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Time to review region’s green belt

Time to review region’s green belt

🕔20.Dec 2017

Conservationists will probably be delighted to learn that West Midlands Mayor Andy Street has thrown his weight behind a campaign to save the Dudley green belt, writes Paul Dale

Well, you’d expect that. Street is a Conservative mayor who made a big thing of his ‘brownfield first’ policy when campaigning for the job and said he hoped local authorities could meet housing needs from existing urban areas.

The Tory party, generally speaking, would die in a ditch to save our green and pleasant land from bricks and mortar.

Dudley is a Conservative-led council and the planning authority for Halesowen where a significant amount of green belt land is at risk of being developed for housing, so Mr Street doubtless feels he has to give his support when asked by local Tories to do so.

Naturally he has been careful not to give the impression that he could actually prevent homes from being built on the rolling fields of the West Midlands since his powers, such as they are, do not extend to granting or refusing planning permission – that is a job for Dudley Council.

Street chose his words carefully in an interview he gave to the Halesowen News. Commenting on the appointment by the four Black Country councils of contractors to search for both brownfield and green belt sites where 22,000 homes could be built, Mr Street said he understood the “very considerable pressure” local authorities are under to meet future housing needs, but hoped the borough could meet those needs from “within the existing urban area”.

While supporting the Halesowen Abbey Trust, which is campaigning to save the countryside, Mr Street felt obliged to hint that all of Dudley’s housing needs might not be met from brownfield land.

If that is the case he hopes that a judgment on the value and effectiveness of green belt can be applied and that the land under threat will not meet the exceptional circumstances ruling that would permit the council to grant planning permission for housing.

No doubt Dudley Council will be familiar with the West Midlands Land Commission, a body set up by the West Midlands Combined Authority to investigate how sufficient land can be earmarked in the region for housing and industry. Mr Street is the chair of the WMCA.

The commission’s report makes fascinating reading because it comes as close as the combined authority could possibly dare to admitting that some green belt will have to be sacrificed if demand for new housing fuelled by the Strategic Economic Plan (SEP) is to be met. It even calls for a strategic review of the WMCA green belt.

The case for a review is somewhat sweetened by a suggestion that the green belt could even be extended in some parts of the West Midlands. However, the document also makes it clear that some protected land may have to be sacrificed and that “significant infrastructure” could be built on green belt land:

The Commission believes that even an effective, well-funded brownfield remediation programme is unlikely to provide a sufficient supply of developable land to meet the SEP’s ambitions and targets on its own within the timescale, therefore a mixed land use strategy will need to be adopted encompassing the use of densification, estate renewal and infill development as well as new settlements and urban extensions.

Estate renewal, infill developments and new settlements are unlikely, on their own, to provide significant housing supply over and above the levels currently provided for in Local Plans, and within the timescale required by the SEP.

The report calls for urban extensions into the green belt of the type recently approved by the Government for Sutton Coldfield:

The Commission believes, therefore, that a mixed land use and development strategy which also relies in part on urban extensions, will be required.

By their nature, many of these urban extensions are likely to require the release of Green Belt land, combined with significant infrastructure investment to provide the required level of connectivity to the nearby conurbation and social infrastructure, most notably schools.

Of course, the mayor and the WMCA council leaders could always file the land commission report in the nearest bin rather than push ahead with its challenging recommendations. On the other hand, the house building challenge faced by West Midlands councils is the gravest for 70 years and there appears to be a growing consensus that something has to be done.

Paradoxically, the demand for new homes is likely to be boosted over the next ten years or so by an improving West Midlands economy as more people move into the area to take up employment. Put simply, the region needs to build homes at a far faster rate than ever before.

If the SEP targets are to be delivered, some 215,000 new homes will be required over a 15-year period. This includes 50,000 more homes than are currently allowed for in all council plans taken together.

This would be equivalent to building an additional ten large urban extensions of 5,000 homes each in the next 15 years, over and above the 165,000 new homes already in local plans.

On the basis of these figures, the annual rate of delivery would need to rise by over 60 per cent to achieve this level of new homes. When account is taken of the need to scale-up to deliver these new homes, it is likely that new homes delivery in the later years of the SEP period would need to increase by significantly more than 60 per cent.

The West Midlands is by no means on its own in facing tough decisions since the rate of house building across the country is nowhere near meeting demand, as the Government knows full well.

Perhaps Ministers will follow WMCA’s example and order a strategic review of the entire English green belt, which after all pretty much reflects what the Government of the day thought was appropriate in the 1950s.

Fat chance of that, since the green belt shares a hallowed spot in the British psyche alongside the NHS such that governments dare not tamper with what exists even if they know some of it is no longer fit for purpose.

While the mayor of the West Midlands hopes against hope that councils really, really, really don’t build on the green belt and that all housing can be built on brownfield land, it is timely to ask how much land in England is actually developed.

The answer, according to the UK National Ecosystem Assessment, is a paltry seven per cent. Yes, 93 per cent of England remains undeveloped.

Surely it is time for a major reassessment of the green belt if we as a country are serious about meeting housing demand? Perhaps the mayor could have a word with his chums in government.

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