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LOCAL NEWS ROUNDUP: Top five biggest stories of 2021

LOCAL NEWS ROUNDUP: Top five biggest stories of 2021

A map showing that the Clean Air Zone would apply to everything within the A4540 Middleway ring road but not the road itself. Image - Birmingham City Council.

From the ever-present challenge of Covid to the newly-introduced Clean Air Zone – Birmingham changed almost as much in 2021 as it did in 2020.

Travel plans agreed during the year look set to drastically alter our use of cars, public transport, cycling and walking while a raft of building plans could reconfigure the city’s appearance.

And all of this happened while the region – along with the country and world – weathered the storm of coronavirus as hospitals, emergency services and authorities responded to new peaks in cases.

Here, we look at some of the biggest Birmingham and West Midlands news stories covered by the Local Democracy Reporting Service this year.

Clean Air Zone

This was the year the Birmingham Clean Air Zone (CAZ) was introduced – having been postponed in 2020 due to the pandemic.

As of June 14, drivers with highly-polluting vehicles could no longer drive within the city’s A4540 ring road for free, now being subject to an £8 or £50 daily charge.

The measures have divided the city with some irate while others believe it is an important step towards tackling pollution – reportedly responsible for 900 deaths per year.

Reports this year have suggested air quality has significantly improved within the zone since the start of charging.

It has also been reported nearly 8,000 fewer non-compliant vehicles were driving within the zone each day two months after the launch.

But the implementation of the CAZ was not without its hitches. The council has fined itself more than 800 times for non-payment of charges following journeys by its own non-compliant vehicles.

And drivers around the country have been mystified to receive fines despite paying – while in others cases drivers have been fined despite not even visiting the city.

Travel changes

Alongside the introduction of the CAZ, Birmingham City Council also this year agreed ambitious plans for the future of travel in the city.

The finalised Birmingham Transport Plan includes an idea for the city centre – the same area covered by the CAZ – to be split into “segments” with car travel across these areas restricted.

Elsewhere in the plan, the controversial idea of closing off the A38 tunnels to car traffic and diverting them to the ring road was again mooted – though the council has said there are “no plans at this stage”.

The plan also suggests further pedestrianisation of the city centre with improved cycling and walking routes.

At regional level, the year has seen a bid for 200 green hydrogen buses to join the 20 already involved in a city pilot.

And the West Midlands Combined Authority has set out its own travel plans – including expansions of tram, rail, electric vehicle charging and cycling provision.

Elections

Another important event in the region’s calendar which was brought over from 2020 was the election of the West Midlands mayor and police and crime commissioner.

Conservative mayor Andy Street was re-elected, having increased his margin over Labour while Labour PCC Simon Foster took the place of David Jamieson, who retired after seven years in the role.

Birmingham will have to wait until next May for all-out city council elections, but a group of five by-elections held this year saw Labour hold two seats, Conservatives gain two and Liberal Democrats hold one.

There are now 64 Labour councillors, 27 Conservatives, eight Liberal Democrats and one Green councillor.

There is one vacancy in Stockland Green following the death of Labour councillor Cllr Penny Holbrook last month.

Covid

Of course – just like 2020 – the city has had to respond to ever-changing challenge of the Covid pandemic.

While the beginning of the year and summer saw new peaks as hospitals were pushed to the limit, the spectre of the Omicron variant is now indicating a fresh lockdown could be coming.

Elsewhere, Covid deniers have held protests in the city and even made a report of “attempted murder” to West Midlands Police over the vaccine.

Shockingly, in January, it was revealed hospital staff had been spat at by visitors who refused to wear masks.

Back in May, the city was placed on a Government watchlist as the Delta variant brought about a 45 per cent increase in cases in a week.

In September, more than 100 councillors and council staff members were put on the alert following a full council meeting at the Birmingham REP studio theatre after someone tested positive.

More recently,  the city’s public health director Dr Justin Varney said Omicron cases in the West Midlands are expected to peak around the middle to the end of January.

Redevelopment

Plans for the future of the city continue to be made despite the backdrop of Covid and this year saw a raft of big schemes approved.

Huge housing projects in Digbeth look set to transform the area – but have been met by fears for existing music and arts venues.

A masterplan for Perry Barr has been published which aims to steer the area as it undergoes a £700 million redevelopment ahead of the Commonwealth Games next year.

Elsewhere in the city, plans for 800 homes on the former North Worcestershire Golf Club in Northfield took a step forward this year with the sale of the land to Bloor Homes.

Plans are in progress for a 267-home estate to be built on deserted Gildas Avenue – currently home to Carl Harris who is holding out for a better deal for his land from the city council.

Words: Mark Cardwell, Local Democracy Reporter


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