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.