BIRMINGHAM PLAN

RESPONSE FROM THE SUTTON COLDFIELD CIVIC SOCIETY

 Submitted on behalf of the Society by its Chairman,  Elizabeth Allison

The following comments reflect the views of this Society as endorsed by the

membership at a General Meeting.

They relate to the questions posed in the Consultation Response Form.

OVERALL STRATEGY AND VISION (Questions 1 and 2)

The City's general strategy to date has been to predict growth of population and jobs and plan to accommodate it. But the extent of this growth now appears to have reached a level where it cannot be accommodated without significant changes in approach. There is apparently insufficient "building land" left within the City boundary, although it is unclear whether any urban or environmental capacity studies have actually been carried out. Land is a scarce resource and growth in population is inevitable so the Green Belt is constraining development. But constraints also provide opportunities which help to ensure balance between development and other environmental benefits in providing a sustainable future. The extent of growth now predicted now seems so overwhelming, based on the City's evidence, that the stated total capacities of all the Green Belt areas A - D under consideration appear only just to exceed the overall requirements. Therefore an invitation to comment on the options seems in reality to amount to expressing a preference for the order of loss, each of which sets an undesirable precedent.

 Using this precious multi-purpose resource of Green Belt countryside simply to accommodate more and more development cannot be considered a sustainable strategy, is short-sighted and is contrary to all the stated aims of Government policy and the prevailing ethos in planning to achieve change for the better. As people live farther away from the centre and spread farther away from main routes, public transport becomes less efficient and commuter routes more congested. Such development also has significant implications for devaluing the wider context of the West Midlands Green Belt which surrounds the whole conurbation.

 Building new homes on the scale proposed will result in the need for local employment opportunities beyond the scale which the proposals seem to envisage, thus requiring more land taken up for infrastructure - or resulting in greatly increased commuting journeys. Sutton already has a severe and apparently intractable problem with road congestion and the local stations on the Cross City line have car parks which are unable to meet demand for spaces, resulting in on-street parking which exacerbates congestion.

Development of the Green Belt

Green Belts continue to fulfil the valuable function they were designed to do when they originated 55 years ago and in addition they make a positive contribution towards more recent issues such as biodiversity, climate change and sustainable development. The fundamental purpose of Green Belt policy, then as now, was to prevent urban sprawl by keeping land permanently open; the essential characteristics of Green Belts are their openness and their permanence. The five purposes of including land in Green Belts, as reiterated in the consultation document, are even more relevant today.

 The distinction between congested and busy built-up urban areas and open country is appreciated so much by so many people and is needed more than ever today. Green Belt land has tremendous value as a resource in its own right. It is not merely "unbuilt space". Its value includes:

·       For leisure and access to the open countryside for the urban population without the need to travel far, providing health benefits, relaxation and tranquillity essential to our wellbeing in an era dominated by concerns over stress, inactivity and unfitness. This was recognised by the City council when it collaborated with this Society in producing the Sutton Coldfield By-way Walk, a route through the Green Belt using public rights of way and pointing out items of historic and natural history interest.

·       For nature conservation and biodiversity through a variety of field, hedgerow, watercourse and woodland habitats.

·       As a historic asset, for instance comprising a hinterland of historic farmsteads and small settlements around the ancient market town of Sutton Coldfield, providing cultural benefits and maintaining tradition.

·       As an agricultural resource providing good quality productive farmland to feed the growing local population, helping to reduce the need for dependency on food imports, and providing a livelihood for local farmers. In our belief the presumption should be against building on agricultural land designated as at least Grade 3a, which applies to much if not all of the farmland under discussion in the proposals.

·       As a visual and amenity benefit to us all, our children and future generations, providing an attractive landscape setting for our urban and suburban existence with inappropriate development resisted and its intrinsic character and beauty respected. 

This Green Belt has survived attempts at encroachment in the past and should do so again. It is high grade land typical of Green Belt designation and therefore on principle it should be retained to continue to fulfil its function rather than weaken at the onset of pressure.

 Planning History

The most notable previous attempt at Green Belt development around Sutton Coldfield occurred in 1996/7 when consents were sought by both the regional development agency and P & O for large-scale industrial developments on land beyond Webster Way in Walmley. An Inspector refused both applications on the grounds that the claimed advantages did not outweigh the resulting harm to the Green belt. Although John Prescott overturned the decision regarding the Peddimore site he agreed with the Inspector that development on both sites would collectively be too harmful to the Green Belt and could not be justified.

 It should also be noted that Sutton Coldfield since the 1970s has lost many hectares of greenfield land within the urban area for housing, notably at Walmley / Minworth, the New Hall Valley and the Duttons Lane area. In May 1996 Sir Norman Fowler MP stated in a parliamentary debate that "No one could accuse Sutton Coldfield of not having had its fair share of development. I am not arguing a case of 'not in my back yard' because much of my back yard has been developed already". Taken together with the proliferation of large apartment blocks in the town, that comment is even more apposite today. Sutton has made a very substantial contribution to Birmingham's housing stock.

 

OTHER OPTIONS / ALTERNATIVE STRATEGIES (Questions 3, 4, 7, 12)

The time appears to have come for a more radical approach and vision to planning Birmingham's future prosperity and some suggestions are set out below:

·       There is a need for a wiser and wider consideration, more creative and more imaginative use and renaissance of urban space/brownfield land across the whole West Midlands conurbation, which is interdependent within and across its area for housing and employment as well as open space, encompassed by the Green Belt. It is short sighted now to focus only within the confines of each local authority in attempting to resolve larger scale issues and plans for growth.

·       It is imperative to ensure that the figures on which forecasts are based are well founded and realistic, and open to public scrutiny. For instance, we question whether house-building figures of the kind mentioned in the consultation are realistic in the current economic climate.

·       If some construction companies are willing and able to respond, no doubt they would prefer green field land as an easier option than brownfield. However, as anyone travelling into the city centre by train can see, there are large areas of land which would greatly benefit from regeneration and we believe the focus should be there in preference to building in the Green Belt.

·       The city should explore ways of encouraging developers to proceed with approved applications which have not been acted upon, and should consider incentives for owners of the many currently empty properties in the city to encourage occupation.

·       A thorough examination of the wider issues and implications of all possible options in terms of transport, infrastructure, financial costs and environmental consequences etc is required.

·       A thorough consideration of potential for the planned creation of new towns or ecotowns beyond the Green Belt, able to operate as sustainable settlements in their own right, is required, in conjunction with enhanced transport routes and infrastructure, providing properly planned and attractive environments where people will want to live and work. With attention currently focused on Lord Heseltine's discussions with the Local Enterprise Partnership we hope this wider view will come about.

This would be a preferable and longer term strategy extending far into the future than continual suburban sprawl reducing the Green Belt bit by bit or leapfrogging a few miles of Green Belt to develop beyond. The Green Belt should be strengthened, even extended, not destroyed, enhancing its existing qualities, encouraging food production and buffering the urban edge with native tree planting and hedgerows, enhancement of habitats and including the added benefits of selective access improvements.

 Recent research by CABE / The Design Council has raised concerns about "anywhere" housing of low quality design, particularly in suburbs and on the edge of urban areas, where only 4% of such schemes were rated as Good. This does not bode well for the current proposals. Existing infrastructure - health facilities, schools, public transport etc - is already under stress everywhere.  Greenfield development may appear attractive to the developer and cheaper to carry out than brownfield land which may require restoration and decontamination, but it has many hidden and long term impacts. Planning new strong communities in accordance with a well thought out plan forecasts a better future for everyone than overcrowding existing cities and devouring Green Belts. The pressing need to accommodate growth offers a real and inspirational opportunity to change the way the way things are done, with community support using high quality design, and to look at how these initiatives contribute to the bigger picture. It is time that Green Belts were looked at for their contribution to providing for the nation's prosperity as a rural resource rather than future building land. Large scale new communities will be essential in providing housing on the scale predicted throughout the country, including a complete mix of house types, affordable housing, low carbon design and sustainable transport. We need to find new ways of creating these communities. Extending the present system is unlikely to deliver in an acceptable way.

COMMENTS ON AREAS  A - D (Questions 5, 6, 10, 11)

Regarding Questions 8 and 13, we do not wish to advocate construction development in any part of Birmingham's Green Belt.

Landscape character

We are pleased to see that each description of historic landscape value in the consultation document contains the advice that further assessment of this aspect would be needed. The areas under consideration are not characterless and conveniently empty land - they bear the imprint of Sutton's, and the region's, history.

 From a landscape point of view each of the Areas includes attractive, productive agricultural land, woodland and hedgerows, undulating but mainly falling away from the urban area, with streams and pools in the valleys. The land is in use for arable, grazing and equestrian purposes and provides well-used public access along footpaths and country lanes. There are sweeping views across countryside of contrasting character, colour and textures. Farm and other names indicate hilly and wooded areas highlighting the undulating nature of the landscape - Hill Farm, Withy Hill Farm, Langley Heath Farm, Fox Covert, Wheatmoor Wood. Ground levels are highest in Area A, then reduce through Area B, and are lower still in Areas C and D, and whilst B and C have least height variation overall they also have more valleys and least variation of slope. All have some watercourses and B has waterbodies too. Areas A and B are particularly visible towards the north and east.

 AREA  A : Hill Wood, east of Watford Gap

The western side is very visible from the surrounding area and M6 Toll Road. There are historic landscape features including a 19thcentury field system

along Hillwood Common Road. Of particular interest is a rare survival, a field adjacent to Dugdale Crescent Allotments which retains the shape of two medieval farming strips. Area A includes steeply sloping ground where development would be more evident and difficult to screen. It comprises a mix of large and small fields and parkland, with woodland copses, hedgerows along boundaries and lanes with hedgerow trees. There are watercourses cutting through, such as Little Hay Brook. The former Hillwood Coppice is now waterlogged but its boundary hedge contains an interesting mix of trees including wild pear. The TV transmitter dominates the south west of the area, reaching 271 metres high, and might be a limiting factor to housing development nearby. Intensive development in and near this section of Area A would greatly increase the pressure of traffic travelling southbound into Sutton through Four Oaks and the High Street bottleneck. The land is close to the built up areas around Mere Green and existing ribbon development towards Shenstone. A new, large apartment development adjacent to Four Oaks station will inevitably add to parking and congestion problems in the area, with knock-on effects back into Area A.

AREA  B : West of M6 Toll / Bassets Pole

This is an area of high landscape quality, open and visible to the wider countryside. It includes ancient woodlands and a wildlife corridor, with ridges and high ground visible from the open countryside to the east. It includes steeply sloping ground on which development would be more evident and difficult to screen, and a mix of large and small fields with woodland copses, hedgerows and hedgerow trees. It contains the slopes of the valley of Lindridge and Langley Pools, and the valley of the Collets Brook, also historic farmsteads such as Wheatmoor farm and the estate of Ashfurlong Hall. The Fox Hill SLINC includes two pools and another SLINC and a SINC are the sites of quarries where building stone was obtained. Collets Brook Farm (Listed), the only surviving example of a former tollhouse anywhere in Birmingham, stands on Tamworth Road shortly before Bassets Pole roundabout.

 Area B plays a very valuable role as an attractive rural approach into Sutton and a buffer between the edge of Birmingham and the burgeoning areas around Tamworth.

AREA  C : west of the Bypass / Walmley

Large open fields in the north-west and south of the Area have little or no remaining hedgerows or field pattern. The sewage works at Minworth lie to the south-east, whilst there is woodland in the north-east. C2 land falls into a shallow basin valley. The north-east of the Area contains higher ground and valleys visible from surrounding countryside to the north and east with a mix of large and small fields, woodland, hedgerows and hedgerow trees.

AREA  D : East of the Bypass / Walmley

There is a historic field system between Oxleys Road and Bulls Lane and to the north of the historic Peddimore Hall are ridges, high ground and valleys visible from the open countryside to the north and east. There is medieval ridge and furrow in a field to the east of Peddimore Hall. The Hall, as described in the consultation document, "retains its original setting" and we hope to see that preserved. (There is a suggestion, as yet unverified, of a connection between the Peddimore site and the Arden family of Shakespeare's mother). The Area contains a mix of large and small fields with woodland, hedgerows and trees. South of Peddimore Hall are large open fields with little or no field pattern or hedgerows. Gentler, more uniform land levels rise more steeply to the north. The land falls into a slight dip, a shallow basin valley to the south. The Birmingham and Fazeley Canal runs along the southern boundary together with the Kingsbury Road corridor and the edge of the existing urban development.

IN CONCLUSION

Birmingham City Council's current options for accommodating future growth as defined in the consultation are considered unsustainable, in conflict with national policies on Green Belts and their purpose, and are felt to offer shortsighted solutions. A radical approach to dealing with growth on a regional basis across the West Midlands conurbation is thought to be required, rather than attempting to address the issue within local authority boundaries, to the detriment of existing and future residents.

We are also concerned that the consultation might result in a very far-reaching decision being made with too many issues still unresolved, notably the capacity of Sutton's infrastructure and services (such as Health, Education and Transport both public and private) to cope with thousands of additional residents. There may have been discussions with the relevant authorities but this information has not been shared with Sutton residents - the people most directly concerned.