Steve, “everyone had safely equipment, everyone had masks. We socially distanced. We’ve done everything to COVID rules. All the people down here were spread across the park – they worked in their family bubbles. We’re being responsible.”

I’m going to keep coming down to stay in the mix,” add Jamie Stanley – who saw Steve and Estelle back on the parkland earlier in the day and jumped in to help the with more litter picking.

It’s nice to be able to bring my son down, and he can look around and there’s no litter anywhere. He loves coming here. I told him about it last weekend, that they wanted to build on here, and he was upset. We was like, ‘aw, but I like playing football with you here dad.’ But it benefits all the kids, you know.”

Steve Hughes began with a petition, hosted on the popular Change.org website. At the time of writing, this has amassed 1422 signatures – with a private Facebook group attracting further support.

Estelle Murphy was one of the handful of local residents who heard about, and attended, the public consultation – which took place last year. Although what unfurled at the meeting left her so disillusioned, she began fighting for the clarity and transparency that any local community deserves.

But awareness of the proposed plans has been the sticking point for both, as the due diligence and legally required public consultation that is needed for such a drastic change to a community has been arguably clandestine. And whilst the fight may not be a new one, it is still a fight.

We’re not political in this,” tells Steve, “we’re doing it from a community perspective, but we’re being forced into a political arena.

And when you speak to the community, the residents, the people who live right by the park, the problem we all have is that the Council keep calling it ‘consultation’ and they DO NOT consult the people who live by the park – or use the park.”

The meeting was shocking,” adds Estelle, “they shut (Erdington Councillor) Robert Alden down at every option and just said ‘no, planning will sort that out.’ No… you sort planning out, not the other way around. And when it went to a scrutiny committee, who said no, it’s not up to the Council to tell scrutiny to basically shut up – which is pretty much what they did. It’s shocking, absolutely shocking.”

Whenever Erdington Local goes to meet Steve and Estelle, as they continue tidying up the field the Council states has been ‘unused for 10 years’, a constant stream of dog walkers snake round into the playing fields – taking four legged friends for a healthy ramble across the open green space.

Children come and play in the areas where the grass has been cut back, chasing footballs not dragons – on what has been referred to as ‘a drug den’ for heroin users. (It is worth noting that on a recent litter picking sweep, not a single needle or spoon were found – despite trained healthcare staff rifling through the undergrowth with metal gloves and a spike box.)

Countless local residents also come out and ask about the campaign, commenting on the signs or the work then have seen volunteers undertake – all are curious and supportive, not just of the campaign but of the sense of community it has ignited.

On Erdington Local’s last visit to the site, a man from the neighbouring HMO came out to thank the campaigners and volunteers for their work – asking Steve and Estelle to sign small wooden hearts so he could put them into his new-born babies birth book. You rarely see something that beautiful between strangers.

The notion that this Short Heath Playing Fields are ‘unused’, as declared on official Council documentation, is laughable.

But the backbone of the issue is ultimately political, regardless of how bipartisan the approach of the Save Short Heath Playing Fields campaigners has been.

Erdington Councillor Robert Alden, who has been on site meeting residents and helping with the litter picking, alongside Councillor Gareth Moore, told Erdintgon Local: “Short Heath Playing Fields are vital to the local area.They are a green lung in the middle of our community and it is disgraceful that the Labour Council wishes to rip out that green lung that helps clean our air, helps provide residents with an area to go to help exercise and improve their physical and mental health and wellbeing. 

In the post Covid-19 world even the Council admits that it is vital to provide green space yet despite us making it clear to them at numerous Council meetings and in petitions presented to Council that Erdington and Perry Common have a shortage the Council refuse to scrap their crazy plans to build on this valuable green space.

It has been great to see residents come together to fight the Labour administrations plans to build on the fields and I have of course been happy to work and support them and will continue to do so in our fight to save Short Heath Playing Fields.”

And moving down the field with this political football, Erdington MP Jack Dromey told Erdington Local: “I have been in dialogue for some time with local residents who have expressed profound concerns about the proposed housing development on Short Heath Playing Fields. I have made it clear to Birmingham City Council that local voices must first be heard.

It is essential that the views of local people are always considered before any development takes place.

It is clear the Council have not done a good enough job of consulting with concerned residents, and local people understandably feel that they have been ignored and the sense of anger is palpable. 

I want residents to know their concerns are being listened to and taken seriously. I will be meeting once again with key campaigners and local residents this Saturday (5th September) to hear their views on the proposals for the playing fields. 

Going forward, I will continue to argue that it would be wrong to go ahead with these proposals without proper consultation that involves local voices at every stage.” 

But for Steve Hughes, Estelle Murphy, and the many hundreds of local residents that have now put their hands clearly in the air to be counted – this is still firmly about community. The strength in their increasing number is only the beginning too. Doors that were once shut are creaking open and conversations that may be nearly a year overdue are finally starting to happen.

There is hope in Short Heath.

There is conversation, houses that were alien to each other are now borrowing cups of sugar and exchanging titbits about boundaries and planning regulations. There is a sense of community and connection, one that many of the people who live in this pocket of Erdington haven’t felt in decades.

The whole thing is crazy,” admits Steve – as he and Estelle pack up after a long day cutting back the thorn bushes and overgrown grass at the top end of the playing fields. “All they (Birmingham City Council) do is try and undermine the community and not actually give us the chance to have a say in it. And you know what, that’s all the people really want. What we don’t want is for them not to listen – and that’s the problem.

Why is it that a politician will promise you the Earth when they’re after you’re vote – but when we’re asking them for something, they don’t want to know unless it suits their agenda. Why should that be the case?

Why are they not even prepared to do the right thing and talk to the community – to give the community the chance to have their say and say what they would like to happen. But also, to listen and act and what people say.

Why can Birmingham City Council just run roughshod over people?”

It’s difficult to know.

But what’s certain, is that the residents around Short Heath Playing Fields are not going to be silenced without an answer – and with an ignited sense of community and pride, they’ll want to hear it together.

To sign the petition to Save Short Heath Playing Fields, visit: www.change.org/p/birmingham-city-council-birmingham-education-department-bob-beauchamp-jack-dormey-save-short-heath-playing-fields

To further support the Save Short Heath Playing Fields campaign, you can donate through the official GoFundMe fundraising platform: www.gofundme.com/f/save-short-heath-playing-fields

EXPLOITED: HMOs – when greed meets vulnerability, carving up communities for a profit

Words by Adam Smith / Pics by Ed King

Erdington Local launches a series of articles investigating the devastation caused by the mushrooming number of HMOs (homes of multiple occupancy) in Erdington and Kingstanding.

Chief reporter Adam Smith spent the last year living in HMOs and has seen first-hand how housing associations and rogue landlords are ripping off taxpayers – whilst exploiting the most vulnerable people in society.

Do you pay tax?

If so, then your hard-earned money is lining the pockets of ruthless housing associations and rogue landlords – whose greed is wrecking the lives of Erdington residents, tenants, and the most vulnerable people in society.

Nationally the taxpayer shells out billions of pounds for eye-wateringly inflated rents for benefits claimants’ rooms in HMOs – which get planning permission, despite Erdington residents and politicians bitterly complaining they are destroying the very fabric of the local community.

Hundreds of Erdington houses, including historic and beautiful Victorian properties, have been turned into HMOs – creating a living hell for both tenants and local residents who watch helplessly as the area they love becomes blighted.

Stockland Green is one of the worst examples in the country for the negative effect of HMOs and supported accommodation.

Those classed as ‘vulnerable’ and living in HMOs and/or supported accommodation are locked in a vicious circle; landlords charge the taxpayer £900 a month for a single room, leaving the tenant no motivation to get a job as the rent will be too high on a low wage. This investigation will explore examples of housing association staff actively discouraging tenants to work.

Tenants in ‘supported accommodation’ should get an hour of professional support a week, which qualifies their extortionate rent from benefits – but instead of proper psychiatric help, staff often only see tenants to demand a weekly ‘maintenance charge’, usually between £12 and £20, out of their benefits.

Instead of tenancy agreements which offer some protection to renters, those living in HMOs are forced to sign ‘licenses’ containing pages of draconian rules and potential infringements – which if broken can see the tenants made homeless with just a week’s notice.

Staff can enter rooms when they like and there have even been examples of male staff bursting unannounced into women’s rooms after 11pm.

HMOs radically changed the rental market in Erdington, with landlords now preferring benefits claimants and even advertising rooms for the price of the maintenance charge. Meanwhile, working people are trying to find somewhere to live from a dwindling amount of properties – which are increasing in price due to their scarcity.

This scandal crosses political lines too.

Legislation from the Conservative government has allowed ruthless companies, landlords, and housing associations to exploit the benefit system – whilst Birmingham’s Labour administration has allowed thousands of HMOs to be created in the city, without the ability to scrutinise the conduct of those organisations running them.

This investigation will unveil the close links between Birmingham City Council  and to the companies profiting from the system.

During the Government’s ban on evictions during the coronavirus crisis, housing associations in Birmingham have been quietly evicting people during the deadly pandemic.

Recently, Edgbaston MP Preet Gill called on the Government to extend the evictions ban. However, Gill is on the board of Spring Housing Association, which works extremely closely with Birmingham City Council – but which also evicted vulnerable tenants during COVID-19 lockdown.

One evicted Spring Housing tenant, Shamir Hussain, told Erdington Local: “I was evicted during lockdown by Spring Housing, just when I thought I was as low as I could they made it worse. They made me homeless during a pandemic where people were dying all around us, I will never forget that.

They (Spring Housing) were getting £900 a month for me to live in a room; I could have paid a mortgage on a nice house for that obscene amount of money for one room. And when I did put a claim in for a much cheaper rent amount, for a whole flat, I was refused. It seemed like they were happy to pay £900 to Spring Housing but not a fraction of that to sort my life out.”

The area’s two most powerful politicians, Labour’s Erdington MP Jack Dromey and Erdington Councillor and leader of Birmingham’s Conservatives Robert Alden, both recognise the damage being done to the area by the scourge of bad landlords.

Dromey said: “I know how angry residents are about this issue, I went to a meeting on Frances Road two years ago expecting six people to be there and 70 residents turned up. And the problem has worsened in that time not got better.

Stockland Green is where the problem is at its most acute, where the most prosecutions of landlords in Birmingham have been due to work with the police, and with the disproportionate dumping of vulnerable tenants into the area by landlords who do not give a damn about them and not give them any help.

Some of these landlords let their tenants live in squalor in Erdington whilst they live in the lap of luxury in Sutton Coldfield. However, there are some very good landlords out there, which is all the more the shame when the bad ones undercut them to cram an extra person in.”

In the 1980’s Dromey helped residents in London fight a bitter dispute with slum landlords and even created a ‘Hit Parade of Bad Landlords’ with help from Radio 1 DJ Alan Freeman – who would regularly do a run down on television of the worst offenders.

The MP said: “We have use imaginative ways to fight these type of people but in Erdington we also need proper joined up action with the police, council, probation and mental health services working together to solve the problems created in the last five years in the housing sector which coincides with the Tories being in power.”

Councillor Robert Alden laments the changing face of the area’s housing stock, which used to be the envy of the rest of the city in years gone by.

He said: “Erdington has been blighted by HMO’s run by bad landlords.

Erdington’s large stock of larger Victorian family homes have sadly often been taken over and turned into swathes of HMO’s – in many places seeing whole rows of housing turned from the purpose they were built for, to provide housing for families, into a collection of substandard and often below even minimum standard room size bedsits.”

He added: “Often quiet residential streets have suddenly found themselves besieged by bedsits acting under exempt housing placing drug addicts, alcoholics, and ex-offenders into our local community.

Sadly, those rogue landlords have used loopholes in the system to convert houses far and beyond the scope they were designed for, often seeing three bedroom homes turned into six or seven room bedsits.

Sometimes they also claim for alleged support provided to people while failing to provide anything like that – in the process taking huge amounts of tax payers money for services barely provided, failing their tenants, while also leaving communities like Erdington to suffer from the fallout.”

As well as the co-operation of all relevant agencies in Erdington, there also needs to be strong political leadership to stop the situation getting worse – but to also undo the systemic problems caused by five years of loopholes being exploited by those who had the most money to gain from flooding Erdington with high profit dangerous housing.

Throughout this series of stories, a light will be shone on some very murky corners and shocking practices – and this investigation will follow the money.

This investigation will explore how neighbouring HMOs crammed full of men have created ‘no-go roads’ for women and teenagers fed up of cat calling, sexual harassment, and threatening acts of misogyny.

There will also be stories from the female perspective, from suddenly having men moved into your safe space, as well as the unique HMO experiences of trans refugees.

This investigation will challenge those responsible on their behaviour – reporting them to the appropriate authorities if any laws were broken. Expect explosive revelations and, as readers, you have the right to demand resignations.

If you have been affected by HMOs or any of the issues mentioned in this article, we want to hear your side of the story – email Erdington Local on exploited@erdingtonlocal.com