A Huge Investment in Balsall Heath’s Future 

Joe Holyoak, Chair of the Friends of Moseley Road Baths, writes about the exciting works due to commence next month at Moseley Road Baths and Balsall Heath Library.

The doors of Moseley Road Baths will close on October 2nd. If I had written this sentence in say, 2010, it would have been really bad news. It would have meant that Birmingham City Council had overruled all the local opposition, and closed the baths forever because it could not afford the huge bill needed to repair the building to keep it safe to swim in. 

But writing this sentence in 2023 means that actually, it is very good news. The closure is temporary, in order for contractors to move in to begin work on Phase 1 of a £32m development scheme that also includes Balsall Heath Library next door. It will eventually result in a wonderful community resource for the neighbourhood, in about 2029. 

How has this transition come about? The key event was the agreement by the City Council in 2018 to grant a license to a recently formed charity, to take over part of the building, and manage swimming there. (To give the charity its full name, the Moseley Road Baths Charitable Incorporated Organisation, or the CIO). 

The CIO has been managing swimming since then, with the City Council retaining ownership of the building. The CIO formed alliances with some important and influential bodies, who were also supporting the continuation of swimming in this important historic building. Chief among them was the National Trust, and also Historic England, the government’s adviser on historic architecture, and the World Monuments Fund, an international body based in New York. 

Together, these organisations comprise what is called the Coalition, which is making the ambitious plans for the building’s future. The Coalition also includes the Friends of MRB, who were the main opposition to the City Council’s proposed closure earlier this century. Most remarkably, I think, the Coalition includes the City Council itself. The hugely successful campaign to save the baths has turned the Council through 180 degrees. From being the enemy, the Council is now a significant ally. 

It is contributing millions of pounds to the project, which are ring-fenced despite the Council’s current debts. Most of the money for Phase 1 is from the government’s Levelling-Up Fund, which granted £15.5m for the baths in 2021. Phase 1 is due for completion in 2025. It is hoped that Phase 2 will largely be paid for with money from the National Heritage Lottery Fund. 

The Coalition’s application to the Lottery has successfully passed Stage 1 of the process. This has enabled an interim payment which has funded the employment of a lot of new staff at the baths, who have created a number of community-based initiatives in the building in addition to swimming. During the closure, many of these will continue across the street in the Old Print Works. 

Phase 1 of the development project will see external repairs and improvements to roofs, the conversion of parts of the washing baths to new uses, the replacement of the outdated baths plant and services, the insertion of a new mezzanine floor in the library, and the making of an internal connection between the library and the baths. 

The big move will come in Phase 2, when Pool 2, the one currently in use, will be drained, and Pool 1, known as the Gala Pool, will replace it as the location for swimming, supported by all the new energy-saving plant. Pool 2 will be boarded over, to become an all-purpose space that can be used for concerts, film, theatre, and almost anything you care to name. 

Writing as someone who became a member of the Friends of MRB many years ago and took part in the earlier campaigns against the City Council’s closure plans, it is sometimes difficult to believe that we have succeeded to the extent that we have. Years ago, it seemed very unlikely. The temporary closure is regrettable but unavoidable. We can look forward to eventually having two improved and expanded buildings which will provide all sorts of wonderful opportunities for the citizens of Balsall Heath.