COVENTRY’S Grade 11* listed former home of the great novelist George Eliot – supposedly protected for its national importance – has seen at least EIGHT breaches of planning and conservation restrictions since the year 2000.
A high-level Coventry council source told this newspaper it was among provisional findings of council conservationists alerted to the problems at Bird Grove house by our Bring George Eliot Home campaign.
It comes as Coventry City Council leader George Duggins pledged, in an interview with us this week, to discuss whether the Victorian mansion in Foleshill could be restored using grants at the next board meeting of the independent Coventry City of Culture Trust. The Trust has already publicly backed our campaign.
Alongside the George Eliot Fellowship, the Coventry Observer’s campaign has for three months called for more to be done with the building, and to celebrate George Eliot’s pivotal Coventry connections, for her bicentary next year and for City of Culture year 2021.
One council source told us the breaches at the building – listed by the government and national heritage watchdogs since 1974 – included inserting UPVC windows, a porch and the unsightly steel fence surrounding it. An unofficial plaque marking its famous former inhabitant has also been removed.
Asked to confirm the allegations and state what the council intended to do about it, the council responded with the following statement:
“A spokesperson for the council said: “Bird Grove is a privately owned Grade II* listed building and as such works to the building may require listed building consent.
“Our enforcement team is investigating what works have been undertaken that require consent, and will work with the owners to ensure that any unauthorised work is brought in line with any requirements.”
We had also asked if a report will be brought to planning committee in public or private.
As we reported, Coun Duggins at a full council meeting last week stopped short of backing a Conservative motion which called for the council to commit itself to doing more with the building. But he pledged to talk with Bird Grove’s owners – which include Labour councillor Rois Ali – and he called for celebratory George Eliot events for 2019 and 2021.
He and Labour councillors insisted it had not been the council’s building since 1958 and they could not “force” any owner of any building into a change of use.
Yet our campaign had already established there is developing goodwill between the owners and the Fellowship to at least enable the building to be re-opened some of the time to international tourists for George Eliot-related activities. We will monitor discussions over this minimum aim of our campaign.
We asked Coun Duggins who, if anybody, would provide a leadership role in any examination of whether City of Culture-related or other external grants could be potentially accessed for the building’s restoration – in a way that might suit the building’s owners and multi-use of it.
Coun Duggins responded by saying he was about to become a board member of the Coventry City of Culture Trust, and added: “It is a suggestion that I will be happy to raise with the City Of Culture Trust board to see if grants can be levered for this.
“There will be a lot of money that comes through the City of Culture. Whether that’s something they could include themselves, I don’t know.”
We asked the council leader if he considered the growing support for the campaign, and national publicity for it, showed George Eliot continued to fire the public imagination.
Public backing has come from Bafta-award winning BBC TV screenwriters including Andrew Davies, international academics including Professor Rosemary Ashton, the city’s culture and historic trusts and Coventry University.
Coun Duggins told us: “We do of course need to recognise George Eliot for the great historic figure she is, not just for Coventry but for London where she went on to live. We wouldn’t rule anything out. We haven’t looked at anything specifically yet.”