Balsall Heath Forum

Mark Barrett marknbarrett at
Sun Feb 9 21:10:26 GMT 2014

Sleeves up, bring in some real benefits
A community group that has pulled a suburb of Birmingham out of the mire
has ministers cock-a-hoop
Francesca Angelini Published: 9 February 2014

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[image: Edna Shaw, left, and Maisie Dill are Balsall Heath volunteers]Edna
Shaw, left, and Maisie Dill are Balsall Heath volunteers (Andrew Fox)

Four miles separates Balsall Heath from Winson Green and, at first glance,
the two areas appear to have much in common: both are inner-city areas of
Birmingham, their streets are lined with red-brick Victorian terraces and
curry restaurants and both were badly hit by the collapse of the city's
industrial economy at the end of the 1970s.

But that is largely where the similarities end. Winson Green is home to
James Turner Street, the Benefits Street of Channel 4's documentary, whose
residents -- or at least those who feature in the documentary -- have mostly
accepted their unenviable lot; the residents of Balsall Heath, however, are
a formidable bunch whose tenacity and energy have transformed the area.

Twenty-five years ago Balsall Heath was one of the most blighted areas of
Birmingham; now it's an archetype of community regeneration, boasting clean
streets and neighbours who look out for one another.

Much of this is down to Balsall Heath Forum, a residents' organisation that
works with the police, the council and schools to resolve problems; locals
and politicians are convinced that a similar system could operate in every
area of Britain. Abdullah Rehman is the forum's co-ordinator. A father of
two, he was born in Balsall Heath and recalls when the district was
synonymous with vice.

"It was a no-go zone: prostitutes lined the streets, people would come into
my shop and start rolling up drugs. The area was like a bombsite," he says,
walking past the grocery he used to run.

Now Rehman, 43, is proud to live there. "There's a women's gym and centre
where the prostitutes used to be, an adventure playground, an animal farm
and a nursery in an area that was totally derelict, and all around the area
are hanging baskets, shrubs and greenery -- and it's all down to the
residents," he says.

"Where the council and police could do nothing, we picketed the streets,
shamed the kerb-crawlers into moving away and took on the drug dealers," he
explains. "I was threatened with guns, but we knew it was fight or flight
and the whole neighbourhood took on the issues in a very co-ordinated way."

Balsall Heath Forum was born as a street group (see panel) but has now
developed into a model of decentralised governance.

The government is nothing short of impressed: last week Stephen Williams, a
communities minister, visited to see it in action and to look into how a
similar programme might be set up in other areas.

Its credentials are impressive: over the past 20 years the group, along
with other community movements, has tackled problems including environment
and schools, and it continues to innovate.

Its latest project is Heartbeat, which organises volunteers to look after
the elderly by fixing electrical or plumbing problems and making sure they
are OK. As with all the other services the group provides, the idea is that
this will take the burden off local services and the NHS, and will be
tailor-made to individual needs.

The police are strong supporters. "Balsall Heath Forum does a number of
things," says Chief Superintendent Alex Murray of West Midlands police. "We
chat regularly with them, point out areas where there are a high number of
burglaries . . . and they help patrol them, often with the police.

"They can work with the police as partners, sharing their concerns, asking
for help and empowering them to take action . . . as we can see in Balsall
Heath, they can be transformational."

The group is helping to fill in gaps left by cuts to council and police
budgets, according to Rehman. "Until a few years ago we had to lobby the
police and council to let us get involved, but now they come to us," he
says. "They realise how valuable it is to collaborate, and they recognise
how we can take some of the burden."

Walk down the street in Balsall Heath and the work of the residents is
unmissable: some volunteers are tending shrubbery, others are looking after
animals on the farm and others are picking up litter.

"It's all very rewarding. We wouldn't do this work otherwise," says Edna
Shaw, a forum volunteer who has lived in the area all her life. "People
come to me and tell me about problems, and I'll take them to the forum and
they find a solution."

Shaw, a pensioner, may look a little frail, but she will not be messed
around; nor will she allow her neighbours to be upset. She tells me that
just a couple of weeks ago, tired of youths out on the streets making a
disturbance, she brought the matter up with the forum, which encouraged the
community football team to get them to join up.

Representing the Mary Street residents' association -- one of the forum's 10
-- she is particularly hot on litter and sprucing the area up. The phrase
"What would we do without Edna?" is used often.

Since 2002 house prices have risen 40% faster than in the rest of
Birmingham, and the crime rate has gone down.

It's an efficient model, according to a study conducted by Professor Tony
Bovaird of Birmingham University, which found that for every £1 invested in
the forum, £7 was saved by service providers, including housing
associations, the police and the council.

But at the heart of the project is the notion that "one size cannot fit all
at neighbourhood level", a view that Tony Kennedy, a city councillor,
embraces wholeheartedly.

"As with every area in Britain, we have a rich tapestry of issues, and
residents are part of the answer to addressing these," he says.

Dick Atkinson, a retired sociology lecturer, is one of the forum's
co-founders. "If we want to replace the idea of less for less,
neighbourhood budgeting has to be the way," he says.

He is convinced the Balsall Heath model can be used nationwide, even in
James Turner Street.

"All that is needed to start is a couple of Ednas and Abdullahs," he says.

Power to the people

Balsall Heath Forum came into being in 1992, after a campaign by residents
to clear the streets of prostitution and drugs.

The first meeting agreed that the forum would comprise a leader and
representatives voted in by residents of 10 districts containing 100
streets and 6,000 houses.

Current initiatives include: Heartbeat, which looks after the elderly;
Streetwatch, which helps police the streets and fights low-level crime;
Cleaner Heath, which plants greenery and deals with rubbish; a food bank; a
joint action team that works with the police; and a "walking bus", in which
volunteers take children to school, making sure they get there on time and
have breakfast.

The forum employs seven people full-time and operates on an annual budget
of £180,000, most of which comes from grants and funding. It has about 500

Last year it was selected by the Department for Communities and Local
Government to be one of 12 pilot projects that redirect power from
Whitehall to the community.

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 Mr Patrick Buckley
1 hour ago

Fantastic - power to the people!
WildeChild2 hours ago

I've lived in and around Birmingham all my life, I have friends in Balsall
Heath, and the change in the area is absolutely down to the people (as the
built environment has changed.little in 20 years) there is a real and
visible community, love it.
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