Watch: Extinction Rebellion campaign to save Smallbrook Ringway from demolition & keep Birmingham ‘Brutiful’

Environmental campaigners Extinction Rebellion demonstrate to save brutalist development Smallbrook Ringway Centre in Birmingham city centre from demolition

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As part of a series of concurrent events nationally, the Birmingham branch of Extinction Rebellion gathered on Saturday, (July 8) in the city centre to present an alternative to the planned demolition of the Smallbrook Ringway Centre.

The development is home to Snobs nightclub and was designed by the same team behind The Rotunda. There are plans to replace it with three skyscrapers featuring 1,750 flats, a spa, cinema, gym and nightclub. Birmingham City Council say the demotion is necessary as Smallbrook Ringway and Queensway are a concrete collar around Birmingham which can leave people feeling unsafe to walk around.

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The environmental campaigners were joined by a number of groups including Retrofit Balsall Heath, Zero Carbon House, Positive Money, and Brutiful Birmingham during their latest demonstration. XR have highlighted that the built environment accounts for around 40% of the UK’s energy demand and much of this carbon cost becomes ‘locked in’ at the time of building, known as embodied carbon. They say that retrofitting this landmark building would likely carry a small fraction of the environmental costs of demolition.

And they say they have created a fully viable and researched counter-proposal with Brutiful Birmingham, C20 Society, Zero Carbon House, and Birmingham Modernist Society. The campaigners say this plan would retain and redesign much of the existing building, sparing it from demolition and greatly reducing the environmental damage caused by demolition.

At street level this alternative plan would see Smallbrook Queensway re-animated with new commercial frontages, interspersed with residential entrances (where possible reusing existing lift and staircores) and the insertion of new through-passages to provide accessible routes to Dudley Street and Wrottesley Street, with Hurst Street re-prioritised as a pedestrian link to New Street Station and Victoria Square beyond - in addition to other proposals.

But Smallbrook Ringway developers, CEG, say there are several issues with this alternative plan, including a lack of room for two lift cores which they have highlighted is a requirement following the Grenfell Tower Review.

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Extinction Rebellion prides itself on non-violent direct action. But the group say Extinction Rebellion’s new nationwide strategy is to disrupt polluters such as banks, water companies, and governments - and not the public. A spokesperson for the group explained: “As such, today our demonstrators gathered on the pavements and off the roads to listen to speeches from architects and engineers and engage with the public.”

Extinction Rebellion protest to save Smallbrook Ringway in Birmingham city centre from demolitionExtinction Rebellion protest to save Smallbrook Ringway in Birmingham city centre from demolition
Extinction Rebellion protest to save Smallbrook Ringway in Birmingham city centre from demolition

Sights included the ‘Retrofit Wendy House’, which is a large toy house used to engage the public with the benefits of retrofitting buildings instead of demolition. This house had previously been brought by train all the way to London during The Big One demonstrations in April, where between 60,000-90,000 attended [7].

Speaking at the demonstration, Martha Dillon Housing Policy Lead at Positive Money said: What we really need to take action on is the rising house prices, financialisation of our homes, poor treatment of renters, and second and vacant homes’going on to highlight retrofitting as one of the main solutions.

Extinction Rebellion stressed that the demolition of these buildings has profound social consequences. Savvas, the owner of nearby Santorini Restaurant, said: I have been here for nearly nine years and I have nine years left on the lease. Nobody has approached me. I don’t know how long they will let me stay.”

Extinction Rebellion protest at Smallbrook Ringway in Birmingham city centreExtinction Rebellion protest at Smallbrook Ringway in Birmingham city centre
Extinction Rebellion protest at Smallbrook Ringway in Birmingham city centre
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Tom, who is an XR activist in his late 20s working in education and living in the Jewellery Quarter, said: “For me it’s not about saving something from the past or even if you like brutalist architecture. I can’t even say that personally I’m the biggest fan of brutalism but these are new designs to make an old building look modern and be fit for purpose.

“We’ve got a real opportunity here to do this right and retrofit old buildings to provide cheap, high-quality housing and avoid damaging the planet when we do it.” Architect John Christophers concluded in his speech today: “The greenest house is the one that already exists.’

What Birmingham City Council has said in response to Extinction Rebellion’s demonstration against the demolition of Smallbrook Ringway

Birmingham City Council member for Shard End and former leader of the council, Ian Ward, said: “Smallbrook Queensway and the Ringway Centre are a concrete collar around Birmingham city centre that can make it feel unattractive and unsafe to walk or cycle between Birmingham New Street station and the night-time, business and residential communities of Southside and beyond.

“CEG’s plans for redevelopment open up safe and attractive routes, as well as new public spaces, which will be good for businesses, good for residents and good for the city’s economy. Birmingham city centre is becoming one of the best-connected places in the whole country. That means it’s the right place to be turning unused land and buildings into thriving new residential communities where no one needs a car.

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“That’s how we are going to deal with the challenges of the climate emergency – by beating the housing crisis with sustainable new homes in the heart of the best city in the world”.

Plans unveiled to tranform Smallbrook Ringway in Birmingham city centrePlans unveiled to tranform Smallbrook Ringway in Birmingham city centre
Plans unveiled to tranform Smallbrook Ringway in Birmingham city centre

What Smallbrook Ringway developers CEG have said about the opposition to their plans

James Shimwell, Head of Residential Development at CEG, is behind the planning application for the redevelopment of the building:

“The application we have submitted to Birmingham City Council is supported by three and half years’ worth of technical work. It provides 1,750 much-needed new homes, in attractive and well-designed new buildings, in one of the most sustainable locations in the Midlands. We will re-use at least 95% of the materials resulting from the demolition with asbestos, ceiling tiles and carpets being some of the things we can’t re-use.

As well as replacing physically and commercially obsolete buildings, our proposals will deliver maximum environmental performance, exceed the requirements of building regulations, and be net zero in operation.

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“This weekend’s demonstration championed an alternative idea for Smallbrook Queensway which, by the proposers’ own admission, has very little detail behind it and has not been tested technically. As far as we can tell, significant demolition would be required to enable construction of the new residential towers.

“There are many issues with the alternative proposal, but an important one is that its towers do not appear to have room for two lift cores, which is now a requirement following the Grenfell Tower Review.”

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