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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What's actually in the UK government’s bailout package for Transport for London?

Wood Green Underground station, north London. Image: Getty.

On 14 May, hours before London’s transport authority ran out of money, the British government agreed to a financial rescue package. Many details of that bailout – its size, the fact it was roughly two-thirds cash and one-third loan, many conditions attached – have been known about for weeks. 

But the information was filtered through spokespeople, because the exact terms of the deal had not been published. This was clearly a source of frustration for London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, who stood to take the political heat for some of the ensuing cuts (to free travel for the old or young, say), but had no way of backing up his contention that the British government made him do it.

That changed Tuesday when Transport for London published this month's board papers, which include a copy of the letter in which transport secretary Grant Shapps sets out the exact terms of the bailout deal. You can read the whole thing here, if you’re so minded, but here are the three big things revealed in the new disclosure.

Firstly, there’s some flexibility in the size of the deal. The bailout was reported to be worth £1.6 billion, significantly less than the £1.9 billion that TfL wanted. In his letter, Shapps spells it out: “To the extent that the actual funding shortfall is greater or lesser than £1.6bn then the amount of Extraordinary Grant and TfL borrowing will increase pro rata, up to a maximum of £1.9bn in aggregate or reduce pro rata accordingly”. 

To put that in English, London’s transport network will not be grinding to a halt because the government didn’t believe TfL about how much money it would need. Up to a point, the money will be available without further negotiations.

The second big takeaway from these board papers is that negotiations will be going on anyway. This bail out is meant to keep TfL rolling until 17 October; but because the agency gets around three-quarters of its revenues from fares, and because the pandemic means fares are likely to be depressed for the foreseeable future, it’s not clear what is meant to happen after that. Social distancing, the board papers note, means that the network will only be able to handle 13 to 20% of normal passenger numbers, even when every service is running.

Shapps’ letter doesn’t answer this question, but it does at least give a sense of when an answer may be forthcoming. It promises “an immediate and broad ranging government-led review of TfL’s future financial position and future financial structure”, which will publish detailed recommendations by the end of August. That will take in fares, operating efficiencies, capital expenditure, “the current fiscal devolution arrangements” – basically, everything. 

The third thing we leaned from that letter is that, to the first approximation, every change to London’s transport policy that is now being rushed through was an explicit condition of this deal. Segregated cycle lanes, pavement extensions and road closures? All in there. So are the suspension of free travel for people under 18, or free peak-hours travel for those over 60. So are increases in the level of the congestion charge.

Many of these changes may be unpopular, but we now know they are not being embraced by London’s mayor entirely on their own merit: They’re being pushed by the Department of Transport as a condition of receiving the bailout. No wonder Khan was miffed that the latter hadn’t been published.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.