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.