Planners have allowed an unusually long timeframe for consultation on Birmingham’s draft Core Strategy, which sets out a development framework for the city up to 2026. They expect the document to stir up strong reactions, and if comments at the regeneration scrutiny committee are anything to go by the planners will not be disappointed.
It is no exaggeration to say that every councillor on the committee, irrespective of political allegiance, found fault with the proposed strategy which most of them concluded was a recipe for excessive and unachievable growth.
At the heart of the committee’s concerns lies a target to build 50,600 new homes in Birmingham by 2026, with 20,000 of those to be in the city centre. Perhaps the authors of the core strategy know something that we do not, but it seems highly unlikely given the hundreds of apartments that lie empty and unsold, and planning permissions that show no sign of being enacted, that any rapid revival of city living is on the horizon.
There is of course a much bigger issue here, which begs the question how sensible is it to plan for a significant increase in the number of houses in Birmingham and to grow the city population by 100,000 people? What guarantees are there, given Birmingham’s chronic unemployment problem and skills deficit, that there will be sufficient jobs for the newcomers to fill?
It has suited council leaders to talk up the growth agenda, presumably because they assume that a city with a population of 1.1 million is somehow by definition a better place in which to live. The leader of the council, Mike Whitby, talks incessantly about Birmingham being a global city. This features in every speech he makes, usually repeated many times, but Coun Whitby has not yet spelt out what makes a city “global” and why it is necessary for Birmingham to achieve this mythical status.
Three members of the regeneration scrutiny committee – two of them Conservative and one a Liberal Democrat – were parliamentary candidates in Birmingham at the 2010 General Election. All three made similar points about the draft core strategy, contending that it placed housing growth above all else at the expense of industrial development, job creation and environmental protection.
Nigel Dawkins, who fought Selly Oak for the Conservatives, put it vividly when he talked about the betrayal of previous planning policies that had envisaged the constituency, with its links to Birmingham University, becoming a hot-bed for emerging high-tech industries.
But instead of Sillicon Valley, huge tracts of valuable development land have been set aside for house building and the ubiquitous retail parks.
As Coun Dawkins put it: “This city will never create wealth by building supermarkets, hospitals and housing.”
His analysis is spot on – the future health of Birmingham relies on replacing the many thousands of manufacturing jobs lost since the 1980s with new, well-paid skilled employment. There are few signs from the draft core strategy that city planners have chosen the right priorities.