THE influential Historic Coventry Trust’s chairman Ian Harrabin is the latest heavyweight figure to support our Bring George Eliot Home campaign, as the issue became national news.
Opposition leaders at Coventry City Council have also this week pledged to raise questions in the chamber over the plight of the world-renowned novelist’s 1840s home, Bird Grove house in Foleshill, which as a Grade II* listed building is deemed to be of national importance.
Mr Harrabin’s trust has just taken ownership of 22 of Coventry’s historic buildings from the council, from the medieval Charterhouse to a row of shops in the Burges conservation area, in what Historic England described as one of the largest single transfers of its type. Mr Harrabin’s efforts have also rejuvenated Far Gosford Street and its half-timbered buildings.
Approached by us, Mr Harrabin said his Trust would be prepared to work with other partners on Bird Grove, and to own it.
He told us: “With its connection to George Eliot, Bird Grove is very important to Coventry and Warwickshire’s rich literary heritage.
“With the City of Culture spotlight now on Coventry, there can be no better time to bring forward plans for the building’s restoration in a way that recognises and celebrates George Eliot.”
Our front page story last week – followed up by several national newspapers – revealed the building’s four owners including Labour city councillor Rois Ali have started building preparatory work for new tenants to convert the detached mansion into an Arabic school.
Since closing as a Bangladeshi community centre, it has looked shabby and forlorn surrounded by an imposing steel fence. Even the plaque which marked its famous former inhabitant has been removed.
Our campaign has since October supported the George Eliot Fellowship’s call for it to become a tourist and cultural asset for the city in the run-up to George Eliot’s bicentennial in 2019 and the UK City of Culture year 2021.
We are also calling for more to be done in the city generally to mark George Eliot’s, aka Mary Ann Evans’, formative years here including her schooling in the 1830s, which featured in her celebrated classic Middlemarch.
We have carried articles and comments in support of the campaign by BAFTA-award winning BBCTV Eliot novel adaptors Andrew Davies and Giles Foster, her biographer Professor Rosemary Ashton, John Burton of the Felllowship, David Burbidge of the Coventry City of Culture Trust, and figures from the Culture Coventry Trust and Coventry University.
Leading Labour councillor Linda Bigham, cabinet member for community development, has told us she was seeking a meeting with the owners.
Coun Ali told us last week he and fellow owners would have discussions next month to examine the possibilities of a “good idea” for a “good asset.”
The council this week did not respond to our further questioning over whether its planning and conservation officers would examine the current building work, particularly given the building’s listed status.
Coun Ali claimed last week he did not know it was listed, and said no approach had been made to planners or conservationists.
Mr Harrabin added: “The Historic Coventry Trust’s mission is to become the ‘National Trust’ for Coventry – the champion for future heritage at risk and the owner of heritage buildings securing their maintenance for future generations.
“Bird Grove, with its Grade II* Listed status, is in the top 9 per cent of listed buildings in the UK.
“The Trust is happy to work with partners leading this initiative and to be the long-term owner of the restored building, ensuring that its potential for education and tourism are secured for the long term.
“However the Trust has a considerable amount of work to deliver its other priority projects in the immediate future, such as the Charterhouse Heritage Park, which is the key capital project for City of Culture.
“Until we have staff in place, we do not have the capacity to lead a project for Bird Grove, but are pleased to provide whatever support we can in the meantime to save this important building.”
QUESTIONS TO BE RAISED AT COUNCIL
Opposition councillors have backed the Coventry Observer and George Eliot Fellowship’s campaign.
They are set to raise questions in a public meeting of full council next month.
Conservative councillor Roger Baliey, who is also a city Blue Badge tourist guide, said: “I’m surprised that conservation officers haven’t paid a visit to the property as it’s such an important building linked to one of the most famous writers.
“Grade II* listing is a high listing. If there’s been changes to the building, they need to be taken on board such as replacement of windows (the building already has Upvc windows).
“If its use is changing from a community use to a school, there may well be internal and external modifications. Whoever is responsible for it needs to check with the planning department.
“A school requires pick-up and drop-off times in the mornings and afternoons, so traffic and car parking are issues for planning too.”
Opposition leader Coun Gary Ridley (Conservative) said: “George Eliot is one of our nation’s finest literary figures.
“The house provides a valuable link between today’s city and George Eliot and I say it’s time to bring her home.
“We need to preserve and protect the house in a way that makes it accessible and allows us to showcase it to the entire nation – especially now we’re the city of culture.
“The current situation raises a number of questions which we’ll be bringing up at the next meeting of full council.
“For instance, if changes have been made to the property by its current owners, have they received planning consent?
“Will further changes be made? Is there any prospect of the house being open to a wider audience?
“The council recently set up a trust to look after a number of historic buildings across the city – was this property considered for inclusion in that?
“I’ve been following the Coventry Observer’s campaign with interest for a while now and surely there’s still time to find a way forward that works for everyone?”