“The West Midlands, home to over 3 million residents across its urban centres and rural towns, faces considerable housing challenges as a rapidly evolving regional economy. While areas like Birmingham experience renaissance, many communities confront crises around affordable housing supply and lack of quality later living options suited for an aging population.”

In this article, Joanna Lee-Mills (Partner and Head of Social Housing Development, Shakespeare Martineau) outlines a number of targeted policy initiatives designed to address and overcome these systemic issues across the nuances of rural, suburban and metropolitan housing markets.

(April 2024)

An Affordability Crisis Intensifies

Data from the West Midlands Combined Authority highlights the escalating magnitude of the area’s housing affordability woes. In 2023, the median house price regionwide reached £265,000 – a staggering 83% increase over the past decade far outpacing earnings growth of just 27%. This trend becomes further exacerbated in economic hubs like Birmingham, where average property values skyrocketed to 8.5 times the median household income in 2024.

Urban centres bear the brunt of this crisis. Over 45% of Birmingham households now spend over a third of income on housing costs alone according to 2024 figures. Across the wider West Midlands region, a staggering 125,000 families remained on social housing waiting lists as at early 2024. Supply simply cannot keep up – the area permitted fewer than 20,000 new homes annually since 2021, at least 18,000 units below estimated yearly need.


Rural Accessibility Deficits Persist  

In rural locales like Shropshire and Warwickshire, where nearly a quarter of the population is 65 years or over, most existing homes critically lack basic accessibility features as the housing stock is decades old predating modern standards. Yet close proximity to areas with acute shortages like Birmingham persistently deters construction of new senior living communities due to prohibitive land costs.

This rural/urban divide becomes particularly stark in former industrial towns across North Worcestershire and the Black Country. While vacant land exists for new development, many of these areas still lack robust infrastructure like public transit or easily accessible healthcare required to viably support scaled retirement living communities. Dudley alone estimates over 1,500 new accessible homes are needed urgently to serve its rapidly greying residents based on 2024 data.


Entrenched Underbuilding

A primary driver perpetuating the housing crisis across the West Midlands remains a chronic lack of new home construction across all sectors. With little open land remaining in dense urban cores, developers remain hesitant to undertake costly remediation required to repurpose former industrial sites into viable housing projects. Complex regulations like strict height limits and local opposition continue impeding new urban supply growth.

Public funding sources provide inadequate support as well. The West Midlands received just £275 million from the recent £9.8 billion affordable homes program funding allocation for 2024-2030 – a mere 2.8% despite being England’s largest regional economy outside London. Financing gaps constrain both private and not for profit affordable development efforts.


Later Living Options Still Lag

In parallel to general affordability challenges, the West Midlands grapples with steeply escalating demand for quality, accessible housing tailored for its rapidly aging residents. By 2024, a full 22% of the region’s population reached age 65 years or older and this proportion continues to rise.

Yet the existing inventory falls woefully short according to the latest University of Birmingham analysis. As of 2023 estimates, just 8.2% of West Midlands housing stock meets even baseline accessibility standards like single-level bathrooms or wheelchair-friendly hallways. With few affordable downsizing options, many asset-rich but cash-poor seniors remain trapped in oversized, unsuitable properties requiring costly modifications.

The situation is most dire in rural areas like Herefordshire where 29% of residents are of retirement age yet only around 400 units of specialized senior housing exist based on 2024 local government assessments – nearly all in outdated care home facilities. Even affluent suburbs like Solihull confront looming shortfalls, with Age UK now projecting over 800 new accessible homes are needed annually to meet accelerating demand.


Promising Policy Solutions Emerge

Bridging these housing gaps requires innovative, multipronged policy initiatives tailored to the varied markets across the West Midlands:


(i)         Urban Density Incentives

In land-starved cities like Birmingham and Coventry, revised zoning policies allowing taller, denser development contingent on mandatory affordable housing inclusion could catalyse thousands of new income-restricted units annually. Birmingham City Council approved an “affordable uplifts” scheme in 2023 to fast-track projects with over 35% affordable allotments. Similar programs in Manchester produced over 1,500 new affordable homes in 2023 alone.

However, viability remains an impediment as high land costs persistently deter many builders from affordable projects that generate slimmer margins than market-rate housing. Government subsidies or tax abatements may be required as additional financial incentives to scale this density bonus approach across the West Midlands.

(ii)        Funding Partnerships Gain Traction

Joint public-private investment vehicles are gaining momentum to raise capital for new affordable and accessible housing developments by pooling resources from housing associations, local authorities and institutional investors seeking long-term returns. The West Midlands Combined Authority’s £425 million Housing Delivery Partnership launched in 2024 is among the largest utilising this co-investment model nationwide.

For example, Birmingham City Council collaborated with non for profit organisations such as the Black Country Housing Group to greenlight over 800 affordable retirement units by 2027 on former industrial sites remediated after sitting vacant for decades. Dudley’s Community Land Trust has similar plans for several cooperative affordable housing clusters utilising crowdsourced financing alongside government grants on city-owned brownfields.

Still, risks remain that could limit broader investor participation. Many residential projects targeting lower-income renters or buyers continue generating insufficient yields for some institutional capital despite subsidies. Consistent, stable policy support signals from governments remain crucial to attracting sustainable development commitments.


(iii)       Adaptive Reuse Accelerates

Throughout the region, redevelopment opportunities are rapidly emerging by adaptively repurposing obsolete office parks, retail spaces and industrial plants into new residential communities incorporating affordable and accessible components. By leveraging existing infrastructure, developers can significantly reduce project costs compared to ground-up construction.

Birmingham stands out, with the former Longbridge auto plant relaunched in 2022 as a £1.8 billion mixed-use community including over 900 affordable and accessible units. Coventry is similarly transforming parts of its derelict Peel Centre into 800 new homes with affordable allotments. West Bromwich’s vacant mill sites also gained approval for over 600 mixed-income units.

Environmental remediation costs like asbestos abatement or soil decontamination remain obstacles limiting private sector participation on many adaptive reuse projects. Public funding sources are increasingly augmenting private financing to enhance feasibility across the West Midlands.


(iv)       Coordinated Regional Planning  

Underpinning all policy initiatives, improved regional cooperation and strategic planning between local councils is aligning housing needs with infrastructure investments and future zoning codes. Previously siloed municipal efforts too often exacerbated development hurdles and inequalities.

The West Midlands Combined Authority’s latest Strategic Transport Plan explicitly factors housing growth patterns into upcoming £3 billion public transit expansions – ensuring affordable communities receive viable mobility access. Similarly, new residential zoning codes mandated universal design and minimum accessibility standards for all new regional housing construction beginning 2024.

Obstacles remain for effective collaborative planning like entrenched geographic divisions, disparate local tax bases and divergent political leadership that can prioritise parochial interests over cohesive solutions. But recent regional governance reforms are aiming to incentivise coordination through resource-sharing and integrated decision-making processes.


Equitable Communities Remain the Goal

As the West Midlands economy rapidly evolves, the region’s housing stock has struggled to meet intensifying demand for affordable options or accommodate an aging demographic. Redressing these systemic deficiencies requires innovative yet tailored solutions precisely targeting the varied rural, suburban and metropolitan markets.

From incentive zoning catalysing new urban construction, to financing partnerships revitalising abandoned sites and bolstered regional coordination, a multifaceted approach remains vital. Progress is materialising through policies encouraging denser, income-integrated communities near urban job centres while seeding suburban downsizing options and rural accessible development.

The path towards housing equity across the West Midlands is visible yet formidable. It will take sustained commitment from public, private and non-profit stakeholders to fully embrace these balanced strategies. Realising equitable, sustainable communities providing quality affordable homes at every life stage must be the enduring goal for this resurgent region and its populace. Through cohesive, urgent action, that achievable vision can become reality for all West Midlanders in the years ahead.



Joanna heads up the Social Housing Development team at Shakespeare Martineau and specialises in affordable housing development, acquisitions and disposals. Having worked for registered providers since 2001, Joanna has frequently acted as project lead with large multi-disciplinary teams for the development of social housing, stock transfers or swaps. Her expertise encompasses s106 or land led acquisitions, and development agreements for golden brick or turnkey schemes.

Previous projects have seen Joanna as project lead on the country’s then largest tenanted stock rationalisation transaction involving a complex funding model, and also the country’s first stock swap.

Joanna’s role is instrumental in the strategic growth and direction of the social housing development team and its interface with other sector teams from around the firm. Notably, she is keen to promote collaboration and working closely with colleagues across the firm’s planning, construction and residential development departments in order to provide clients with a seamless and rounded affordable housing service offering. Joanna is heavily invested in her client relationship and profile raising role, often procuring pipeline not only for her team but other departments in the wider sector team also.

With a keen interest in knowledge sharing on sector specific challenges, Joanna has written articles on issues such as stock rationalisation, the impact of the Green agenda on the built environment and the importance of joint ventures and public private partnerships towards the housing crisis, having been published in Inside Housing, Social Housing and other specialist property publications. She is an active participant in the housing sector and local business community, being on the Board of Directors at Auxesia Homes, TAG Network Midlands Limited and Colmore BID.

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