12th Dec, 2017

EXCLUSIVE: Great novelist George Eliot's listed home being quietly converted to Arabic school despite campaign

Les Reid 6th Dec, 2017 Updated: 6th Dec, 2017

THE world-acclaimed novelist George Eliot’s iisted Coventry home is being quietly converted to an Arabic school – despite a highly supported campaign for it to become a global asset for the city.

Builders are on site at the Grade II* listed Bird Grove house in George Eliot Road, Foleshill, where a sign explains its planned future use.

There is no evidence that planning or any other permission, if needed, has been sought to change the use of the building, which had been closed and forlorn, guarded by an imposing steel fence.

According to Land Registry documents, Bird Grove’s four named current owners include Labour city councillor Rois Ali. It was latterly used as a Bangladesh Centre and has been advertised as ‘to let’.

Several restaurant and takeaway premises owned by Coun Ali have operated by tenants without planning permission or been served enforcement notices, this newspaper has revealed.

Coun Ali has not declared he owns Bird Grove in the council’s Register of Members’ Interests, which only states he is a director of the Bangladesh Centre Limited at the address.

Since October, we have tried to contact Coun Ali and the centre to learn more about their intentions for the large nineteenth-century detached house.

As a listed building, it is deemed by the government and heritage watchdogs to be of high historic and cultural importance because of George Eliot’s, aka Mary Ann Evans’, seven years there in the 1840s.

The Coventry Observer’s Bring George Eliot Home campaign has been calling on the city’s authorities to do more to celebrate the literary giant’s formative years here, including her 1830s schooling, which features in the classic Middlemarch, considered by many critics to be the greatest novel.

We have called for her Coventry connections to be more marked in the city centre. We are also supporting the George Eliot Fellowship’s call for Bird Grove to become as place for international visitors and suitable cultural and educational resource.

Last week, Labour councillor Linda Bigham, cabinet member for community development, told us she was seeking a meeting with the building’s owners, in support in principle of doing more to recognise George Eliot.

Our campaign has been backed by celebrated BAFTA award-winning BBC TV screenwriters Andrew Davies and Giles Foster – who have adapted her novels – and by Eliot biographer Professor Rosemary Ashton OBE.

Also supporting our calls are Coventry University, City of Culture 2021 trust bosses and Culture Coventry.

Time is pressing, with George Eliot’s bicentennial in 2019.

The Fellowship’s John Burton has called for Coventry to combine with the ‘female Shakespeare’s’ birthplace, Nuneaton, to rival Stratford’s ‘literary tourism’ offer.

There is no longer even a plaque at Bird Grove, where the Fellowship used to offer tours inside to international visitors.

Following our further approaches to council figures, Coun Ali responded, saying he was unaware of the building’s listed status and had believed, without checking, that no planning or other consent would be needed, given the building’s previous community and educational use, which had fallen on hard times.

He added the Arabic school had a short-term tenancy rather than a long lease.

Asked about the campaign, he said: “It’s a good idea. It’s clearly a good asset and the directors need to have discussions about the potential uses for the building.”

He said that would have to wait until the return from Bangladesh next month of the Bangladesh Centre chairman Motasem Ali, another of the building’s four registered owners (the others are Azir Uddin and Abdul Hasnat).

We are seeking a response from the council.

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