Birmingham: Drowning in strategies

By Alan Clawley.

It’s sometimes hard to believe, but, somewhere in the bowels of the City Council, our great city is being planned.

If any professional planner is in charge it must be Waheed Nazir, who signs his letters, ‘Director of Planning and Regeneration’, and who gives his address as PO Box 14439, Birmingham B2 2JE, which is of course the former West Midlands County Hall at Lancaster Circus.

Birmingham, UKI’ve just received a letter from Mr Nazir to update me on ‘the progress of the Core Strategy for Birmingham, further to the consultation on the draft Core Strategy that ended in March 2011’. Mr Nazir goes on to advise me that the timetable for the Core Strategy has been revised to take account of recent government reforms to the planning system. As I was unaware of the original timetable this is neither here nor there, but it clearly matters to Mr Nazir as he will have more time to work on it.

I sent in my comments on the Draft Core Strategy last January (2011). I said then that the need to protect the environment appeared to be an afterthought, a nod in the direction of sustainability whilst the business of growth and expansion went on as normal. In my view the desire for growth had to be balanced against the need to create a just and fair society whose weakest members are not exploited by the most powerful. There was no mention of this in the Core Strategy.

What was surprising about the Draft Core Strategy was that it failed to acknowledge the decline in economic growth in the British economy since work began on it.  I said that proposals based on conditions existing two years before carried no credibility in the climate of austerity in 2011. Neither did the Strategy show any glimmer of doubt that continuous economic growth could be taken for granted.  An alternative strategy, ‘Plan B’, or ‘worst-case-scenario’ for a no-growth economy was not even considered.

New homes in themselves appear to be a good thing, but I said that the creation of 50,600 new homes in Birmingham would have a big impact on the environment. Large amounts of energy would be used in the construction process. If they used land that was currently vacant there would be a loss of open space. If they used land cleared of council housing there would be a lowering of density. Unless dwellings were near to where their occupants worked, went to school and shopped they would increase the need for travel in the city. Unless the new homes were zero-carbon, they would increase energy use in the city. Whilst the city’s existing homes were a long way from meeting such a standard it made only a marginal impact to require new ones to do so. In the meantime the standard of existing homes falls increasingly behind that of new ones.

The City’s support for the expansion of the Airport underpins its aim to make Birmingham a ‘Global Destination’. Yet air travel, whilst extremely popular and seemingly economically benign, is extremely damaging to the environment and if it is not curtailed, then other energy-users would have to be penalised if global CO2 emissions are to be reduced. I said that there was no case for claiming that the policy ‘balanced growth with environment’. It entirely favoured growth at the expense of environment, give or take some token measures adopted by the airline industry.

My final comment was that making use of existing buildings was an excellent way of conserving energy and should not be restricted to places like the Custard Factory but should apply to all buildings, including the Central Library and the NatWest Tower in Colmore Row.

Mr Nazir writes in his latest letter that he is currently ‘responding to all comments’ and they will all be published in October 2012 as part of the ‘publication version’ of the Core Strategy. I will be then invited to comment again. But it’s hard to see just what difference this Core Strategy will make to the day-to-day work of the planners. I believe my comments are still valid in 2012 and look forward to his response but the sceptic in me wonders if I am merely helping Mr Nazir to stay in work for the next few years.

Mr Nazir is invited to respond by email to