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 – http://www.academyofurbanism.org.uk/congress-programme/

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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Posted in Birmingham, Green Growth, HS2, Place-Making | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

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?

Posted in Birmingham, Housing, HS2 | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

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

My EcoBuild thoughts – do we need a “Green Contract” with a difference?

Having gone to Day 1 of EcoBuild, I came away a bit schizophrenic!

It is certainly a big, busy and bullish event showing what green technologies can and are doing to build a more sustainable economy and society. The outcomes are pretty clear in most cases

  • Reduced energy use through energy efficiency
  • Reduced dependency on fossil fuels through renewables
  • Reduced waste through better packaging design
  • Reduced impact on the environment by re-use, recycling and conversion of waste materials, so they don’t end up in the sea or landfill as pollution
  • Better health outcomes from air quality improvements, and better homes to live in, free from dampness and easier to heat

The list could go on.

So what is there in these outcomes, which are not to appeal to politicians? Aren’t these the outcomes of a better society? Aren’t these the outcomes, which politicians say they are seeking to design, set the laws and regulations, and deliver for their voters?

Well that is where I become schizoid! Because in two debate sessions on Day 1 it was clear that some politicians, and indeed much of the 4th Estate (the press barons) are only interested in a selfish, self-interested and luddite agenda, to ensuring that the status quo stays the same.

The first debate was about what a No vote would mean for the UK in terms of the country’s green agenda. Lord Deben was absolutely clear that it would be disastrous.

And he was speaking from his experience as Secretary of State for Environment in the 1980s. He said firmly that when he became the SoS the UK was known as the “dirty man of Europe”. And it was only because the UK WAS a member of the EU that he argue that EU environmental regulations, would help improve the UK’s record.

But not only that, because he was at the EU table he was able to ask for change and improvements to make them work better.

So quite clearly he said a No vote would be a disaster. His message was adamant. How could we continue to deal with issues such as air quality, energy emissions and generation , waste and recycling, building energy efficiency without working across national boundaries on common standards? And this was equally tied into the UK’s role in being involved in creating those standards to build new markets.

He said “what kind of Britain would we be if we decided not to live with our neighbours and work out our future together when we know climate change, poverty, population increase all depends on the rest of the world”. Unequivocally he said we cannot just demand – “We are not a gunboat nation now”

So here was a positive and clear message.

But my schizophrenia became apparent in the second debate session. Because there is, as we already know there aligned against Lord Deben’s positive message, the still considerable weight of those who are totally opposed to any rational response to climate change and so implicitly an attack on the societal outcomes I listed above. Peter Lilley in the second session, was vehement in his opposition to the Climate Change Act. He saw as a betrayal of free market values. He was clear that the only way forward was its repeal and he would lobby and lobby for its repeal in the new government after the May General Election.

This left me very depressed. It is in my view, irrational to argue against energy efficiency measures, waste reduction measures, measures to protect our environment, which provide improvements to the life of our fellow human beings. But that is the ultimate direction of travel which the views of Peter Lilley, Nigel Lawson and others who are totally only interested in the freedom of neoliberal markets.

This anti-society message is continually reinforced by the oligopolistic views of the press barons. And here Lord Deben was equally forceful. That our society is now battered on a daily basis, by the oligopolistic practices in the market place. Whether this was on energy pricing and supply, on media moguls distorting the message, or financial institutions who adopted short term decision-making criteria.

After listening to this discussion, am I pessimistic or optimistic? I do hope I am optimistic!

Because there has to come a point where we must create a new dialogue. A message which promotes positive values. And that message has to be drawn up working with those in business who really do understand what is at stake. They are also the ones who understand what the real opportunities are for creating a better society, improving health, increasing disposable income, and creating sustainable jobs.

It is vital that we create this new language of sustainability to attack those who are deliberately misinforming people about energy efficiency and the environment. We need a new “Green Contract”. My thoughts on this are:

  • a plain English agenda of the goal to ensure that energy bills are cut by 80/90% through a national programme locally managed of retrofit
  • a more open energy market which is not saddled with oligopolistic market practices – indeed an energy market which is determined from the bottom upwards – not top down as we have now
  • that VAT is removed from energy conservation measures
  • that the housing mortgages are reshaped to promote energy efficiency – and that housebuilders cannot get away by building energy wasting homes in the future just to make a quick buck in the market

This means that the EcoBuild technology experts need to band together around simple clear messages on what the real outcomes in terms of very low energy bills through energy efficiency, warmer homes without burring energy, better air quality and health, and local jobs from undertaking a national scheme of retrofitting the nation.

Now this is a political agenda, which I would sign up for.

But will either of the two main parties take on the vested interests, and importantly also review and change the objectives of HM Treasury to accept, embrace and actively endorse these outcomes, and not undermine it at every turn?

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Redefining the uses for Waste Paper – can we be more innovative?

The recent news of Aylesford Newsprint going into administration is a worrying trend facing the paper recycling industry.

It has been prompted by the declining sales of newsprint – the decline in newspapers over the last few years has been marked – approx 23/25% as reported by the Audit Bureau of Circulations

So what should be done to revive the paper recycling industry? Do we need more innovative approaches to the re-use of paper? There is an interesting European funded paper published back in 2011 which explores the end-of-waste criteria for waste paper, and outlines some current uses for waste paper. Of course consideration of alternatives to waste paper are not easy due to the eyes of paper currently manufactured and also the manner in which it enters the collection/recycling system.

The article published in LAWR  in January and re-published in EDIE outlines the need for a new approach to all “wastes”. Interestingly the recycling of paper was not mentioned directly by the industry experts. Maybe it was implicit. But I feel now that we should seek to build a new platform for considering new way to transform our “waste” paper and card into products other than newsprint and cardboard.

But perhaps now is the time for a push to explore further innovative ways of using paper in different sectors? Perhaps in building materials and in furniture?

Any takers out there?

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Birmingham’s Blueprint for Low Carbon Transport published

This was a great announcement by Birmingham on the 24th February. Its Blueprint for Low Carbon Infrastructure was published and sets down some key principles for city infrastructures to lead the introduction of more sustainable transport. It makes a number of key recommendations, including:

  • Encourage and contribute to uptake of low carbon vehicles
  • Use planning guidance to deliver strategy recommendations for infrastructure
  • Work closely with private fleets on demonstration and deployment activities for low carbon vehicles
  • Make land available for infrastructure providers
  • Streamline planning processes for renewable fuel production and infrastructure
  • Include low carbon fuels for transport into the development of energy system strategies

This is an important step forward building on the existing electric vehicle charging points in Birmingham. Hopefully the Blueprint will be able to take advantage and guide the application of the £43m of funds announced just a couple of days later by the Depertment for Transport.

But it also makes you wonder about how joined up national policy is when it comes to air quality and low carbon transport as Government has just rejected some of the recommendations of the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee, which suggested some excellent proposals to improve air quality throughout the country, but especially in cities. Amongst recommendations rejected were

  • to “make it impossible to build new schools, care homes or health clinics near existing air pollution hot spots” by changing planning laws. But in their response, ministers said there was no need for additional planning rules. They pointed out that filters can be fitted to schools’ ventilation systems to “provide cleaner air”. NB – I don’t see how you can fit filters to school playgrounds!
  • to apply taxes on diesel vehicles designed to reduce air pollution, but Government said it would consider setting up a network of low-emission zones to improve air quality.

It is also gratifying to see the work of the European Electromobility Stakeholder Forum, which brings together the three flagship electromobility projects of the European Commission, Green eMotion, FREVUE and ZeEUS.  It was the 3rd edition of this event and welcomed more than 200 European electromobility experts and representatives from industry, regional, national and European public authorities, transport agencies, utilities, research institutes and academia.

The Forum underlines that the Blueprint which Birmingham has prepared is in line with european funding criteria, and so there should be the opportunity to work more closely in partnership with other cities on the roll out of low carbon transport infrastructure.

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Devolving Power to Birmingham – Should we review HM Treasury also?

On the 28th January, I went to an early morning session hosted by Birmingham Leaders on Devolution. The Lunar Society and Aston University were reporting on the start of their project to build a fact based case for greater devolution to Birmingham and the West Midlands. For too long decisions are made in London affecting our city and the whole conurbation. Those decisions are made by those who “judge” what we need, and then decide what we are “allowed” to have. Do these decision-makers have the day to day knowledge of what works here? Or is it a form of English colonialism on the West Midlands – a region whose economy is larger than the country of Denmark!

Perhaps we should ask the question of why it is that we have to obtain HM Treasury approval to invest in our own future? In the last couple of weeks, we had the Chancellor of Exchequer pay a magisterial visit to our city to distribute largesse in the form of M5 widening, some rail electrification, and an already announced extension of the role of the LEP on training and apprenticeships. Aren’t these types of visits a bit like the colonial viceroy distributing awards and privileges to the favoured

And the difficult task of ensuring that our city and conurbation is managed on a day to day basis lies with our own local decision-makers (or should!). But they don’t have the full panoply of powers necessary to explore all the funding options to follow through on the city’s plans.

Perhaps we should discuss whether HM Treasury is the benign influence it pretends to be on devolution. It is certainly one of those central government departments whose presence is never questioned.

But what exactly is its purpose? What is its constitutional role? I hope to explore this further in my blog!

But coming back to the 28 January #ThinkBirmingham event, I pulled together a brief   on #ThinkBirmingham storify to pull together some of the tweets from that day. Perhaps we will get to a much more sustainable set of funding and powers which are determined locally and not by HM Treasury colonialists from afar.

I believe this will also begin to restore interest in local democracy which has been so badly bludgeoned by the centralisation of powers, funding and responsibilities.

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