Sunday, 5 July 2009

Brindleyplace, Mailbox - does it all make sense?

Twenty five years ago, I walked the canals around the centre of Birmingham. Although there was some development at Gas Street and there was a pub at Cambrian Wharf, there wasn't much to distinguish the area from any other urban part of the canals around Birmingham and the Black Country.

Today, ironically, the Gas Street wharves are quiet and idle, while just 100 yards away in either direction, life is booming. Again, just yards past Old Turn as you descend the locks, the canalside party disappears again. Is it ironic that the real facilities of the Cut have failed to be revitalised properly, while linear stretches of canal are perhaps just peripheral to urban regeneration?

On looking through the UNESCO World Heritage Site nomination and management plan for the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct and Canal site, I noticed that there is almost nothing at all about boats or boaters. I am thrilled that Britain's waterways heritage is specifically recognised by the government and UNESCO, but - with experience of the management and development of World Heritage sites elsewhere - I am concerned that the significant constraints on revenue-generating facilities, often needs income to be increased from existing mechanisms and users.

There are significant plans for improving car parking and improving access for all, but I don't recall seeing a single word about the role that boats and boaters have played, do play or will play in the future. With the arguable exception of BW, no boating organisation seems to have had much of a role in developments so far and there are no signs that boaters' interests will be defended in the future.

Indeed, I am alarmed by the prospect of a proposed Friends of Pontcysyllte Aqueduct in the management plan because this could well suck people, revenue and interests away from the wider issues of cultural heritage - including waterways heritage - in favour of the World Heritage Site. Of all the stretches of canal in Britain that least need a body of volunteers, workers, "friends", Pontcysyllte is probably the one that needs them least. Yet no so many miles away lie unrestored sections of canal, decaying buildings and facilities and an absence of interpretation and engagement. Some of our waterways museums are falling to pieces and barely managing to stay solvent, with many boats and artefacts deteriorating badly.

You won't find many supermarket trolleys or mattresses near Llangollen, nor much graffiti; you won't find many walls dragged down and dumped in the Cut or attractive buildings torched.
Our waterways heritage is found more in the grubby backstreets of the urban Midlands and in the unfashionable parts of Slough, Northampton, Huddersfield, Manchester and Preston, than in the lush pastures of North Wales. In these urban areas, the best that we can hope for is not a cultural revitalisation but a regeneration focused on theme pubs, smart restaurants and designer shops.

It is frustrating - and, I suggest, untenable - that heritage can only rise to the fore when in a rural setting, preferably with milkmaids and haymeadows, while in urban areas it becomes a question of sucking premium developers in based on a 30' wide silver thread of water. It's lazy regeneration. The risk is that the physical fabric gets swept away so that it doesn't get in the way of grand plans - look at the east side of Birmingham. How long before the Curzon Street station building becomes a hotel or a restaurant?

The developments at Walsall Town Arm seem stilted and poorly conceived, there are none at all in Wolverhampton and elsewhere on the BCN - like the Titford Pumphouse - the restoration of a single building does nothing for or to the surrounding area.

It should not be a question of rural waterways regeneration OR urban waterside regeneration, as it is now. We should be able to regenerate and revitalise the waterways and the waterside simultaneously. It requires planners to recognise that 'access for all' includes boaters and anglers and that regeneration must involve all sections of the community, not just the affluent and the drinkers.

It has been shown what can be created when creativity meets heritage meets money. If it can be done at Fradley, why not at Fazeley? If at the Malthouse Stables, why not at Brades Hall? If at Cambrian Wharf, why not at Monument Bridge just hundreds of yards away? or perhaps around the Icknield Port loop?

If heritage becomes sanitised and presented only as an urban planning tool, then we stand to lose large parts of the network. A way has to be found to bring revenue to the whole system, so that we don't lose any more old buildings, old wharves or old boats. We need a new mechanism that can sustainably integrate heritage, commerce and regeneration: not the current process that sells on the heritage, then sweeps it away for the coffeeshops and Thai restaurants.

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