Birmingham is planning to build 6,000 new homes on its green belt

The Bull Ring bull is just one of the many ways in which Birmingham is a bit like New York. Image: Getty.

Back in the early days of CityMetric, in those halcyon days of 2014 when summers seemed longer and we all thought we'd live forever, perhaps the most frequent complaint we received was that we'd been a bit mean towards Birmingham.

And perhaps we were. If so, however, we were following in a long and venerable tradition. Birmingham has long been thought of as England's second city – but it's never been fashionable, and it's never seemed cool. In recent years, what’s more, as everyone's started banging on about the Northern Powerhouse and Manchester has become the poster child for Britain’s urban renaissance, even its status as second city has come under pressure.

So, over the next few weeks, we're hoping to correct that a bit, with a series of articles about the West Midlands conurbation, looking at how Birmingham and its satellites are responding to everything from the devolution agenda to an over-crowded roads network. This is the first, and, for us at least, it's a biggie:

Birmingham is planning to build on its green belt, in a big way.

That I haven't noticed this before is, in itself, a pretty good indication that I should pay more attention to the Midlands. 

Here's the situation. Birmingham – not the entire conurbation; just the bit covered by Birmingham City council – is expecting its population to grow by 150,000 by 2031. As of last year, it was about 1.1m, so that's an increase of around 14 per cent. That means it needs to find room for somewhere between 80,000 and 90,000 new homes.

As if that weren't enough, it's also expecting to generate an extra 100,000 jobs, and more jobs need more space. So, Birmingham needs another 407 hectares of employment land, too. 

Waheed Nazir is the city’s director of planning and regeneration, and his team have looked at all the usual strategies for sating this hunger for land (brownfield redevelopment; densification around transport corridors). "The best we could get to was 45,000 homes and 235 hectares of employment land," he told me. In other words, if the city does absolutely everything it can realistically do with the previously developed land that it has, it'll get just over half way to its goal. "So we need to review our green belt."

The area covered by Birmingham City Council actually has relatively little green belt. The conurbation extends into neighbouring authorities on the east and west, and the edge of the green belt largely matches to city boundary to the south. It's really only in the north that the council has significant green belt within its boundaries. 

A map of the West Midlands green belt, taken from the Birmingham 2031 development plan (October 2013).

So that is where the new homes will be.  After reviewing the environmental and amenity value of all its green belt land, the planners decided that, rather than nibbling away at green land on multiple sites, they’d instead recommend a single urban extension of around 6,000 homes.

That way, Nazir says, it'll be easier to build the necessary services, including one secondary and two primary schools. "I'm not a big advocate of releasing green belt land," he told me. "But I am an advocate of meeting housing need."

Before and after. Again the images are taken from the Birmingham 2031 development plan (October 2013), but we've put them side by side and marked in red where we think the changes have been made.

There are two problems with this strategy. One is numbers: if you've been paying attention, you may have noticed that 6,000 plus 45,000 does not equal 90,000. 

Building on this one patch of green belt won't magically solve Birmingham's housing problems – meeting the city's housing need will mean building more homes in the wider conurbation, and in the commuter towns outside it. But nonetheless, another 6,000 homes will make a valuable contribution.

The other problem is, predictably, politics. Birmingham is a Labour council, and almost certain to remain so after this May's local elections. But the green belt land up for development is in the safe Tory constituency of Sutton Coldfield, currently held by Andrew Mitchell, the former chief whip. 

Mitchell, you will be shocked to learn, has been campaigning against the plans, telling the House of Commons: "There are between 40,000 and 50,000 existing brownfield opportunities in Birmingham, but alas, my calls for an independent audit of brownfield land in Birmingham fell on deaf Labour ears." 

And the reason Mitchell has been make such pleas is that a noisy group of his constituents want him to. His statement to the Commons was quoted in a Birmingham Mail story headlined: "Hope for opponents of Sutton Coldfield green belt housing plan as Ministers say they're listening".

Mitchell's statement is accurate – but it's also incomplete, since it totally neglects to mention the scale of the city's need. Nonetheless, Mitchell's intervention – and the residents' campaign, which persuaded him to make it – is a reminder of quite how difficult it's going to be make any significant changes to Britain's green belts. Even when a city is willing, the people who live closest to the affected land often won't be. 

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Meet the YIMBY campaigners hoping to ease the housing crisis

Some houses, being built. Image: Getty.

The nimby is a wearily familiar political breed. Though individuals may support new housing and infrastructure projects in theory, they oppose them in practice (“not in my backyard”). For fear of consequences such as a fall in property values, locals reliably revolt against proposed developments – and politicians retreat. The net result is that cities and countries are denied the housing they need. For the past decade, the UK has fallen far short of the 250,000 new homes required annually to meet demand.

But the nimby has now met its dialectical opposite: the yimby. In contrast to their opponents, yimbys not merely tolerate but welcome development (“yes in my backyard”). The earliest known usage of yimby was in a 1988 New York Times article (“Coping in the Age of Nimby”) and the first organisation was founded in 2007 (Yimby Stockholm). Sister groups have since been established in Toronto, San Francisco, Sao Paulo, Sydney, Helsinki and, most recently, London.

John Myers, a 44-year-old former barrister and financial analyst, co-founded London Yimby with four others last year. They were inspired by the capital’s dysfunctional property market (London is the most expensive major global city for buying or renting) and the success of groups elsewhere.

“We saw what was happening in the States,” Myers said when we spoke. “The San Francisco group has just had three new laws passed in California to get more housing built. There are now more than 30 US cities with yimby groups… There really is a feeling in the air that something has to be done.” Myers lives in a small mortgaged house in Camden, north London, but most of the group’s volunteers are private or social housing tenants and range from “the very young to retired grandparents”.

“The big problem with the housing crisis,” Myers told me, “the dirty little secret that politicians don’t like to talk about is that, actually, people quite like house prices to go up.”

In 2013, shortly after launching the Help to Buy scheme, the former chancellor George Osborne told the cabinet: “Hopefully we will get a little housing boom and everyone will be happy as property values go up” (the average London house now costs £484,362). Though the exorbitant price of housing (such that there are now more outright owners than mortgagors) has become an electoral problem for the Tories, homeowners remain an obstacle to development.

In a recent report for the Adam Smith Institute (“Yes In My Back Yard”), Myers made three proposals to win over this bloc: allowing individual streets to grant themselves planning permission to extend or replace buildings; permitting local parishes to develop “ugly or low amenity” sections of the green belt; and devolving planning powers to city-region mayors.

“There are ways to get support from local people for high-quality developments but we have a system right now that doesn’t try and get that support,” Myers said. “It just imposes measures from the top down.”

In some US cities, yimbys have antagonised anti-gentrification campaigners by supporting luxury developments. There is a tension between the aim of greater supply and that of greater affordability. Myers argued that it was crucial to have “clear rules on what percentage [of affordable housing] is required up front, so it gets priced into the land and taken out of the landowner’s pocket”.

The replacement of stamp duty with a land value tax, he added, would leave both “the buyer and the seller better off: the buyer doesn’t have to scrape a deposit together and the seller doesn’t have the price reduced by the amount of stamp duty”.

That some Conservatives are now prepared to consider previously heretical measures such as building on the green belt and borrowing £50bn for housing investment may herald a new era. The yimby bulldozer is beginning to dislodge the nimbys from their privileged perch. 

This article previously appeared in our sister title, the New Statesman.

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