When the writer first visited Birmingham city centre, she valued its sturdy, coherent Edwardian and Victorian buildings in and around Broad Street, including its British Council, International Centre, glorious Woodman pub and pavements clean by night and day. 

Teaching children from the back-to back houses near St George’s school in Hockley behind Thomas Rickman’s landmark church, she became aware of the effective support system given by family and nearby neighbours at times of crisis.

This support system was broken up as people were moved out and the area, optimistically renamed Newtown [below] was redeveloped.

This, despite the example – recorded in Copec Adventure – of the Copec House Improvement Society, who successfully renovated and modernised such houses, keeping this safety-net intact. COPEC was supported by Aston’s Birmingham Settlement and funded through voluntary donations and capital raised via “five per cent philanthropy”. 

Hundreds of back-to-backs were improved and tenants provided with savings clubs, allotments and gardens, play areas for children and trips to the countryside.  Birmingham Quakers played a substantial part, not only in raising finance but in regularly spending time with the families concerned. 

That was indeed the ‘Big Society’.

As big demolitions and building contracts began to sweep the more foolish cities and towns of England, five per cent philanthropy was replaced by much sub-standard building and cases of large-scale fraud. The conviction of city architect Alan Maudsley in the 70s was the local manifestation.

This passage was prompted by several outraged reports and powerful letters in the Birmingham Post from Terry Grimley, its recently retired Arts Editor and Jewellery Quarter resident Matthew Bott about the proposed demolition of Island House – the latest act of civic vandalism.

As Grimley points out: 

“This building is . . . altogether more precious in Birmingham, because so much of our architectural heritage has been carelessly squandered over the years. 

The next post will focus on the adverse environmental impact of demolishing sound buildings – whatever their aesthetic ranking – a policy which violates the council’s admirable emission targets.