The proposed Birmingham Road shopping centre scheme
submitted by Harrisons, developers, in March 2006
Comments by Lichfield Civic Society

1. The Development Process

When a Local Authority is involved with sponsoring new works best practice would seem to imply that the community is presented with an essentially open brief that is in effect non-specific, waiting to respond to, and ultimately filled by, such programmes that are derived from an active consensus between the public, the Authority, and the developers. This should be the very first act in such a scheme as the 'Birmingham Road Development'; open invitation to all from the first, forming the basis from which a viable and acceptable project can be formed. Thus there is a genuine public agreement as to how matters are to proceed that is linked to a genuine public responsibility which is then filtered though the varying expertise of architect, developer and Local Authority. This ultimately results in a project that can at least claim true legitimacy by the community as a whole.

Any other process will be at root 'top/down' and suffer accordingly by ignoring a potent output from the widest pool of interest, knowledge and experience from the very beginning of the scheme. The most cursory review of the graphic material and architectural models presented to the public demonstrates plans are very well advanced, so much so that any public comment must be chiefly cosmetic, as it would seem that the plan is in principle very set. This will eliminate any opportunity of a radical recasting of the functioning and content of the site, and allowing only the rearranging of details. However, grave doubts must entertained whether this plan is at all the best or most suitable one for both Lichfield and Birmingham Road in its content, traffic circulation and architectural characteristics, so generating questions as to its future viability and functioning.

2. Content

The proposal is made up of an hotel, a department store, cinema, shop units, and residential units with an off-site station for public transport. There is no explanation of this wide mix of functions on what is a rather constrained site and it would seem to be over-ambitious. Lichfield already has one department store - can we sustain a second? A cinema is needed, but do we need a multiplex? Could not the Garrick Theatre fulfil this function on a more modest scale once technical format problems have been solved? Why have apartments on the site when there is no proper public transport point on site? Is there a real need for more offices in Lichfield?

A broad overview of the site seems to tell us that the proposed plan adheres overmuch to its existing footprint; there is a long range of housing approximately where the police station now stands; the block of the car showroom is imitated by the department store; the void of the present car park is the shopping concourse; the high hotel block echoes the conformation of the flatted car park; even the line of trees and shrubs is echoed by a line of shops; access points are in very much the same place. This is very lazy thinking as it cannot be supposed that the existing placing is anything more than purely a accident of history; it would have been good to think that a radical re-ordering should have explored the most suitable exploration of novel and better solutions to the challenge that the site presents to a planner. It seems that the present design merely serves to cram as much possible into the space with the outcome that the very important bus station is ejected to a highly unsuitable location across the Birmingham Road.

This is particularly flawed thinking as it seems to be an impossibility, taking into account the lie of the land, the presence of Station Road and the number of mature trees that will have to be removed along with a Public Open Space. Only on a flat wooden board could this seem to be sense. Furthermore placing the bus station on the east side of Birmingham Road will force most passengers to cross this congested thoroughfare when going to the shopping centre, causing even greater delay than at present. It seems unlikely that there will ever be enough room to stack buses in such a limited space; prohibitions regarding bus parking are unlikely to be observed or enforceable. How will full-size buses turn to go north on the Birmingham Road without crossing into the oncoming lane? This whole aspect hasn't been thought through and seems unworkable.

3. Traffic Circulation

The development is at the centre of the main routes in and through the City, feeding the customers towards the principal supermarkets and services in every direction. The congestion presented throughout the day develops into virtual gridlock at rush hours at present. It is difficult to imagine that the proposal will do anything but exacerbate this problem due to the over-development of the site, and the escalation of delivery vehicles of a great variety of types, from the smallest van to largest container. The provision for off-loading is unmanageable in the event of multiple deliveries that could result in unacceptable queuing. In a world of ever larger long distance delivery vehicles we wonder at the skill that will be needed to navigate the very tight turns required to exit from Frog Lane into heavy traffic. This will be a day-long problem seeing the possible diversity of the unloading pattern. In addition the entrance and exit to the underground car park on Birmingham Road will also contribute to vehicular congestion and traffic conflicts. Some of the site must be surely sacrificed to create a viable circulation system. It is understood that the many workers on the site will have no dedicated parking, though some car parking spaces are to be reserved for an hotel. This is clearly unacceptable as it will only cause greater pressure onto the inadequate parking provision elsewhere in the City centre.

4. Architecture and Design

The Society has always welcomed innovation and good modern design with enthusiasm providing that it is sympathetic with the general aspect of the City and its Conservation Area, without parody or imitation.

The clues given by the developers in their brochure are intended to convey a general impression, but even at that level would seem to be radically unsuitable for this part of Lichfield. In form they are strongly geometric, combining large, unrelieved, square panels with circular curves and at the extreme highly aggressive irregular angles in the high rise hotel section. The predominant tonal patterning is a contrast between very light panels, white structural exposed beams and very large areas of sheet glazing. The overall impression is very sterile in an unrelieved way that evacuates all specific character from the complex. The design shows no respect for St. John's Hospital, the Old Grammar School or even the District Council Office, bland as this is. The design is deeply unresponsive in its height at this point and confronts and challenges at this entry to the City. The general roofscape is unrelieved, composed of predominantly flat roofs that are abruptly challenged by the stepped profile of the hotel.

Doubts must be cast at the processes that the designers were allowed to approach their design and the sort of brief they were given and the quality of discussion prior to the publication of the project. The hotel is the most alien feature of the scheme and makes no concessions to the recognisable tenor of the City streetscape. Away from Lichfield there is a very large body of work that uses natural materials in a very modern way that is also willing to include new materials imaginatively; the pages of the architectural journals cite many examples nationally. In contrast the design presented is perfunctory in its understanding of the real standards that can be achieved in similar contexts and reflect poorly on the quality of thought directed into the scheme.

5. Conclusion

The proposal as it now stands falls far short of an acceptable scheme both in concept, in many matters of its functioning and in all matters of its appearance. It is odd that these deficiencies were not very clear at an early stage and that a revision of the brief wasn't followed through in consequence. If the public is to make valid comments on the scheme then much fuller information should have been provided at the consultation stage; this in itself should have been extended so that every aspect of the plan could have had in-depth scrutiny. This has not happened and it would seem that full permission will go ahead in the near future; which would seem to bestow on Lichfield a wholly alien structure that will have a potent effect on the character of the Conservation Area. This will be both destructive at a very sensitive point that has long cried out for fundamental improvement, which, though new-built, won't introduce newcomers to any true feeling for the essence of the place. The project will be, in short, nothing but an architectural 'sore thumb' that will be hard to disguise or ameliorate in the future.

Lichfield has every expectation of having a development that is of today, fulfils the tasks that it is set, yet at the same time respects the tenor of the centre of the city. A difficult brief maybe, but one that can be achieved if sufficient understanding, thought and skill are applied. The developers and the Local Authority must join together to make full revision of the scheme if it is to be suitable for the City and its various needs.

Alan Thompson,
Planning Applications Advisory Group,
Lichfield Civic Society,
March 2006