Andy Street is Mayor of the West Midlands, and is a former Managing Director of John Lewis.
As I write, England is once again preparing to enter lockdown. Families will hang their hopes on Christmas, as they say a temporary farewell to each other. Cafes, pubs, restaurants, gyms and businesses of all kinds are preparing to close their doors as the nation tries to bring infection under control and protect the NHS.
The extension of the furlough scheme throughout November and the unprecedented financial support already set out by the Government will provide some relief for businesses, as we balance the need to save lives with the need to protect the economy.
As before, some sectors will carry on throughout lockdown – this time the NHS, supermarkets, manufacturers and public services will be joined by schools, colleges and universities as they keep the nation ticking over.
And of course the construction sites, at the heart of the strategy to Build Back Better, will work on. In this column I want to write about the opportunities that lie ahead as we build the homes of tomorrow – and the potential pitfalls if we get things wrong.
Last week, the consultation ended on potential changes to the planning system – “Planning for the Future – which “proposes reforms to streamline and modernise the planning process, bring a new focus to design and sustainability, improve the system of developer contributions to infrastructure, and ensure more land is available for development”.
Driving this push for reform is the need to build more housing. Demand far outstrips supply for homes. As the Party which made home ownership possible for everyone, it‘s vital that we address this properly, and develop long-term solutions. Clearly the current planning system is far from perfect – indeed, it has got us to where we are today.
In the West Midlands we are ambitious – we have set the target of 215,000 new homes by 2031. When the pandemic struck, we were well on our way to that target, with our rate of housebuilding doubling in 8 years to just under 17,000 last year.
In the last three years, we have shifted the whole basis of housebuilding in the region. Instead of tearing into the Green Belt, we have moved to a ‘Brownfield First’ policy, reclaiming and cleaning up old derelict sites for new development. The result is that we have protected green fields while regenerating former industrial sites, removing eyesores in often neglected communities.
The policy has been a great success, with the vast majority of new homes built in our recent surge put up on reclaimed land. We’ve only been able to do this thanks to Government support and their backing for our business plan, with a £350m investment in our game-changing Housing Deal which was recently topped up with another £84m. A new science of land reclamation is being pioneered right here, with a £24 million National Brownfield Institute planned for Wolverhampton.
We have achieved this by working together across the region’s seven member boroughs of Birmingham, Coventry, Dudley, Sandwell, Solihull, Walsall and Wolverhampton. After all, by helping one community that is crying out to see a derelict eyesore removed, we are helping another fighting to save its cherished open spaces.
We see this application of local knowledge within our boroughs too – developing on old factory sites in Walsall town centre to protect neighbouring green spaces in Pheasey and Streetly, or building in Dudley town centre to protect fields around Halesowen and Stourbridge.
So, my response to Government’s “Planning for the Future” consultation is simple – let’s build on what we have been doing together so far. However, there are aspects of the proposals which I fear go in the wrong direction.
First, the algorithm and methodology at is core tilts more homes onto Councils with more green space, and away from those with more brownfield sites. This is, of course, to try and address the issue of housing where demand is high.
But, in this case, I believe it is tilting the playing field too far. It would mean, for example, increasing pressure on Councils like Solihull where we already have a Green Belt under intense pressure, whilst easing the need for homes elsewhere where there are more brownfield sites and a pressing need for regeneration.
We must not let developers ‘off the hook’ by allowing them to pile into greenfield sites and turn away from more challenging regeneration sites. And they will pile in – we are seeing it now in Coventry, where a misguided Local Plan has opened up too many green spaces for development. For developers, these sites present a more lucrative and easier option. For the local community, they represent a loss of much-loved green space. Down the road, in neighbouring communities blighted by old derelict industrial sites, they represent a missed opportunity to reverse years of neglect.
So, I have argued that this should be looked at again to reflect the need not to let an algorithm – which is prone to all sorts of unintended consequences – drive planning diktats that imperil the Green Belt.
Second, I believe this timely planning reform is a chance to seize the moment to provide additional protection to critically important Green Belt sites. Across the West Midlands at sites like the Seven Cornfields in Wolverhampton and Tack Farm in Halesowen, residents are battling to save cherished countryside.
The new “Protected” status should represent a strengthening of Green Belt protection for sites. The Green Belt came into being in the 1950’s and now is the time to look at reinforcing it through this reform.
We should, for example, identify some Green Belt sites where development is simply inconceivable – in our region, the “Meriden Gap” which sits between Solihull and Coventry, and Saltwells Nature Reserve in Dudley leap to mind – and give them more protection. That added protection would ensure no developer would attempt a frivolous planning application designed to test the resolve of councils under pressure to build.
And let’s recognise where some places have contributed some of their Green Belt land already to meet local and national need – like land for HS2 – and see if we can compensate them with more Green Belt protection in their area. I have, in the past, described Birmingham City Council’s plans to build thousands of homes on Green Belt in Sutton Coldfield as a ‘land grab’ – and there is a strong argument that the town has now made a significant contribution to a city which has plenty of brownfield sites.
We aren’t Nimbys in the West Midlands. But it is vital that Whitehall understands that if the cold data supplied by an algorithm offers up cherished green spaces to hungry developers, there will be a backlash from local communities – and from voters.
We want and need more homes and we are working in partnership with Government, councils and developers to deliver them. As we head indoors for a month of lockdown, many of us will miss the open spaces that surround our communities, where we walk our dogs, run for exercise and our children play.
We must Build Back Better, but let’s never forget the critical importance of the Green Belt – indeed, let’s seize the opportunity to do more to defend it.