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'Keep your hands off our communities': The fight to save landmarks in bankrupt Birmingham

'Keep your hands off our communities': The fight to save landmarks in bankrupt Birmingham

There's a small white building in the middle of a Birmingham park that has become the unlikely headquarters for a quiet resistance movement.

A few years ago, a group of locals took over the quaint Sons of Rest building in the middle of Handsworth Park so they could host their own "tea and social" afternoon.

"We all hated the isolation of lockdown during COVID so we decided to come together in this building a few times a week," says Surinder Guru, one of the volunteers.

In the beginning, they'd bring their own teabags. Then one man decided to make some soup. Then they all decided to take turns making soup for everyone.

And that grew into a community kitchen for anyone who wants to come.

"It's turning into a meeting place for different groups who don't normally meet," says Surinder.

"We get Indian people, white British men and women, white European men and women, we've got Afro-Caribbean people, children and older people.

"It's making use of a building that would otherwise have been sold off to God knows who."

Communities under threat

But this community haven - and thousands like it - is under threat because the council here is in a financial mess.

Birmingham City Council, Europe's biggest local authority, recently declared itself effectively bankrupt, issuing what is called a Section 114 order.

That means the council does not think it has enough money to maintain essential services next year.

A backlog of equal pay claims and a failed IT system has crippled its finances.

It is a bit like in Monopoly, when a player runs out of money, their only option is to start selling off their assets.

So every asset that the council owns is now under review and could be "disposed of" to help meet a forecasted £760m equal pay bill.

Landmarks that help make the city unique are among the properties under investigation.

Nothing is off the table - historic buildings, libraries, parks, entertainment venues, car parks and community centre are all at risk.

According to Locality, the organisation which represents nearly 2,000 small community groups across the country, about 6,000 public buildings and spaces are sold off by councils every year.

Tony Armstrong, CEO of Locality, said: "We're calling on all parties to introduce a community right to buy, which would make it much easier for local people to take local buildings into community ownership.

"And we also want them to go further, passing more powers to communities so they can help create local jobs, services and opportunities.

'Keep your hands off our communities'

Surinder says she is angry that the city has been put into this situation.

"My message to the council is 'keep your hands off our communities'.

"And that message is not just to the council but to central government too.

"The council needs to make better decisions but governments also need to fund councils properly."

Councils have seen a stark reduction in the amount of money handed to them from central government over the last decade.

These grant payments were cut by 40% in real terms between 2009-10 and 2019-20, from £46.5bn to £28bn, according to the Institute for Government.

A spokesperson for the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities said they were supporting the city and its concerned communities.

"Birmingham City Council faces a unique financial situation following its failure to get a grip of the significant issues it faces, from its equal pay liability to the implementation of its IT system.

"That is why we are working closely with the Commissioner team, who were appointed at the Council last October, to protect local residents and tackle the serious financial and governance problems.

"Our £150m Community Ownership Fund is also supporting communities to take ownership of assets at risk of closure and we have already secured the future of four community assets in Birmingham with £996,000 of funding."

But now, overspent councils elsewhere are desperately trying to make the sums add up in order to meet their legal duty to balance their budgets by next April.

That is leading to cuts to things like museums, leisure centres, bus subsidies and grants to local charities.

At the same time there is relentless pressure on statutory services such as social care, and temporary accommodation for homeless families.

Campaigners across Birmingham are now fighting to protect their communities from the selloff in a David and Goliath-type battle.

Read more:
Six other councils' serious financial trouble
HS2 to Manchester axed in favour of 'Network North'

Fighting to save landmarks

The Save Birmingham Campaign was launched in response to the council's effective bankruptcy.

Save Birmingham organiser Jeevan Jones said since the launch over 1,000 residents have nominated nearly 200 places on the savebirmingham.org website, ranging from community and leisure centres, parks and open spaces, heritage landmarks and cultural venues.

It is the first scheme of its kind in the country designed to scupper a sell-off of beloved community facilities.

"Our campaign aims to protect community places, to ensure the residents of Birmingham don't lose out due to problems they didn't cause. Once community places are lost, they stay lost.

"The last thing we want is for people to lose access to these community places."

The campaign aims to register under-threat council-owned properties and spaces as "assets of community value" in an attempt to slow down the sale to give locals a chance to see if they can take them over.

"Our hope is the Save Birmingham campaign can act as a blueprint for the dozens of councils facing severe financial problems through positive community-led solutions that avoid damaging fire sales," said Mr Jones.

'No council is immune'

The Local Government Association says councils face a funding gap of £4bn over the next year and need more support from central government.

Councillor Shaun Davies, who chairs the LGA, told Sky News: "No council is immune to the growing risk to their financial sustainability and many now face the prospect of being unable to meet their legal duty to set a balanced budget and having Section 114 reports issued.

"It is therefore unthinkable that the government has not provided desperately needed new funding for local services in 2024-25.

Although councils are working hard to reduce costs where possible, this means the local services our communities rely on every day are now exposed to further cuts.