Friday, 29 July 2011
Invest Here (London 40 minutes).
My final overnight stop is a hotel next to the NEC. Before I get there I have a look at the site of the new HS2 station at Bickenhill. Despite the fact that it is right next to the built-up area, beside the M42, this is still a landscape of wheat fields and pasture. If I covered my ears (and ignored some low level fly tipping) I could still be in deepest Northamptonshire.
This is really what HS2 is about. It will be 40 minutes to London from here, and you will also be able to get faster connections to the north, via the link to the West Coast Main Line at Lichfield. Not surprisingly I’m now on the part of the route where the local Councils support it, although the first of them, Solihull, is in danger of getting splinters in a painful place with its delicate exercise in fence-sitting.
I don’t envy Solihull Council’s situation one bit. The Airport, the NEC and the Birmingham Business Park are all on their patch, and HS2 could be a major boost for all of them. On the other hand their green belt villages out as far as Balsall Common are implacably opposed. In the circumstances supporting HS2 subject to a massive list of provisos is probably the only thing they could have done.
I have to walk across the NEC complex, which appears to be shut, to reach my hotel. Right at the start I’m greeted with a sign saying “Private Property – no through way”, and they certainly don’t make it easy for pedestrians. The only footpaths appear to link the individual car parks to the Exhibition Halls, and I end up having to follow the verge along the access road. Still I get my reward when I am greeted with a huge advertising hoarding telling me “Birmingham City Council Supports HS2”. It is so big that you would need a least a hundred Stop HS2 posters to cover it up (pictured below). The Council clearly wants every visitor to the NEC to know where it stands. And I don’t blame it. Support has been extremely thin on the ground so far, and Birmingham needs to try and even up the score.
I deliberately chose to spend the night close to the NEC and the airport because I thought I would find supporters of HS2 here, and the reception staff at the hotel don’t disappoint me. “I support it. I think the benefits for our economy will eventually justify the cost”, one of them tells me. But he also admits that he has some friends in Birmingham who think the environmental cost is too high. His colleague is initially much more uncertain. Then she realises I’m not asking her whether walking all the way is a good idea, but whether HS2 itself is. And then yes – she supports it too. And I was right. The NEC is shut. It only operates September to May apparently.
The following morning the same receptionist is on the desk as I check out and she asks me which places I’ll be walking through. One of them is Chelmsley Wood. Yesterday when I told someone I met that I was going there I was warned, “It’s really rough. You’ll probably get mugged”. The receptionist turns out to live there herself, but she smiles sweetly when I tell this story and assures me I’ll be fine. Even so I’m a bit anxious as I start out.
First of all I visit Birmingham Business Park. This is a very high quality working environment, complete with trees, lakes, and individually designed buildings in spacious settings. It was started about twenty years ago, but there is still plenty of room for further expansion. There are some well known names here, Fujitsu and Orange for example, but also smaller companies taking one floor of a building. It is one of Birmingham’s premier business locations (the name says it all really) and HS2 would give it a further boost.
Best of all, for me at least, there is a signed pedestrian route to Chelmsley Wood. I follow it out of the Business Park and with some trepidation take my first steps into the estate. I’ve driven past the edge of Birmingham on the M6 plenty of times, and seen the tower blocks in serried ranks marching across the landscape. I suppose I am expecting to find a concrete wasteland of blocks of high rise flats and maisonettes, poorly maintained “amenity greens”, the occasional burnt out car, a few packs of stray dogs, and some obviously mentally ill people shouting at passers by. I really need to apologise for making that assumption. It isn’t like that at all.
No, on this mild summer’s day in the school holidays Chelmsley Wood feels just like any other 1960’s suburb anywhere. Many of the tower blocks are gone now, demolished more than ten years ago. Today it’s a large estate of neat two storey houses, most originally built by the Council, but in many cases since bought by their owners under the Right to Buy, with well maintained gardens and plenty of trees. The remaining tower blocks look pretty well looked after too. Today you could in all sincerity call Chelmsley Wood leafy. In fact I will. It’s leafy. I know a lot of public money has been spent here in recent years, but from my time there I would say it was well worth it.
I walk up to the corner of the estate where HS2 will cross the football pitches on its viaduct over the M42, and talk to a woman out walking her dog. “We don’t want the line here,” she says. She talks about the extra noise, the loss of the open space, and the impact on house prices just like everyone else has done all along the route.
Down in the Chelmsley Wood shopping centre, a busy pedestrianised mall with a host of well known high street names, things are rather different. I go into a café and get a bacon and egg roll and a coffee. I ask the women serving what they think about HS2. The shopping centre is only half a mile from the route but they don’t have any opinion about it and don’t see why they should. They’re very friendly and wish me well on my walk, but they aren’t remotely interested in the reason for it.
And when the political calculations are done this could be the Achilles heel of the STOP HS2 campaign. There is a narrow corridor along the route in which people are very well informed, are interested in challenging every aspect of the case, and are prepared to put in time and (if they can afford it) money to fight their corner. Half a mile away (further in rural areas admittedly) it just isn’t on people’s radar. In London and Birmingham, if they know about it at all they probably think it’s a good idea. Elsewhere, they’re probably just glad it doesn’t affect them.
I need to cross an area of open land to get to the next estate on my route, Kingshurst. I’m ashamed to say I’m again a bit apprehensive at this point. But the open land marked on the map turns out to be Meriden Park, and it’s absolutely lovely. Kids off school are using the skate park or the adventure playground. Families are sitting round having picnics, and the lake with its brick bridge is pretty as a picture (pictured above). This is all part of the Kingfisher Country Park, which follows the river Cole into Birmingham. As I head off on my own journey I’m genuinely sorry to leave.
The Green Belt here is a narrow strip separating Coleshill from Kingshurst and Chelmsley Wood. It has already provided the opportunity to build the M6 and the M42, and will now provide space for two HS2 lines, one to Birmingham, the other to the West Coast Main Line at Lichfield, as well as a third section linking them together. Despite the motorways, once you get into the middle of the area it is still an agricultural landscape, with the spire of Coleshill church on one side and the remaining tower blocks of north Solihull on the other (pictured below). And I imagine that the woods are a carpet of bluebells in the spring.
The path is very well trodden, and takes me round to Water Orton. Here I’m back in a Warwickshire green belt village which is not at all happy about HS2. At least eight homes will have to be demolished for the Birmingham line alone, and the route also passes very near the village school. I speak to a woman watering her garden. “It’s all very well building new lines in Spain or France, but we’re a crowded little island.” Like people all along the route, she doesn’t understand the need for HS2 and thinks existing public transport should be improved instead. She tells me about a farm which will be affected at Drayton Bassett on the route up to Lichfield. I don’t have time to walk that route on this trip, but I make a vague promise to her to come back and do it soon.
I finally enter Birmingham at Minworth, home to a massive sewage works, and then walk through Castle Vale. This is another well kept 1960’s estate which has had a major regeneration programme. It is spoilt only by its position right under the flight path of aircraft taking off from Birmingham Airport. HS2 will run very close to the southern edge of the estate, but if it also brings more demand for flights with it then the whole of Castle Vale will notice the difference.
I’m into the last few miles of the walk now, and I’m starting to feel glad to be nearly there and sad that it will soon be over all at once. Very confusing. I walk past the Jaguar assembly plant to Fort Dunlop. This iconic building, familiar to anyone who has ever driven up the M6, was in a rather sorry state for a few years but has now been thoroughly refurbished (pictured below). Actually refurbished doesn’t really cover it. The brick façade and the cast iron shell of the building are left, but everything else is new. It’s a mix of offices and shops and I go in and ask the man on reception what he thinks of HS2. Not surprisingly he is another supporter. “But of course we get all the benefits and others get the disruption”, he said.
And that’s the point really. If you live in Birmingham what is not to like about HS2? You get the fastest train in the world coming to your city; there is hardly any environmental impact as the route follows an existing rail corridor all the way; and the (very substantial) funding shortfall is met by taxpayers from all over the country, not just those in Birmingham. It’s a no-brainer frankly.
I walk on past the Bentley and Lamborghini showrooms and the huge Fort Retail Park, and cross under the M6 into a different world. Washwood Heath is as overwhelmingly an Asian Muslim neighbourhood as Chelmsley Wood and Castle Vale were white ones. A studious looking boy in traditional dress walks ahead of me with his little brother to the Madrassa, glancing slightly anxiously at a group of older boys in western clothes on the other side of the road. Bookish boys are a potential target in any culture I guess.
They make it OK, and I carry on to the broken remains of the LDV Vans factory, currently being demolished. This is where the HS2 rolling stock depot is proposed. Across on the other side the Alstom site, where trains were last built in Birmingham, and which would also be used for the depot, lies idle too. As with Old Oak Common in London, HS2 would bring this huge site back to life, and replace some of the lost jobs. With its excellent rail access but indifferent road links it would be ideal for the depot. Quite a few homes might have to be demolished here to make way for it, but the only pedestrian I speak to lives in Erdington and knows nothing about it.
Past Washwood Heath I walk on through a mix of Council housing, small industrial sites, rail yards and derelict buildings until I finally reach Curzon Circle. This east side of inner Birmingham is a marginal area that you just would not find so close to the centre of London. It is very easy to see why the City fathers are so keen on HS2. The terminus could be just the catalyst the area needs. At the moment the historic Curzon Street station building sits unused like a redundant Greek temple in a sea of temporary car parks, boarded up pubs and cleared sites (pictured above).
Further into the city centre however, and property developers have been busy. I can see the famous Beehive of Selfridges at the Bullring and the similarly named but otherwise utterly dissimilar brand new 20 storey apartment blocks of The Hive closer at hand (pictured below). The HS2 station would be off the city centre, but only just. If new development jumps a couple more blocks it will be right up to it.
This is journey’s end, and to celebrate I make for the Old Joint Stock opposite the Cathedral for a pint of London Pride. This former bank was converted into a pub by London brewery Fullers a few years ago, a little piece of the capital in the heart of Birmingham.
I sit in the bar and size up the after work drinkers. I want to talk to one last group of people before I finish. But if a sweaty grey-haired man in shorts and walking boots came up to you in a city centre pub after work would you talk to him? Well I’m pleased to say that Jo and Ross did. They work in regeneration and have strong views about HS2. “We shouldn’t let a few people complaining about the view stop this essential piece of infrastructure from being built”, said one. “People in villages will object to anything. In my parents’ village there was a petition to stop a field being used as allotments,” said the other.
For these young professionals in Birmingham HS2 could kick start our economy in the way that building the Hoover dam did for depression era America. Objections are just so much Nimbyism. Personally I’m not sure whether portraying the coalition government as a disciple of John Maynard Keynes makes it more likely that it will decide to build HS2, but there is no doubt in their minds.
So there you have it. Birmingham loves HS2. In the whole corridor back to the edge of London, from Water Orton to West Ruislip, from Chelmsley Wood to Chalfont St Giles, people are going through the economic case, the environmental case and the costs with a fine-toothed comb, raising queries and objections and campaigning furiously, but Birmingham knows what is good for it, and HS2 undoubtedly would be.
You can follow my route here.