Tuesday 29 December 2015

Desperately seeking devolution

What does devolution mean? From B'ham Budget consultation
Despite some good news from Birmingham in the last year, we're in something of a Pickle regarding devolution.  Bob Kerslake and everyone across Birmingham agree that 'devolution' and 'localisation' is needed, so why is it so confusing?  What's more, how is it that devolution plans appear to be increasing central power, and act against the 'will of the people'?

Sunday 29 November 2015

Travel to School

On Thursday 26th November I ran a special assembly with Year 5 children - the first of a series of workshops at Kings Heath Primary about 'Travel to School'.  It's objective is similar to 'Car Culture' workshops at KHP three years ago - to document how children felt about the way they got to school.

Saturday 21 November 2015

Plan for Safer routes to Swanshurst

 As part of 'Safer routes to school' there are significant plans to improve access to and from Swan Corner roundabout outside Swanshurst School.

Safer routes to school is part of a wider Birmingham City Council strategy.  Swan Corner roundabout is an accident blackspot, it's great that it is getting proposed for improvements, but the consultation and the changes need to be right.

Please take part in our survey before 8th December to raise concerns or show your support for changes being suggested.  We are also hosting a Swan Corner meeting 7pm on 8th December either at the Billesley Pub or in the Sixth Form room, Swanshurst School (TBC)

Saturday 7 November 2015

Swan Corner News update

IMG_20151015_195624.jpgSWCG Next MEETING Tues 10th November 7:30-8:30 pm The Billesley Pub - All welcome!

Roads resurfaced overnight

Roadwork signs joined our Swan on the roundabout as Amey completed maintenance work on the roundabout and along Brook Lane throughout October.

Friday 23 October 2015

Chris Upton, local hero & legend

At Chris's memorial service, Newman College, it became clear how little I knew about Chris's life, but no surprises how many lives he had touched.  In the short time I knew him it seemed he was able to easily read and understand me, and had an uncanny ability to lighten and inspire with the right story, or the wrong pun.

I've included some film clips - Chris opening Paganel Archives, at Paganel School presenting his 'local heroes', the famous rotunda legend, a clip by 'Astro Ignition', and the quote from the Venerable Bede from the reading given by Noel Williams at his memorial service at Newman University.
'He opened Hearts and Minds' @distinctlybc

Saturday 10 October 2015

My school, parking, myths & excuses

We're always told change takes time, but when road safety outside Kings Heath Primary school continues to deteriorate over a matter of years, it's hard to believe it'll ever happen.  Here's some of the feeble myths and excuses I've been given:

Tuesday 6 October 2015

The Localisation agenda

Mark Thomas, thanks Who's laughing now
In the last couple of weeks I've heard, read, seen and been inspired by the unholy alliance of Mark Thomas, George Osborne and James McKay - all very different political animals, but all identifying the need for 'localisation', albeit for different reasons.

Monday 14 September 2015

Cornwall lights Birmingham hearts

Among the missing -
Scene in a Cornish Fishing Village 1884
Walter Langley
'Cornish Lights' exhibition at Penlee House, Penzance, has just ended.  I didn't know about the 'Birmingham Boys' who came to dominate The Newlyn School Art Colony'. Boulton & Watt we knew about, providing the power for most Cornish mines driving deeper during the mining heydays of the nineteenth century, but the Birmingham Boys brushing scenes of social realism in fishing villages?  Nope.

Saturday 15 August 2015

Follow the signs

Alright, so it's not the most exciting photo opportunity, so well done Cllr James McKay for smiling for the launch of Birmingham Road Safety Strategy consultation document, 'setting out Birmingham Council’s approach to making our roads safer for all'.  As photo opps go, I guess it beats scowling at grafitti, and there's no doubt speed kills.

20s plenty have over 250 campaigns running across the UK, and the list of towns and cities adopting a 20 mph limit for most of their streets is ever growing.  Merton Council have recently produced a comprehensive report documenting the impact 20mph has had in Camden, Islington, Kingston, Bristol, and more widely.  The evidence is pretty clear:

Monday 10 August 2015

Play on our mean streets

Escalator to the gym
Great to see so many enthusiastic cyclists as you enter Kings Heath.  Sadly they are lined up on bike machines looking out of a shop window in a gym, and not so many on the street - lots of people want to ride bikes, walk and run, but apparently would rather do it indoors.  The car park behind the gym is full.   Why aren't they on our streets, biking, running, walking?  Is it because people don't feel safe on our streets, or that it's just not as warm & friendly as in a gym?

Wednesday 15 July 2015

Travel to Swanshurst School

Swanshurst school enrichment day is about 'equipping our girls with the skills they need to be happy, successful, confident young women who have the desire and resilience to go to University or pursue a career or vocation and be the best they can be'.

I was happy to volunteer, working alongside others from Swan Corner Community Group, Commando Joe, Riverside Performing Arts and others.

Saturday 11 July 2015

Learning twitter from the masters

I'd moved on to answering emails, when Chris Addison's voice came on the headphones.  Beyond enjoying the familiar dulcet tones, I wasn't really thinking about it until I heard him say, 'School careers advice is rubbish, and university careers advice is worse'.  Now being in the business of supporting careers advisers, this got me interested.

Sunday 28 June 2015

The problem with cycling to school

Linda from Sustrans, and the sweet jars
I don't find it easy to come up with fun activities to discuss safety on roads at a school fete.  Queensbridge, the school my eldest son goes to, had launched 'Family Safety week, Safer cycling' earlier this year, and I wanted to keep a high profile on issues raised, and test a bit, to see what people really thought; afterall, it's not that often parents and children are together in the school - parents evenings and school concerts are probably a worse time to find people to discuss road safety.

So I shared a table with Linda from Sustrans, had a pile of goodies and information from RoSPA, started a small survey (only three questions) and 'guess the sweets in the jar linked to road use statistics' fun activity.  Unfortunately Sustrans juicer bike was out of action, so had to rely on jars of sweets to draw people to the table - I got 54 people responding, and given the size of the school and event, and the attraction of bangra dancing and other things going on, I was pretty pleased.  So here's the results:

It wasn't surprising to find that most people either walked or drove to school.  What was perhaps more interesting was that nearly half the drivers would have prefered not to, and that nearly three times as many people who did actually bike to school would have liked to.

The results of the last question (and the quick voxpop interviews following the survey), explain this.  It was great to see that the majority of people (57%) felt very safe travelling to school. Most of these were the people who drove to school.  Of the others, all four people who felt they were 'not safe' were cyclists (most of all the cyclists).
A small sample, I know, but everyone in this survey who felt they were 'not safe' were cyclists, and most cyclists to Queensbridge felt unsafe - it seems pretty clear why there are so few cyclists, and that Birmingham City Council has a long way to change both the perception and reality of safety on the roads.

In the interviews cars and drivers were unsurprisingly seen as part of the problem.  However cyclists themselves were also seen as part of the problem by a significant number of people.  The Headteacher also identified 'the dilema' of cycling on pavements as a problem.  It's important to remember that over 50 people a year are killed just on pavements in the UK by motor vehicles. Collision with a bicycle accounts for less than 2% of injuries caused by vehicles on pavements - Cyclists and pedestirians are the victims - including the tragic death of Hope Fennell 200 metres from the Queensbridge school.  Cycling on pavements, while far from ideal, could be saving children from death and injury on our roads.

The problem to address local to Queensbridge, as it has been for many decades now, is to make our roads and pavements safer for our vulnerable pedestrians and cyclists.

Useful links:


Wednesday 27 May 2015

Know your neighbour

Best not to cut yourself off from neighbours
Last week it was time to put letters through the doors to invite everyone to our community group. It's a job I quite like doing, and one which our kids are always happy to volunteer for.  We were also delivering a first letter inviting residents to take part in 'Playing out' on two late summer afternoons.

Playing out is where we close the road for traffic for neighbours to meet up and play.  Wheelers lane is particularly lucky in that it has a stretch of green between the road and the houses which, when the service road is closed, is big enough for a game of football.  Local residents who have been there a while say kids used to play regularly on it, but since I've been living round the corner (15 years) it's mainly used as a car park, or sometimes a cut through for cars desperate to avoid traffic.

Last year we ran Playing out on national play day, 7th August  2014.  Having started our own community group earlier on that year, I thought I knew a lot of our neighbours, but I met many more, and a bit of luck with the weather gave me and my children a good chance to chat and play in the sun.

This year we're running it again, this time after school so we can invite Swanshurst school as well.  Birmingham City Council have once again waived the fee to close the road, Amey are willing to provide road blockades as and when required for free too, and Highways will give permission following assurance we will behave responsibly.

Both Swan Corner community group and 'playing out' work on different principles to gated communities, which assume keeping people away from where you live is safer:

A community group, and playing out, invites people in to where we live to make it a safer, better place.  By opening conversations and play, we hope to build trust between neighbours.  For example in our area litter, vandalism and agressive behaviour  are problems.  We've organised litter picking, planted trees and worked with residents, local groups and Swanshurst school on arts projects including making our fabulous Swan sculpture.

We're run by residents, not the council or a private business. Where there has been an opportunity to collaborate with others, like Swanshurst School, we've taken it - one of our 'playing out' sessions will also be with Moseley and Kings Heath woodcraft folk.

It's still all very new to us, and feels like an experiment.  From the start of Swan Corner Community Group many people have given good reasons to doubt it'll work. Who knows? Maybe they're right, but whatever happens, I know  we've done the right thing trying.

Useful links:







Tuesday 28 April 2015

Save the leftovers

It's our third night of living below the line for Save the children.  There are no 'leftovers' living on a pound a day.  As the meal ends Arthur sings 'Castle on a Cloud' - a rather depressing song about child neglect and poverty.  Freya cheers us all up with the story she's been doing at school about a Matchstick Girl who goes to live with her Grandmother.  Unfortunately Jago recognises that actually it was Han's Christian Andersen's Matchstick Girl of 1845, who joins her grandmother in death through cold & starvation.

Thursday 16 April 2015

Don't miss the hustings

There are going to be some important elections coming up soon. For the local slant, join a local 'Question Time' style event, giving you the chance to ask some of the MP candidates up for election (from both the Hall Green and Selly Oak constituencies) about what really matters to you. Whether you're a first-time voter, feeling disillusioned with politics or just curious to hear what your local MPs have to offer Kings Heath, you're welcome to join in for the afternoon. We'll post updates on facebook about the panel members and welcome messages with proposed questions you might like to ask.

When: Saturday 18th April 2.00-4.00pm
What: Public meeting for voters from the Hall
Green and Selly Oak constituencies
Where: Bishop Challoner Catholic College 6th Form Centre, B14 7EG
Full details, speakers and programme available on Facebook 

How to get there:

  • Car parks either side of Institute Road and on school playground
    (enter via Institute Road car park) 
  • Pedestrians can also enter via Kingsfield Road (opposite Village Square)
    off High Street, coming round left side of St Dunstan’s Church

Further information: Miriam Wilcher (miriamwilcher@btinternet.com)
or John Hull (j.hull@queens.ac.uk)

Sunday 12 April 2015

Spring on Swan Corner

Swan Corner's second AGM is this Tuesday (14th April).  It's been a busy year with plenty going on, and plenty planned for the coming year.  Here's a few photos from this weekend on the corner, showing some of our hard work springing back to life:

Japanese knotweed no more, but litter still to do

Three litter picking days so far this year

Litter gone!  Well, almost

Willow 'fedge' budding 

Three new damson trees join the apple and pear trees this year

Fruit bushes and trees springing back to life

New hazel leaves 

Hellebores flowering in the borders

Oz, our litter picking organiser, with apple blossom about to flower

Bulbs in with the strawberries

Quince, pear, blackcurrant, and gooseberry in front of the Billesley

Friday 3 April 2015

The peoples lottery

Short story written by Arthur for BBC 500words competition:

“And the 4 contestants are…” Anodiwa listened backstage as the names were publicly announced - she already knew of course one of them would be hers.

“Anka Burack the Polish painter,”- a tall blonde woman stepped onto the stage fake smiling.

“Brian Hurt, the man with a business plan,” - the crowd laughed as a plump man in a suit strutted on.

“Rosetta Drowningsdale, a person who wants a bit of power” - a scowling woman draped in gold was revealed.

“and finally Anodeewa Maritz a South African kid living without a mother…….” the presenter paused to allow a collective ‘aaaaaaaawwwww’ from the crowd as Anodiwa nervously stepped in to an unknown world of glaring stage lights and cheesy music.

“And now time for a private word with each of our contestants.”  After all the others were done rambling about fame, wealth and power, it was Anodiwa’s turn.

It’s 2801 and democracy is so out of fashion. Who needs it?  In the end its just an extra chore to vote. Yeah, it was a bit unpopular in the beginning, but now it’s problem solved.  We have ‘The People’s Lottery’; every year ANYONE can win.  The theory behind it is to give the people a voice. But is it just keeping people quiet?

“Ok kid,” the backstage assistant muttered “You’re on in 3, 2, 1…”

“Let’s welcome to the stage a small town girl with big dreams, Anodeewa!!!” The crowd erupted as she paced ever closer to the grinning presenter. “So, how are you feeling tonight?”

“ANODIWA!” yelled a familiar voice from the audience “IT’S NOT WHAT I TOLD YOU!”

“Y-you pronounced m-m-my n-name wrong” Anodiwa stammered, ignoring the voice.

“Wonderful!” the presenter replied. It was obvious he wasn’t listening. “Now, more importantly I want to know everything.  What is your greatest desire? Who deserves most to win? On a scale of 1 to amazing, how great is my haircut?” He winked at the crowd as they giggled obediently.

“I haven’t decided, I have no idea and urmm 3 I guess”

The presenter’s smile wasn’t as big now. Whether it was her lack of information or a score of three, he obviously wasn’t satisfied. He turned and said quickly:

“Thank you so much for your time!  Lets hear it for Anodeewa Maritz!”

“I-it’s actually pronounced Ano - ” but it was too late. The backstage assistant was already ushering her off.

Later, Anodiwa was back on stage with the others as the winner was announced.  The presenter pulled a lever. A little note popped out and he read it aloud.

“The winner is… ...Anodeewa!

The answer came to her immediately: “I choose to be with my mother. Forever.”

The presenter clicked his fingers and the light left Anodiwa’s eyes and she dropped to the floor. The crowd (and everyone else) screamed in horror and Anodiwa’s father burst onto the stage.

“Anodiwa your mother is…” his eyes moved to his daughter “...dead.”

By Arthur Belben

Monday 23 March 2015

Backs to the future

It's funny to look back to early nineteenth century Birmingham - a hothouse for the chartists, and then for the Public Library movement, leading ultimately to the Public Libraries Act of 1850.  Then came the rush for all 'Northern' (north of London that is) cities to build Public Libraries, Birmingham at the forefront.

It was, of course, resisted by the Conservatives.  There were concerns that the act 'enforced' taxes for Libraries on everyone, that they might compete against private interests, they might 'become sites of social agitation', and that there was no need for libraries anyway, seeing as no one really read, except the educated rich.  The arguments for - Public libraries would provide facilities for self-improvement through books and reading for all classes, not just those who were wealthy (see wikipedia).

So what's changed?  In terms of the arguments (and who is on which side) very little.  In terms of civic Birmingham's place in those arguments?  That's a little harder to place.  While the new Library of Birmingham was the only completely free site to make the top ten visitor attraction sites in the UK last year (2.5 million visitors), and the only one outside London, cuts will see the library staffing cut in half, as will the opening hours.

And what about the alternatives to Council-run libraries?  Can partnerships be the answer?  Well so far it's not been a very successful experiment:
"...in Bristol two floors of the Central Library are being taken over by a Free School. The concerns there are over loss of storage/office space for the library, a suspicion that the Free School has been given too good a deal and some doubt over the ideological motivations of the relevant councillors in the move. The second is the taking up of considerable space in Cambridge Central Library by a private company for business offices. This has similar themes – with extra concern over the commercialisation of the library and the speed with which the decision was made."  Public Library News
In Birmingham we had the Tescos / Spring Hill Library partnership from 2010.  At first it appeared the partnership might help pay for renovation and renewal of the beautiful early Public Library, but even though it's imminent closure appeared to be delayed in March 2014, its future is far from certain.  Partnership appears to be more a gradual diminishing of services and a movement to privatisation.

150 years on it still seems Libraries are fighting to argue their economic and social benefits, as over a century of community support, including libraries, seems to be undone in a couple of years.

Useful links:

Saturday 21 March 2015

Research your Street

crashmap.co.uk documenting Jago's accident
In 2012 my six year old son was seriously injured in a road accident outside my house - he fell into the road from the narrow pavement.  He's fine now, but following that accident I became more interested in road accidents locally, and then more interested in how communities can pull together to support each other and address local issues.

Swan Corner Community group was formed and 'road safety' has always been a major concern for the group,  We are campaigning at the moment to include the road in the new BCC 20mph initiative.
Length of Brook Lane where Jago fell into the road 

The road has a narrow pavement and is the main route for walking to Swanshurst School, apparently the largest girls school in Europe, at the end of our road.

We have been documenting probems ourself (see our journeys to school, 1 (Arthur's), 2 (Me, Jago and Freya), & 3(from 2013)) but data freely available online has really made the difference to prove the need for change.  Thanks to Podnosh and their Kings Heath and Moseley social media surgery, we've been able to access all the information we need for this, and pretty much anything else.

For more info on road accidents, and for a range of crimes, well documented, and some useful analysis see the following sites:

Police.uk has a particularly useful feature - you can draw around the area you are interested in and it will give you a breakdown of useful stats for any time period, so for my small stretch of Brook Lane:

Sunday 15 March 2015

Playing makes economic sense

Last week at the National Playwork Conference Dens of Equality/Parks for Play won the award for the 'best playwork in other context'. This award is for a playwork approach used in non ‘playwork-traditional’ context.  We were competing against playwork within school provision and other education or learning, creative work within communities - in fact almost anywhere where 'playwork is the medium and not the context'. Dens of Equality and Parks for Play continue as regular funding streams dry up and finding new ways to deliver a playwork service, while picking up awards like this for best practice nationally.

Back in Birmingham we ran a breakfast meeting to show our latest Parks for Play film and to discuss work with our Birmingham City Council partners to develop longer term strategies for funding.  Parks4Play run Playwell - the only fully inclusive provider of after-school care in the UK.  While provision for disabled children nationally is shockingly poor, it underlies a wider mis-understanding about  the needs for specialist childcare and recognising its benefits.

Parents of disabled children want to work to provide for their families and not be dependent on the state.  Playwell also provides vital social context for both the children and their families to learn, develop socially and, not least, to play.   The families who have access to Playwell are the lucky ones.  Across Birmingham and UK there are families with disabled children where parents want to work but can't.  Their children, likewise are in poverty, dependent on the state and isolated with little or no play opportunities.

There are 84,000 children across Birmingham in poverty.  How many of them are disabled?  How many of them have parents able and willing to work but find themselves unable to work because they are caring full-time for their children?

After-school care like Playwell is part of the solution to high levels of poverty and effective support for families with disabled children.  When will both the economic and welfare benefits of childcare like Playwell be recognized and best practice like this be spread across the UK?

Wednesday 11 March 2015

Litter picking on Swan Corner

It didn't take long, but the results speak for themselves - a good hour's work.  Thanks Oz and all the volunteers:

Tuesday 3 March 2015

PLAY is a four letter word

Parks4Play are planning a campaign breakfast screening at the mac cinema, Cannon Hill Park B12 9QH on Friday 13th March, between 8am and 9am.

Playwell - Unique Specialist Childcare

In Birmingham there is a unique specialist childcare service, called Playwell, run by Parks for Play, a 10 year old charity set up by families with disabled children, Playwell  is the first  such provision to combine customised play and playcare on a daily basis afterschool for disabled children and runs from Uffculme ASC School in Moseley. Families are consequently able to train and work to avoid financial immobilisation, social isolation and child poverty.  Playwell provides priority playcare places to local working families with disabled children.

 Disabled Children Play  Well

Playwell generates significant progress for children through facilitated play opportunities. Play is a biological, psychological and social necessity. Indisputable research shows that ALL children and young people need to play. Play is a natural process that is freely chosen, spontaneous, joyous, instinctive and absolutely vital for the all-round development of resilient human beings.  The consequence of play deprivation on all children is demonstrated daily by rising concerns around safeguarding, mental health and obesity issues.  Disabled children  are most at risk of play deprivation.  At Playwell the  impact of children's play is evidenced by tangible outcomes in social, physical, intellectual, creative and emotional development. Local governments benefit from Playwell by  the preservation of family well being, the avoidance of crisis intervention, maintaining employment and the consequent cross department savings


Birmingham to lead the way

Parks for Play  sets the lack of specialist childcare at the heart of the EU’s commitment to Equal Access to Employment. Throughout the UK the proliferation of childcare at mainstream schools has  NOT been  mirrored at special schools due to a lack of central support. Parks for Play is campaigning for earmarked European funding to support customised  playcare pilots throughout Europe, starting in Birmingham, to address the disparity in access to childcare and demonstrate best play.

 Neena Gill, Labour MEP is highlighting the barrier to training and employment faced by parents of disabled children in the European Parliament’s Disabilities Intergroup, and is also gathering signatories for a declaration to the EU Council and Commission from MEPs of all 28 Member States.”

Throughout the EU 15 million children have special educational needs.  The lack of adequate child care for these children is an issue that has wide-ranging consequences for the EU's social and economic fabric and needs to be addressed with urgency.

We hope to see you at this event and if you are interested but unable to attend  please get in touch. We can bring presentations to your organisations.

Laura Watts, Parks4Play

Our mailing address is:

Saturday 21 February 2015

Celebrating Linguistic Diversity

Today is UNESCO international mother language day - if you're in or near Brum the event to be at is at the Library of Birmingham.

'The United Nations' (UN) International Mother Language Day annually celebrates language diversity and variety worldwide on February 21. It also remembers events such as the killing of four students on February 21, 1952, because they campaigned to officially use their mother language, Bengali, in Bangladesh.'
Time and place

Birmingham has a long history of welcoming migrants, and indeed non-conformists running back to the 18th century and earlier.  In the late 18th century wars abroad, xenophobia, religious intolerance and a nationalist upsurge led to riots on the streets of Birmingham (the Priestley riots).  Are we entering a similar period of unrest in Birmingham and worldwide?  If so could events like IMLD and the tolerance and understanding it represents counter a fearful and destructive nationalis upsurge?

The theme for IMLD 2015 is "Inclusion in and through education: Language counts.  Its focus is on one of the main challenges that cuts across many of the goals, i.e. Inclusion (equity/quality). -http://en.unesco.org/events/international-mother-language-day-celebration-2015

Our own Brummie, Malala has become a symbol of hope for Birmingham, and the world.  Let's hope the Library she loves (and opened) could be a beacon of hope in troubled times.