The following Members took part in the visit:
Lord Clement-Jones, Lord Freeman, Lord Inglewood, Earl of Lytton, Baroness O’Cathain, Baroness Parminter, Baroness Whitaker and Lord Woolmer of Leeds.
The Committee travelled to Birmingham on Wednesday 14 October, undertaking a range of site visits and meetings with representatives of Birmingham City Council, Birmingham Municipal Housing Trust and Birmingham City University. The Committee are grateful to all those who supported and participated in the visit.
The Committee began by visiting the new Library of Birmingham, and receiving a presentation (including Q & A) on recent developments in the city from Mr Waheed Nazir, Director of Planning and Regeneration at Birmingham City Council. Mr Nazir explained that, since the late 1980s, the city had been seeking to address the legacy of 1960s planning which had been car dominated and defined by a land-use zoning approach and modern, high-rise developments. These developments had left the city with an inner ring-road that acted like a ‘concrete collar’ around the city centre, and had restricted economic growth.
A new approach, beginning with the 1988 Highbury Initiative, had sought to break the ‘concrete collar’, re-connecting the city centre to its immediate environs through the use of raised walkways and new access points. A greater emphasis had been given to the needs of pedestrians, and a mix of uses was being sought in regeneration schemes, to avoid some of the fragmentation created by zoning. In addition, a great deal of work had been undertaken to rejuvenate canals within the city, creating new leisure and retail space and utilising adjoining paths to increase access and permeability. A notable example of this was the Brindleyplace redevelopment.
Now, the city was looking ahead to its future growth needs. Projections suggested that Birmingham would need to accommodate a minimum of an additional 150,000 people by 2031, with around 80,000 new homes required to meet this need. In addition, 407 hectares of employment land would be required to provide over 100,000 new jobs. While provision had been made within plans and allocations (including the Birmingham Plan 2031) for 51,000 additional homes, there was still a projected shortfall of 30,000 homes within the City Council boundary. A housing market assessment funded by the Local Enterprise Partnership had suggested that, across the wider Birmingham Housing Market Area, the total shortfall amounted to 37,500 dwellings.
Birmingham City Council (BCC) was seeking to manage this challenge through dialogue and cooperation with neighbouring local authorities. The loss of the clarity provided by Regional Spatial Strategies, however, and the introduction of the duty to co-operate, created some complexities and increased the need for deliberation and negotiation. The scale of housing need in the city meant that it was impossible to protect the Green Belt in its entirety. To avoid piecemeal speculative Green Belt development, BCC and its neighbours had sought to allocate a single large site for housing to the north of the city, where the necessary infrastructure could be provided at an appropriate economy of scale. This presented a more sustainable approach to managing housing growth demands, and helped to protect remaining parts of the Green Belt.
The Council was also–through the Birmingham Municipal Housing Trust—active as a housing developer in the city, with 1,000 new homes completed since 2009 and 700 completions projected in 2015/16. Some of these dwellings were for rent, while others were made available for market sale. This proactive approach enhanced the Council’s understanding of delivery and viability in local housing markets, bringing wider advantages to the planning and regeneration teams (including in negotiations with developers).
The Birmingham City Centre Masterplan had been published in September 2010, setting out priority areas within the city centre for transformation, development and investment. In common with a number of other key strategy documents, this had been produced outside the statutory Local Plan processes. This was seen to offer a number of advantages, including enhanced capacity for ‘vision’ and clarity of purpose on the part of the Council. An innovative Tax Increment Financing (TIF) approach had been used to secure investment in infrastructure within the city centre. A masterplan was also being produced for the area encompassing the proposed new High Speed 2 station. This incorporated a particular emphasis on design quality and on ensuring the station was properly integrated with its surroundings and with other transport infrastructure such as the Metro.
Mr Nazir concluded his presentation by outlining the structure of the planning teams within the City Council. The Director of Planning and Regeneration was a member of the corporate management team within the authority and was, therefore, able to bring the built environment into key strategic decision making within the Council. The department itself had been re-organised to become more “outcome focused”, with housing and education development functions included within the wider Planning and Regeneration service. On an area-by-area basis, across the city, planning policy, development management and regeneration officers had been brought together into area teams, under one manager. This provided an integrated approach to planning for each area, under the clear leadership of one senior officer. The Council was taking on around 10 graduate planners each year, working alongside local higher education institutions. It was suggested that the ‘future planner’ needed to have a more holistic, integrated approach to town planning, incorporating an understanding of planning strategy, planning control, design / conservation, regeneration and housing development.
The Committee then received a presentation (including Q & A) from Mr Clive Skidmore, Head of Housing Development at Birmingham City Council. Mr Skidmore explained that new housing completions in Birmingham had fallen from 4,000 in 2005/6 to 1,809 in 2014/15. Completions were only at around half of the rate needed to keep pace with demand. There were currently 26,000 people on the housing waiting list in the city.
The Birmingham Municipal Housing Trust (BMHT) was set up in January 2009 to lead the development of the Council’s new build housing programme. At that point, the Council had not built any new houses in 30 years. BMHT was, in essence, a brand name–the Trust was part of the Council, rather than an arms-length body.
All of the developments were on City Council owned sites—mainly clearance sites—and housing types and designs were developed by the Council’s own architects. The new sites would move away from the “monotenure” of past estates by delivering a range of tenures on each site, including homes for private sale.
Private sector partners were used to publicise and negotiate purchases of the market sale properties, with stipulations from the council that homes should be sold for owner occupation and not to property investors. All homes were built to Code Level 4 and to Lifetime Homes and Secured by Design standards. The homes typically had higher space standards than those found in housing association or private sector properties.
The Council was able to bid for grants from the Homes and Communities Agency (HCA) in the same way as a housing association could, and such bids were used to support the operation of BMHT, with the HCA grant being worth approximately £25,000 per property. Some homes were offered for social rent, with rent levels set in accordance with the Government’s “target rent” formula; other properties were offered on an affordable rent basis, which was around 71% of the market rental price.
Income from private sales was used to cross-subsidise the construction of rental properties. Over 1,000 new rental homes had been completed since 2009, with over 700 homes for sale completed; completion rates had accelerated in recent years. In 2014/15 the Council built more social rented and affordable homes than all of the housing associations in the city combined.
Mr Skidmore concluded by noting that the BMHT model could have application elsewhere, and that public sector house building would have a key role to play if the UK was to deliver the extra housing completions required to meet projected need.
The Committee then visited the Newtown Housing Project. This was a BMHT development in Aston, a district immediately adjoining the city centre. 16 residential tower blocks had been constructed in Newtown in the late 1960s / early 1970s. The estate had, however, fallen into decline by the turn of the century and, from 2007 onwards, regeneration work had been taking place.
While some blocks had been refurbished, a number of others had been demolished, with new low-rise housing constructed in its place. Properties ranged from one and two bedroom apartments through to three and four bedroom homes. The original estate was wholly council rented on completion, while the redevelopment provided for a range of tenures. Schools within the estate had also been redeveloped; again, the inclusion of schools development within the Planning and Regeneration team of the Council was seen as an advantage here. A number of partners, including Keepmoat Housing, were involved in the marketing and promotion of the new properties. The ‘Help to Buy’ scheme had also helped to provide financial support to potential homeowners and, therefore, generate custom.
The Committee then travelled through the Jewellery Quarter, receiving briefing on some of the challenges involved in protecting and maintaining limited amounts of green space within the city centre and, also increasing the amount and use of public space within the Quarter. A number of approaches to preserving and enhancing the historic fabric of the Quarter were being pursued by the Council and its partners; this included successful applications to the Heritage Lottery Fund for regeneration funding. A priority was to ensure the continuation of a successful balance between residential development and the Quarter’s traditional manufacturing function. The council was also seeking to restore and promote the Quarter’s links to the city centre, particularly by seeking to overcome the barrier of the ring road.
The Committee then travelled to University House, which hosts the City Centre campus of Birmingham City University (BCU). This was located at the heart of an area which would be subject to significant development as a result of the High Speed 2 railway; the Committee were able to look out over the proposed location for the Birmingham terminus of the railway, before receiving a briefing from Mr Nazir (including Q & A) on some of the proposals and their implications for Birmingham.
As a response to the proposed introduction of HS2, the City Council had developed the Curzon HS2 ‘Masterplan for Growth’. This was intended to maximise the benefit to the city centre of the major investment being made into the railway as a whole, and the Curzon terminus in particular. Phase one of the development of HS2 would reduce the travel time from Birmingham to London from 1 hour 24 minutes to 49 minutes. Connections to the existing HS1 line to continental Europe would be in place by 2026. Mr Nazir explained that the Masterplan was intended to take advantage of this increased connectivity and, thereby, to regenerate the eastern side of the city centre. The Masterplan set out the potential for 36,000 new jobs, 600,000 square metres of employment space, 4,000 new homes and around £1.4 billion of additional GVA per annum.
The City Council was seeking to ensure that the station design was of a high quality, and was prioritising investment into the wider public realm around the station, and local connectivity beyond it. These elements were seen as important in ensuring that the city could maximise the benefits of investment. In addition, a number of steps were being taken to preserve and integrate existing aspects of historic environment, including Grade 1 listed buildings associated with the original Birmingham-Euston connection. £600 million was to be invested in local infrastructure, with local contributions to include a Community Infrastructure Levy. The city centre enterprise zone was to be extended to include the Curzon Masterplan site; this would allow further investment based upon future business rates growth, under the TIF model (as described above). The infrastructure investments would allow the existing city Metro line to be extended, thereby linking up with the HS2 station.
The Committee then received a presentation from Alister Scott, Professor of Environment and Spatial Planning at Birmingham City University, setting out some of the skills required by town planners and, also, some of the wider work undertaken by the BCU School of Engineering and the Built Environment. Emphasis was given to the need for planners to be adaptable, to have good negotiation skills and, crucially, the need for interdisciplinary understanding and knowledge. Professor Scott suggested that built environment professions had a tendency towards ‘silos’, which must be overcome. In addition, the denigration of planners had had a long-term negative effect upon the profession; it was essential for those working within the profession to better communicate successes and positive outcomes.
This presentation was then supplemented by a round-table discussion amongst Committee members, Professor Scott, Mr Nazir, Peter Larkham (Professor of Planning, BCU) and Professor Kevin Singh (Head of the Birmingham School of Architecture, BCU). A key theme concerned the need to move away from a training and education approach which promoted ‘silos’ in built environment professions and, instead, to develop better cross-disciplinary understanding and knowledge across architecture, planning, engineering and other professions. Within BCU, steps had been taken towards this end, with first-year undergraduates experiencing a number of common elements and modules across the various relevant courses. In addition, work placements and projects were used to bring together students from different disciplines, enhancing understanding from the outset of training.
Strong relationships existed between the City Council, BCU and other education institutions. The educational institutions were trying to react and respond to changing employer demands, and ‘real-world’ experience was seen as key for students. The Council offered a number of placements, and graduate training initiatives, to support this. There was a continuing challenge in terms of retaining good planners within the public sector following training and immediate post-qualification development of key competencies; private sector ‘poaching’ of good staff was mentioned. In addition, questions were asked regarding the 1 year full-time Masters qualification in planning; it was felt that this did not always provide enough of a grounding in the subject, and that a good deal of further development was often required upon finding employment. It was also suggested that, when considering training and development needs, it was important to keep an emphasis on future needs (ie 20 years on), rather than training solely for the ‘here and now’.