Bid to protect Brum's canals from developers

September 2018 - An attempt by a developer to build a 12-storey block of flats on the site of the Flapper Pub, on Birmingham’s Cambrian Wharf – currently stalled after a mass public protest and objections, including one from Canal & River Trust – has led to a bid to protect all of the city’s central canals by creating planning Conservation Areas.

Although some parts of the city’s canals, like Gas Street are protected, Cambrian Basin and the Farmers Flight of locks are not, nor are many other parts of the City’s Canals. In fact Dr Ted Hiscock says although Birmingham claims to have more canals than Venice, just eight per cent are protected by Conservation Orders and he wants to see that rise to 30 per cent before the Commonwealth Games is hosted in the city in 2022.

Ted Hiscock, a GP in the city for four decades and now a respected artist, says: “This travesty seems to be a disease of Birmingham, while other places with canals have been more fortunate and more forward-thinking.”

He argues that: “Cambrian Basin and the Farmers Flight of Locks are unique, it is historically and archaeologically of immense value to the formation of our great industrial city. The creation of the 1960s Civic Close, is a conception that is unique in Birmingham where a canal basin with residential moored boats, a canal side Pub, four tower blocks, a parkland of specifically planted trees and walkways are all cheek by jowl with six late 18th century Grade 2 Listed canal side mews cottages, namely Kingston Row, the link with the industrial past of Birmingham’s canals.”

Now he has produced a long academic paper that is a plea to Birmingham City Council, Canal & River Trust and Historic England to protect the city’s canals – although the response so far has not been inspiring.

He told The Floater: “ I have only yesterday sent a copy of this paper to Bashir Ahmed, (C&RT’s new Regional Director for the West Midlands) who promises it shall be forwarded to the heritage unit. Also, I took it to Birmingham’s ONLY Conservation Officer, who implied it doesn’t stand a chance of receiving recommendation by The Council, nor for that matter, the saving of The Flapper.

“I have made an application to Historic England to list the Farmers Flight of locks and that shabby organisation have sent me the standard refusal letter, saying it is not a National Monument and has no historical heritage.

“It is impossible to motivate any of our established organisations during times of austerity.”

Cambrain Wharf - This ancient basin, today called Cambrian Basin but previously Crescent Wharf on a bifurcation of two water routes, one down the Farmer’s Flight of locks and ultimately to Fazeley and the other, a limb into the heart of the city, flanked by warehouses and workshops.

When Ted made the alarming discovery of what he saw as an inappropriate application for the destruction of The Flapper pub and the erection of a 12-storey block of 66 flats on the edge of Cambrian Wharf, he identified what he saw as: “.. a nonchalant disregard by the applicant for the proximity of his scheme for the Grade 2 Listed mews cottages of Kingston Row and the historically important water edge of Cambrian Basin, previously called Crescent Wharf”.

Ted believes the planning bid has opened Pandora’s Box showing the lack of official protection for the canals of Birmingham. “Subsequently, research demonstrated very few kilometres of Birmingham canals are protected by conservation, and some of those that are designated are neglected.”

He believes that the 2022, Commonwealth Games is bringing thousands of extra visitors, but argues: “Birmingham is a mess of building sites, litter is everywhere, rough sleepers who beg day and night have become the norm, the canals are a dumping ground for supermarket trolleys, fast food containers and Graffiti. Few seem to notice or care.

“Can we not find some pride to clean this city, maintain the cleanliness and have leadership from the city council and inner-city residents who love living here? This applies to our greatest asset; the canals. This proposal suggests that the central city canals are placed in a designated Conservation Area; perhaps ‘Birmingham Central Canal Conservation Area’. They fulfil all the criteria and such a proposal would establish a target to aim for prior to the Commonwealth Games”.

Ted wants to extend the canals under conservation by 12km, taking the city network under a designated Conservation Area to 17km (still just 30 per cent of the acknowledged lengths of city’s navigable canals).

Those affected would be:
• Birmingham & Wolverhampton 2.5km
• Icknield Loop 1.25km
• Soho Loop 2.25km
• Birmingham & Fazeley 2.25km
• Digbeth Loop 0.75km
• Birmingham & Worcester 3km

• If the Lapal Canal from Selly Oak (by Battery Park junction) to Weoley Castle were to be included, a further 2.25km would be added.

Ted is now gathering public support for the idea from C&RT, MPs, National Trust, the BBC, Heritage England and local people.

He wants the city’s, Planning Department to be more sensitive to the ecological, historical and conservation needs of the canal network and more selective about architectural styles and designs of canal margin architecture.

The first step will be to persuade the City’s Planning Department’s Conservation Team to produce a recommendation to the city council for the extra 12km of the central canals to be made into Conservation Areas. He would like the Trust’s teams of volunteers to be extended and formalised into mapped zones of care.

He also wants neglected areas and listed buildings brought under direct council supervision and cleaned up, and security of the canal routes increased, urging more CCTV and patrols. He also suggests the city and the Trust produce running routes in preparation for 2022. Ted wants to see more boating, canoeing, and tourist trips, and educational seminars on the water, all objectives that should fit well with C&RT’s new focus on towpath visitors rather than just boaters.

Ted sees HS2 as: “... a golden opportunity to embrace the importance of the two means of travel that have both been so important to the city”.

If the current lack of interest from the City continues Ted argues the national politicians should step in: “If the council is reluctant to support this proposal, the Secretary of State for National Heritage can designate in exceptional circumstances. These canals ARE a National Heritage.”

Photos: (1st) Cambrain Wharf - This ancient basin, today called Cambrian Basin but previously Crescent Wharf on a bifurcation of two water routes, one down the Farmer’s Flight of locks and ultimately to Fazeley and the other, a limb into the heart of the city, flanked by warehouses and workshops, (2nd) Cambrian in the 1950s, (3rd) Cambrian in the 1960s, (4th) Cambrian today, (5th) Once The Flapper has a floating bar but it was lost to a fire many years ago, (6th) The Flapper was built at the time of a forward looking council who juxtaposed into an ornamental park, four modern towers of residences with six renovated Georgian mews cottages and a contemporary community pub, which at that time had one of the original wharf bays running at right angles to the canal in which floated a narrow boat bar. This green corner of central Birmingham is itself worthy of being created as a Conservation Area, (7th) One of the two Grade 2 listed cranes at Cambrian - it collapsed last year and has now been removed, (8th) Dr Ted Hiscock.

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