Why a solution to Birmingham's unmet need remains distant

The publication of a new planning consultation for the Black Country last week raises further questions as to how unmet housing need across the West Midlands will be met, according to practitioners.

Walsall: Black Country sub-region faces a challenge to meet its housing need, consultation document says
Walsall: Black Country sub-region faces a challenge to meet its housing need, consultation document says

Six years after they adopted a pioneering joint core strategy, the four Black Country authorities of Wolverhampton, Walsall, Sandwell and Dudley have embarked upon a review of the document. The issues and options document for the Black Country core strategy review, published last week for consultation, highlights the challenge that the sub-region faces, setting out an objectively-assessed housing need of 78,190 homes up to 2036.

The consultation document says the strategy will "test the accommodation of an extra 3,000 homes up to 2031 beyond local need, to help address the shortfall in the wider housing market area (HMA)". This commitment follows the adoption of adjacent Birmingham City Council's local plan in January, which included a housing shortfall of 38,000 homes. But the document also highlights the challenge the area faces to meet its own need, suggesting that land in the green belt will need to be considered, in addition to extra brownfield and employment sites, as well as the possibility of having to "export" any shortfall of housing need which cannot be met in its own area.

Richard Pestell, a director at consultancy Peter Brett Associates - which produced the strategic housing market assessment for the document - said that the Black Country, like the wider West Midlands conurbation, had seen "a huge reversal of fortunes" in recent years. "The Black Country is moving from a cycle of decline and depopulation to a growing economy and a growing population," he said.

In order to address the housing shortfall of the West Midlands, a strategic growth study - spanning the 14 authorities falling within Greater Birmingham's HMA - has been commissioned. Consultants GL Hearn and AMEC Foster Wheeler have been appointed to carry out the study and are due to report in September. Craig Jordan, the Planning Officers Society's West Midlands convenor and head of economic growth at Lichfield District Council, said that the study is intended to define recommended strategic directions for growth, the scale of housing provision which could be accommodated and related delivery issues including infrastructure requirements. The intention is that agreed outputs will inform local plan-making and also, together with other studies, assist in informing the development of a Greater Birmingham & Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership spatial plan, Jordan said.

Mike Best, senior director at consultancy Turley, said that the study would pinpoint the overall housing shortfall, as well as setting out broad options for addressing the unmet need. "The challenge will come if that study said that authority x needed to take 5,000 or 10,000 of the extra shortfall and that authority didn't want to take that extra amount," he said. In such a scenario, Best said, "then we may well see that council refusing to accept the study's findings and it may delay its publication".

Best said that, so far, Birmingham City Council had signed two memorandums of understanding - with Stratford-on-Avon District Council and North Warwickshire Borough Council - to assist in meeting its housing shortfall. "So there's still a long way to go," he said. "If the four authorities in the Black Country and South Staffordshire are saying they have got their own shortfall to meet, and can only meet 3,000 of Birmingham's needs, it leaves eight other authorities to take the balance of the shortfall."

Pestell said that nobody had yet worked out where to meet the overall unmet need for the area. "The scale of the deficit coming out of the Black Country and Birmingham is really quite substantial," he said. Pestell added that deciding where to locate the shortfall was made more difficult in the absence of a strategic planning tier for the West Midlands.

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