Before Christmas, Birmingham City Council announced plans to build around 4,000 new homes on greenbelt in the Sutton Coldfield area. As Birmingham Friends of the Earth, we disagree with the premise of building on greenbelt and it being necessary in the first place. One of the great successes of the environmental movement in the latter part of the 20th century has been winning the argument over protecting the greenbelt, to the extent that it has often been taboo to even consider developing on it in the first place. The fact that Birmingham City Council is proposing this, shows that the greenbelt is now considered up for grabs again.

The Council stated that we need 80,000 new homes by 2031. This is partly because of the new National Planning Policy Framework, which requires Local Authorities to have a 20% over-supply of land for housing, but also because the Council is projecting a population increase of 150,000 by 2031. Birmingham City Council claimed that this cannot be done without building 4,000 homes in the Sutton greenbelt.

Those in favour of greenbelt development may argue that protecting it is a luxury that was fine when our city’s population was declining, but now that it is increasing we need to develop it. This argument, much like the argument which states that environmentalism and action on climate change is a luxury for the economic good times, is seriously missing the point.

So, why is it so important to protect the greenbelt? Is it just a luxury and a sacred cow of the environmental movement, or are there good solid reasons for leaving it untouched? If anything, the reasons for protecting the greenbelt are even stronger than they were in the past. On a very simple level, the greenbelt restricts the size of the built up area. It also absorbs organic nutrients from the city, its trees help reduce winds, and it acts to absorb rain and thereby help prevent flooding. If the area is developed, impermeable structures such as roads and roof space will increase flood risk. In the future, in order to grow our food more sustainably, we will need to use the greenbelt to produce the city’s food. This is not something we can do if we have built on it!

However even if we have established that the greenbelt is still worth protecting, is the need to use it not greater? Well to start with, the Council’s population projections showing continuing growth, are based on the growth in population that has occurred over the past 10 years. However, in the 40 years before this, Birmingham’s population decreased by 40,000 and the growth in population over the past 10 years has only partly replaced this lost population. While there may be a population increase over the next two decades, it is unlikely to be as much as the surge in population in 2001-2011, which was due to special factors that are unlikely to be repeated in the future. 

One of these factors was the accession of so many new countries to the EU. This unprecedented expansion did lead to an influx of migrant workers from Eastern Europe. However, while new countries may accede to the European Union in the future, it will not be quite so many in so short a space of time. The other factor that significantly increased Birmingham’s population in the last decade, was the expansion of higher education and the creation of new universities and new university places. However, again, this was a one-off that is unlikely to be repeated on such a scale again.

If there is a population increase over the next few years, how do we plan for it without using any greenbelt land at all? One thing to consider is Birmingham’s population and housing densities, which are actually quite low compared to other cities in the UK and the EU. Birmingham’s population density fell between the 1950s and the 1980s, as people moved out of the old back-to-backs and they were demolished. Now, whilst we wouldn’t advocate a return to the packed poor quality housing of the past, it is possible to have high quality affordable homes and high-density living.

At less than 40 dwellings per hectare, Birmingham’s housing density is lower than the of around 70-100 dwellings per hectare of most other cities in the rest of Europe. If we look at Birmingham’s population density, it is 4,012 persons per square km, whereas Leicester’s population density is 4,494 per square km. If Birmingham had the same density as Leicester it could accommodate an extra 12% in population, which isn’t far off the increase in population predicted over the next 20 years.

These statistics mean that Birmingham is emptier than other cities, and we could fit more people in the existing area without the need to develop the greenbelt. Packing more people in doesn’t have to mean a lower quality of life; you only have to look at London and other European cities, to see how dense environments can work with parks and open space to be nice places in which to live.

Denser living environments are often thought to include flats and high rise, however, this does not have to mean poor quality homes. You only have to look at how parts of New York are constructed to see how high-rise living can work well. Denser living environments also mean that services such as transport and other amenities can be provided much more efficiently. This would be a problem if new suburbs were built on the outskirts of Sutton, largely disconnected from the city’s transport network, and therefore encouraging greater car use.

In terms of where we would build new houses within the existing city, there are currently a lot of vacant houses and disused sites, which could be brought back into use or re-developed. Also, with the switch to online shopping and home working there will be less need for retail and office space in the future, and so more space for residential properties. Former industrial sites such as the Gun Quarter and Cheapside could be re-generated for mixed use, with businesses and residential properties living side by side. This would be a much more sustainable approach to locating new business areas than building more out-of-town business parks which are only accessible by car. 

The arguments for greenbelt development are based on inflated population projections, maintaining the city’s low population and housing densities, and a lack of imagination when it comes to bringing disused sites and housing back into use. The Council should be looking at how other cities make much better use of their availability before it decides to start trampling over a greenbelt which has so much more value to us than as a space to build houses.