How to make a mess of the UK’s Energy Planning

The Cabinet Office published a remarkable report today on energy “Red Tape”. Why is it remarkable? Because reading it closely and between the lines, there couldn’t be a more damning indictment of this government’s handling of UK energy policy since 2010.

To be frank it is a complete mess. And all caused by the huge policy disruptions, contradictions and plain stupidity engendered by DECC and HM Treasury. Of course this “Red Tape” report and Cabinet Office can’t use such language. That would be too honest, and totally off the agenda as far as this government is concerned.

But just look at what is said in the report.

  • “We have spoken to a wide range of businesses, from large and established energy companies to new starters and small and medium enterprises. We found the consultation process insightful and it was enlightening to hear views from such a variety of organisations”. Code that these businesses told government that it had made a complete shambles of energy
  • “we have worked creatively to commit to an ambitious programme of reforms that will develop a longer-term narrative with a clear approach to policy, create a more joined up approach to regulation and will simplify processes and rules, adopting a more risk-based approach to compliance” Code for realising that Ministers have made up energy policy on the hoof
  1. “We were told that because energy projects take years, and sometimes decades, to complete longer term vision would help secure investment. Businesses told us that they need clear guidance which can be relied upon so they know they can proceed with projects with greater certainty and reduced risk” – Code that businesses told government that the interference of HM Treasury in energy policy had deprived UK of much investment in energy infrastructure

And what is the government doing about it? Well its all about DECC and Ofgem having a series of discussions, chats, consultations throughout 2016 – and probably well into 2017 – to try and right things.

But where is the HM Treasury in all this, because it is as clear as day, that whatever these two bodies come up with, they will be second-guessed yet again by HM Treasury.

So I wouldn’t hold out too much hope that we will have a stable UK energy market soon

But what is also very worrying about this “Red Tape” review is that there are two other major parties interested in the exploitation and delivery of energy. And yet their voices are totally absent from the review – namely the consumer and the environment.

So the review has not consulted with consumer bodies on the experience of consumers with energy providers. No doubt this is because there is a separate Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) enquiry underway. But in my view this is not good enough, especially as this review is taking 2 years and won’t report until June 2016 at the earliest!

And in connection with the environment, there are some worrying comments about energy companies objecting to the necessary evaluations of the impacts of their actions on nature, wildlife and communities. If the next steps by DECC, Ofgem are to remove so-called “Red Tape” to further relax these environmental assessments, then this is very bad news for UK nature and wildlife, especially with HM Treasury’s well known blind enthusiasm for gas fracking.


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Get your Planning Scheme recognised – submit by 1st April

Have you got a great planning scheme or project? If so why not put it forward for the West Midlands RTPI Planning Awards.

Given the battering which planners get from government and certain members of the public and the media, the good work which planners do is not often appreciated. Many proposals are improved directly through good planning. But this goes unsung and at time deliberately misrepresented.

So this is your opportunity to promote schemes and projects that have made a significant difference to the quality of the environment and to the well-being of communities in the West Midlands region. Schemes can be entered by a local authority, private consultancy, developer, voluntary group, academic institution or community.

All types of project are equally eligible, including physical development, strategies and guidance, processes and research documents. The project should be complete with the majority of the work having been undertaken in the last year or so. The judges will assess all the entries on;

  • Sustainable development – What is the project’s short and long term public benefits? How far does the submission address and balance economic, social and environmental improvements?
  • Good practice – How is the project original in approach and could it be a model for work elsewhere or developed further?
  • Community involvement – What is the degree to which local residents and businesses have been involved and engaged in delivery of the project? How have their thoughts inputted into the final outcome?
  • Planning content – What is the quality of the professional planning work involved in devising solutions to key issues and problems? What was the clear impact that the planners made to the success of the project?
  • Equality and diversity – How far has the submission properly addressed equality and diversity issues in the context of the project?

The closing date for nominations is Friday 1st April 2016 and entries should be sent electronically to the Regional Secretary

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Mission Impossible? Not at Uplands Allotments it isn’t! Take a closer look

I am a member of a Project Advisory Group for the Uplands Allotments here in Birmingham. Uplands is one of the largest allotments in the country with 422 plots and it opened in 1949. Located in Handsworth it has a long history adjacent to the Sandwell Valley Country Park and has a diversity of allotment holders and also a wide expertise in exotic vegetable and plant growing.

The Uplands Allotments Cooperative Association would like to use their space as a catalyst for the development of a low carbon, sustainable community in the north of the city.

They are seeking funds for the renovation at Uplands, supporting Birmingham City University architecture students to convert their ‘Shack’ community space into a Community Kitchen and an outdoor environmental learning zone for local schools and community groups.

They want to educate and encourage better understanding of the process of food manufacture, production and sustainable resource management.

The centrepiece of the zone will be a handmade clay pizza oven and BBQ space made from locally sourced materials.  This is not just any pizza oven, but a fully sustainable, self-contained, hydroelectric energy system!

Waste heat from the oven is captured, heating water and pumping it to a high level tank. A gravity fed hydro generator then produces electricity on demand, not just when the oven is running! You can see a diagrammatic below

Uplands is now looking for your support through Love Brum. This is an exciting initiative and well worth supporting. Take a closer look!!


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Vote by 6th March for Deer’s Leap in Tesco “Bags of Help”

Hi, as a Trustee of the Birmingham and Black Country Wildlife Trust, I am naturally really keen that one its projects should secure funding to further improve a long neglected part of Birmingham and Sandwell’s natural areas.

Deer’s Leap is a wonderful opportunity to enhance nature right in the middle of the West Midlands conurbation.

Deer’s leap has been put forward to receive support from the Tesco Bag Tax fund. So I really hope that as many people will vote for Deer’s Leap. Please do so at your local store – see the map. You can vote in 14 stores in central Birmingham from 27 February until 6 March on who should receive the £12,000, £10,000 and £8,000 awards, so The Wildlife Trust are urging customers to vote to support their work to open up this urban wildlife oasis for everyone to enjoy.

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If successful with securing the funding, then further improvements will be made to Some of the steps within the site, which are rotting and dangerous, while there is no obvious path through the site for people to get round safely. Being able to allow visitors of all ages would make a huge difference to the quality of life and health of local people.

Ownership of Deer’s Leap Wood, which sits on the border between Birmingham and Sandwell, passed to The Wildlife Trust for Birmingham and the Black Country in 2014 and since then a huge amount of work has been done to remove unsafe trees, de-silt and clear the Boundary Brook of fly-tipped litter and repair some of the paths. This historic site was once part of the M&B brewery, which is still evident from the hops found growing on the site, and before that was part of the large Rotton Park estate.

You can also find out more information about Tesco’s Bags for Help whch has teamed up with Groundwork to launch its initiative across England and Wales. The scheme will see three community groups and projects awarded grants of £12,000, £10,000 and £8,000 – all raised from the 5p bag charge.


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Today’s the day –Has social media influenced the making of new #Brumleader?

We will all of course be looking with huge interest on the result of the votes by the City Council Labour Group this evening. The expectation is that by 9pm we should know who the new #Brumleader will be.

In the past the level of interest has been high amongst the cognoscenti. But perhaps the rise of social media and the emergence of younger more tech-savvy councillors as well as the use of social media by citizens who are concerned at having their voice heard, has made this election much more relevant.

It is to be hoped that this will be the future mark of transparency in how the city is run. Especially when the whole structure of local and national democracy is under huge threats from corporate globalism run riot within the current Westminster machinery.

There are clearly several reasons for this – the level of interest arising from the Kerslake Report fallout; and the impacts of successive budget cuts – on libraries for example – and; the planned cuts perhaps on children’s centres. This will only be increased when Osborne makes his so-called “Autumn” Budget Statement this Wednesday.

The new #BrumLeader will have to make his/her first major statement on what Osborne’s savagery will mean for our society.

With the increasing clamour for a greater openness by the Council on its accountability and proposals for the break up of the Council, then the manner in which this response is made will count a great deal.

So, it is interesting to note the role which social media and local virtual channels are playing in this, providing platforms for many who feel disconnected, those who have alternatives who offer, and those who have some long standing frustrations!

So the outcry when it was rumoured that the leadership candidates would not be allowed to appear in public to face questions was very much influenced by the immediate role of social media in flagging this up. Whether this was due to a misunderstanding or not, it has reinforced and promoted the role which virtual media should now and must play in the future visioning of Birmingham and indeed the wider conurbation.

So who should be looked out for on this?

Urban Pivot drew attention to this in his blog just the previous week. So it interesting to look at which of the candidates are on twitter now! And in my very simple stats analysis, the candidate who is ahead on followers is Penny Holbrook, and she has also gained the most in the last 10 days up to 1565 with 65 new followers compared with John Clancy at 1145 up by 20, Barry Henley at 687 up by 16 and Ian Ward at 438 up by 16 followers.

See the witter accounts and blogs of the candidates

It is interesting also that we now have individual councillors using social media to broadcast their allegiances in advance of the vote – Cllr Kerry Jenkins for example – Kerry on the Leaders

And of course we have the roles of @newsinBrum with 11800 followers and @Chamberlainfile with 2500 followers, as a means of casting some illumination on the political and officer mechanisms in the City Council. Chamberlain File also has an active blog, to which some of the candidates have already contributed their polish positions

There are also other channels which have gathered together news articles and storifies about the hustings – Birmingham Eastside blog  and this has been covered in a article article

The Birmingham Improvement Panel will meet in public session on 14th December, and this again will be a key milestone for the new #Brumleader. Social media will have a role in broadcasting what is presented/discussed.

Finally, we must also praise the openness of the Council’s Chief Executive – Mark Rogers in this process. Through twitter and through his blog, he has been open about his concerns and issues from his “lofty” standpoint.

Might we see the new #Brumleader expressing her/his views on the trials and tribulations of having to deal with the Westminster colonial powers? Now that would be something to behold!

I look forward to it.


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#BrumLeader hustings – what did I think?

I have now had 24 hours to reflect on the words of wisdom from the five City Council Leadership candidates. The session was very ably moderated by Diane Kemp and Zubeda Limbada.

Given that has been the first time that Birmingham has had a leadership hustings of this kind, the candidates I feel responded well both to the submitted questions, but perhaps more importantly the questions from the floor.

Given that the allocated time was less than 2 hours, and of course each candidate would be allowed to respond to each question, this meant that many questions went unasked (including the questions which I had submitted beforehand!) – but that is very understandable.

Their responses might perhaps provide some pointers to policy and actions which any new Leader may wish to consider. But some I felt were grandstanding items.

But it was also clear that Kerslake, the Improvement Panel, the Council Budget cuts, and the Osborne Autumn Statement were all dark clouds hanging over them. How can they aim to provide some hope to the citizens and communities of this great city was something, which they were all grasping for.

But isn’t that what leadership is about – hope and optimism?

I am not sure I was convinced that we had a positive future vision – it seemed reactive. They left more questions than answers.

  • Innovation in services through community working
  • The need for greater devolution, and learning from parish council approaches
  • Innovation in financial mechanism such as “brummie bonds” & more inventive use of Council assets (but is if there any which have not been sold off, or mortgaged against some other debts!)
  • Living wages, regulating zero wage contracts
  • Lots of free school meals, although who should be prioritised was left in the air
  • Continue to improve training for jobs and learn from the experience of schemes set up for Grand Central employment (to be honest I have heard this said many times when we have had major schemes – ICC, Bullring, hotels, etc – its not new exactly)
  • Need to support our SMEs better as we have concentrated on city centre and not enough on areas outside
  • Ensure we join up our services around child poverty – this means recognising that children’s services are vulnerable, but we need to link our training and job creation together with children’s support
  • Can Birmingham be the linguistic capital of Europe? Many of our population are at least bilingual, so lest capitalise on that
  • We need a more diversified set of local economic strategies
  • Community libraries will need to go through the “future council” model; but we will also have to make difficult choices; libraries will need to evolve into a 21st century and parish councils and others may well be part of the solution.

There were three questions, which I feel told us more about the candidates approach to the job description of “leader of the Council”

The first Question was what they would do on day 1 in respect of the Improvement Panel  , which will meet very shortly in December and which the new Leader will attend;

  • Penny Holbrook was very clear on this jumping in straightaway and setting down her priorities (i) to set a budget; partnership; leadership of the city – she would see Greg Clark in London and set up a “leadership group” for the city – honesty, leadership and integrity,
  • Barry Henley would call in Chief Officers and open up things; reinstate Birmingham Compacts and stop kicking things down the road;
  • Mike Leddy would set challenging targets for senior officers of the council and for the executive of the council
  • Ian Ward would set the 16/17 & 17/18 budget and shape of BCC in 2020 and the plan for 2020;
  • John Clancy would get out of Council House on day 1 and speak to people to get the answers we need. Members needed to stop micro-managing

The second question asked how they would change the culture of the Council?

  • John Clancy said he didn’t want to run it, I want to lead the city. Members need to step back from micro-managing, and Cllrs need to do the leading;
  • Ian Ward – yes, but BCC also has to do more listening to others, and also influencing other stakeholders, so this comes from the top
  • Penny said we need to design what you want the city to look like in the future and then design the city council to deliver and then rebuild trust;
  • Mike Leddy said members have interfered too much. Get the Chief Executive to do that job with the officers.
  • Barry Henley said the Council has been autocratic so we need to change vision, values for the city and then the Council. We need a Leader who will form consensus

The third question – What would scare you as Leader?

  • John Clancy – I am up for the challenge – but I know the existing culture is so strong that it would take to long to breakdown!
  • Ian Ward – I am proud of the city, and have experience – not scared
  • Penny Holbrook – what frightens about this is the scale of the cuts facing Birmingham now
  • Mike Leddy – I am worried that I would let the city down in some aspects. I will make mistakes but they wont ever be the same mistake otherwise I will have failed!
  • Barry Henley – I am scared of having Commissioners appointed.

My Conclusion

This is one of three hustings over the next few days. As a first, I think it has set down a marker.

But there is a long way to go for those in the Council, and for our citizens to feel confident about their future.

I also feel that while there were some vaguely encouraging words about culture change and shift in the Council, but I know from bitter experience from within, that officer culture is more deep-rooted than any of these contenders were prepared to admit. If we are to engage and collaborate to make Birmingham great again, then that means being humble in dialogue with the Black Country, and not to dismiss exert opinion from outside the Council, on spurious grounds. Perhaps some officer change is necessary, but this was not contemplated.

So it’s a start, and I have to admit my views of the contenders was subtly changed last night. I wont say on what way at this stage. There is still one further public husting to go.

But I would really look forward to a new Leader who is not afraid of reaching out and also being really engaged in building a long term vision for our city.



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My hopes for the new #BrumLeader !    

The Birmingham hustings should be the first time in my 30 years in Birmingham where prospective Leaders are to be exposed to questions from the public. This should be an exciting time for Birmingham and I very much welcome this.

The decision by Sir Albert Bore to stand down from the leadership of the Labour Group and hence the Leader of the Council, is a watermark for our city. Sir Albert has led many of the major decisions, which have shaped our city over the past three decades – the NEC expansion, the ICC, the city centre revitalisation – all of which have underpinned the renaissance of our city.

But as always, it is time for a fresh approach. Perhaps some opportunities were not understood or grasped as firmly as they might have been. And of course Kerslake has thrown the spotlight on city leadership in a way, which has not been seen before.

So it is understandable that for the first time in the 30 years I have lived in the city, that there appears to be a wider, and greater interest in who our new “Leader” should and might be. What values will that person hold dear. What principles drive them to be Leader. And what agendas will they pursue.

Now I have to declare a large measure of self interest for two reasons

  • Firstly, I worked for the Council since 1985 until I left in 2014. Latterly I was responsible for developing the city’s green agenda, and with Sir Albert’s support set up the Green Commission and developed a comprehensive Carbon Action Plan.
  • Secondly, I remain intensely frustrated at the lack of awareness amongst a wide range of decision makers at both political and senior officer level, of the need for a spatially driven urban vision for the city. Indeed a vision, which embraces fully the whole conurbation, not just narrow city council self interests.

So I was extremely pleased that @NewsinBrum and @ImpactHub together set up the Leadership hustings for the 16th November. I will be there.

I have already posted a couple of questions on twitter. But I felt it would be helpful to the leadership candidates and citizens if I expanded on these.

  • what is their urban vision for Birmingham & how will they shake up our out-dated planning system and engage with citizens?Anyone interested in the future of our city can’t fail to notice the supreme absence of any urban vision for Birmingham. While other cities have forged ahead with metro systems which help to integrate their urban areas, Birmingham appears to be satisfied with a mile and half extension from Snow Hill! It has taken decades of argument to get this far.

    But what is also appalling in my view is the way in which Birmingham, and especialy some senior officers have turned their back on half of the conurbation – namely the Black Country. This has resulted in a total lack of a coherent urban planning framework for a conurbation of nearly 2.5 million people.

    Currently city planners are lauded for their exemplary work in bringing forward major development schemes certainly in the city centre. I very firmly support major investment in projects. But what I cannot see is any form of urban strategic and spatial planning. The Birmingham Development Plan which has still not been approved after some 15 years of work at least, is not a strategic document. It is designed to safeguard the Council from developers. At least the Black Country Plan was approved in 2011 and is joint between the four Black Country authorities!

    For example major opportunities to have a spatial plan include Northfield where the bypass should have opened up a proper discussion about the economic role of the Northfield shopping centre and its role as an economic centre, but has it? And also to cope with the increased population the plans for the Sutton Coldfield extension have yet to appear, and certainly in my view should have put public transport investment, and sustainable development at its core.

    In both cases I am yet to be convinced. That is why I believe it is absolutely vital that the new #BrumLeader should seek outside involvement of urban planners who know what creating and building a sustainable conurbation would do for us.

    I would certainly like to see a new form of dialogue and cooperation between Birmingham and the Black Country which embraces not just a transport and mobility vision, but also a very clear urban spatial vision which connects Dudley with Birmingham, Walsall and Wolverhampton, etc. Currently, there is no joint spatial plan.

    It is time to do away with separate plans and join them up. Indeed while I hate to say it, that is exactly what Brandon Lewis, the Planning Minister wanted just this last week, when he said that more councils should “share planning services” . While the underlying rationale he might have for this is cost-cutting, in my view it is about time that the planners of Birmingham and Black Country were in full collaboration, under new leadership.

  • What is their commitment to driving forward Birmingham’s green low carbon agenda to create jobs and investment for the future?Of course I have a vested interest in this question!

    But I do believe that when Birmingham citizens and business are spending somewhere between £1.5 & 2bn each year on their energy then something is not correct.

    And also if we look at air quality in the city and conurbation, we are only just keeping within the limits of what is best for us. And the key contributor of poor air quality is transport overall (and that is when some car manufactures – eg Volkswagen – have mislead many over the real emissions data in their vehicles).

    Being a green city matters a great deal.

    Good investors are interested in the quality of life of the city they invest in. Being a green city is akin to being a city, which has a rich cultural life. It enriches lives for all. And as the world increasingly needs to be more restrained in its use of non-renewable materials and energy, then cities ,which respond and show leadership will be the winner.

    That is where the work of the city’s Green Commission and its partners in business, universities and society is so vital. The new #BrumLeader should see that being a leading green city matters.

    The need to build efficient energy systems in the city, to build publish transport across the conurbation, to encourage and develop resource efficient business innovators and producers, all matter. That way lies jobs for Birmingham and the Black Country

Communication is vital

It is also clear that a new #BrumLeader will have to improve communications. There is a very interesting piece by @UrbanPivot about the role of social media in political life and it is interesting to see how some of the #BrumLeader candidates are already using social media more actively than any other previous Leader of the Council.

But vitally important in my view is how the new #BrumLeader makes friends with our Black Country friends. Our futures are inextricably linked together, just as our past has been. Breaking down the insularity of Birmingham, not just at political level, but especially amongst some of our senior officers is absolutely essential.

Birmingham and the Black Country are conjoined at the hip and have behaved like fractious twins for far too long. This has to end, and it is in the gift of a new #BrumLeader to turn the Council round and face outward to the west.

The new Leader will have to open up not just to his Black Country friends, but also cajole a number of senior officers within the Council itself to properly engage with the future of our conurbation. For example the total absence of a joint urban spatial planning framework, as I have mentioned several times,  is a disgrace. Without that we are left in the realms of half-hearted officer led duties to cooperate discussions. That is not the way for our conurbation to plan for HS2, a transport network, for new economic zones, for housing  etc.

My final comment relates to the emergence of a new planning vision. It is interesting to see the proposals put forward by Andrew Mitchell MP for the break up of the Council into 10 “boroughs” – could this provide an impetus for a more open urban spatial plan?

I do hope this is an opportunity at last to have a fresh start!

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Birmingham’s Urban Future to be debated at AoU Congress in June

I am looking forward to attending the Academy of Urbanism’s 10th Congress in Birmingham on the 4/5/6 June. As an academician of the Academy, I know how important it is for cities to learn from each other.

In the case of Birmingham, the Congress provides an opportunity for both a reflection on progress made since the 1980’s and a look forward to what the city is planning for its future.

Undoubtedly since the highly regarded March 1988 Highbury Initiative (interestingly, there are no 1st hand documents available on-line about Highbury – only numerous books/papers/articles published based on interviews with key participants – for example Nick Corbett’s book “Transforming Cities“), Birmingham made huge strides in the 3 to 4 years immediately after that. The largest pedestrianisation project of any UK city was delivered in rapid time to meet the opening of the International Convention Centre in June 1991. However, the economic doldrums of the mid-1990s slowed down somewhat the wider regeneration of the rest of the city centre, and also of the whole city.

The birth of the new Bullring was tortuous, having been extensively discussed at Highbury in 1988, but it was not until 2003 that the current Bullring was completed to acclaim. This opened up the city’s markets and the Digbeth.

But in the meantime one of the key members of that Highbury Initiative invested in his adopted city. Bennie Gray bought in 1991/92, the old Bird’s Custard Factory in Digbeth, and the Big Peg in the Jeweller Quarter. These have been transformed into Birmingham’s real entrepreneurial places for the city’s creative sector, and has stimulated the city’s digital, artistic and cultural communities. It is really symmetric that the architect who Bennie employed on the Custard Factory was Glenn Howells, the city’s architect extraordinaire!

And of course we have the huge growth in city centre living, with thousands of apartments now occupied, and coupled with the city’s thriving cafe culture and foodie scene, surely its path is well secured!

But of course it is always a good idea for cities to learn from each other. And also to be subject to a modicum of external appraisal. The Congress provides that opportunity in parts.

So The Congress will have some excellent speakers discussing Urbanism, HS2, Birmingham’s Big City Plan, Bournville Village Trust, etc – under the them of Health, Happiness and Well-Being. The full details can be found here –

The speakers include Sir Albert Bore(Leader of the Council) , Charles Landry (Comedia), Charles Montogomery (Urban Experimentalist), Glenn Howells (Architect extraordinaire), Sadie Morgan (Chair of HS2 Design Panel), Waheed Nazir (Director of Planning & Regeneration), Rachel Toms (Design Council/CABE), Stephen Wallacy (City Architect Aarhus).

It is also noteworthy that a number of academicians who were at the Highbury Initiative in 1988 will also be at the Congress and will be able to reflect on progress and also what new lessons there might be for Birmingham as it goes forward now. Sir Albert, Nick Falk, John Worthington and (modestly!) myself were all directly involved and responsible for the messages leading up to and coming out of Highbury.

I do hope that out of the Congress will be a message about the city’s future sustainability and its connectedness across the city. The arrival of HS2 should provide a fillip for a much broader and deeper discussion on how the whole conurbation (including the Black Country) is connected through massive investment in public transport to high speed travel. And this linked to a new debate about the future role of the suburbs and towns of Birmingham and Black Country should provide for a new vision of sustainable and green growth for us. (You might like to read one of my previous posts on Birmingham’s “bigger greener picture“)

So I do hope as many urbanists, Brummies and Black Country folk come to listen and discuss vital lessons for both Birmingham’s and the Black Country’s future urban sustainability.

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Birmingham – a Great City showcasing its credentials – but is there a “bigger greener picture”?

Last week saw a key set of announcements were made by the Birmingham Team. This was to coincide with the annual global bash at Cannes called MIPIM (Le Marché International des Professionnels de l’Immobilier – to give the proper name for its acronym!). This is the international property event where, this year,  21,000 people from 93 countries showcased there investment and development ambitions as well as seek to enter new financial and development deals with willing clients. Its a kind of global marriage bureau really. The Birmingham Team’s prospectus was undoubtedly one of the best yet to showcase, due to the many development projects being both completed in 2015 and also announced for the future.  Mark Rogers (Birmingham Council’s CX) has produced a very helpful blog on the “Birmingham is bouncing back” messages and publicity achieved, and Marketing Birmingham has also reviewed outcomes from MIPIM  – so I won’t attempt to add much more on that – especially as I wasn’t in Cannes! But, as I mentioned in my blog on “HS2 – will it improve place and transit systems in the Birmingham conurbation” , I remain a wee bit worried about the overall strategic plan. As at times the Birmingham package announced at MIPIM still seems like a long (and I do accept that some very exciting) list of individual development projects and a “Housing Prospectus” which has a long list of individual housing sites announced for up to 80,000 homes.  But I am still unsure what kind of city this all adds up to as a whole.

  • Where is the truly sustainable vision to drive down the city’s overall energy bill £2bn per annum?
  • Will all these developments be built to the super energy efficient standards which the city needs? (for example there is only one mention of “energy” in the Housing Prospectus – and then only in the foreword! Not as a requirement!)
  • Will they for example all be connected to the city’s expanding district energy network? Indeed will the Planning Committee insist that approvals will only be given if the development does connect to such systems?
  • What are the clear plans to ensure that the wider energy, walking, public space, conurbation transit systems, water efficiency, waste (i.e. resource value capture)

These are just to name but a few matters (!) which should, could and must be considered. But will they be reflected in the decisions of the Planning Committee? It would be very interesting to see the answers to these questions. But I wait with bated breath! Of course, any reply, will be couched in language reminiscent of the still draft Birmingham Development Plan , which supposedly sets down what Birmingham is planning to do by 2031. But in reality none of the questions I have set down above are seen as real priorities within that plan. I realise that this is as much to do with the legalistic framework of the Planning Act and the dead hand of centralised planning diktats through the NPPF (National Planning Policy Framework), but if Birmingham is really going to be a truly sustainable city, then the Birmingham Development Plan will have to be much better than it currently is, and central government has to let go its nanny apron strings. But is Birmingham really willing to be a “leading green city” as the Leader has continually stated in his Policy Statement since he became Leader in 2012? And take the bull by the horns and drive truly sustainable policies forward?

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HS2 – will it improve place and transit systems in the Birmingham conurbation?

HS2 is a huge opportunity for Birmingham. There is much debate about what it will mean for Birmingham and the wider conurbation, including the Black Country. The current Birmingham Metro extension is a start to connect the city centre and its wider urban area – but it is still only a small start.

Taking advantage of the HS2 “once in a lifetime” opportunity requires:

  • a commitment to innovative and visionary place-making in the city centre
  • an integrated approach to the conurbation with its population of approaching 3 million people to provide network access linking centres of opportunity – not just the city centre in Birmingham
  • exploring ways in which the conurbation’s lack of transit capacity is clearly holding back the dissipation of wider economic benefits

Currently, it would seem that the focus is mainly on the city centre of Birmingham, as that is where the HS2 station will land its terminus. This is fine, so long as it is seen as not just a single development project, but an opportunity for wider real and innovative place-making thinking about the next steps for the city centre. HS2 should also open up a real debate about the wider connections necessary to connect the city’s suburbs and the rest of the conurbation through to the Black Country and Wolverhampton.

Although I wasn’t able to attend the Future Faces session at Millenium Point (which is next door to the planned HS2 terminus station), I would hope that some attention was paid on innovation in place-making.

In particular how to ensure that the opportunity to embed place-making thinking about the connections between New Street, Moor Street and HS2 stations, is taken. In my view this is not just about improving the current dreary walkway between Bullring and Moor Street. This is an opportunity for a radical transformation creating a new public space which allows for a clear view down New Street to the HS2 station. This will open up that “closed” urban wall which the old Queensway had created – and which still exists. This will then really breathe life into Eastside.

Of course it can be argued that this costs money and who pays. We have a very complicated funding system in the UK, over which our cities don’t have the powers perhaps that cities elsewhere in Europe, the USA, and indeed in some other fast growing countries. But mechanisms exist which would enable the build of not just localised city centre improvements, but wider transit networks which would spread the benefits to the wider Birmingham and Black Country area. The World Bank has produced a useful overview of “Financing Transit-oriented Development with Land Values“.

Many of the suggestions in the report are recognisable and have been used both currently and in the past – for example:

  • Land development sale/lease: governments sell or lease development rights or land that is appreciating due to transit investments.
  • Partnerships between transit agencies and developers: developers contribute money or property to build station facilities that will attract people to their businesses.
  • Air rights sale: governments sell additional development rights to developers interested in building more.
  • Land readjustment: landowners pool their land, which facilitates the sale of a portion for transit-oriented development-related investments.
  • Land consolidation and urban redevelopment: in more complex scenarios, landowners partner with private developers to consolidate their land and develop multi-purpose projects.

But perhaps the key is having a long term infrastructure plan (such as the Connected Birmingham 20 year plan)  which is definitively owned by the wider Birmingham area (the new West Midlands Integrated Transport Authority), but with very clear devolved powers to allow for investment and fund plans to be fixed.

But plans, strategies and new bodies are all very well. But the key is what real power do they have to drive an integrated, innovative approach to rebuilding and creating a proper mobility system for Birmingham and the wider conurbation?

I suspect not much, as we all know that everything which these plans, strategies and bodies will discuss and agree, are all tempered by the attitudes fostered by the centralised nature of decision-making in the UK. It will be the Department for Transport, Communities and Local Government and most of all HM Treasury, which really decides what will be allowed and what won’t, when it comes to Birmingham’s place-making and transit systems needs.

That is why the lack of real funding and powers devolution in the UK to english cities holds such integrated place and transit innovation back.

Posted in Birmingham, HS2, Place-Making | 1 Comment