Plans to increase the population of Birmingham by 100,000 are likely to involve substantial house-building in sensitive rural locations, reports Public Affairs Editor Paul Dale.
The authors of the draft Birmingham Local Development Framework, which suggests addressing the Government drive for more housing by building 5,000 dwellings in the green belt, admit somewhat superfluously that their proposals may be regarded as controversial.
In order to plan for 65,000 new homes by 2026, the city council cabinet is to be told next Monday it will be necessary to exploit the hitherto jealously guarded countryside on the borders of Sutton Coldfield and to the south-west of Birmingham close to the Lickey Hills.
The framework suggests “urban extensions” into Staffordshire, taking land in the Lichfield district to the north-east of Birmingham, and into Worcestershire, taking land in the Bromsgrove district to the south-west of the city.
While noting that expansion on such a scale would create a greater choice and affordability of housing in the form of new eco-town settlements, the development framework core strategy adds: “Releasing green belt land is a sensitive issue and would be a difficult, carefully considered decision, which may generate much debate. We welcome your comments.”
The proposals are Birmingham’s response to Government demands for councils to try harder to identify suitable locations for new housing. West Midlands local authorities are resisting options that could see as many as 446,000 dwellings built across the region.
Quite what Conservative councillors from Sutton Coldfield, who make up a substantial proportion of Birmingham City Council’s ruling Tory-Lib Dem coalition, will have to say about intrusion on their doorsteps remains to be seen. Land earmarked for the new eco-towns – at Minworth, Walmley, Falcon Lodge and Mere Green – has been protected for decades, with all attempts to build fiercely opposed by local community groups.
Cabinet members are being presented with three options for meeting the requirements of the Regional Spatial Strategy – the Government-approved document setting out housing growth over the next 20 years.
Option 1: 50,000 new dwellings, meeting minimum RSS targets. No significant change to current council policy
Option 2: 55,000 to 60,000 new dwellings. Could be achieved without any physical expansion of the built up area of the city
Option 3: 65,000 new dwellings, to be achieved by creating new communities in the green belt
Underpinning all of this is what the draft document refers to as “Birmingham’s ambitious growth agenda”, agreed by the council in 2006, which aims to increase the city’s population by 100,000 by 2026. To this end, Birmingham and Solihull councils have successfully bid for Government funding as one of 29 growth points in England, which will enable significant housing expansion to take place. The cabinet has already agreed to increase Birmingham’s new-build target under the RSS, from an initial 40,000 to 50,000.
What is being suggested now is far beyond anything considered before and is referred to in the draft Local Development Framework as a “higher inspirational target” likely to deliver the council’s Growth Agenda. The report makes it clear that Birmingham may not be able to increase its population by 100,000 without encroaching into the green belt.
The document adds: “Birmingham’s population has stabilised at about one million after many years of decline. But the city still exports population, we are unable to provide for all of the natural growth in our population, and there is still out-migration.
“This adds to the phenomenon of social polarisation, the tendency for professional and managerial groups to move out of the city to surrounding areas. Our next challenge is to address this, and this will require positive planning for housing and population growth and for the creation of high quality residential environments attractive to all.
“Birmingham has an ambitious growth agenda and will need to cater for more people to live in the city, by providing homes which are affordable as well as being attractive places, where people want to live and will achieve a high quality of life.
“We will embrace sustainable eco-towns, which will incorporate innovative, zero-carbon housing within small new settlements. These will help provide new quality and environmentally sustainable housing in suitable locations.”
The reaction of environmental groups and some residents has been predictably furious.
Peter Langley, West Midlands chairman of the Campaign to Protect Rural England, said he was “horrified” by the thought of 5,000 homes being built in the green belt. He accused Birmingham of reneging on a pledge to deliver Government housing targets without building on greenfield sites.
Malcom Dunn, of Friends of the Sutton Greenbelt Association, said in response to the proposed changes: “We need to preserve the green belt. The green belt is the lung of the area”.
Meanhile, Chris Crean, West Midlands spokesman for Friends of the Earth, said the new-build figures proposed were a result of Government pressure on local authorities.
Mr Crean added; “We should be looking to provide housing in built-up areas of the city, where people can live close to their places of work, rather than develop traffic-generating communities in the countryside.”
Additional reporting by Felicity Morse