by danielbarker on 4 November, 2019
The headline blazoned across the front page of Tuesday’s “Express and Star” (29 Oct 2019) proclaimed PLANS TO BUILD 1,000 NEW HOMES – Brownfield land in the town will be given a new lease of life at first glance give you hope of some good news for once. It got even better when the article said that a Masterplan for Willenhall was to be drawn up.
However the novelty was short lived. When you got to the bit about the new homes being delivered over 20 years it becomes clear that 1,000 homes actually equates to 50 new homes a year. Kind of takes the edge off it doesn’t it?
Fifty new homes won’t even keep up with the increase in demand and certainly will do nothing to help the hundreds of young people looking to get their first property, whether it be to buy or rent. And what about the thousands on the waiting list for a housing association property? Evidence of which we see each week at our surgeries.
The other fascinating bit of information from the “Express and Star” article was that council bosses were doing this as part of a Masterplan for Willenhall. To have a Masterplan, you need at least something called an Area Action Plan. These are development plan documents that focus on a specific location or an area subject to conservation or significant change, including major regeneration or growth areas. Willenhall, as we pointed out in the Autumn Edition of Focus, in common with the other District Centres that go to make up the borough of Walsall does not have one.
Depressingly, this Masterplan is being drawn up to impress public and private investors. No mention of the existing communities across Willenhall being involved. No mention of funds being available to ensure that there are enough schools, GP practices, business parks and decent roads to cope with the increased traffic that 1,000 extra homes might generate. At certain times of the day – morning and evening rush hour, the school runs – Willenhall almost grinds a halt even today.
The article went on to say that Walsall’s Conservative bosses hope the vision they create can become a reality by working with the Birmingham based West Midland’s Mayor and the whole idea is subject to Cabinet’s approval. What’s the odds on this happening just before the Local Elections in May next year?
Further into the report there is a reference to the two new train stations to be built in time for the Commonwealth Games in 2022. One will be in Willenhall. The report says that passengers will be able to travel between the two hubs (Walsall and Wolverhampton). We would hope that plans for the new rail links were a bit more ambitious than that.
If the business case for the two new train stations has been built around a train service shuttling backwards and forwards between Walsall and Willenhall, then you have to wonder whether the West Midlands Mayor is going to be able to deliver on this promise. Why would anyone wait half an hour for a train, when there is a perfectly good Platinum Bus service every 8 minutes?
In talks we have had on behalf of the West Strategic Locality Board (West SLB), we have discussed far more ambitious plans. These would turn the existing Walsall, Birmingham, Wolverhampton West Midlands Trains service into a circular service by adding the Walsall, Wolverhampton link. We also explored the possibility of a northern loop to Stafford through Walsall and Wolverhampton.
If there is to be a new Willenhall Masterplan, then surly it should be developed through and with the existing Willenhall community?
Discussions had already taken place at the West SLB in September based on the West Midlands Combined Authority Wolverhampton/Walsall Regeneration Corridor agreed in 2018. The difference between our two approaches is plain to see. The Walsall approach would be delivered top down with no sign yet of the existing community being involved. Whereas the West SLB approach is being developed very much from a bottom up approach in full consultation with the citizens of Willenhall.
Other areas of concern we have revolve around the quality and sustainability of new homes to be built? Would they be to zero carbon standard and sustainable in a world of climate change? Walsall’s Conservative bosses are reluctant to challenge developers to provide future proof homes.
With Central Government signed up to being carbon neutral by 2050 it means that any new homes being built now would need to be carbon neutral. That is far from the case, meaning that any new homes not reaching that standard would need to be retro fitted before 2050. Who’s going to pay for that? My guess is it won’t be the developers.
Since the Local Government Act 2000 came into force in the early 2000’s we have seen the Committee system of governance replaced by the Cabinet and Scrutiny system. As a result of this decision making has moved further and further away from the man and woman in the street.
More than ever decisions are being made behind closed doors by an elite few. So many decisions are made in this way the task of holding Cabinet to account is becoming more and more difficult.
Add to this austerity continuing way beyond the original date needed to put right the wrongs which led to the financial crash of 2008. Austerity was supposed to end in 2015. The Tories have allowed it continue. Public services have borne the brunt of the cuts, Walsall will have seen upwards of £200 million slashed from its budgets since 2010 and in spite of promises from the likes of Theresa May and now Boris Johnson there is still no light at the end of the tunnel.
Is it any wonder that when given the chance in 2016 to get back at the establishment through the Referendum, the ordinary man and woman in the street lashed out and gave Westminster politicians a thrashing?
Has it changed anything? I doubt very much that it has. Whether we leave or remain in the EU one thing is very certain. Ordinary folk will be the ones who will suffer any downside, and you know, those in power, whether they be in the Government at Westminster or the Cabinet at Walsall Council, they all that streak of arrogance. Like Teflon, nothing sticks to them.
Which brings me back to this highly misleading headline that was fed to the Express and Star, that promise of 1000 new homes in Willenhall. I suspect the Conservative Metro Mayor at West Midlands Combined Authority and the Conservative leadership at Walsall Council have both fallen into the same trap as the rest of us. Believing what they were told by Westminster.
When we first got wind of the deal on housing and land that had been struck between the Metro Mayor and the Government back in 2017. The deal which was going to fix the housing shortage by fixing the problems of the Brownfield Sites scattered across Birmingham and the Black Country. Delivering 215,000 new homes over the next 10 years across the West Midlands whilst reducing the need to build on Green Belt land, we thought perhaps that it might be just that bit too good to be true. Well here we are, almost 3 years on, I begin to suspect that we were right.
We are witnessing damage limitation, what they now call managing expectations, it is part of a smoke screen been laid down to hide the fact that the Brown Field sites are proving a harder nut to crack. Like the NHS, Education and Social Care, more money is needed to deliver the sites to build the new homes so desperately needed. Why is it that the public don’t get to hear this? I can think of no other reason than so much going on behind closed doors. Just what have they got to hide? Time to ditch the failing Cabinet and Scrutiny governance modal. Time for more open governance.
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