Andy Street is Mayor of the West Midlands, and is a former Managing Director of John Lewis.
The date is set. Manifestos are being drawn up. Brexit may have prompted the upcoming election, and will no doubt be the first topic on the lips of pundits and commentators. However, it is vital that we present the public with a broad range of policies and ideas which show how a Conservative Government would take Britain forward post-Brexit. That means joined-up thinking.
Here in the West Midlands, we are seeing four key issues combined with notable success – addressing the housing crisis, the economy, the skills gap and the environment – under a policy that puts Brownfield development before building on the Green Belt. Our ‘Brownfield First’ pledge is striking a chord, and we would do well to include it in a national election manifesto.
It began last year, when the Chancellor announced a Housing Deal with the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA), releasing £350 million of new Government funding to deliver new homes in the West Midlands. This Housing Deal demonstrated the region’s commitment to turning ambition into firm delivery of new homes in the West Midlands, and crucially included a Land Fund of £100 million to buy and clean up priority sites, focused on the Walsall to Wolverhampton corridor, to deliver at least 8,000 homes.
Thanks to our past as one of the UK’s manufacturing heartlands, the West Midlands has an abundance of former industrial sites, many of which are contaminated by their previous use and have been derelict for years. Our ‘pledge has been to look first to these sites, to reclaim them and clean them up, when developers come knocking on the door. We all understand there is a need for new homes, but too often they have been built on Green Belt areas in deals which benefit the developers but enrage neighbouring communities.
Our policy pledge to put ‘Brownfield First’ resonates with residents who not only want to protect open spaces, they also want to see neglected eyesores reclaimed. This month saw a landmark, when our biggest ever ‘Brownfield First’ deal was signed. The equivalent of more than 32 football pitches at Friar Park in Wednesbury will be transformed into 750 new homes after an old sewage works was snapped up by the WMCA.
The former works, which have been bought from Severn Trent, covers just under half the overall 26.4 hectare site, with the remaining majority of the site owned by Sandwell Council. The deal, a joint venture between Sandwell Council and WMCA, unlocks the biggest Brownfield housing area in the region, but it’s just one of dozens of sites where land is being reclaimed.
Latest figures show how 186 acres of once-derelict land, the equivalent of more than 92 football pitches, has been brought back into use thanks to a series of loans and grants. This innovative approach is not only helping protect the Green Belt, it’s also helping the region deliver much-needed new homes at an impressive rate. We are making more progress than any other region in accelerating the number of houses being built. Last year we built 14,500 homes in the West Midlands, up by 20 per cent on the previous year, when the national average was just one per cent.
But it’s not just housing. More than £82 million in loans has been made available from the Collective Investment Fund (CIF) to help property developers build much-needed commercial, light industrial and regeneration schemes. This fund has been designed to bring inward investment and employment into the region, by accelerating site regeneration. Once the schemes are completed and a new occupier is confirmed the funding is repaid to the WMCA.
A further £39 million in grants has been issued through the Brownfield Land & Property Development Fund (BLPDF). The BLPDF alone has unlocked more than 112 acres of brownfield land. A total of two million square feet of new, commercial floor space has been, or is in the process of being, built. Schemes backed by the fund cover a breadth of uses including office, industrial, mixed use schemes and hotels.
Another benefit of the policy is its effect on skills. With so much development going on around the region, there are clear opportunities to equip local people with new skills. A series of training ‘hubs’, funded by the WMCA with £2.3 million from the Government’s £22 million Construction Skills Fund, can be found on site at some of the most significant Brownfield developments.
On Broad Street, in the centre of Birmingham, a £100,000 training hub is offering local people free construction training and a guaranteed job interview after completing a 20-day course. Led by construction company John Sisk & Son, the hub is based where work is underway to build The Mercian, a landmark 42-storey tower with 481 apartments, developed and operated by Moda Living. Unemployed Wolverhampton residents are benefiting from a hub too, based at WV Living’s ‘The Marches’ housing development on the site of the former Wednesfield High School.
Another of these hubs can be found in Perry Barr, where the Athletes Village for the 2022 Commonwealth Games is being created on a Brownfield site.
Central to the development of Brownfield First is the creation of the National Centre for Construction and Development Excellence, on Wolverhampton’s Springfield Campus, where students will be able to learn state-of-the-art construction techniques and apply them to derelict brownfield sites across the region.
The aim is for this new facility to work with our universities to develop new techniques and equip students with state-of-the-art skills, honed on local building sites. We want our Brownfield experts to become the envy of the world, in demand from China to Dubai, remediating polluted land and building skyscrapers. So Brownfield First is protecting the Green Belt while delivering housing, much-needed commercial premises and new skills for our workforce.
The final benefit is the clear economic boost it is bringing. It has helped inject new investment into the construction sector, driving innovation and opening up new sites. It is seeing homes constructed in central locations, boosting footfall to local high streets and removing long-standing eyesores.
Figures reveal that firms moving into the new premises are generating an extra £5.3 million in business rates. The derelict land we are unlocking and the funding we are providing to get these commercial developments off the ground not only creates badly-needed premises for new and expanding firms, but also local opportunities for local people – creating more than 4,300 new jobs.
Of all of this work to reclaim land costs money, but we have shown that the funds provided by Government to make Brownfield First a reality are reaping real results – and in many cases are repaid by developers once their work is done. The West Midlands is the fastest growing region outside of London and evidence shows that Brownfield First is playing its part in driving that growth.
As our nation builds the hundreds of thousands of homes that are so desperately needed, the Green Belt will come under more and more pressure. ‘Brownfield First’ provides a manifesto policy that will resonate with voters and deliver results.