Fire At Northfield Manor


This morning I went along to the scene of last night’s fire at Northfield Manor. It was so sad to see the former family home of the Cadburys charred and smouldering. Memories came rushing back. For me – perhaps typically – the first one was political. It was of an election meeting I held with students there back in 1997 when it was a University Hall of Residence. But we were quickly back to the present. Fire crews were still on site, dousing down the remaining hotspots and working with engineers from the City Council to identify what urgent work needed to be done to make the site safe. Outside, and on nearby roads, police officers were making door to door enquiries about arson as a likely cause of the blaze.

West Midlands Fire Service had done a superb job overnight. 20 fire engines and one hundred fire fighters had already been on the site, and I arrived just as the shift was changing. There is a lot of damage but the good news is that, as a result of the fire fighters’ efforts, the signs today are that the building can be saved for the future. Urgent safety concerns mean that some parts of it – particularly around the chimneys – will need to be secured or taken down straight away. Even there, though, with time and money, restoration should still be possible.

The University of Birmingham still owns the site and their Estates Department were quickly on site this morning too, being told in unequivocal terms by Council engineers what has to be done without delay to make the building safe. There were also some pretty clear messages about the importance of improving security around the Manor and adjacent buildings – and doing so quickly. These are the immediate tasks and – from the early conversations I had with them this morning – the University understands the importance of getting on with them. I’ve asked them to keep me updated.

Going forward, though, there are serious questions for the University to answer about the circumstances in which last night’s fire happened. Security on a site like this is always going to be a challenge but had they taken all the precautions they should have done? There was another, more minor, arson attack at the site this week. Were the warning signs from that picked up as they should have been? What had the CCTV that monitors the perimeter of the buildings shown and had any action been taken at the time? And what has been going on at the site for much longer? There are broken windows all over the old student residences adjacent to the Manor itself, highlighting that vandalism has clearly been going on for quite some time. Talk to residents in the area and they tell you that last night’s fire was an incident that was waiting to happen. It’s a relief that, although serious, the damage from yesterday will not necessarily mean the end of Northfield Manor. But it should not have got to this.

That now must change. Plans to restore the Manor House as part of a more general redevelopment of the site have been hit by delay after delay. Apparently an outline planning application was due to be considered by the City Council imminently. Whatever comes of that or any other plan, it has to be discussed properly and decided quickly. The limbo must come to an end. In the meantime, there has to be security on site that works.

And whatever else happens, Northfield Manor must be restored and preserved. I suppose it is still possible that further investigation will show the damage to be more fundamental than we think and that there may be no structural way of saving it. But the signs are that this is not the case. The fire cannot become an excuse to knock it down. We all knew that the Manor was part of the heritage of South Birmingham. The fire has reminded us just how important a part it is.

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Richard Burden

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I was Labour Member of Parliament for Birmingham Northfield between 1992 and 2019 and a former Shadow Transport Minister. I now chair Healthwatch in Birmingham and Solihull, and the West Midlands Board of Remembering Srebrenica. I also work as a public affairs consultant. I am an effective community advocate and stakeholder alliance builder with a passion for human rights. I am a trustee of the Balfour Project charity and of Citizens Advice Birmingham, and a former Chair of Medical Aid for Palestinians.

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