Birmingham City Council has just released the draft of its hugely important Birmingham Development Plan which will set out a spatial vision and strategy for future planning decisions in Birmingham for the period to 2031. It has also released the Birmingham Mobility Action Plan, which sets out the councils aims for developing Birmingham’s transport network.

Birmingham Friends of the Earth has been invited to give our views on these draft documents and we will be pouring over them in depth over the coming weeks. This article will set out our initial thoughts on the direction our great city should be heading with our usual focus on ensuring Birmingham becomes a sustainable city that can meet the challenges of 21st century population growth, climate change and peak everything.

In the Birmingham Development Plan, we applaud the Council’s plan to ensure Birmingham’s residents will be experiencing a high quality of life, living within attractive and well-designed, sustainable neighbourhoods’ and that jobs and services ‘will be accessible by a range of sustainable transport choices’. We also applaud their desire to provide high quality connections throughout the City and with other places including encouraging the increased use of public transport, walking and cycling, and create a more sustainable City that minimises its carbon footprint and waste.

We appreciate that the city’s population is projected to grow considerably over the period to 2031, but would like to point out that the assertion that a continuous supply of land and full range of premises will be made available for all forms of development is not a sustainable or possible policy. That’s the thing about land, as Mark Twain correctly observed, they’re not making it anymore, so it’s difficult to promise a continuous supply! We must move away from the existing cultural paradigm that treats the planet as though it were an unlimited resource.

We believe every piece of open land (regardless of current biodiversity) is extremely valuable to this city as a future site for growing food. The current globalised food system is unlikely to survive with the pressures of climate change and oil depletion. We will need to learn to be more self-sufficient as a city.

We note with regret that the Council is intent on allowing the development of Green Belt land. We feel that our Green Belt should be protected at all costs. It is the key reason Britain has remained as green and pleasant as it is today despite being one of the most crowded countries on Earth. The most recent consultation on the Green Belt development undertaken by the Council in November 2012 prompted a petition with 2,626 signatures opposing it.

Birmingham Friends of the Earth feel that spaces for growing food should be an integral part of every neighbourhood and access to these spaces a right of every citizen. As well as maximising potential gardening space all over the city, this should be part of local planning policy on new developments. We want to see as much of the city’s space as possible utilised for growing food, but being a city means it will always need food bringing in from outside. The most sustainable and economical way to do this – and the way it will be done in the future – is to grow food immediately outside the city’s limits – which is why Green Belt land must not be concreted over.

Birmingham has understandably painful memories of previous attempts at high rise living but we believe that building upwards rather than outwards is preferable, providing the quality is high and the infrastructure is comprehensive. It can work – think Manhattan’s East Village rather than Castle Vale! We would strongly encourage the Council to redevelop Brownfield sites for housing, since contamination often means that ground level can’t be immediately used for food production unlike the city’s outskirts. Instead, roof gardens, like that at the new library and living walls, like the one at New Street, can create great growing conditions.

The Birmingham Mobility Action Plan informs us that The European Union (EU) recommends that all cities develop and adopt what it calls ‘Sustainable Urban Mobility Plans’ (SUMP). Above all they recommend that future transport planning should be centred around people’s lives. It sets out that, with a growing population and changing travel demands, the 2.8 million journeys made by Birmingham residents every day – half of them by car – is set to rise to as high as 4 million journeys by 2031.

Encouragingly, the Birmingham Mobility Action Plan does lay out some excellent and innovative ideas for how our transportation might be transformed. It wishes to remedy the fact that Greater Manchester has almost 250 hybrid electric buses currently compared to only 50 in the West Midlands. It aspires to create a transport network where anywhere in Birmingham can be accessed within a maximum journey time of 45 minutes. The Birmingham Cycling Revolution strategy sets an initial target of increasing the modal share of cycling to 10% by 2033 (although we feel it should be more ambitious with 10% by 2025). It is encouraging to see the council taking inspiration from case studies of cities like Stockholm, Lyon, Amsterdam, Montreal and Osaka to develop a modern transport system. The Action Plan looks at: developing transit interchanges, the introduction of swift cards – like the London Oyster cards, a concept for a solar powered inductive bus charging shelter, numerous ideas for better utilising road space and pavements so that more sustainable transport forms are better accommodated and developing strategic walking networks in the city centre.

Whilst Birmingham Friends of the Earth want to see modal shift from car to more sustainable transport and the Birmingham Mobility Action Plan hopes for the same, the fundamental issue of reducing the need for travel is not mentioned until page 98 of this 110 page document. The council says that new developments and employers will be encouraged to adopt working from home, flexible working hours, maximise digital infrastructure, utilise ‘hot-desks’ in offices and reduce the number of car parking spaces.

We feel that reducing the need for travel should really be at the heart of a 21st century city’s plans and that if there are going to be 4 million journeys in Birmingham in 2031, our planet is likely to be in a seriously bad way. Rather than spending lots of money on new builds and new transport infrastructure until our planet looks like Coruscant out of Star Wars, could we not actually reduce the need for travel and city expansion to Greenfield sites, thus reducing expenditure? This would involve not only encouragement but action, so we really need to see contractors and legislation signed up to these positive development proposals.

Whilst many of the innovative proposals in the Birmingham Development Plan and Birmingham Mobility Action plan are admirable, they do have an inherent contradiction. Whilst the transport planners are enthusiastic about modal shift from cars to active transport and public transport, the development planners continue to focus on building Birmingham outwards on Green Belt land – which increases car use – and expanding the airport. On the one hand, there is an attempt to create a more connected and sustainable city and on the other a more disconnected and globalised one.