Where Should Zero Carbon Growth go around the Black Country?

As a follow up to my post last week criticizing the Black Country Authorities recommending to Shropshire large scale car dependent development at Tong Norton close to the M54 but miles from any railway.

It would be remiss of me not to discuss more sustainable alternatives. I should state I know this area well having been born in Staffordshire and now based in Brum.

Strategic Planning for the Greater Birmingham housing market area (which includes the Black Country but excludes Coventry) has got nowhere since 2014 when there was a strategic growth study published but it never progressed to options for a strategic plan. Meanwhile the review of the Black Country Plan has continued, as has LEP economic targets (proposing half a million extra jobs) and revised National standard OAN, which uplift Wolverhampton and Birmingham only. All of which create a confusing mess as to what the actual target will be. If you go only with the standard OAN you imply massive in commuting as you have created a jobs homes imbalance. Either way there is a big shortfall. The Black Country Urban Capacity study 2019 showed a shortfall of 30,000 homes by 2038 (based on the then standard method) 20,000 if you lost key employment sites. This could rise by 60,000 if you adopt the ‘Economy Plus’ scenario of the LEP.

I do not know just how much capacity would be lifted with public intervention on marginally viable sites – like Andy Street is promoting, but without massive investment it is unlikely to be large as the viability gap is large. Housebuilders tell me brownfield sites in the region are often unviable because there is an alternative employment use, and growing employment market given the very boosterish growth ambitions of the LEP.

Strategic planning here is of course a mess. The combined authority mayor Andy Street is opposed full stop to Green Belt releases but he has no planning powers. Some parts of the Greater Birmingham HMA area took part in the Strategic Growth study as observers. Neither South Staffordshire or Shropshire did as far as I know.

So lets look at options. As ever you get much closer to an answer if you simplify. One large simplifying option I will make is that Birmingham deals with its overspill to its East and South, Coventry to its North, East or South and the Black Country to the West, North and North West. This leads to some overlap around the M6 Relief Road Arc but that actually is helpful as you will see.

So there are five main areas of search as far as I can see for Carbon Neutral strategic Development Sites. Strategic Planning isn’t that hard. Strategic Politics is hard. Dealing with denialism of strategic planning reality is harder.

There is no comprehensive Green Belt Study; and those that exist only deal with field sized parcels, rather than the two step study which is now best practice.

The first corridor is in the Wolverhampton – Shrewsbury Rail Corridor. Its a line which requires major improvement from its current 2 trains per hours service. Its needs electrification. A running theme in our discussion of zero carbon options is that focussing on only one station makes much less sense then integrated growth along a corridor of several stations old and new with a high frequency short stop service, potentially with passing loops for express trains. Looking at Stations along the line growth is already proposed at Shifnal. RAF Codsall is staying where it is. Which leaves growth locations North of Albrighton and West of Codsall. The size of these sites mean they could each take around 10,400 houses (secondary school size) at medium densities, with half of the housing being within 400m of the stations and all of it within 600-800m.

Looking to the North of Wolverhampton. This is a major employment growth area, focused on its strengths of automotive and aeronautical engineering. There is a new business park south of the M54 and one proposed at the Brownfield site at DVSA Featherstone. There is also a M6 M54 link road. Inevitably most of the growth North of Wolverhampton should be employment based. The West Coast mainline runs through the site and used to have three stations between Stafford and Wolverhampton. Now it has just Penkridge.

Penkridge is a very well connected village where you can commute North and South. To the West of the Station it would be possible to expand it by a primary school amount of growth (around 2,080 houses) without intruding on the Penk floodplain and including growth to the North of the village which is outside the Green Belt. This should also fund a bypass as the village is destroyed by through traffic.

The creation of HS2 phase 2 should relieve capacity issues on the WCML opening up opportunities for new stations. One has been long proposed next to the former Goodyear site at Bushbury. Two potential new sites could be at Featherstone (next to the business park) and at Dunston, next to a major employment area west of the M6. Both could take two primary school sized quantums of development – around 4,160 houses each. If this area does become one for major employment growth there is also a case for a BRT corridor from Telford to Cannock and Walsall along the A5 Watling street and connecting the employment parks. This would lead to a major reduction in traffic along the M54 and Watling Street.

To the West of Wolverhmpton and Stourbridge there have long been concepts for a western orbital motorway connecting the M5 and M54. Twice scraped, these recently resurfaced. I just cant see it happening. Wolverhampton to Bridgnorth is hardly a major employment corridor. An intrigueing possibility is restoration of the South Staffordshire Railway line which originally The South Staffordshire line is a partially mothballed and active former mainline that connected Burton on Trent to Lichfield and then to the Black Cuntry Towns of Wallsall, Wednesbury, Dudley and Stourbridge.

Ill deal with the stretch west if Walsall in a moment. A large amount of the central section will be restored as part of Midlands metrolink, a Brierley Hill to Stourbridge restoration is also being studied. This raises an intriguing possibility, restoring the whole length of it using tram trains which can divert through town centres and Merry Hill. Also there was a branch line passing through places on the western edge of the Black Country such as Womborne. I suggest 4 new stations along this route each with a primary school quantum of growth and restored stations at Womborne and Tettenhall. Land value uplift would pay for the restoration. Merry Hill, like so many legacy intui malls it should be redeveloped as housing and employment led mixed use. As for the many Western edge of Black Country call for sites Green Belt proposals – forget them all unsustainable.

This leaves a quadrant to the North East around Walsall, Brownhills, Lichfield, Shenstone and Sutton Coldfield.

The northern part of this the former South Staffordshire line passes through. The Southern part is the existing line to Litchfield with a station at Shenstone. This is some of the potentially best connected areas in the West Midlands with the corridor to Burton, and the A6/A5 and M6 Toll being the best located areas in the Country for distribution. The so called ‘Golden Triangle’ . The new HS2 station and Green Belt release area proposed East of the NEC. Here you will see no greater disjunction between infrastructure investment, economic potential and urban form in the UK. Its a disgrace. North of Sutton Coldfield is prohibited from growth even though it is the closest Greenfield site to Central Birmingham. Indeed it forms a hole in the West Midlands urban form. Retaining a corridor of this countryside through to Staffordshire is essential but the area has huge potential.

Looking at the HS2 phase 2a route I propose a new HS2 station North of Lichfield and where it would interchange with a restored South Staffordshire line North of Lichfield. With passing loops there need no disruption of HS2 Headway now it runs at 14 not 18 tph. What Calvert New Town would be for the Arc and HS2 this Litchfield Trentside, and Swanlincote (already proposed as a Garden Town with a restored rail link to Newcastle and Stoke) would be for Midlands Engine. Also the line through Burton to Derby is very straight and its upgrading could be a low cost alternative to the likely to be mothballed H22b line to Toton enabling trains High Speed to Lichfield then branching off to Burton . I suggest two secondary school quantums of growth here, 20,800. I also suggest an expansion of Burntwood by two primary school sized quantums of development – around 5,020 houses, and of Shenstone and North of Hill hook by one primary school, around 2,080 dwellings. The Hill Hook to Lichfield gap is so great there is little risk of town to town convergence. Remember Shenstone is a village not a town and town to village convergence is not a national Green Belt purpose. Compensatory Green Belt would be created between Fradley and Burton. The long term West Midlands Green Belt would be shifted to the much more defensible new line of the M6 Toll Road.

Lets add this potential up. it comes to around 55,000 houses. For the shortfall for the Black country we needed to find 60,000. Urban intensification around Merry Hill should make up the gap. Remember the shortfall is after all developable brownfield sites in the West Midlands have been considered.

I have long criticised plans in the West Midlands for lacking vision. Here we have a potential for a vision based on an infrastructure spine along the former South Staffordshire line and carefully planned zero carbon transit based developments at new stations along this and existing lines with spare capacity, focusing employment growth on the Wolverhampton to Golden Traingle/HS2 arc.

Energy from Waste – Has it Passed the Low Carbon Balance Point?

Given that decarbonisation is now a central material planning consideration this blog asks the policy question, are Energy from Waste Plants any longer compatible with zero carbon goals. Once any waste is incinerated all of its embodied carbon is released.

The last national policy statement on this was in 2014, and is now a little out of date. But it clearly set out the issue:

Energy from Waste: A Guide to the Debate


Only the energy generated from the recently grown materials in the [residual waste] mixture is considered renewable. Energy from residual waste is therefore a partially renewable energy source, sometimes referred to as a low carbon energy source.

Fossil based residual wastes, e.g. plastics that cannot be recycled, do not decompose in the same way as biogenic material in landfill. For these waste streams conventional energy from waste will almost always deliver a negative carbon balance compared to landfill.

When considering the relative environmental benefits of landfill and energy from waste, the most important factor is their potential contribution to climate change. Different amounts of greenhouse gases would be released if the same waste was burned or buried.
The balance between the many factors that affect this is complex and much work has been done to understand it that is beyond the scope of this guide. However, there are two simple rules that can help guide our decision making on which route to follow:
• The more efficient the plant is at turning waste into usable energy the better
• The proportion of the waste that is considered renewable is key – higher renewable (biodegradable) content makes energy from waste inherently better than landfill Energy from waste is therefore better than landfill, providing the residual waste being used has the right renewable content and is matched with a plant that is efficient enough at turning the waste to energy. These considerations should be at the heart of any proposal.

There is no automatic link between the cost of managing the waste or producing energy and emissions reductions. While waste as a fuel is not encumbered with the carbon cost of its production any processing once it becomes waste, does have an impact. In particular the combustion of mixed waste releases a substantial amount of fossil emissions from what can be an otherwise relatively inefficient process. However, unlike other biomass which is produced specifically for energy production, residual waste has an alternative fate in landfill that has its own negative environmental impact. The assessment is therefore not straightforward but the principle needs to apply.

However there is another factor not sufficiently covered. The carbon outputs of electivity generation replaced. As more and more of the grid is replaced with renewables there may be a net carbon output compared to the alternative source. When will we reach the point of balance when EfW becomes negative carbon compared to alternatives?

Clearly the Scottish Government no longer thinks so:

Small changes in municipal waste composition could push energy from waste above landfill in generating climate change emissions, a Scottish Government funded report has found.

The study also reasons that energy from waste can no longer be considered a “low carbon technology” in the UK, largely because electricity generation is becoming more decarbonised.

The technical study, for Zero Waste Scotland, reports that burning residual municipal waste in Energy from Waste plants in Scotland in 2018 had an average carbon intensity of 509 gCO2/kWh.

“This is nearly twice as high as the carbon intensity of the UK marginal electricity grid average, which was 270 gCO2/kWh in 2018,” says the study.

The report, “The climate change impact of burning municipal waste in Scotland” was complied by Kimberley Pratt and Michael Lengahan and was peer reviewed. It was funded by the Scottish Government and the European Union and published on 3 October 2020.

The study also considered greenhouse gas emissions using a Life Cycle Assessment approach. The carbon impacts of sending one tonne of residual municipal waste to either EfW or landfill were compared. Average EfW impacts were 15% lower than landfill in 2018. However, changes in waste composition mean that EfW impacts are expected to rise. Small changes in composition could push EfW impacts above landfill, leading to unnecessary climate change emissions.

Within the context of the waste hierarchy no-one is suggesting replacing EfW with landfill. However in the context of reducing residual waste there may be a case for extending landfill life cycles. It also boosts the case for dealing with food wastes via anaerobic digestion which in the right circumstances can be carbon negative. It also boosts the case for district heating associated with incineration.

Waste Planning Authorities now need to be very careful in determining EfW applictions to avoid successful legal challenge on carbon emission grounds. Clearly waste authorities will have to reconsider existing waste contracts in order to meet decarbonisation legal commitments, and EfW will have more of a residual role. It will be much harder to justify ‘mass burn’ EfW facilities unless they include carbon capture and storage. There is at least one such facility in Oslo. Again these could potentially be carbon negative and there is an argument that without negative emission technology the Paris accord targets cannot be met. The Oslo pilot was successful however it relies on transport of carbon to offshore oil fields. This wont be practical in most of the UK however other emergent technologies for CCC, such as creating artificial limestone to displace mined limestone for concrete, or as a building material in its own right is a possibility.

Imagine as a national policy there was a carbon tax on concrete and it was available as a bounty to develop anaerobic digestion, local bio energy production, district heating and CCC artificial limestone facilities. This would see a massive and rapid development of carbon negative technologies. Again town planning saves the world.