Street commits to ‘brownfield first’, but housing could be biggest political challenge
Protecting the West Midlands Green Belt from residential development is at the heart of Andy Street’s housing policy, the Conservative candidate announced today, just days after the West Midlands Combined Authority discussed a report which proposed a strategic review of the Green Belt.
Mr Street says he is pledging to avoid a similar situation to that seen in Sutton Coldfield, where 6,000 new homes are being built on fields near the town despite local opposition.
The area covered by the West Midlands Combined Authority requires some 165,000 new homes over the next 15 years to keep up with demand. Mr Street says that to help protect the greenbelt, he proposes a ‘brownfield first’ policy as Mayor which would ensure all other options are explored first.
Mr Street said:
How can it be right that Green Belt in places like Sutton Coldfield and other parts of the West Midlands is being used for housing at a time when right across the region there are huge pieces of brownfield land that have laid untouched for decades?
There are at least 1,600 hectares of brownfields sites in the West Midlands, which is about the size of 2,000 football pitches.
This is why as Mayor I will commit to a ‘brownfield first’ policy. I pledge to make this a reality in the first case by using the WMCA’s £200m to get brownfield land ready for housebuilding and commercial use.
For a politician who will be looking to maximise his vote in areas like Sutton Coldfield and Solihull, a public emphasis on protecting the Green Belt is to be expected. But questions might be asked about how Mr Street can deliver for the whole region given its significant housing need and a range of expert opinion which suggest the Green Belt will need to come into play and that a regional planning spatial framework is required.
Mr Street’s statement did not refer to the report of the West Midlands Land Commission, which was debated at the WMCA Board last Friday.
The WMLC report makes clear that there will need to be a strategic review of the Green Belt and a release of some Green Belt is likely.
The report – and council leaders – underlined the need for the transformation of brownfield – the brownfield first approach. But, the Land Commission indicates that even a strong commitment to transforming brownfield land, maximising the use of the public estate, and supporting a wide range of new housing models would be insufficient and that, in order to provide for urban extensions and strategic employment sites, some Green Belt release would be necessary.
Mr Street does acknowledge the longer term threat to the Green Belt:
We can’t say that Green Belt can be protected permanently. But before we even think about using it for housing, we need to exhaust every other avenue.
And there are plenty of other avenues.
First, we need to get these brownfield sites back into use and quickly. This can be done by securing the funding necessary to reclaim lands that may be contaminated.
We also need to turn our attention to the 10,000 homes in the region that are currently unoccupied. We need to put more energy into this process and bring them back into use.
We need to think harder also about the density of our housing, particularly in the towns and cities where the essential infrastructure already exists.
And we need to look at change of use of some buildings – for example, we need to look at how we can make empty office blocks available for residential.
Mr Street’s statement does not make direct reference to regional spatial planning, either on a statutory or non-statutory basis, such as the spatial framework proposed by the WMLC. The Tory candidate does touch on the need for councils to work together:
And we need to work with neighbouring authorities – many of whom have land they are looking to develop for housing – to ensure we can make effective use of it.
Yes, the housing challenge in our region is an important one. But people value our greenbelt and it’s an important part of our quality of life. That’s why I am committing here and now to doing everything we can to protect it, an outcome which will only be possible through a coordinated approach across the region.
Andy Street (Conservative) is running for Mayor of the West Midlands against James Burn (Green), Pete Durnell (UKIP), Beverley Nielsen (LibDem) and Siôn Simon (Labour). All five main candidates will appear at four Public Debates, organised by the publisher of the Files, starting on 7th March at Black Country Living Museum.
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