Express & Star

Inspectors overturn decision on building new charity hub in Walsall

A charity which provides vital services for its Walsall community has been given a huge boost after winning permission to build a new home.

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Artist impression of the proposed new Aaina Community Hub in Bath Street, Walsall. PIC: Potter Church and Homes Architects

Government inspectors overturned Walsall Council planners’s decision to refuse permission for Aaina Community Hub to replace their current dilapidated building on Bath Street.

The proposed new three storey building was turned down after local authority conservation officers said it would have a negative impact on the neighbouring Grade II listed St Michael’s Church.

But representatives for Aaina said the new centre would be set further back and therefore would not obscure views of the church, while materials used would be in keeping with the character of the area.

They also argued the new facility would enable them to provide much needed services in a disadvantaged area.

Government inspector Les Greenwood agreed and said the new Aaina hub would be a high quality development which would preserve the character of the area, including the church.

He added that even if he felt there was harm to heritage assets, “such a harm would have been clearly outweighed by the public benefits of the improved community facilities the new building could offer.

A’isha Khan, chief executive of Aaina Community Hub, said she was ‘super pleased’ with the decision and would now focus on getting the new centre built.

Aaina was set up in 1997 by local Asian women who worked in the public sector and recognised a gap in services for Asian women.

And the hub has continued to grow over the years and offers a multitude of services for families while partners such as Iqra Supplementary School are also based there.

The charity bought the building outright in 2020 and said it is no longer fit for purpose, prompting the need for a new facility.

A’isha Khan said: “We are super pleased (with the decision) because it’s taken a year from when we first submitted the application.

“What we were keen on not doing was having a massive building which would not be sustainable in the long term. I’ve seen projects like that.

“I was keen we have a building that meets the needs of local residents in terms of training, health and well being. It’s a legacy project so once it’s built it’s for women and their families for a very long time.

“We designed the building, we thought we’d done a great job. We set it back further than it already was utilising the space really well.

“But the conservation officer was not having any of it. They said the church is supposed to be the focal point on the main road and our building would be competing with it in the conservation area.

“We tried to say it is for the local community. St Matthews is an area with high levels of disadvantage, health and social inequalities, there’s no community building here that provides the necessary resource for people to upskill, address health and social inequalities etc.

“These communities are disadvantaged but then they expect them to go to buildings to access services that are substandard. What you are telling these people is they are not worth it.

“When it was rejected, we were totally gutted because it is a beautifully designed building and why wouldn’t they see the public benefit to this?

“In September the inspector came to have a quick look around. Thankfully, he said our appeal had gone through.

“The materials we were using and the shape of the building reflected the environment and it was set further back than the original building so it was still subservient to the church and it would in fact open the aspect further for it.

“He said even if there were conservation concerns, the public benefit outweighed those concerns and it was a quality development, which I was really pleased to read as that was the aim.

“We’ve got a number of partners who are based here. It’s open seven days a week for local residents.

“We provide basic skills, employment related activities with our partners, back to work, health and wellbeing, getting people of all ages out the house and into the community.

“The venue is accessible for families, we’ve had diabetes clinics for men, health clinics so it’s a multi-purpose venue.

“The new facility will give us more space because at the moment we are limited We will have an IT suite, an actual room for staff, Iqra will have their own space.”