EXCLUSIVE: Local campaigners ‘ready to take on any private developer’ after Council halt housing plans for Short Heath Playing Fields

Words & pics by Ed King

In a surprise U-turn, Birmingham City Council have halted their housing plans for Short Heath Playing Fields – returning the site back to the Education Department.

In an email to Short Heath Fields Trust (SHFT) from the Birmingham Leader’s office, sent on Thursday 25 November, Cllr Ward informed them Birmingham City Council no longer saw the site as viable for their proposed development of 84 houses.

The news was met with relief and hope, from a community that have been locking horns with Birmingham City Council for over a year to keep the green space for public use – from regular dog walking and sporting activities, to organised events such as the recent ‘pumpkin hunt’ which saw families from Kingstanding to Castle Vale come together on the parkland.

But local campaigners are “ready to take on any private developer”, as moving the land back into the Education Department portfolio could end up with a quick sale in the commercial market and planning applications to build even more houses on their “beloved fields”.

In previous statements made by Birmingham City Council, if the fiercely fought over green space was no longer earmarked for development by Birmingham Municipal Housing Trust (BMHT): ‘it is anticipated that the land would be sold relatively soon to a private developer.’

In the same message, Birmingham City Council went on to state:

“It is known that private developers would look to maximise the density of any site as far as possible, it is also a known and demonstrable fact that homes delivered by private developers are almost all of a smaller size than any BMHT designed homes, therefore the likelihood is that there would be in excess of 84 homes on the site, and should that developer seek to build apartments on a low rise form, would again most likely exceed 100 plus homes and apartments.”

After receiving the email from the Birmingham Leader, Short Heath Fields Trust told Erdington Local:

“This is a huge win for us all. We at Short Heath Fields Trust are delighted by the news that the Council will not be building on our green space.

“We know this is a battle won, but not the war. We would like to know the results of the environmental surveys and the more detailed look into the grounds actual viability for development which we know we’re undertaken.

“We have taken on Birmingham City Council with its huge legal department and we are more than ready to take on any private developers if needed.

“We will continue to make sure the community gets a say in what happens at our beloved fields. To try to bring the community’s vision of the return of sports for all and to see it given back to the community.

“Considering the Council haven’t paid a penny for this parkland it should be put into the parks department not education, as that is where it belongs, so this community can keep using and enjoying it instead of generations past, present, and future having to keep fighting for it.”

The campaign to save ‘Save Short Heath Playing Fields’ began in August 2020, after a contentious period of initial public consultation which many claim they were unaware of.

Starting with a Facebook page and online petition, local residents eventually formalised into Short Heath Fields Trust – following a community protest that grabbed the attention of politicians from both sides of the aisle.

Leader of the Birmingham Conservative Party and Erdington Ward councillor, Robert Alden, joined local residents in their protest against the Council’s plans – having been already fighting the proposed development from Birmingham’s corridors of power.

Cllr Alden told Erdington Local: “The decision of the Council to finally listen to the thousands of residents locally who have been calling for the site to be saved is a welcome one. Short Heath Playing Fields is a green lung in our area that needs to be preserved.

“However, residents will not forget that the Leader of the Council and the Labour MP stood in front of residents telling them the site had to be built on.

“Therefore, residents will rightly be concerned that the City Council will simply decide to change their minds again next summer, after the all-out council elections.

“That is exactly what they did with Burford Road Playing Fields, Kingstanding, in 2018. They claimed they were saved going into the 2018 elections and then agreed to build on them in 2019.

“Residents can rest assured we will continue to fight and keep the pressure on the Council to preserve Short Heath Road Playing Fields and other green spaces locally.

Erdington MP Jack Dromey has also been heavily involved in the campaign to ‘Save Short Heath Playing Fields’, responding to the growing concerns of local residents, meeting regularly with SHFT, and using his position to broker meetings with Birmingham Council Leader Ian Ward.

On hearing the land was being given back to the Education Department, Jack Dromey said:

“The campaign to Save Short Heath Playing Fields has been a strong, community-led campaign and the news that Birmingham City Council will not be building houses on the site will be welcomed by the campaigners.

“Since I was first approached about the issue two years ago, I have been working with all those concerned to try and find a way forward that the local community can support, and I’d like to thank everyone involved for the constructive way in what has sometimes been difficult discussions.

“I will continue to work closely with campaigners and the community on the future of Short Heath Playing Fields, that are near and dear to the heart of the local community.”

Despite various alternatives being proposed by SHFT, including putting sports facilities on Short Heath Playing Fields and a list of surrounding brownfield sites on which to develop social housing, the fate of the green space seemed sealed.

During a meeting with local residents on Friday 20 August, the Birmingham Council Leader reiterated the likelihood of a private sale if the land could not be developed by BMHT – urging residents to accept the Council’s proposal.

At the same meeting, Cllr Ward also announced the number of proposed houses to be built would be reduced to 66 from the 84, to make way for ‘a green corridor’ connecting Short Heath Road to Bleak Hill Park.

Commitments were also made of reinvesting up to £1millon from the development back into the local community for health, wellbeing, and sports facilities.

However, if the land is sold to a private developer the size and scope of any development remains to be seen – alongside any possible reparations to the local community.

Erdington Local has approached Birmingham City Council for comment.

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:  www.facebook.com/groups/1007069176404521

NEWS: Councillor Penny Holbrook found dead at Abbey Road home

Words by Ed King

Stockland Green Councillor Penny Holbrook was found dead at her Abbey Road home on Sunday 21 November, aged 43.

A statement released by Councillor Holbrook’s family said: “We are devastated to announce the death of our beloved Penny. As you will appreciate, this has come as a huge shock to Penny’s family, friends and loved ones.

“Penny was a much-loved daughter, aunt, sister, and friend who always found time to help others and will be missed by so many people. We are heartbroken by this news. As her family, we ask that our privacy is respected at this very difficult time.”

Joining the council in May 2003, Penny Holbrook was only 25 when began representing the Stockland Green ward.

Cllr Holbrook was re-elected in 2004 but lost out to Matt Bennett (Con) in 2008 by only 72 votes.

Then in 2010 she took back Stockland Green with 1760 more votes than her closest rival, retaining the ward ever since. She also sat as Chair of Housing and Neighbourhoods Overview & Scrutiny Committee.

Set to stand for Stockland Green again in the 2022 local elections, Penny Holbrook had been invited back after members of the local Labour party voted overwhelming to present her again, receiving 28 votes for ‘yes’ and only four votes for ‘no’.

Penny Holbrook was raised in Falcon Lodge, Sutton Coldfield, and attended John Wilmott School.

Having also worked in Erdington MP Jack Dromey’s constituency office, Penny had strong ties with the area and was well known by many local residents.

MP for Erdington Jack Dromey said: “Penny was one of Birmingham’s finest, a fierce champion of her beloved Erdington which she served so well.

“She worked for me in my constituency office and served with distinction as a councillor for Stockland Green.

“Local people loved her and there was no problem too big that she could not tackle to help them.

“The loss of Penny is absolutely tragic but her memory lives on. RIP dear Penny.”

Standing for Stockland Green, Penny Holbrook represented the ward alongside Cllr Josh Jones.

Cllr Jones added: “The loss of a friend and comrade is always hard to take, but the loss Penny is a devastating blow to me as we were not just Ward colleagues but close friends who were there to support each other and have helped each other in our political and personal lives ever since.

“She was a great Councillor who achieved great things in Stockland Green, but more importantly was a wonderful person.

“She will be missed tremendously by the people of Stockland Green, her comrades in the Labour Party, but most of all by her friends and family.”

Council Leader Cllr Ian Ward, who ran against Penny Holbrook to become Birmingham Leader by only one vote in 2015, added:

“I am shocked and saddened at the death of my friend and colleague Penny Holbrook. My thoughts and condolences go to her family and friends at this tragic time.”

FEATURE: “This is the beginning of a conversation… not the end.” Council Leader promises to “work with” the local community on Short Heath playing fields housing development

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.

Alongside Short Heath Fields Trust, several community groups attended the meeting including Erdington Litter Busters, Short Heath Wombles, and Short Heath Residents Action Group.

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.

EXCLUSIVE: Council reduce housing plans for Short Heath playing fields – following a year long campaign from local residents

Words by Ed King / Pics by Ed King and Estelle Murphy

Birmingham City Council are pulling back on their plans for a new housing estate on Short Heath playing fields, cutting 18 houses from the originally proposed development of 84 – Erdington Local can exclusively reveal.

Following over 12 months of a fiercely fought campaign to ‘Save Short Heath Playing Fields’, Council Leader Ian Ward is meeting with local residents today to explain the new plans face to face – which will see a 21% reduction in new homes being built on the site.

Tensions have run high over the past twelve months, as friends and neighbours became community campaigners to stop the Council building on the beloved green space – used by young and old across the area for social activities.

Birmingham City Council have been identifying sites across the city for new houses as part of their Birmingham Development Plan (BDP) – responding to a housing crisis which could see tens of thousands of families without a home in the next decade.

However, residents of Erdington, Perry Common, and Stockland Green – the three wards that embrace the playing fields – have been fighting to have their voices heard after the original public consultation was heavily criticised.

In the revised proposal, Birmingham City Council are also promising up to £1million investment into remaining the green space and neighbouring Bleak Hill Park – earmarked for health, wellbeing, and sports facilities.

In an update sent to Erdington Local direct from the Council Leader’s office, the new development plans will include ‘off-site provision for sports and recreation to a maximum value of £1milllion.’

The possible seven figure sum now on the table will be used for ‘a green corridor leading from Short Heath Road down to Bleak Hill Park’ and ‘new football pitches and a small changing room.’

In the original development plans, the playing fields were to be used for 84 houses – with money outlined for sports and education but no clear reinvestment into the local community.

In a message directly to local residents, Birmingham City Council Leader Ian Ward said: “I want to thank the residents of Erdington for engaging with us.

“We’re determined to provide more high quality affordable homes for the people of Birmingham, but we understand the need to work with communities, so we’ve listened and our new proposal takes into account the feedback we received to the original plans for this site.

“In Erdington and across the city, there’s a clear and urgent need for new social rented homes. Hopefully the new proposals can deliver some of those homes while also retaining green space and providing leisure facilities.

“This is a growing city and the Birmingham Development Plan, adopted in January 2017, forecasts a population increase of around 156,000 people by 2031.

“That means 89,000 additional homes, with 51,000 of these to be built within the city boundary, so sites like Short Heath are key to helping us meet this need.”

Spearheaded by Short Heath Fields Trust (SHFT), local residents who formalised as a trust earlier this year, the campaign has attracted the attention of several high ranking public officials – with Erdington Councillor and Leader of Birmingham Conservatives Robert Alden attending several public meetings on the site and offering continued support.

Recently re-elected Mayor of the West Midlands Combined Authority, Andy Street, also made a personal visit to the playing fields, promising to “do everything I (he) can” to save the green space, adding “it’s not even a debate whether houses should or should not be built – I cannot understand why they would be built here. It cannot happen.”

Jack Dromey MP for Erdington has also been in talks with SHFT for over 12months, acting as a mediator between campaigners and Council – bringing the concerns of local residents directly to the Leader’s office.

He told Erdington Local: “The open spaces of Short Heath are near and dear to the local community and local people have been rightly concerned.

“They recognise that the Council must build badly needed homes but wanted a say in the future of Short Heath.

“I have worked with them and Council Leader Ian Ward to arrive at a way forward that sees new homes and better facilities for the community, preserving the integrity of Short Heath.

“The Council must continue to listen and move further but real progress has been made.”

However, Short Heath Fields Trust and many across the community were hoping for a more significant reduction in the number of new houses to be built – understanding a compromise must be reached but wanting more of the green field site to remain accessible to local residents.

There is also growing concern over the strain any new houses will put on the local infrastructure, such as GP surgeries and schools.

Chair of Short Heath Fields Trust, Stephen Hughes, told Erdington Local: “Obviously we are disappointed with the Council’s proposal, we want far more for our community. But today is a chance for our community to have its say and we hope to be heard at last.

“Going forward we will continue the Trust’s work to establish Bleak Hill Park as part of the community and bring it to the same standard as surrounding parks, as a member of Birmingham Open Spaces Forum.”

Estelle Murphy, from the recently formed Short Heath Residents Action Group, added: “Short Heath Residents Action Group will be there to ask the questions those unable to attend today have sent in.

“Once we have gauged the feeling of all interested parties, we will decide exactly what our next move as an Action Group will be – to save this parkland and over other issues than effect our community.”

Council Leader Ian Ward introduces new plans for housing 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

NEWS: Plans to Save Short Heath Playing Fields “misinterpreted” during high-level meeting with Birmingham City Council

Words & pics by Ed King (pics taken before current Covid/social distancing restrictions)

Local campaigners were left feeling “misinterpreted” this week, following a high-level meeting with Birmingham City Council to discuss proposed developments on Short Heath Playing Fields.

On Monday 22nd March, members of Short Heath Fields Trust met for the second time with Council Leader Ian Ward – joined by Jack Dromey MP for Erdington, Cllr Penny Holbrook (Stockland Green), and senior officials from Birmingham City Council’s housing and regeneration teams.

The meeting was a chance for proposals from both sides to be heard and discussed, with the local community fighting to save the beloved green space which Birmingham City Council have earmarked for a new housing estate.

But despite being promised “a meaningful discussion” members of Short Heath Fields Trust felt their proposal was all but ignored, with Birmingham City Council pricing their plans for a “basic community hub” and simple sports facilities at a “ridiculous” £6.1million plus running costs – including £2.8m for the land and £1.6m for development contingencies.

Talking to Erdington Local after the meeting, campaigners said: “To be honest it started very well, however that didn`t last – the tone of the conversation became very negative towards us.

“We feel the atmosphere in our first meeting was really positive but felt that some members in this latest meeting were very unengaging. It has been a very hard fight to get our community heard and while the conservation was there with some, we felt others were not listening.

“Some commitments were made for us to meet with the planners and a chance to hash things out. But our community`s proposal was very much misinterpreted – to the extent we could question that it had been read.

“We always knew this was a hard fight, as with any battles there are ups and downs. And whilst we didn`t feel this meeting had the momentum or content we were expecting we still have our ‘seat at the table’.

“However, we do feel that more support could have been offered by those that claim to see the value in our community’s needs and ideas for the green space.”

When asked about the multi-million pound project fee Birmingham City Council gave their proposal, representatives of Short Heath Fields Trust told Erdington Local: “We believe the council’s costings are poles apart from what our community proposal put forward.

“How can Birmingham City Council expect us to find £6.1million – and this when our proposal only talked about painting white lines and erecting goal posts. Even the basic community hub we talked about was costed at £500,000; it’s ridiculous.”

During the meeting, held via Microsoft Teams due to continuing Covid restrictions, assurances did come from Birmingham City Council Leader Ian Ward that no developments would take place on the site until a compromise had been reached.

In a statement made direct to Erdington Local, Cllr Ward said: “I want to thank the community representatives, who are clearly passionate about the future of the Short Heath Playing Fields site.

“We had a productive meeting, with plenty of common ground and we’ve agreed that nothing will happen on the site until we’ve worked more closely with the wider community.”

Reaffirming the commitment for compromise from the Council Leader,  Councillor Penny Holbrook (Stockland Green) told Erdington Local: “If the residents want to come up with an alternative plan for the housing developments, that’s fine.

“Cllr Ward (at the meeting) spoke very clearly about how this won’t go forward until there’s an agreement between the community and the council.”

However, campaigners also questioned a seeming U-turn by Cllr Holbrook – who having previously stated her support appeared fully committed to the council’s proposal during Tuesday’s meeting.

When challenged about her stance, Cllr Holbrook told Erdington Local: “I absolutely believe there needs to be housing on the site (Short Heath Playing Fields) because we need to change the housing offering in Stockland Green.

“What I am 100% committed to is making sure all the reinvestment is given back to the community – to the Short Heath Fields Trust, they should be in charge of what funding comes out of this and it should be entirely available to community to decide what happens next.”

Short Heath Fields Trust will now be meeting with Terry Webb, Principal Housing Development Officer for Birmingham City Council, to discuss the development and to challenge the £6.1million+ costing for their proposal.

Jack Dromey MP for Erdington also remains committed to the conversation over plans for Short Heath Playing Fields, having spent months bringing the concerns of his constituents to the highest level of local government.

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

For more on Short Heath Fields Trust, visit www.shortheathfieldstrust.godaddysites.com 

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