The presenter of this BBC radio programme, Adrian Goldberg, grew up on the Druids Heath council estate in Birmingham.

It is an eye-catching estate with undulating grassy slopes and a wide open landscape – quite breathtaking at times. The following photo gives some idea of the green spaces – but is far from doing justice to its subject. The writer often visited friends in a house and flat there in the 80s and was impressed by the standard of building and level of   accommodation – higher than private developments in the area at that time.

Birmingham is the home of the ‘municipalism’ pioneered by Joseph Chamberlain when he was Mayor of Birmingham – summarised by Walsall MP John McShane in the Commons in 1930:

“A young person today lives in a municipal house, and he washes himself … in municipal water. He rides on a municipal tram or omnibus, and I have no doubt that before long he will be riding in a municipal aeroplane. He walks on a municipal road; he is educated in a municipal school. He reads in a municipal library and he has his sport on a municipal recreation ground. When he is ill he is doctored and nursed in a municipal hospital and when he dies he is buried in a municipal cemetery.”

Adrian is described as being an ideal candidate to judge the changing nature of the local council, because when he and his family moved there the local authority:

  • built properties and
  • collected the rent.
  • Adrian took a council-subsidised bus service to
  • the secondary school run by his local education authority.
  • On the way home he’d drop into his council-run library to pick up some books
  • or take a swim in the council run pool.

He comments, “Today the situation is much more complex”

Adrian considered the effect of austerity on the role of councils today. Birmingham council has almost halved its staff since 2008, from around 24,000 to 12,500. Last year another £28m was cut from Birmingham’s adult care budget of £230m. 2017/18 – the seventh year of cuts – is predicted to be the toughest year yet with expected reductions of £113m to the council’s overall budget, on top of £650m already cut since 2010.

Local government grants and powers have been greatly reduced in several areas, including education and housing

The council-run Baverstock Secondary School in Druids Heath, regarded as very successful under its former headteacher Roger Perks (awarded an O.B.E for his services to education), was converted into an academy in 2013 and now faces closure.  Its head was suspended over allegations of financial misconduct and resigned in October 2016.

Adrian spoke to local parents, who had campaigned against the closure of their only local secondary school. Anne Marie spoke of the uncertainty, the search for another school, the cost of buying another set of new uniforms and of travelling further afield. Eva Philips pointed out that though the decision to convert the school into an academy was made locally, the council had no say about the decision on closure which was made in London without regard to social value and impact. Many would have welcomed handing the academy back to the council. Other views may be read on Save Baverstock Facebook page.

A group of residents set up the Friends of Walkers Heath Park in November 2011

Projects at the formerly neglected 50-acre park, with its woodpeckers, hummingbirds, foxes, bats and swallow hawks, now include the community orchard and learning the art of hedge laying.

Volunteers planted new trees, creating an arboretum with cherry apple plum trees and blackberries, added new seating and bins, cleaned out Chinn Brook that runs through the park and laid new hedges.  There are courts for basketball, netball and tennis, as well as two sets of football goals, a concrete table-tennis table and pitch-and-put golf course. Loss of funding reduced the time the city’s groundsmen have to care for green spaces and volunteers have sown a wild flower meadow which has cut the cost of mowing and is an environmental improvement.

Volunteers are also now helping to run libraries

Community-minded people in Druids Heath are stepping into the breach – and are very much aware of the cost of the expensive new library in the city centre. Some community centres are also kept going by local people. Druids Heath’s handsome and historic Bells Farm community centre (below), with its food bank and other services, is run by volunteers; after entering into a community asset transfer they have taken on the funding of the lease, rates and maintenance.

Cllr Barry Henley was interviewed and spoke of poverty and debt in the area and tower blocks of the same construction as Ronan Point . . . but presumably modified according to the regulations put in place after that disaster. The City Council website reports that it is working with Amec Foster Wheeler to produce a master plan and finance options for the regeneration of the Druids Heath estate.  Similar schemes have taken approximately 15 to 20 years to complete. At the moment, it is expected that the options will be produced later in 2017.

Adrian visited tower block residents and was shown a kitchen which develops damp patches three months after being painted, due to gaps in the concrete which let in leaking water from flats higher up. He also saw fire doors not working and a missing fire rail which could not be made good by technical services for six weeks. No common ‘blockwide’ fire alarm has been installed because currently no regulation requires it and a delay in fitting sprinklers called to mind the recent Grenfell Tower tragedy which left many people puzzled about the role of the modern local authority. Many had assumed the responsibility for fire safety in a block of social housing would rest with the Kensington and Chelsea council; in fact, there were serious failings were revealed in this ‘complex tangle’ of responsibilities between the council and a variety of “arms-length” public bodies and commercial organisations.

Birmingham’s full time neighbourhood office advice centres, closed in 2006, were replaced by a private call service which was expensive, often not answering, with staff unable to supply the information needed

Cllr Albert Bore discussed the role of volunteers taking over libraries, parks and so on. He thought that though the opportunity might empower some in a deprived community whose residents live under pressure and have fewer resources – but leave much more to chance. Since the second world war he had seen growing alongside the welfare state a culture of dependency.

In Birmingham there was a move under John Clancy’s leadership to take back ‘in-house’ the services currently undertaken by profit-making private companies, deciding not to renew one Capita contract and considering the future of refuse collection in the city.  This, because the ‘market place’ economy which has developed, privatising refuse collection, road maintenance and ‘back office’ functions in Birmingham, has proved to be more expensive and often less efficient. This hope is fading as Richard Hatcher reports on the new regime: Birmingham Council Children’s Services contracted out, Children’s Centres closed.