My objection to the disposal of land of the Highbury Hall estate
I have today formally objected to the Charity Commission and Birmingham City Council’s application for a new scheme (case number 90550) to update the governing of the charity known as Highbury Trust (1039194) and provide a limited power of sale.
A copy of the text of my objection letter is below.
Residents can comment of this application by e-mailing the Charity Commission at firstname.lastname@example.org . Any comments have to be sent to them by Saturday 21st February 2009
Text of my letter:
Our ref: mu2014
Date: 12th February 2009
To: Charity Commission Direct, PO Box 1227, Liverpool L69 3UG
Copy to: Cllr John Alden, Chair of Trust and Charities Sub-Committee
Re: Highbury Trust
Dear Sir or Madam,
I wish to object to Birmingham City Council’s application for a new scheme (case number 90550) to update the governing of the charity known as Highbury Trust (1039194) and provide a limited power of sale.
The issue I strongly object to is paragraph 7 of the scheme, which states:
7. Disposal of land
If and in so far as the land identified in part 2 of the schedule to this scheme is not required for the object of the charity, the trustee may sell, lease or otherwise dispose of it. The trustee must comply with the restrictions on disposal imposed by section 36 of the Charities Act 1993, unless the sale, lease or disposal is excepted
This paragraph is clearly the first stage in the possible selling off of a large section of the Highbury Hall estate. I believe this is fundamentally wrong for the following reasons:
The land the Trust wishes to dispose of is part of the original Highbury Hall grounds. Chamberlain House is on the footprint of the glass house that adjoined Highbury Hall. The car park and vegetable gardens to the side of Chamberlain House are part of the original Kitchen Gardens of Highbury Hall. The Lodge was the original entrance to the Highbury Hall estate. The Gardeners Cottage, Farm Bailiff’s Cottage and metal pergola for fruit trees are all part of the original Highbury Hall estate.
To dispose of these parts of the original estate, most likely to become part of a small housing estate would be pure vandalism.
The importance of this land is highlighted in the recently published Highbury Park, Historic Landscape Appraisal. This report can be downloaded at http://www.martinmullaney.co.uk/highbury.pdf
The report explains the importance of the Highbury Hall estate in a national context, as follows:
From page 6 of 116
To the north of The Henburys the gardens of Highbury are of considerable historic importance and a great asset to Birmingham. They were laid out from 1879 to 1914 and were the creation of Joseph Chamberlain, the head of Birmingham’s most distinguished political family, who employed the well known landscape architect, Edward Milner and subsequently his son Henry. In their day were they were the most renowned gardens in Birmingham, and possibly the West Midlands, and were widely written about. They provided a suitable setting for Chamberlain’s political entertaining of both leading politicians and his political supporters.
The fame of Highbury was due to the fact that within seventy acres there were many different features and these contributed to the feel of being in the country on a large estate, rather than in the suburbs of a major city. They display the quintessence of high Victorian taste in gardening and, moreover, the taste of one man, having been created on an undeveloped site, and having remained intact and substantially unaltered since Joseph Chamberlain’s death in 1914.
The gardens at Highbury are distinguished in another respect in that the mansion designed by John Henry Chamberlain, a leading Birmingham architect, also survives. A quality Victorian house and a quality Victorian garden surviving together is an extremely rare occurrence, not only in Birmingham, but in any major industrial centre.
Further on in the report, it shows which original parts of the Highbury Hall estate still remain. The ones that this proposed scheme would depose of are as follows:
From page 73 of 116
4 Moor Green Lane entrance Lodge, gate piers and gate
The two storey lodge was built in 1878 at the same time as the house and by the same architect. A bathroom was added in 1950 and a single storey room on the SW front in c.2000. The entrance porch has been enclosed. It is listed Grade 11*. It stands to the southwest of the principle entrance to Highbury which is through gate piers of brick with carved stone cappings and the remains of brackets for lanterns. In addition to the main gate to the driveway to the house there was a smaller gate for pedestrians. The present gates are
of oak and may date to c. 1915 and have contemporary decorative hinges. The original gates were probably of close boarded wood but were replaced by ornate cast iron gates in the early 20th century. These were removed when the Chamberlain family left Highbury.
From page 74 of 116
5 Gardener’s Cottage
The cottage was built c. 1879 and was probably designed by J. H.Chamberlain. It is positioned at the end of the Highbury garden boundary wall, which forms the outer wall of the cottage. Originally the back drive to the farm from Queensbridge Road started by the cottage but the drive was realigned further to the east in c. 1894. The cottage is built of quality brickwork and has a rubbed brick string course, but has less decorative detailing than
the entrance lodge cottage. It has been reroofed.
From page 75 of 116
6 Farm Bailiff’s Cottage
The cottage was built on the new line of the back drive in 1904 by the building firm of
James Bullock and Sons of Alcester Road, Moseley. It is of brick and in a much plainer
style than the other lodge cottages. The front door has been replaced and there has been
some alteration to the brickwork of the wall in the adjoining yard.
From page 78 of 116
14 Garden/boundary Wall
The garden wall which was built in 1879 runs along Yew Tree Road and continues along Queensbridge Road forming the boundary to the roads on one side and the kitchen garden on the other. Only the Queensbridge Road section is still at its original height though sections of this were rebuilt in the 1890s when an extensive range of wall greenhouses were erected by Wright and Holmes. Some insertions of blue bricks have been made where the red bricks have been damaged by road salt. The wall is in English bond and has its original blue brick copings. Brick piers were added using re-used bricks in the 1950s.
The first part of the wall where it fronted what is now Chamberlain House along Yew Tree Road was considerably lowered in the 1950s and rendered on the side facing the road in c.1980
From page 79 of 116
15 Metal pergola for fruit trees
The fruit tree pergola probably dates from the earliest laying out of the kitchen garden from 1879 onwards. It is made of wrought iron and extends for 25m. It is planted with pears and apples in beds edged with the original blue brick copings. An original pebble path runs up the centre of the pergola.
As you can see, large sections of the original estate would be lost and no certainty as to their future well being
Lack of consultation
The Highbury Trust is part of the Moseley and Kings Heath Ward, which I represent along with Councillor Ernie Hendricks and Emily Cox. At no point have we been consulted about this proposed scheme to the Charity Commission.
Indeed, this proposed scheme has raised alot of angst within the local community and media.
The long term desire of the Highbury Trust to dispose of sections of its land has been known for several years that pre-date my election as a Councillor in 2004. However, there has never been any formal consultation with the community as to whether this was the right thing to do, or what the alternatives were. Prior to the recent publication of the Historic Landscape Appraisal, I did not object to the demolition or sell off of Chamberlain House, as long as what replaced it was a community use. I spent some considerable time and effort investigating the possiblity of the neighbouring Queensbridge School purchasing the land for a multi-media centre. What I always opposed was any housing estate being built on this site. In light of the findings of the Historic Landscape Appraisal, I think it is now important that the original Highbury Hall estate is kept intact and within the Highbury Trust.
No vision and no management plan
I have seen neither a management plan nor a vision for the Highbury Trust. Indeed, the proposal to dispose of the Chamberlain House and associated land is based more on a desire to be seen to be doing something, rather than working towards an pre-planned end result.
There is now a need for the Trustees of the Highbury Trust to go back to basics of what the Chamberlain family would have envisaged as the future of this trust when they handed it over to the city in 1932.
What they would have wanted is simple:
Maintain the historic and formal gardens of Highbury Hall, which would be part of Highbury Park and free to the public. Have some form of museum inside Highbury Hall that would be open to the public for free several days a year. The rest of Highbury Hall and the ancillary buildings (Lodge, Gardeners Cottage, Farm Bailiff’s Cottage and later on Chamberlain House) would be used to raise funds to pay for the upkeep of both the gardens and Highbury Hall. The Highbury Trust would be financially self sufficient from the Council.
What has subsequently happened is that the estate has become a de facto Council owned property. The gardens have fallen to pieces, though repeated Council cut backs. Both Chamberlain House and Highbury Hall have been used to base Council departments inside them free-of-charge or to raise money through weddings or conferences to subsidise the Council coffers.
The Council needs to create a business plan that would make the Highbury Trust financially self-sufficient. All money raised through renting office space in Chamberlain House or Highbury Hall, must go back into the Highbury Trust bank account. Rents from the Lodge, the 1950s caretakers house, the Gardeners Cottage and the Farm Bailiff's Cottage must also go into the Highbury Trust bank account. Indeed, it is scandalous that both the Farm Bailiff's Cottage and caretaker’s house have been vacant for several years.
Highbury Hall does need basic maintenance work, but there is nothing structurally wrong with it. Indeed, no survey has been done of Highbury Hall to assess what work is required. Figures are thrown about in the local media, which are based on finger-in-the-air estimates.
A long term future for Highbury Hall could be based on its well established and popular conference and wedding facilities. There is scope for expanding these into having over-night accommodation for weddings and conferences by converting the upstairs rooms in the two wings of the building. Highbury Hall has two massive wings which have stood empty since 1984.
The historic ground floor rooms of Highbury Hall could be open to the public on a number of days throughout the year.
Chamberlain House could be rented by either Council departments or even commercial organisations – again this money would be used to maintain the gardens and Highbury Hall.
It is frustrating that the Trustees want to sell off sections of the estate to raise money to repair Highbury Hall. However, they don’t appear to have any idea what to do with Highbury Hall once it is repaired - will it simply remain half empty as it has done so since 1984?
I hope the Charity Commission will reject this scheme and force the trustees to rethink their proposals for this trust and this time involve the local Councillors and local community groups that are interested in restoring Highbury Hall and its gardens back to its former glory and for the benefit of the citizens of Birmingham.