COVENTRY council leader George Duggins says he and his colleagues will work with George Eliot’s house’s owners – and called for events to celebrate the great writer’s bicentenary and City of Culture year 2021.
He was responding in a council debate today tabled by opposition councillor Roger Bailey, who urged council support for calls to open up the Grade II* listed Bird Grove house in Foleshill for tourists and events.
Coun Bailey (Cons, Cheylesmore) told the council chamber his motion called “for the council to play its part in opening up the old house where she (George Eliot) lived and use it as an opportunity to celebrate the life of our greatest writer.”
Coun Bailey urged “co-operation” with the building’s owners – who include Labour councillor Rois Ali – towards potential multi-use of the building, adding that he understood possibilities were already being discussed.
It follows this newspaper’s Bring George Eliot Home campaign and the George Eliot Fellowship’s call for partnership working and potentially mixed uses, including access for international tourists and George Eliot related educational activities.
Our campaign has also called for a blue plaque at the house which until recent weeks lay empty and forelorn, and for more to be done in the city generally to celebrate the internationally renowned Victorian novelist.
We have also questioned whether the council and its conservationists were ensuring the mansion in the renamed George Eliot Road was being properly protected in line with its listed status as a building of national importance – given recent refurbishment, previously inserted UpVc windows, and the removal of an unofficial plaque marking its famous former inhabitant.
We have also questioned whether planning permission would be required for change of use to a school.
As we reported yesterday, the newly opened Al-Amal Arabic School is only offering extra-curricular language classes to Syrian refugee children and others on Saturdays, and is looking for bigger premises.
The school, as new tenants at Bird Grove, told us it was willing to discuss future dual uses with the owners and the George Eliot Fellowship, as Coun Ali also told us last month.
Coun Duggins (Lab, Longford) told the meeting: “I don’t disagree with anything Roger is saying around what the council is expected to do.
“It’s not our building. It hasn’t been the council’s since 1958.
“Will we work with the owners of Bird Grove? Of course we will do that.
“We do want to ensure that we celebrate George Eliot and we can do that by festivals as Roger has suggested. We must try and ensure with the City of Culture team that there will be events.”
In saying there should also be events for the 200th anniversary of Mary Ann Evans’ (aka George Eliot’s) birth, he added: “In 2021 I would suggest George Eliot Road lends itself to a project as one of the main events.”
The Labour group proposed amendments to the motion which opposition councillors said had completely removed any reference to Bird Grove.
Opposition leader councillor Gary Ridley pointed out there remained unanswered issues around the building’s conservation, whether changing uses required planning permission and the removal of the unofficial plaque.
The debate descended into angry political exchanges from both sides.
Amid the accusations, Coun Duggins and Labour colleagues argued it was not realistic to “force” property owners to accept any particular use of a building.
Tory councillors pointed out that was not what their motion proposed. They re-iterated their emphasis on urging and supporting partnership and co-operative working with the listed building’s owners, who ran the former Bangladesh Centre at Bird Grove.