Birmingham’s Labour administration has refused to rule out building on the green belt as it looks to solve the city’s increasing housing crisis.
The group was elected with a manifesto pledge to build 70,000 new homes by 2026, but now claims the city may need up to 90,000.
Labour was challenged by Liberal Democrat councillors to rule out house building on the green belt, parks and public open space and garden grabbing until every inch of previously developed brown field land has been used first.
But in a heated city council debate the Labour group hit back saying that homes and jobs were the priority, claiming the Lib Dems were wilfully ignoring the housing crisis.
The projected need for 70,000 new homes is the conclusion of a strategic housing market assessment by the council’s development directorate earlier this year, but now new evidence suggests the city may need even more.
A strategic land availability report found that there is only capacity for 43,000 homes within the existing built up area.
The growing crisis is a result of general population growth in one of Europe’s youngest cities and changing households as more couples and families live apart.
It is meeting this shortfall of at least 26,500 homes which could prove a headache for the Labour administration and make it difficult to deliver the ambitious target.
Labour leader Sir Albert Bore revealed last month that he would approach neighbouring boroughs to see if they are able to help the council find the space for extra homes.
The council’s core strategy allows for it to offset its housing demand by showing that demand can be met in a neighbouring authority and the council already has a deal with a Black Country authority and is in talks with Bromsgrove and Solihull.
Council leaders are keen to encourage house building as it will not only meet demand, reduce waiting lists of up to 99 years for larger four and five bedroom family council homes, but also create construction jobs and boost the city economy.
But Lib Dem David Radcliffe (Selly Oak) said: “Building 70,000 homes will be an environmental disaster, leading to the loss of public open space, loss of gardens in our mature suburbs and ultimately building on the green belt.
“We are proposing 70,000 homes in a city which will not have an environment worth living in.”
His colleague Jerry Evans (Springfield) questioned the validity of the 70,000 estimate and said that the proposal would amount to the city giving up 5.3 square kilometres of green space for residential development.
He warned that if the council opens up the possibility of green belt land then ‘developers will simply go where there are greater profits’ rather than tackle the more difficult inner city sites or contaminated and previously developed land.
Deputy leader Ian Ward pointed out that the previous Tory-Lib Dem council had earmarked green belt land near Coleshill Lane in his own Shard End ward for 400 homes.
They had also been prepared to sell off parkland to build superstores at the Swan Centre, the Fox and Goose and Woodgate Valley. And sites such as the Martineau Centre, a former school and playing fields in Harborne, had been last year earmarked by the council for housing development – amid much local protest.
He said: “It is ridiculous to suggest that we shouldn’t build these houses until every shred of brown field land is used. That would mean we would never get the 400 homes in Shard End.”
Coun Ward stressed that all options will be explored. “The total according to the housing strategy is going up.”
There will be a survey of available land, including land which may be suitable but not currently classified as residential. Then the council will look at housing densities.
Once those options, and neighbouring authorities have been explored, then the council will look at the gap and the options. “We also need to protect industrial land,” Coun Ward explained, “We are going to need those jobs.”
His cabinet colleague in charge of jobs and development Coun Tahir Ali (Nechells) added: “Without this housing our life chances and economic prospects will be damaged.
“With a long term capacity of 43,000 homes in the built up area, development in the green belt cannot be ruled out.”
He added that the council’s own mature suburbs policy and the new National Planning Policy Framework offers protection from garden grabbing and that the council would guarantee industrial land for job creation.
The policy was backed by Coun John Clancy (Lab, Quinton) who said: “It is essential we invest in houses. We will make long term savings on health, education and the welfare budgets. It is the best way to bring down the deficit.
“We need to build something the people want us to build. This city has built enough prestige buildings, large offices and retail parks, now is the time to build houses and homes. We are in crisis, but the Lib Dems are trying to stop us building houses.”
There are currently an estimated 30,000 on the waiting list for the city’s 65,000 homes, with an average six year wait. There was little, if any council house building in Birmingham for 30 years until 2009, when the Birmingham Municipal Housing Trust was set up to deliver 500 homes a year and fill the gap at a time when private sector housing development was drying up.