Sides line up in West Midlands homes battle

Conflicts between government housing targets and the regional draft strategy are being played out in public, explains Colin Wood.

The examination in public (EiP) of the West Midlands regional spatial strategy (RSS) revisions, finally under way in Wolverhampton, has polarised opinion on the amount and location of housing land release.

The RSS, published in June 2004 to replace regional planning guidance RPG11, encompasses four themes. These are urban renaissance to promote cities as attractive places to live and work in, rural renaissance with better access to services and jobs, diversifying and modernising the economy and modernising the transport infrastructure.

After initial revisions were made, the West Midlands Regional Assembly's preferred option concluded that land for 365,000 homes would be needed up to 2026 and this would balance supply with the overall objectives of the strategy. The draft was submitted to the DCLG in January last year.

The response from communities minister Baroness Andrews was that the regional housing land release would not reflect the government's national annual targets of 240,000 homes up to 2016. She asked the Government Office for the West Midlands to commission further work, with options to deliver higher housing numbers.

Nathaniel Lichfield and Partners (NLP) won the work and last October delivered a report on how the National Housing and Planning Advice Unit figures could be delivered. Its three scenarios - south-east focus, spreading growth and maximising growth - proposed from 417,000 to 445,000 homes respectively up to 2026, a jump of between 51,000 and 80,000 on the draft RSS.

The NLP study claimed that increased housing need not harm the urban renaissance, but there may be limits on supply of more homes in major urban areas. It argued that extra housing could support economic growth and help tackle the region's affordability problems. It also indicated that a green belt review is needed. New settlements are consistent with RSS objectives and can meet requirements in the right locations, NLP suggested. To allow for consultation, the deadline for comments was extended to 8 December.

Responses show a predictably divided pattern. Some 42 per cent supported NLP's findings, largely developers, agents and landowners favouring the maximum growth scenario. However, councils and civic and amenity groups argue that the contestable household projections do not reflect policy input.

Opponents contend that extra housing will undermine the urban renaissance. They say viewing housing in isolation from jobs and transport is ill conceived and assuming that more housing will make homes more affordable is simplistic. Further, they claim that releasing greenfield sites will erode urban land values, that the infrastructure cannot cope and that in the recession the construction industry will not be able to deliver extra homes.

Concerns are also expressed about limited public input to the NLP exercise and its terms of reference. One observer said: "Because the study was initiated by the government, its support for the housing levels being sought by government does not come as any surprise."

The EiP panel faces a dilemma, then. Does it recommend a strategy backed by elected regional bodies or does it side with the government and building lobby on release of housing land considered inappropriate or undesirable by councils?

Colin Wood is a senior lecturer in Birmingham City University's school of property, construction and planning.

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