Chief Reporter Paul Dale examines the most sensitive planning conundrum to hit the West Midlands for years - where to place the 576,000 new homes that the Government would like to see built in the region by 2026

It has been a difficult time for the West Midlands Regional Assembly, which in 2004 published its draft Regional Spatial Strategy - setting out a framework for the growth of the West Midlands over a 20-year period.

The strategy envisaged 381,000 new homes between 2001 and 2026, as a direct response to Government wishes for a significant expansion of the housing market in order to relieve pressure on the South-East.

It also plotted a fundamental change of planning policy - proposing to concentrate d evelopment on mostly brownfield sites in the major urban areas of Birmingham and Solihull, the Black Country, Coventry and North Staffordshire. The aim was to reverse the population drift from cities to countryside by encouraging economically active people to live in urban areas.

The plan, which would mean more house building in the big cities and less in the countryside, certainly suited the district council members of the WMRA representing the shire authorities.

The carefully thought out strategy came crashing to a halt in April this year when the Government announced what it thought was a reasonable figure for house building in the West Midlands. Ministers suggested 576,000 new homes could be built by 2026 - half as many again as the regional assembly had proposed.

The figure "made us sit up a bit", according to Rose Poulter, policy director at the WMRA.

"They were suggesting that the West Midlands needed to take significantly more households than we had originally suggested. That gave us some huge challenges."

WMRA planners are now discussing with district councils ways in which the new Government target could be delivered without concreting the countryside.

In the 2004 spatial strategy, the assembly simply gave projected housing figures on a county-by-county basis. The hard work is now under way to show at the local level where the new homes might go. Ms Poulter added: "We are trying to see how reasonable it is for the districts to take additional households."

The Government announcement sparked a fierce debate, which culminated earlier this week with dire predictions from the Campaign to Protect Rural England about encroachment into the green belt and the "environmental vandalism" of the countryside. The claims were dismissed as nonsense by the Government and there is also a feeling at the WMRA that the impact on rural areas will be nowhere near as bad as feared by the CPRE.

WMRA chairman David Smith, the leader of Lichfield District Council, accused the CPRE of "mischief making".

Coun Smith (Con) said: "The possibility of us developing on the green belt is virtually nil. The green belt is sacrosanct."

He believes there is sufficient former industrial land in urban areas that can be reclaimed for housing without having to consider controversial decisions about development in the countryside. The brownfield strategy is in line with Government policy to revitalise the cities, although developers have in the past shown a reluctance to take on the often substantial clean-up cost of making heavilypolluted sites fit for housing.

Ms Poulter said: "We mean to make sure we have sustainable growth in the major urban areas first and foremost and not extending into the green belt. As an assembly we are committed to retaining the green belt and the character of our rural areas by concentrating growth in urban areas."

The draft spatial strategy talks about making urban areas more attractive so that they can retain their populations. At the same time, new housing provision in other areas will be "reduced to levels where it is largely meeting local needs" in order to dis-courage decentralisation.

It is this central tenant of the strategy - the rebirth of the cities - that may be put at risk by the requirement to find space for almost 200,000 more new homes than the assembly originally proposed.

The draft strategy proposes a shift away from previous policies, which concentrated growth on the towns of Worcester, Telford, Warwick, Leamington and Lichfield.

It remains to be seen whether the areas where the assembly would like to see growth can provide enough sites to absorb the new Government housing target.

The answers will be provided after what is certain to be a long-running and controversial public inquiry, due to begin in early 2008.

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Urban Renaissance

The movement of people and jobs away from West Midlands' cities is an unsustainable trend and a key challenge.

Only Birmingham, Solihull and Dudley of the seven metropolitan authorities did not experience a net loss of population between 1991 and 2001.

The movement from urban to country areas increases pressure on the environment, encourages development of greenfield sites, increases car-based travel and creates social polarisation, according to the WMRA spatial strategy.

Urban regeneration in the past has focused on the "worst areas" of the conurbation but failed to change perceptions. It has not provided attractive urban areas.

The spatial strategy seeks to promote high quality residential development.

Local authorities, regional agencies and partnerships are urged to plan new housing growth alongside schools, health centres, shops and community centres.

Five urban regeneration zones contain some of the 20 per cent most deprived wards in the country: East Birmingham and North Solihull; North Black Country and South Staffs; North Staffordshire; Coventry and Nuneaton; South Black Country and West Birmingham.

Rural Renaissance

The West Midlands is instinctively thought of as industrial and urban.

The reverse is the case, with 80 per cent of the land countryside.

A 2000 survey by the Countryside Agency showed the West Midlands had an above average proportion of rural parishes without essential services.

The spatial strategy talks about achieving rural renaissance through small-scale actions.

Establishing a network of rural services in sparsely populated North Staffordshire and Shropshire is an important priority.

Regeneration of rural areas is planned through the improvement of housing choice, diversification of the economy away from agriculture, better transport links and improved health, community and shopping facilities.

The main focus will be in the Marches, where a rural regeneration zone has been established in parts of Herefordshire, Shropshire and Worcestershire.

The priority is to improve public transport, support businesses and provide affordable housing.

Birmingham the world city

The spatial strategy recognises Birmingham has a special role and should continue to be developed as a major regional capital of European and world standing.

This will be achieved by the expansion of the city centre as a focus for international financial and business services and by developing Birmingham as a centre for business tourism and cultural and sporting events.

The city centre's role as a regional shopping centre is to be improved.

There are pledges to improve Birmingham International Airport and New Street Station.

The strategy notes: "Birmingham City Council, with the support of authorities across the region and other key partners, should continue to secure development and investment to further enhance the city's status as a world city.

"The council should work closely with immediate neighbours, particularly Solihull Borough Council, in relation to Birmingham International Airport and the National Exhibition Centre.

"Wider regional partnerships will be significant, for example in relation to the delivery of transport improvements, to ensure benefits are shared."

Tourism and Culture

Encouragement of tourism and culture is seen as a key element in the diversification of the regional economy away from its historic reliance on manufacturing.

Councils are told their development plans should encourage the improvement of existing provision and creation of new facilities, subject to the capacity of the infrastructure and environment to accommodate tourists.

The spatial strategy identifies the region's cultural assets to be developed.

These include The National Exhibition Centre; the International Convention Centre and the Eastside regeneration in Birmingham; historic town and city centres such as Ludlow, Shrewsbury, Worcester and Lichfield; Stratford-upon-Avon; Warwick Castle; the Malvern Hills; Black Country heritage attractions; Alton Towers and Drayton Manor Park; the canal network.

The strategy adds: "Where it is appropriate to encourage tourism development, plans should identify the facilities needed to support it."

Regional Spatial

Strategy objectives

* To make the major urban areas of the West Midlands increasingly attractive places where people want to live, work and invest

* To secure the regeneration

of the region's rural areas

* To retain the green belt, but to allow an adjustment of boundaries to support urban regeneration

* To support the diversification and modernisation of the region's economy while ensuring that opportunities for growth are linked to meeting needs and reducing social exclusion

* To ensure the quality of the environment is conserved and enhanced

* To improve significantly the region's transport systems

* To promote Birmingham as a world city