Big City Plan Consultation – my two penn’orth

Birmingham’s Big City Plan has gone live with its consultation process. After initially getting frustrated with the site this morning (had other stuff I was meant to be doing anyway, you know, work stuff) I’ve given it another go and immediately found a question on walking/cycling links between the centre and Digbeth that is a bit of a pet topic of mine.

So I put in my response (not overly considered, bit of a brain dump) and pressed submit. Turns out I’d answered question 42 when I wanted to answer question 41. The mistake was thinking the ‘add comments’ below the question was the right one – it isn’t, it’s above the question. Was a touch confusing or maybe I’m a touch thick. I can’t work out if the comments are viewable by others but here’s what I wrote in answer to question 41, ‘How can we ensure good walking and cycling connections between Digbeth and the city core?’:

There are some real practical problems in getting from Selfridges to the Custard Factory along Digbeth High Street. Leaving the Bull Ring area from the gap between St Martin’s and Selfridges presents a number of difficulties. The key one is the positioning of the bus stop outside the ‘Digbeth Cold Storage’ building. A crowd gathers here and on the narrow pavement it becomes very difficult to get past(especially with pushchair in tow, worse still in a wheelchair). There are five junctions to cross to get to the Custard Factory and the area has a slight feel of being in decline (fast food shops, a sex shop, empty former car garage, derelict land). Addressing this should be a priority in order to increase footfall in this area – to prevent it feeling like the place where the city centre stops. This could include traffic calming or major realignment of the road (which could include bike lanes).

An alternative connection to Digbeth, and one that is under-used is Fazeley st. this is an impressive, straight road with much industrial heritage on it. Perhaps this could be considered as a new gateway to the area? I see a tree-lined boulevard perhaps? Or perhaps this is the road that traffic could be routed down to relieve traffic on the high street. Whichever way, clearer signage and some consideration to how the area betweenthe city and custard factory ‘feels’ should be considered.

The canals could be better utilised perhaps – I doubt many people realise that they offer a direct(ish) route to the NIA/Brindley place from Digbeth. It’s a fascinating route as well – couple of lovely narrow tunnels and a glimpse of all the new flats around the post office tower. Making Fazeley st. a focus would revitalise Typhoo wharf as the gateway to the canal system.

Once you have responded it produces a PDF for you to file away – quite handy actually. Now that I’ve got the hang of it I’ll respond further (and will copy them on here until you get bored of them). As a process for formal consultation it’s not too bad actually – but love to have everyone’s comments come through in an RSS feed as they put them in though, that’d be great.

10 things I’d change about Digbeth and the Custard Factory

Custard Factory

I spent my last working day in Digbeth last Friday after two and a half years. On Monday I shift to the Jewellery Quarter where I’ll be working for Digital Birmingham. I liked working around Digbeth (Bromley street to be precise) but it wasn’t without its frustrations so here’s 10 things I’d change about it:

1. Less galleries, more cafes. The fry-up options around the area are very thin on the ground. Rootys will do you one although the board advertising it is well hidden. There are a couple of cafes back towards town but that’s about it. Maybe if Vivid served a good bacon sandwich I’d be inclined to go use the place.

2. Shut the Custard Factory newsagents. Until it starts buying in more newspapers that is. The shelves in general always look a bit thin but I’m not bothered about that – I just want to be able to buy a paper. If you go after 9.30am there’s a good chance they’ll have sold their entire stock.

3. Build another carpark. Okay so maybe building carparks isn’t a useful or practical suggestion nowadays but as long as the current owners of the main carpark have a monopoly they’ll continue to clamp your car with glee.

4. Calm the traffic on Heath Mill Lane. The Custard Factory is an island surrounded by busy roads and a river (of sorts). Stopping Heath Mill Lane from being a busy cut-through to the middle ring road might make the walk from CF to The Bond a tad more pleasant (especially in the rain when every car thinks it’s funny to splash you).

5. Make Fazeley Street the main route to Digbeth. This is a straight, fairly quiet road that leads from the city centre directly to The Bond and the new Fazeley Studios. Digbeth High Street is just a dull dual carriageway. Fazeley Street could be a tree-lined boulevard if we gave it half a chance – oh, and planted some trees of course.

6. Signposts Please. NOTHING is signposted. I mean NOTHING. Not within the area or to the area. Why aren’t the wonderful canals pointed out? If you’re at Millennium Point you might be pointed back into town but not to the Custard Factory. Signs – it’s basic stuff.

7. Start selling stuff people need. Go on, admit it. When’s the last time you purchased something from a Custard Factory shop? They’re not helped by the lack of punters around there of course but an elite hi-fi shop? A violin shop? Homeopathy? Sometimes I just want to go buy a bag of nappies without going all the way to Morrison’s.

8. Open a restaurant. I did hear of one in the pipeline – anyone confirm? Seems curious that our leading creative quarter has such a mono-cultural nightlife. Drinking and music and that’s it. Jewellery Quarter has a few. In fact Digbeth-based Clusta boss, Russell has a place up there – I presume he didn’t think there was enough potential clientele in Digbeth.

9. Move the bus stops outside Digbeth Cold Storage. It’s the single biggest barrier between town and Digbeth and its made of people. Putting the stops for the 37/50/58/59/60 etc. on a narrow pavement is a ridiculous planning decision. Go do the walk now between Bull Ring and Custard Factory. Difficult isn’t it? Now go do it with a push chair or a wheelchair and fight your way past a load of grumpy people waiting for a bus that’s already 20 minutes late.

10. Gentrify/Don’t Gentrify – make your mind up. All those galleries – I mean come on, it’s gentrified whether you like it or not now isn’t it (and what are they doing down there anyway? why are they hiding from where most people are?). It’s still an industrial area of course and is a million miles away from what happened in East London but we need some clear thinking right now rather than simply hoping that an economic downturn prevents the worse of the excesses.

Pic by lamentables

Come run with us in Digbeth

The blurb for this blog says Creative Industries, Gardening and Running so here’s the first posting in the latter category and a call for any runners in and around Digbeth to come join a group run.


Last summer a small group of us who work for Birmingham City University in Bromley street near the Custard Factory started an after-work running group along the canals around Digbeth. Well this year we’re venturing out again for a regular run each Thursday at 4.30pm (starting on the 15th May) for about 30-40 minutes. If you work in the area then this is open invite to you to come along. We’ve got a small group of men and women with a wide range of abilities and all we do is go up the canal through Bordesely Green and turn back about 15 minutes in.

So it you fancy it just turn up here next Thursday and then every Thursday at 4.30pm:

View Larger Map

We’re not training for anything in particular but hey, how about the Birmingham Half Marathon in October for a target.

The Custard Factory – a lesson in avoiding gentrification

This is pulled in from the Birmingham Post for which I write occasionally. I won’t cross-post like this in future as the sidebar shows updates from other sites I write for but as this references a post here I’d thought I’d make an exception: 

I wrote an entry on my own blog last week that’s been niggling away at me ever since. Catching up on the many pictures of the train derailment in Digbeth in March I mused over how the hole in the wall created by the goods wagon would be the right place for an entrance to a Custard Factory train station. I was writing with tongue slightly in cheek, particularly when pointing out how that same train line may one day have a direct connection to the boho enclaves of Moseley and Kings Heath.

However, it does make some sense and there is precedent here as the Jewellery Quarter station has only been there since 1995 and was built not on the site of a previous disused station but was created specifically to serve that creative quarter. The same could happen at Custard Factory. Imagine a direct connection from CF to JQ – a truly well connected, joined up Brum. It might even open up the Custard Factory to more visitors and before long we’d have more than two cafés and the newspaper shop would open before 9am and have some ice-creams in its freezer. In essence we might get what we don’t want (and it’s a leap but bear with me) – a long slow slide towards gentrification.

I’ve worked around the Custard Factory for over two years now and sometimes it drives me bonkers. The speed at which the clampers work in the only available carpark, the limited choice of food outlets, the impossibility of finding anywhere for a fry-up first thing in the morning, the lack of general public footfall throughout the day (how do those quirky independent shops survive?). Okay so it’s a giant leap from proposing a train station, to a Custard Factory full of Costa Coffees and Starbucks but might opening it up and making it easier to get to result in the one thing that would kill it off? Despite years of discussion over Eastside and what it might become, actually working around the Custard Factory feels like you’re part of a well-kept secret.

Shifting an area from light manufacturing to creative industries, as has happened over the last 15-20 years is part of the process of gentrification itself but there’s still a significant industrial/creative mix around the area and what’s particularly interesting is that where the creatives have gone, retail hasn’t really followed. During the day there is virtually no visitor economy – at 3pm on a weekday afternoon the place is semi-deserted.

I’m not sure we agonise as much about gentrification here as they do in London. There are certainly some voices out there but the discussion seems unfocused. The Custard Factory feels like a place that is incomplete, like someone started to gentrify it and then gave up, realising it was just too far from the centre of Brum for most people to bother with it. That’s what I quite like about it at the moment and despite the train nerd in me thinking otherwise, maybe better public transport is the last thing it needs.

The Custard Factory needs a train station

Today I did lunch over at the Jewellery Quarter in Birmingham. Given how tricky it is to regain a parking space on the streets surrounding the Custard Factory once you’ve given it up ( I work on Bromley street), I decided to use the train. 

As I walked up to Moor Street it occurred to me that what the Custard Factory really needs to stop it having that ‘slightly too far from the centre of town’ feel is a train station. Okay so the station would only be 500 yards from the centre of Birmingham but imagine how convenient it would for the growing population of workers located at the Custard Factory and the many more who will follow once Devonshire works are complete as well as the new units on Fazeley street. 

The recent train crash (see report from Alex Hughes) showed us where the possible entrance might be:

(pic by H4NUM4N)

As well as linking our two creative quarters by rail the killer reason for a Custard Factory station is the fact that at some point all the talk about reopening the line from Moseley/Kings Heath into Moor Street is bound to happen. And where do all these creative types who work in the Custard Factory live? I rest my case.