With a General Election looming, it is hardly surprising that West Midlands Labour MPs in marginal seats are becoming increasingly nervous about the likely impact of the Government’s drive to force local authorities to plan for record numbers of new houses to be built over the next 17 years.
If Labour wins the election, as unlikely as that seems at the moment, it is pretty clear that local authorities across the country will be forced to attempt to build homes at a rate not seen since the 1970s, when there were major public-sector house-building programmes.
In order to accommodate these wishes the councils have already, through their regional spatial strategies, been required to identify every possible location for new build.
Even when all of the brownfield sites which the government says it wants to concentrate on first are taken into account, a sizeable amount of greenfield and even green belt land has also had to be earmarked, because this is the only way the councils can hope to find enough sites to come anywhere near meeting the targets.
Some MPs, such as the Labour member for North Warwickshire, Mike O’Brien, have attempted to muddy the waters by claiming that plans to intrude into green belt land have nothing to do with the Government. But Mr O’Brien, a Minister in the Government, knows full well that the pressure imposed on councils to meet unrealistic targets made it inevitable that some greenbelt sites would have to be sacrificed.
This much was accepted by the Examination in Public into the revision of the West Midlands Regional Spatial Strategy, where the presiding planning inspector commented:“Greenfield sites, including land released from the green belt, are likely to need to be brought forward in some locations at an early date to complement the availability of previously-developed sites in achieving the levels of housing sought.”
Put simply, the countryside in Warwickshire, Worcestershire and Staffordshire is under threat in a way that has not been seen since green belt restrictions were introduced after the Second World War. Few experts with an understanding of what is happening here really believe that the Government will accept the recommendation by the Examination in Public that the West Midlands housing target should be 397,000. That figure, even though it is almost 50 per cent higher than existing planning projections, is way below the 450,000 that the government has indicated it thinks is reasonable.
In some ways, of course, this is a hypothetical argument since it seems highly unlikely in the current dire economic circumstances that developers and house-building companies are going to be able to deliver an unprecedented increase in new homes.
What is certain, however, is that the housebuilding projects that do get off the ground are likely to involve a rush to build on the easy-to-develop, easy-to-sell and highly-profitable greenfield and green belt sites rather than the dreary former industrial inner -city sites that the Government would like to see developed. No wonder, then, that housing has suddenly become a topic close to the top of the political agenda.