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Mayoral candidates clash over Solihull green belt housing

Birmingham Mail debate sees the housing crisis and diesel pollution thrust firmly into the spotlight

The West Midlands mayoral candidates clashed over green belt housing and taxing diesel cars as the election race roared into life at the Birmingham Mail's public debate.

After two very polite and mild debates, the audience at the Birmingham Hippodrome saw clear divisions emerge between the five candidates - with Solihull's green belt appearing to be in the firing line.

Conservative Andy Street, Lib Dem Beverley Nielsen, Labour's Siôn Simon, UKIP's Pete Durnell and Green Party candidate James Burn faced questions from Birmingham Mail readers a month out from the May 4 election.

Audience member Andrew Hussey asked what the candidates would do to help him get on the housing ladder.

While all agreed there was a major crisis, with 300,000 homes needed in 15 years, and a regionwide plan would help, there was strong disagreement about what should be in that plan.

Mayoral candidates ahead of last night's debate (from left): Beverley Nielsen, Pete Durnell, Siôn Simon, Andy Street and James Burn
Mayoral candidates ahead of last night's debate (from left): Beverley Nielsen, Pete Durnell, Siôn Simon, Andy Street and James Burn

In backing a program of council house building, Mr Simon said the mayor would have to draw up a regionwide plan with the seven boroughs.

He said: "People want new housing but don't want it on their green belt, they want it on someone else's green belt.

"They want the land but don't want the cost of cleaning up dirty land. We need to start those difficult conversations.

"And the most difficult conversation is with Solihull - which has the great bulk of the wealth and a huge pressure on land and has very expensive land.

"There's a huge resistance to development on the green belt and resistance to ceding planning powers."

But Conservative Andy Street countered that he would only use green belt as a last resort and would instead invest in cleaning up brownfield former industrial sites for development first.

He told the debate: "I would oversee a huge investment of public funds in decontaminating that land first.

"It's a good investment. That's where we must look, not on the green belt."

Mayoral candidates clashed over the housing crisis
Mayoral candidates clashed over the housing crisis

He said he would build 25,000 homes during his first three years in office. Ms Nielsen intervened, saying the shortage could not be solved without using green belt land.

Mr Burn won support from the audience after laying the blame at the door of the Government and land banking by developers to keep prices high.

"The market isn't working," he said.

There was a further clash on the issue of traffic pollution which is responsible for 1,100 deaths in the region a year.

Although Tories are traditionally a party of low taxes, Mr Street promised to raise charges for older diesel cars to get them off the streets.

Ms Nielsen also wanted a "toxicity charge".

But Mr Simon and Mr Durnell ruled it out.

The Labour man believes that making the M6 Toll Road free would get some traffic out of the built-up area and ease the problem.

A sixth candidate, the Communist Party's Graham Stevenson is also contesting the election.

To view the full debate visit the Birmingham Mail's Facebook page.

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