The inaugural West Midlands mayoral election will be held Tomorrow to elect the Mayor of the West Midlands. All candidates have discussed building on green belt and brownfield sites in varying levels of detail, so it’s safe to say that Thursday’s result will be of keen interest to industry professionals. Buildingspecifier Editor Joe Bradbury investigates:

Thursday’s election will be the first election for a governing body covering the entire West Midlands since the 1981 West Midlands County Council election (subsequent elections will be held May 2020 and then every four years after that). Following a devolution deal between the UK government and the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA), it was agreed to introduce a directly-elected mayor for the combined authority, who would act as chair of the combined authority as well exercise additional powers and functions devolved from central government relating to transport and housing and planning.

Devolving such powers from central government relating to housing and infrastructure in particular naturally raises the ethical dilemma of building on land that is currently protected by Green Belt. This is understandably a strongly debated and highly controversial topic. Many campaign groups urge governments to develop brownfield sites instead, in order to protect England’s characteristic and environmentally significant countryside. However, there is also a very genuine argument that the green belt is an archaic obstacle hindering UK housing and construction in general. Let’s explore the topic:

The argument for…

The British countryside is world renowned and entrenched in our national sense of identity. It is undeniably vital that we continue to protect green space in a country known affectionately as “a green and pleasant land,” however, one cannot ignore the sad fact that the benefits of the Green Belt often accrue to a small group of people at the expense of many more in denser areas.

Studies suggest that access to the Green Belt correlates closely with household income: Green Belt policy preserves large amounts of plentiful green space around the well-off at the expense of rarer green space near the low-income areas of British cities. By limiting supply the policy inflates house prices and rents and acts as a de facto wealth transfer from poorer non-homeowners to middle- and upper-income homeowners.

Only 10% of land in England is developed, just over half of this, 5% of total land, is for homes and gardens, with only 1% of all land actually used for housing. If we were to increase our housing stock by 1.3% per year this would make a massive difference in tackling the housing shortage and would involve building on a mere 0.01% of land each year; a small loss to solve the housing crisis, many argue.

The argument against…

When looking at the argument against developing on Green Belt land, concerns seem to gather around the potential of opening a floodgate whereby once permission is granted, England’s green and pleasant land will descend into a concrete carbuncle.

The Green Belt became government policy 62 years ago this year. On its 60th anniversary, a poll commissioned by the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) found that nearly two-thirds of people surveyed believed that Green Belt land should not be built on.

The Ipsos MORI poll shows that 64% of people agreed the Green Belt should be protected, while just 17% disagreed. Such strong support for Green Belt is demonstrated across a range of different groups, including people with children aged 5 and under, those renting from a local authority, and those on low incomes. And more than six out of ten people (62%) who live in towns and cities support the protection of the Green Belt – a finding that casts doubt on the claims of critics that Green Belts do not benefit people who live in urban areas.

Mayoral candidate stances

Whatever your thoughts are on Green Belt, we are all in agreement that more homes are needed in Britain today. Perhaps what we really need is tangible, immoveable targets that won’t change the second permission to build in the countryside is given. Just how will your vote affect this? Let’s take a look at the stances taken by some of the candidates reliant on your vote:

Andy Street – Conservatives

Andy Street

From the conservatives, the message seems quite clear – always prioritise brownfield sites when planning where we need to build homes in the West Midlands. Andy’s manifesto promises to spend £200 million on preparation and decontamination of brownfield sites and lobby for more. It also highlights plans to work with all councils to compile registers of all brownfield sites that could be used for housing and business development in the West Midlands.

Andy speaks of pushing Government and councils to release public sector land in the West Midlands, to be used for housing.

Sion Simon – Labour

Sion Simon

Labour Mayoral candidate Sion Simon is more open to the potential to develop Green Belt land for the benefit of the West Midlands. Recently, he has criticised West Midlands borough Solihull for blocking green belt housing schemes and also pointed out that the town is one of the wealthiest parts of the West Midlands.

Last month, Sion called for housing on Solihull green belt during Wednesday’s mayoral hustings, saying “People want new housing but don’t want it on their Green Belt, they want it on someone else’s Green Belt.

“They want the land but don’t want the cost of cleaning up dirty land. We need to start those difficult conversations.

“And the most difficult conversation is with Solihull – which has the great bulk of the wealth and a huge pressure on land and has very expensive land.”

James Burn – Green Party

James Burn

James Burn of the Green Party seems to have a similar message to that of the conservatives, arguing for the prioritisation of building on brownfield land first.
He promises a drive on local authority house building funded by central government, in addition to other measures, including exploring the introduction of a Land Value Tax (which may discourage developers purposefully not building on valuable land and bring more land into use for housing more quickly) and raising the local authority borrowing cap so that councils can borrow more to build more houses.

The manifesto states that “We will need serious discussions about where the houses should be located, the cause and extent of the crisis, where higher density building is appropriate and much more.

“We also need to increase the supply of available land while doing all we can to protect valuable green spaces. We should in general build on brownfield land first wherever possible, and challenge the assumption that this is always more expensive than building on green belt sites.”

In summary

To the casual observer (and fellow Midlander!) it seems to me that all candidates are calling for an honest and open conversation about developing Green Belt land, yet none seem to want to commit entirely to one side of the argument – or at least discuss it on any level that may give too much away on the subject prior to the election tomorrow.

Green Belt divides opinion so drastically across all sectors of our industry. Concerns about it echo through our communities and create barriers as tangible as the physical border itself. Whether you campaign for it to be protected or petition to open it up for development, anybody who builds houses or needs houses should think carefully before entering the polling booth tomorrow, because your vote just might dictate their location.

Do you think we should consider building on Green Belt? Answer the poll on the right!

The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has today written to the Chair of the Garden Bridge Trust informing him that the GLA will not be providing Mayoral guarantees for the Garden Bridge project.

In a letter to Lord Mervyn Davies today, the Mayor outlined his view that the continuation of the project will expose the London taxpayer to additional financial risk, both with regard to the bridge’s construction and its operation and maintenance.

Before making the decision, the Mayor analysed the findings of Dame Margaret Hodge’s independent review into the Garden Bridge project, and assessed all the information available about the project to date.

During the Mayoral campaign and since his election last year, the Mayor has repeatedly stated that he would not agree to any more of London taxpayers’ money for which he is responsible being spent on the Garden Bridge project. He had also made clear that he would not provide any Mayoral guarantees unless he was convinced that the project would not lead to additional public expenditure down the line.

In outlining the reasons for the Mayor’s decision not to provide any Mayoral guarantees, today’s letter outlines a number of ways in which the project would expose the London taxpayer to additional financial risk. These include:

  • increasing capital costs of the project;
  • the risk of the bridge only being partially built; and
  • doubts over the establishment of an endowment fund to help meet future maintenance costs.

Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan said “Under the previous Mayor, a considerable amount of London taxpayers’ money has already been spent on the Garden Bridge. I have always been clear that not a penny more of taxpayers’ money should be allocated to the project.

“Having assessed all the information available to me including the findings of Dame Margaret Hodge’s independent review, my view is that providing Mayoral guarantees will expose the London taxpayer to too much additional financial risk.

“With planning permission due to expire this year, many outstanding issues remain, including spiralling construction costs and doubts around funding the maintenance of the bridge.

“The funding gap is now at over £70m and it appears unlikely that the Trust will succeed in raising the private funds required for the project. I am simply not prepared to risk a situation where the taxpayer has to step in and contribute significant additional amounts to ensure the project is completed.”

The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has used his first Mayor’s Question Time to lay bare the finances of the Garden Bridge.

Sadiq Khan said it would cost taxpayers more than twice as much to cancel the project now, as it would to complete it and build the new bridge.

TfL and the Government have previously committed £30 million each to the Garden Bridge Trust’s £175m project – with the remainder raised through private donations. Of the £30 million pledged by TfL, £20 million is in the form of a loan to be repaid in full.

Sadiq Khan revealed that of the £60 million total of taxpayers money pledged, £37.7 million has already been spent by the Garden Bridge Trust. If the project was scrapped now, this amount would be lost in full with no benefit at all for Londoners or taxpayers.

However, if the Garden Bridge is completed, not only will TfL be repaid its £20 million loan by the Garden Bridge Trust, but they will also pay approximately £22 million in VAT to the Treasury. That means the ultimate bill to taxpayers for completing the bridge will be £18 million – less than half the cost of cancelling the project now.

On this understanding, Sadiq Khan has given his support to the completion of the Garden Bridge but has demanded that it is made more accessible for all Londoners in return. Last week he called on the Garden Bridge Trust to ensure:

The Bridge to be closed for fewer days each year for private fundraising events – the current plans are for 12 closures a year.

The Bridge to be closed for fewer hours each time it has to close for fundraising events, so that the Bridge can still be used in the morning and evenings – the current plans are for it to be closed from midnight to midnight.

A guarantee that children at local schools on either side of the river will get to visit the Garden Bridge and be involved in planting and maintenance – with a rolling programme of events for local school children.

The Garden Bridge Trust to build a strong working relationship with all of London’s parks, so that seeds and plants grown on the Garden Bridge can then be replanted in parks across the capital – ensuring it has a positive benefit for all Londoners.

The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, said “From the point at which I became Mayor, it was quite clearly in London taxpayers’ financial interest to complete the Garden Bridge project. It would simply cost Londoners more to cancel the project now, than it would to finish building the Garden Bridge.

“If the Bridge was cancelled now taxpayers will have spent £37.7 million for no benefit at all. However if we complete the project and our loan is repaid in full then the ultimate cost to taxpayers will be under half that cost at £18 million.

“So I will support the building of the Garden Bridge, but I am demanding that the project is made more accessible and open to all Londoners in return.

“I expect the Garden Bridge Trust to ensure that the Bridge be closed fewer days each year for private fundraising events and fewer hours when they do. I also want a guarantee that an ongoing programme of visits will be laid on for local school children.”

This announcement comes after the recent realisation that this is becoming a steadily more unpopular project: 61% of Londoners are against it in the biggest poll so far, which has been running in the Evening Standard for the last month, with over 4,000 participants. Whatever your opinion on the project is, it is certainly a bridge over troubled water!