Is Birmingham's green belt doomed?
In one of the most important exercises for years, the city council is asking people how many new houses and flats should be built in Birmingham over a 20-year period and whether the additional dwellings should impinge on green field and green belt land.
But councillors of all political colours know deep down that the consultation, if not exactly a sham, is somewhat superfluous.
Ask the people of Birmingham whether they want development on the green belt and the answer will be a resounding no.
But that is exactly what will happen if the Government, in the shape of Housing Minister Baroness Andrews, forces the council to identify sufficient land to accommodate 65,000 new dwellings between 2006 and 2026.
The city is required to consult on three possibilities:
Ã¢ÂÂ¢Continue at existing growth levels by providing 50,000 new homes while protecting the green belt, open spaces and the character of the suburbs.
Ã¢ÂÂ¢Increase the number of new homes to 60,000, with development in the north-east and north-west of the city. Green belt would be protected, but restrictions on developing open spaces and in the suburbs may be relaxed.
Ã¢ÂÂ¢Increase the number of new homes to 65,000, with the likelihood of 5,000 dwellings on green belt land in Sutton Coldfield and on the Birmingham-Bromsgrove border.
Significantly, options for fewer than 50,000 homes do not feature in the consultation.
There are two reasons for this. Firstly, the council is already committed to "grow" the population of Birmingham by 100,000 and has worked out it will need at least 50,000 homes to achieve this. Secondly, Baroness Andrews wants the West Midlands region to plan for more than 400,000 new dwellings over the 20-year period and it is unlikely such a figure can be realised without Birmingham, the largest local authority in the area, doing its bit.
In public, the city cabinet remains determined to avoid the 65,000 figure and says it is only putting the proposal forward because it is being forced to do so by the Government. In July, the cabinet member for regeneration, Neville Summerfield, reacted angrily to press reports identifying where new homes would be built in the green belt. He described the articles as "mischievous".
But Coun Summerfield was being economical with the actuality. Details of proposed green belt development, including maps showing where the homes would be built, were taken from public cabinet documents. They remain available for anyone to see.
Coun Summerfield then attempted to recover his position by suggesting that the consultation was bound to reject the 65,000-figure and that this declaration of public opinion would have to be accepted by the Government.
Oh, dear. Since when did Governments listen to or take any notice of public opinion?
The truth of the matter is this: shire counties representing the English countryside are queuing up to oppose the levels of new-build demanded by the Government. It will be politically difficult for Baroness Andrews and her colleagues to condemn vast swathes of Warwickshire, Staffordshire, Shropshire and Worcestershire to development. They might get away with it by promoting so-called eco-towns, such as the one planned at Middle Quinton on the Warwickshire-Worcestershire border, on the basis that these have a "green" dimension to them, but how much easier it would be to force urban areas such as Birmingham to infill their green field and green belt sites.
How much easier still when you have a council that wants to increase a city's population by 10 per cent.