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

Birmingham – The Uncreative City

After writing a couple of months ago about Creative Republic I thought it about time I went along to an event. So last night I showed up at the Michael Wolff Masterclass in the so-new-the-paint’s-still-wet Fazeley Studios in Digbeth. Wolff himself had to pull out at the last minute which was a shame but in his place we had Stef Lewandowski taking us through a presentation he entitled ‘Birmingham Ambient Creativity Audit’.

This basically involved Stef roaming the centre as if he was a fresh-face tourist, trying to orientate himself and look for signs of our cultural life. In short, after taking 500+ photos, he didn’t find much bar the very occasional fly-poster. What he did find was poor sign-posting, an excess of cars, a lack of hang-out spaces and a derelict ice-rink. It was a useful and entertaining snapshot of Birmingham, the uncreative creative city. One of Stef’s key points was about how Birmingham doesn’t look like a creative place despite the fact that creative and cultural industries make up such a significant chunk of the city’s economy (almost 9% of GVA or 5% of the economy – bigger than financial services but smaller than Law and business services).

That’s the key point for me. We’ve become a shopping city and a conference city, but can’t quite work out, in planning terms at least, how to be a creative city. I made a point during the evening about what Stef’s city tour might have felt like in the 1980s, a time when we were nothing more than a motor city, when we simply didn’t have the volume of creative industries activity we do now (2004 stats show 50% of all creative firms had started up in the previous ten years). In 2008 Stef was hoping to see more ‘indie’ culture as he walked around. He left ‘indie’ a little undefined but for me its more than shops or flyposters, its about people on the streets. Back in the 1980s hanging out in the city was a much more straightforward activity than it is now (Stef makes a point about the prevalence of CCTV and alcohol restricted areas). Then, the messiness of post-war planning left lots of curious, unwatched spaces – underpassses, undeveloped sites, old train stations – in which one could engage with friends in your own subcultural group (my own being ‘plastic punk‘ – into the music but too scared of upsetting his mum by ripping his jeans or dying his hair). Birmingham centre may be a lot better planned than it used to be but in that we’ve lost the diversity we used to see on the streets – a diversity of both people and places. A diversity that made us look like more of an ‘indie’ place.

In the last 20 years we’ve done everything that big, growing mature cities should do: we shut the underpasses, we gentrified the canals, we realigned the roads but we also privatised what were public spaces (Bullring was mentioned as an example of that), we priced out independent retail (we’re about to lose that great rabbit warren of youth culture and independent retail, Oasis Markets), we approved uninspiring architecture. I’m beginning to wonder if we’ve probably done everything you’re not supposed to do to plan a creative city landscape.

I think the idea of last night was that we’re essentially gearing up for more formal feedback to the Big City Plan in the autumn. Which is a good thing of course because consultation matters if we’re to take on Stef’s points and make his next city tour a much more rewarding experience.

Even though I had to dash off before the final feedback this was a useful night that gave me and others there plenty of food for thought.  Well done to Stef and Creative Republic for pulling together something so useful  rather than just canceling.

Birmingham and its Big City plans

As well as a slightly nerdy interest in trains, as you can see from my previous posts, I’m also moderately interested in city planning, particularly as I’ve lived 37 of my 39 years in a place, Birmingham, that’s ties itself up in knots about planning. Given that it’s 20 years since the Highbury summit thing that represented the last big shake-up of the city it had been my intention to write about the new Big Cty Plan for Birmingham at Strategy Digested.

As ever I never got round to it but I was reminded by a ‘your books are overdue’ message from the library that as part of my research I went and found previous plans or vision statements for Birmingham to act a comparison. My angle was to compare new with old and before I have to give them back to the library I thought I’d offer a glimpse here:

1952. This plan was all about rebuilding Brum after the war: Birmingham is still a bomb site with slums all over the place therefore we need new houses, more schools, more open spaces but also, given the increasing popularity of the motorcar – a great big inner ring road.  

1973. I couldn’t actually find the ‘New Plan for the City’ that this was reffering to but this is a record of a public meeting at which the plan was discussed. It has illuminating quotes in it from concerned citizens:

“A few months ago there was an advertisement in the National Press… to attract people to Birmingham and the central figure in this was a drawing of someone conducting an orchestra and it was pointed out that Birmingham had a large range of recreational and entertainment facilities to offer people. I am sure it will help in stopping the decline in population, it will help in attracting people to the City and ultimately in an increase in the rates.
Mr King-Farlow, Edgbaston


1980. This is the best of the documents in giving a rounded view of what the central area is like and what city planners of the time valued about it. Plenty of stuff on conservation areas and the insensitivity of previous planners. Its big message: maybe that Inner Ring Road was a mistake after all.

“The desire to maintain free flowing traffic routes must produce areas which are not safe for pedestrians and even cyclists…. It also results in high noise levels and atmospheric pollution… [and] produce drab, inhuman areas”




2008. It’s all about the big ideas to take us forward through the next masterplanning stage. I haven’t yet taken on board what the plans are this time round but it’s worth a read of Stef Lewandowski’s blogging on the subject and the video is certainly fresh and glossy: