How a long lost Birmingham playing fields were re-discovered in 2011
How a long lost Birmingham playing fields were re-discovered in 2011In the recent media furore about which government sold off the most school playing fields, I can at least report a success story here in Birmingham.
As a born and bred Birmingham lad, it has really upset me to see the gradual loss of playing fields throughout this city.......and I don’t mean just the building of housing estates on them. I mean also the slow death of playing fields that once had changing rooms and laid out sports pitches, but are now just grass. The only activity taking place on them are local residents walking their dogs.
Birmingham’s forefathers in the 1920s and 30s recognised the importance of organised sporting activities. With the quickly expanding city, they set aside large parks and playing fields, complete with changing rooms and laid out sports pitches. Many of these playing field were not attached to any particular school, since they were available to all local schools and the community to hire.
When I became Cabinet member for Leisure, Sport and culture I was determined to reverse this decline of the state of our playing fields. In my three years as Cabinet member I can point to at least two playing field success stories: Holford Drive playing fields in Perry Barr and Belcher Lane playing fields in Small Heath. More work-in-progress to re-activate unused playing fields was taking place, but sadly it appears this has now ground to a halt under the new Birmingham Labour administration.
The playing fields I want to focus on for this article are Belchers Lane playing fields.
Belchers Lane playing fields were last used in the late 1970s – indeed I remember using them when I was in Primary school in 1975. For the last thirty years, they have been closed to the public, with the rough grass reaching two foot in height every summer and then the Council spending about £30k each year to trim the grass. The public can’t access the playing fields, since they are surrounded by houses and Heartlands hospital. The only way to walk on them was by climbing over a six foot high metal spiked security fence.
The playing fields are located in one of the poorest neighbourhoods in Britain – Small Heath. In the densely packed terraced streets of Small Heath, there is little public space available for organised sports. Indeed, the locally and brilliantly organised Birmingham Public Parks Cricket League has to travel four miles to Perry Barr to play cricket every Sunday.
The previous Birmingham Labour administration had in 2003, decided that Belchers Lane playing fields could be built on for a medical business park and a pay-and-display car park for the next door Heartlands hospital. They announced that these were no longer playing fields and were ‘surplus to requirements’. This decision was made, despite mass protests from local residents.
You go to Belchers Lane playing today and there is a newly laid out cricket square and football pitch.....and the cost to the Birmingham rate payers was zero. The cricket square was laid at a cost of £25k by the English Cricket Board (ECB). Can I add that during my three years as Cabinet member, I had a fantastic relationship with the ECB, since we were both determined to increase and improve the provision of organised cricket matches in Birmingham.
Belchers Lane playing fields have now been adopted by Waverley School and re-designated as playing fields. Waverley School will maintain the two pitches from within their own school budget. The two pitches will be available for hire at the same price as a Council maintained pitch, with Waverley School having priority in their use.
Both pitches were laid out last winter and will be ready for use in Summer 2013.
Thanks to the organisation Sports for Life, a permanent cricket team from the local community is being created for this site. And plans are already advanced to build a cricket academy on one tight corner of the site; this will act as a feeder route for local teenagers to Warwickshire Cricket club.
All of this was done without costing the taxpayers of Birmingham a penny. All it required was political determination and leadership, plus pulling all the right people together.
Can I finally thank my Cabinet colleague, Councillor Les Lawrence, Cabinet member for Children and Young People, who shared my enthusiasm to re-activating old playing fields and worked in partnership with me on Belchers Lane and Holford Drive playing fields.
Below are satellite photos show Belchers Lane playing field (bordered in red) in 2003 and 2012.