Impact of West Midlands Mayor – Solihull Green Belt Review kicked down Road

What impact will the election of a conservative Mayor for the West Midlands have.

The key will be on Green Belt.

In a statement on his website from 23rd Feb

Protecting the West Midlands greenbelt from residential development forms the basis of the housing policy proposed by Mayoral candidate Andy Street announced today (Thursday).

Andy, who is Conservative candidate in the election on May 4, has pledged to seek to avoid a similar situation to that seen at Sutton Coldfield, where 6,000 new homes are being built on fields near the town, despite huge opposition locally.

The area covered by the West Midlands Combined Authority – which would be led by the first elected Mayor from May 4 – requires some 165,000 new homes over the next 15 years to keep up with demand.

To help protect the greenbelt, Andy is proposing a ‘brownfield first’ policy as Mayor which would ensure all other options are explored first.

Andy said: “How can it be right that greenbelt 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.

“We can’t say that greenbelt 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.

“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.”

On its face this isn’t a closed door – its the kind of wolly statement of Brownfield First that could have been made by Prescott – and incoherent because it only accounts for the stock of brownfield land not whether the flow is quick enough.

However the Devo deal for the West Midlands gave no planning powers to the combined authority of the elected mayor.  Not that it makes much difference through the LEP the same impractical rule of unanimity applies as it does in Greater Manchester.

The GBSLEP plan has been moving forward at a snails pace at dealing with the huge required overspill from Birmingham. The Coventry and Warwickshire HMA authorities have agreed an MOU with numbers including an agreed apportionment of the 18,000 Coventry overspill.   Solihull on the other hand is proposing a far smaller pro-rata overspill than Warwickshire Authorities, only 500 units.  There remains the 38,000 Brum overspill.

Solihull is 2/3rds Green Belt and following legal challenge has no housing targets in its adopted local plan.  As well as the sensitive Meriden Gap it also has the prime land around HS2 and the NEC.

What this shows is that ad-hoc MOU type arrangements are no substitute for startegic planning.  Neither are elected Mayors for combined authorities, with mandates strateching to suburbs and not beyond London, Birmingham and Machester have shown their only political incentive is to kick the can down the road to surrounding areas.

In practice a town such as Rugby, already planned for major growth, outside the Green Belt and benefitting from WCML additional capacity from HS2 will have to take the strain from growth – politically major GB reviews in Solihull is just too hard.

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