Where shall they live?

Alan Clawley wonders about Birmingham’s housing strategy .

Several times during the past century, Birmingham’s city fathers believed that they had solved the housing problem. Today, it seems, it has come back to haunt them. The Birmingham Development Plan, which is now out for consultation, predicts that today’s population of 1 million will rise by 150,000 in the next 18 years.

Whoever these people are, they will, according to the planners, need 51,100 new dwellings. But the experts have calculated that there is only enough ‘brown field’ land in the city for 7,600 new dwellings. The rest must go on the Green Belt in Sutton Coldfield and beyond the boundary of the city altogether.  

The Plan isn’t clear about how much increase is ‘natural’, and how much is due to migration. Birmingham is a migrant city. You can live here regardless of where you were born and, according to Martin Guest in the Post’s Business Property Review, Birmingham should prepare itself for an influx of migrating Londoners and their employers if HS2 gets built.  “This”, he says, “will be good news for Birmingham’s commercial property market, and may even see the start of some overdue speculative office development. We’ll also need more homes”.

How should the city council deal with this pressure? Is there any point in proposing to house its ‘surplus’ population outside its administrative boundary? The city won’t benefit from council tax revenues whilst it will have to bear the rising cost of business expansion in the city and more commuting from outside. 

The Plan offers us no alternative scenario. The planners appear not to have considered ways and means of housing the increased population entirely within its boundaries. This would of course mean increasing housing density at least in some parts of the city and devising ways for people to live closer to friends, family and work.

High density is not a bad thing in itself; after all, the planners are happy to increase the density of office development in the city centre, so they could just as easily increase housing density around it.    

Extending the city boundary is no longer an option as it was in the past. The residents of Sutton Coldfield already think Birmingham is too big to belong to. And the statutory Green Belt was devised to limit urban expansion.

In the past, to deal with overcrowding and poor housing, the council persuaded towns like Daventry, Redditch and Tamworth to take ‘overspill population’. There was never enough land within the city boundary to build houses with gardens for everyone especially after the slums had been swept away. But by the end of the twentieth century the old cities began to worry that too many people were leaving. Its tax base was declining whilst its costs were rising.

The city council no longer builds council houses and relies on the private sector to carry out its overspill programme. But it should not be the council’s duty to promote the building of private new houses on virgin land on the edge of the city. If Birmingham pursues this option it will face opposition from well-organised rural communities that have already seen off the eco-village programme and which continue to oppose wind farms and even HS2. 

2 thoughts on “Where shall they live?

  1. Interesting article. I work at the grade II listed waterstones in Birmingham and your book ‘Birmingham then and now’ is selling amazingly well. I also volunteer for Birmingham Conservation Trust and wondered if you ever do talks or lectures?

  2. I have done some John Madin walking tours and spoken oaccasionally, but so far I haven’t done any set piece talks. There’s always a first time.

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