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Sutton green belt row is mere ‘sideshow’ in Birmingham’s bid to build 80,000 new homes

Sutton green belt row is mere ‘sideshow’ in Birmingham’s bid to build 80,000 new homes

🕔22.Oct 2013

Most of the attention paid so far to the Birmingham Development Plan, which sets allocations for housing growth up to 2031, has focused on green belt development in Sutton Coldfield.

This is understandable, for there is nothing more likely to enrage Sutton Tories than the prospect of Labour-controlled Birmingham City Council sending bulldozers into the countryside.

The fact that limited development on green field sites is all but inevitable if Birmingham is to meet its obligations to the coalition government to significantly enlarge the city’s housing stock in order to satisfy the needs of a rapidly growing population doesn’t cut much ice with protesters in the Royal Borough.

Sutton Tory councillor Anne Underwood described the city council’s development plan pre-submission document as “vindictive” because it proposes up to 6,000 new homes in the green belt at Warmley and 50 hectares of industrial development at Peddimore.

She quoted Sutton Tory MP Andrew Mitchell who, apparently, is fond of stating that “dogs bark, cats miaow and Labour builds on the green belt”.

Mr Mitchell, meanwhile, hit out in a press release: “I will continue to vigorously oppose these proposals. I maintain that there are other options to building on Sutton Coldfield’s Green Belt and it is, therefore, essential that the city council takes a more creative approach to regeneration in Birmingham.”

Actually, as Birmingham cabinet member Tahir Ali pointed out, the last green belt housing scheme in Sutton Coldfield was approved 20 years ago. What’s being proposed now would amount to building on just five per cent of the borough’s green belt. This is hardly rape of the countryside.

It would be a pointless, but quite amusing, exercise to speculate on the contents of the development plan if Birmingham was still being run by a Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition, as was the case from 2004 to 2012. The coalition had already settled on building about 50,000 homes in Birmingham, without getting around to identifying where the new-build would take place.

If Sutton was to be preserved at all cost, where would the 6,000 green belt houses proposed by Labour have been built? No doubt the 80,000 requirement figure would have been massaged downwards, and there would have been much talk about bringing empty properties back into use, but it is unclear whether such an approach would convince the Government that Birmingham was taking its obligations to address the housing crisis seriously.

In any case, a refusal to even consider building on green belt land would leave the development plan dangerously exposed at a public inquiry, with the very real possibility that the entire document could be rejected. With no development framework in place, all of the countryside surrounding Birmingham would be open to speculative bids by developers and decided on a case by case basis.

Broadly, the facts are as follows:

– Birmingham’s Strategic Housing Market Assessment predicts that 80,000 new homes are required between 2011 and 2031 to meet growing demand and address current shortages.

– A land availability assessment suggests there is room in Birmingham for about 45,000 new houses.

– At least 35,000 houses will have to be built on land across the Birmingham border.

Based on current trends since the credit crunch hit home in 2008 and borrowing became more difficult, Birmingham  is going to struggle to deliver anywhere near the 80,000 target. Net new housing has been running at little more than 1,000 dwellings a year since 2011, which is nowhere near the 4,000 a year figure required to meet the target.

The challenge becomes even greater since the council expects almost 30,000 homes to be delivered by the public sector and housing associations.

The Sutton Question is pretty much of a noisy sideshow which threatens to draw attention away from a far bigger strategic issue – can the Greater Birmingham and Solihull LEP broker agreement among Birmingham’s neighbours to find land for almost 40,000 homes?

This is where the really important work is taking place behind the scenes, with Birmingham council leader Sir Albert Bore hoping to use GBSLEP to reach deals with the likes of Solihull, Redditch, East Staffordshire and Lichfield. Outside of the GBSLEP, but of great interest to Sir Albert, lies Sandwell where many of Birmingham’s house building aspirations are to be found on green belt land.

Birmingham is relying on the duty to co-operate rules imposed by the government which require neighbouring local authorities to work together in addressing cross-boundary issues such as housing and employment provision. Just how this good neighbour policy pans out with the combative Sandwell council leader Darren Cooper remains to be seen.

A housing growth plan document presented to the city cabinet makes it clear that persuading neighbours to take Birmingham’s housing overspill will be a lengthy process with uncertain results:

“There are options for delivering new housing to meet Birmingham’s needs outside of the existing built-up area of the city. In time these options could deliver a significant number of homes, but they will take some time to develop and will not begin to deliver new homes for several years.”

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