Worker's hovel stands in way of pounds 1.5m housing scheme: City planners are determined to preserve an 18th-century relic. Chris Arnot reports

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The Independent Online
THE discovery of a derelict 18th-century agricultural worker's hovel has scuppered plans for a pounds 1.5m housing development in Birmingham.

The city council's planning committee decided on Thursday not to grant permission for the building of 22 starter homes on the site of a former market garden at Jerry's Lane in Erdington. Problems over access were cited, but of prime concern to councillors was how to save a rural relic that has somehow survived in suburbia.

They authorised the serving of a building preservation notice, valid for six months, and resolved to apply to the Department of National Heritage for a permanent listing.

'It's clearly important in terms of the social history of the city,' said the council's head of conservation, Chris Hargreaves. 'For Birmingham it is a unique survival, literally a hidden gem.'

The hovel (defined in the Shorter Oxford Dictionary as a rude or miserable dwelling place, a wretched cabin or cowshed), came to light in October last year after the death of Joe Bateman, whose family had owned the market garden since the 1920s.

The man who found it was Geoffrey Hitchman, a retired butcher and secretary of the Erdington Historical Society.

'I'd often walked along the road, peered through the hedge and wondered what it was,' he said. 'So when I heard the land was being sold for development, I decided to go and have a look around. I trotted off through the undergrowth and there it was, right at the far end. I knew it was old when I saw those two-inch bricks.'

He has traced the hovel's origins back to 1792, when Erdington was a rural village five miles from Birmingham and a man called Samuel Biddle paid 6d for a cottage and a small piece of land.

It was last occupied in 1962 and is in need of extensive repairs. The stairwell has collapsed, the grey-tiled roof sags alarmingly and the floor, which is little more than 10ft square, is covered in rubble. Ivy is already intruding through gaps in the building's structure.

'The city council would be reluctant to take on board the responsibility for renovation,' Mr Hargreaves said. 'It's too small for a museum. Ideally it would be refurbished as a private house.'

An estate agent might describe it as a charming period cottage with two compact bedrooms and many original features, including gas mantles, a cast iron range, a wash-house extension with a copper furnace and a view of the stars.

Crest Homes (Midlands), the would-be developer of the market garden site, is planning a revised application. The company's managing director, John Rossiter, said he was surprised and disappointed by the council's decision.

'We have bent over backwards in our attempts to resolve the problem,' he added. 'We submitted a revised plan confirming our willingness to completely enclose the hovel, but the planners said we have not allowed for a sufficient amount of land to separate it from the new development.'

(Photograph omitted)

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