I went along to the Digbeth: Past, Present & Future discussion at Ikon Eastside on 6 October, as BFoE has long been involved in the area both from a campaigning front and the fact that BFoE’s building ‘The Warehouse’ has been located there for 32 years (well the building has been there much longer, but BFoE have been in there for 32 years).

The event was very well attended, with only a handful of seats left. The event started off with the showing of a short film made up of old archive film footage of Digbeth through the years, which included:
Holiday crowds leaving the bus station and Moor Street station (1956)
The opening of Midland Red Bus Station (now Digbeth Coach Station) (1958)
An escaped bull from the slaughterhouse running through the streets of Digbeth (1963)
Deritend flats due for demolition (1965)
Birds Ltd leaving the Custard Factory (1965)
The Irish Protest march (1969)
National Front Rally and rival protests by the anti-fascists (1978)
Closure of the Typhoo Tea factory (1978)

It was very interesting, and sometimes amusing, to see the old Digbeth and how it has gradually transformed over the decades.

Following on from this was an open discussion with the panel made up of Nicky Getgood (of the Digbeth is Good blog) who was chairing the discussion, Adam Crossley (of Digbeth Residents Association), Joe Holyoak (architect, urban designer and vocal supporter of Digbeth’s heritage and future), Jonathan Watkin (Director of Ikon Gallery), Dave Harte (Senior Lecturer in Media and Communications at Birmingham City University), and James Hall (Architect for BCU’s BIAD building from Associated Architects). Philip Singleton (Assistant Director Planning & Regeneration at Birmingham City Council) was also due to be in attendance, but cancelled at the last minute due to a double booking.

The debate flowed quite seamlessly between issues of urban planning policy, creative industries, Digbeth as a digital district, art, education, communities, music, entertainment, voluntary and social groups, and generally back through and around all of these subjects and the issues surrounding them on multiple occasions. Personally, I thought this highlighted the complex interconnected web of people and uses that makes up Digbeth, and that each subject can’t be considered on its own when it comes to the area’s future. As well as the discussion amongst the panel, the audience also contributed a great deal, both vocally and through Twitter, with a projector and screen rigged up to show a live feed of people in the audience tweeting their questions, comments, facts and associated links. I thought this was a very innovative approach to engaging the audience, and seemed to work well, allowing the less physically vocal members to contribute to the debate, or simply to add links to facts and points of interest elsewhere on the web that were mentioned in the debate. Many of these items were brought into the discussion, I think these will be added to the Ikon website along with the film footage at some point soon.

As I said, a great number of issues were covered in the discussion, but there was a great deal of debate around the physical form of Digbeth. The lack of a coherent planning policy for the area was brought up, and the absurdity of the conservation area guidelines (which include the banning of trees and greenery, as well as resistance to opening up the canals and River Rea to the wider urban environment), and the fact that planning policy was tossed aside when the ‘vanity’ scheme that is The Beorma Tower turned up. A great deal of concern was also raised about the wholesale levelling of buildings to make way for new large monolithic developments which lost the character and plot history of the area, some of which had gone ahead, and some of which have now stalled, leaving a barren wasteland of rubble in their wake with seemingly no redevelopment in sight. Especially highlighted for critisism were the Bradford Street area and the Eastside/City Park area, the latter also attracting comments about the forcing out of local businesses and residents such as Rosa’s Cafe, Los Canarios and Fred Grove in order to make way for new architecturally annonymous large scale development that has still yet to happen. This despite the showing of a flashy computer generated fly-through of the Eastside redevlopment and city park set to suitably upbeat marketing music and regularly pointing out large sums of money that are to be spent – I got the impression the audience was distinctly unimpressed with this, and it also received a few derogatory comments from the panel too!

There seemed to be a lot more support for the incremental organic development of Digbeth, more in line with Professor Michael Parkinson’s report (rather than Big City Plan), with a greater emphasis on keeping the historic grain, concentrating on smaller developments and reusing buildings. On the last point, ideas were also forthcoming on putting artists and other creative and small businesses in touch with landlords of vacant buildings to see about leasing these on a short term basis for affordable rents. Such an initiative could help prevent the sorry story that comes from the government’s ending of tax relief on empty buildings, which results in it being cheaper to demolish a vacant building than to pay the business rates on it (but that’s another issue I won’t get started on right now!).

We were also given a presentation from James Hall of Associated Architects on the new Birmingham City University BIAD (Birmingham Institute of Art & Design) building. Comments were made that this should help to connect the wider Digbeth area with the Eastside/City Park area (which is currently severed by the railway line) in both a physical sense and as a means of fostering links with Digbeth’s vibrant creative scene.

Talk also turned to the creative sector, and with the council seemingly wanting to make Digbeth the ‘creative district’. Whilst there are a great number of creative industries and organisations now resident in Digbeth (I for one was certainly surprised to hear that Digbeth now has more art galleries than any other area outside of London), it seems that people were generally happier to be to amongst the current melting pot rather than be pushed into a prescribed ‘creative quarter’. To me the council’s approach is again tied to it’s often two dimensional planning use zoning, which lacks the dynamism of a place like Digbeth that ebbs and flows at a far greater rhythm than planning policy ever does.

Tying into the whole creative sector was the council’s efforts to enable ‘Digital Digbeth’ through the provision of a very high speed data connection. The council seems to be making big moves with this plan, and people seemed broadly supportive, although they thought it should be accessible to all areas of the city rather than a specific area, and should be about providing the infrastructure rather than prescribing a use for it. However, it does sound like Digbeth will be just the first trial area.

Topping off the discussion were the ongoing issues of the lack of life’s basic necessities, such as a grocery store and a cash machine, as well as noise complaints about live music venues from a seemingly vocal minority, and the risk that this may put the brakes on Digbeth’s reputation for live entertainment and nightlife which is an integral part of it’s vibrancy.

Overall I thought it was an excellent evening, with a great panel, well attended, with an innovative use of Twitter, and resulted in a very wide reaching, but focused discussion that I feel contributed a wealth of information to the debate about Digbeth’s future. It was just a pity Philip Singleton of Birmingham City Council wasn’t in attendance, he missed a great opportunity to engage with a talented and passionate group of people who had a Typhoo Tea Factory full of great ideas to progress Digbeth in a way that respects it’s past and nurtures it’s future. Perhaps those passionate Digbethites should make their own plan, if we can have ‘BCC-DIY’, a community version the Birmingham City Council website, why can’t we have a community plan for the future of Digbeth?
‘Digbeth-DIY’ anyone?