Nobody Said It Was Easy

In just under 3 years’ time, the tenth of January 2020 to be precise, the deadline will arrive (set by the Birmingham Development Plan monitoring policy) to have delivered the city’s 38,000 housing shortfall.

That will be 8 years since we knew there was going to be a sizeable shortfall for the period 2011-31. We will be almost halfway through the plan period before local plans in the sub-region have got to grips with it.

Why does it matter? Well, for one thing, it is an indictment of the Duty to Co-operate which has failed not just in the West Midlands but elsewhere in the country in tackling cross-boundary housing distribution.

Of course, dwellings are being built in Birmingham at just about the rate set out in the BDP, but the shortfall isn’t being met by anyone at the moment, so those households anticipated to be forming since 2011 are currently in no-man’s land. Not in any local plan, not in anyone’s five year housing requirement, not therefore putting any pressure on local authorities to deliver more housing.

The Story So Far

I have been watching this unfold for the past five years. 2012 was the starting point when Birmingham City Council (BCC) first raised higher levels of predicted population growth with their neighbours, as their 2013 Duty to Co-operate Statement makes clear:

As the scale of the potential housing shortfall in Birmingham emerged during 2012, opportunities to inform adjoining authorities of this position were taken at regular meetings…”

The next step was to commission a Strategic Housing Needs Study, which was due to complete by February 2014. This would:

“consider the scale of future housing requirements that cannot be met within the local authority area within which they arise, and to identify options regarding where additional development land could be provided to meet any such requirements” (para 14, DTC Statement 2013) 

The study was to look initially at the GBSLEP area, but with the hope of the Black Country Authorities coming on board. At the same time, GBSLEP had committed to prepare a Spatial Plan with a launch event in February 2012 (yes, over 5 years ago. I was there!). A motherhood and apple-pie draft for consultation was issued by the end of 2013 but it contained no real figures.

By June 2014, BCC issued an updated DTC Statement in readiness for the impending Examination of the BDP. It referred to Stages 1 and 2 of the Strategic Housing Needs Study which were expected to be published shortly, after which a third stage of work would take place to:

“identify a number of broad spatial options (to be agreed by the Steering Group) for addressing any shortfall of suitable land for housing (or surplus of land suitable for housing after needs within the LPA have been met). (para 4.9)

Specifically, the study was to:

  • Provide local planning authorities and decision makers with a clear basis on which to undertake more detailed work and where necessary review their development plans.
  • Provide broad indicative housing requirement figures for each option for each local authority.

The third stage of the study was expected to be completed by autumn 2014, then it was to form the basis for the “future level and distribution of growth” to be considered as part of the work on the GBSLEP Spatial Plan.

So far, so good.

This is what BCC officers told the Inspector at their examination in late 2014, by which time the promised Stage 3 Study had not yet appeared. It was promised then by February 2015 but eventually arrived in August 2015.

It is worth remembering that the Strategic Housing Needs Study identified a range of scenarios for Birmingham’s housing requirement between 2011-31 of 89,000 to 115,000. As we know, the inspector went along with the figure at the bottom end of this range (89,000) and accepted that Birmingham’s proposed supply of 51,100 would mean a shortfall of 37,900.

The Inspector’s report came out in March 2016, by which time we knew that the Stage 3 Study had fallen well short of its stated aim of providing broad indicative requirements for each LPA and a clear basis for the review of development plans.

The GBSLEP Spatial Plan had also disappeared off the agenda as the shortfall was still “not confirmed”. As soon as the report was out and the plan was likely to be adopted, I started pressing the GBSLEP to get moving, as the preparatory work promised in mid 2014 could now commence.

This led to the GBSLEP Annual Conference in 2016 where the Chair said that the distribution of the housing shortfall was a priority, as was the preparation of the spatial plan. Progress at last could be made.

In the meantime, BCC was reporting good progress by the 14 HMA authorities on a distribution “deal”. At best, this was to be shared with the GBSLEP Spatial Planning Group as a fait accompli, but the quick progress made by the Coventry and Warwickshire authorities in late 2015 to reach their Memorandum of Understanding on Housing Distribution offered some hope.

The intervention of the Secretary of State in the BDP’s adoption in early 2016 caused further delay, which again gave authorities a reason to ignore the shortfall, until of course the plan was cleared and its adoption finally took place in January 2017.

So, where are we now?

Remember the monitoring policy I mentioned at the outset. Endorsed by the Inspector, it says that BCC will work with the other 13 LPAs in the Housing Market Area to ensure that the shortfall is delivered within three years – by January 2020.

How will this happen, given we have known about it and had the chance to plan for it since 2012?

Well, let’s start with the agreements already reached with BCC on meeting some of the shortfall.

Two of the 13 other authorities in the HMA – Stratford and North Warwickshire (both ironically in the Coventry and Warwickshire HMA as well) – have signed agreements with BCC to take a total of 7,090 (just under 19%).

Next we have Solihull, whose local plan review has just been out for consultation with an offer to take 2,000 of the Birmingham shortfall. It proposes the release of some Green Belt for housing to meet its overall requirement.

That has become centre stage in the West Midlands Mayoral election, as Andy Street, the Conservative candidate, has pledged to protect the borough’s Green Belt against Labour’s Sion Simon’s apparent targeting of Solihull as an authority he thinks should accept more. This has prompted a strong response from the borough’s two Conservative MPs (Julian Knight and Caroline Spelman).

Solihull’s dilemma

Whilst Solihull Council has yet to publish its consultation responses to the draft Local Plan, it is already well known that a number of local authorities in the HMA have made strong representations to the effect that they don’t think Solihull has tried hard enough.

  • Birmingham points to Solihull’s own Sustainability Appraisal which recognises the strong relationship between the city and the borough in terms of past out-migration
  • Bromsgrove asks whether 2,000 is an “appropriate proportion” and suggests the Strategic Growth Study is the right place to determine the answer and questions the lack of a clear link between job creation especially around UKC and the need for housing
  • Stratford, who we have seen has already offered 3,300 to help, thinks Solihull should be providing more than 2,000
  • South Staffordshire also thinks that 2,000 is too small a proportion, given the evidence of migration and travel to work patterns
  • Redditch also question whether 2,000 is an “appropriate proportion” given the strong relationship between Birmingham and Solihull and the substantial scale of job growth anticipated around UKC.

The clear implication is that, if some authorities are not willing to take “their share”, others will not step in to take up the slack.

It seems unlikely that Solihull could satisfy the DTC on this basis. Their local plan will have to go back to the drawing board.

The Strategic Growth Study

Into this minefield steps the recently commissioned Strategic Growth Study (Stage 4 of what was to be a three stage study when it was commissioned in 2013).

It seeks to do a number of things worth remarking on:

  1. It will review the existing need and supply figures, which is fair enough given the time that has passed but we are some way off any “helpful” new ONS projections.
  2. It will roll forward the requirement to 2036, so we will almost certainly have a higher shortfall to contend with than we have now. We already know that the Black Country Authorities have said they have their own shortfall of 22,000 by 2036 (allowing for accommodating up to 3,000 of Birmingham’s)
  3. It will take into account the West Midlands Combined Authority Strategic Economic Plan (or superSEP) published in summer 2016 which proposes higher levels of economic growth with the consequence of an extra 50,000 homes needed by 2030.
  4. It will look at spatial options for meeting the shortfall. This suggests an approach based on sustainable patterns of development (as the NPPF recommends), albeit the sequence the brief sets out prefers locations beyond the Green Belt or PDL in the Green Belt before a full review is triggered.

The study will therefore look at strategic growth (dare I say ‘real planning’) and not simply a statistical exercise to determine who should take what proportion of the shortfall on the basis of past migration and/or commuting patterns.

This prompts the question, how much more controversial is that likely to be?

We saw, in the case of Coventry and Warwickshire, that Council Leaders rejected a spatial options approach, preferring the simplicity of taking a “fair share”. Spatial options suggest that the most sustainable locations are likely to take more and that may favour some authorities more than others.

It doesn’t take a genius to look around the conurbation and identify, if the need is being generated by households wishing to form in Birmingham, where they would most sustainably be accommodated.

Add to that the focus on job creation and the opportunities likely to be created in the longer term by HS2, it is no wonder that places like Solihull are going to be at the front of the queue.

What will be the outcome of the Strategic Growth Study?

When it reports, supposedly in September 2017, it will be considered by the leaders of the 14 HMA authorities. If they can reach agreement, what might that look like and when might it be achieved?

The best we can hope for is an HMA-wide 14 authority Memorandum of Understanding which commits each authority to:

  1. The share of the 2031 shortfall they will take
  2. The share of any 2031-2036 shortfall they will take

That goes for Birmingham City Council as well. Whilst they have an adopted plan to 2031, the Stage 4 Study brief commits the city to be part of the reconsideration of need and supply.

The worst case scenario is a repeat of where we are now. A handful of side agreements between Birmingham and individual authorities. How many would be enough for any local plan reviews to pass muster at any examination of the Duty to Co-operate? Half? Three-quarters? In Coventry and Warwickshire, only one of the six LPAs has failed to sign up but the plans going through appear likely to get a clean bill of health.

And what of the GBSLEP spatial plan which this process was supposed to inform?

It is apparent that the GBSLEP is not running this particular show. It is after all a local plan matter properly being dealt with by the local planning authorities within their HMA (which is wider than the LEP anyway).

However, the HMA covers broadly speaking two LEPs, so the Strategic Growth Study could generate a strategic framework for both the Black Country Core Strategy Review, which is slated to commence in 2017, and a GBSLEP Spatial Plan.

The question really is what purpose the GBSLEP Spatial Plan will serve if anything approximating an HMA-wide distribution deal has been reached?

There will be those within local authorities and even in the development industry who would prefer to move straight into local plan reviews and get dealing with the nitty gritty, rather than another round of motherhood and apple-pie policy making.

I feel that would be a lost opportunity, as I have argued before in this blog the need for a proper strategic spatial plan dealing not just with housing, but the chronic shortage of large employment sites, and major cross-boundary infrastructure.

Added to that is the desire of the Metro Mayoral candidates to have a West Midlands-wide spatial plan (whether statutory or not) covering Coventry and Warwickshire as well. Given the new Mayor will not have strategic planning powers, that may be some way off, although the Devolution Deal does expect the Mayor to agree a joined up approach.

The outcome of the Strategic Growth Study will be, in my view, the most anticipated piece of planning work this year. By the time the smoke rises from the Council Leaders, we will be into early 2018. That will leave two years for any agreements reached to be progressed through local plan reviews in time for that BDP deadline. Many plans are only just being adopted, meaning most authorities will be straight back into review and roll forward of their plans to 2036. It is relentless but only because we have been so slow in getting the current round of plans adopted.

In the words of Coldplay:

“Nobody said it was easy. No one ever said that it would be this hard”

The West Midlands Mayoral Challenge

I know that winning elections is about persuading people firstly to vote and secondly to vote for you; and that is about what matters to them on the doorsteps and in the focus groups, not necessarily what needs to be done. For the Mayoral candidates in the West Midlands, this is a big challenge as there is still a lack of clarity about the Metro Mayor’s job description and what area the job covers.

With the major campaigns underway, we are seeing the three main candidates (Sion Simon for Labour, Andy Street for the Conservatives, and Beverley Nielsen for the LibDems) adopting particular stances. Sion (http://www.sion-simon.com/)  wants to “take back control” in an effort to woo Labour Leavers, given the West Midlands voted firmly for Brexit. Andy (https://andy4wm.co.uk/) is stressing his track record as a businessman and GBSLEP chairman, whilst Beverley (http://www.beverleynielsen.co.uk/) is targeting Remainers and is arguably the most pro-growth. The M6 Toll, Birmingham Airport and the Green Belt have all featured in recent press coverage.

Who Can Vote?

There is understandable confusion over who gets to vote, as the WMCA geography covers three LEPs (Greater Birmingham & Solihull, the Black Country, and Coventry & Warwickshire). There are 19 local authorities in these three LEPs but only 7 (the former Metropolitan Districts) are “constituent” members whose electors get to vote.

wmca

So the Metro Mayor will have a mandate from the voters of the conurbation from Coventry to Wolverhampton, but will potentially wield power over “non-constituent” members of WMCA like Cannock Chase, “observer organisations awaiting membership” like Stratford-on-Avon, and authorities who have not yet joined the party at all like Lichfield. In addition, the Marches LEP has joined the WMCA bringing in another three authorities in Telford & Wrekin, Shropshire and Herefordshire to take the total to 22. This is an elaborate jigsaw puzzle and even close watchers of all matters WMCA can get confused. I spent an afternoon browsing websites to find virtually no clear explanation of who gets a vote.

What Will the Mayor Do?

There is the question of what powers the Metro Mayor will have. My focus here is on land and planning so apologies for setting aside matters of transport, skills and mental health.

The WMCA website makes it clear that:

The Mayor’s priority will be to deliver the first Devolution Agreement.

See https://westmidlandscombinedauthority.org.uk/media/1044/17-november-2015-west-midlands-combined-authority-deal-summary.pdf

The Mayor will chair a cabinet made up of local authority Leaders, which will examine the Mayor’s draft annual budget, plans and strategies and will be able to reject them.

The Mayor will not have planning powers but can exercise functions alongside the Homes & Communities Agency (HCA) to deliver more and better homes. These will include the making of CPOs but they must be agreed and signed off by the local authority concerned.

The WMCA website (https://westmidlandscombinedauthority.org.uk/) reminds us that the Devolution Agreement set the priorities for the Combined Authority as “growth, jobs, skills, transport and homes”. It promises a substantial investment programme (£8bn over 10 years) in addition to future Local Growth Funding for LEPs. This includes the £4.4bn HS2 Growth Strategy (including a major UKC-to-Coventry transport scheme), a £1bn Collective Investment Vehicle to help local companies grow, a £500m Housing Investment Fund, a £200m Land Remediation Fund, and £150m for the regeneration of Coventry City Centre.

Delivering the Strategic Economic Plan

The Combined Authority has, through its Strategic Economic Plan published in summer 2016, promised to create 500,000 new jobs by 2030, including at least 100,000 through HS2.

This is important because the economic priority of the WMCA is:

“to jointly create an economy which is the strongest outside London and contributes fully to the Government’s vision of a wider “Midlands Engine for Growth”

This, like the Northern Powerhouse, is part of the Government’s strategy to rebalance the UK economy with less reliance on the overheated South East and London. HS2 is a major part of this strategy, hence why over half of the £8bn investment programme is concentrated on maximising the benefits of HS2.

The 500,000 jobs target by 2030 is also significant in that it represents 50,000 more than is contained in the three LEP’s existing economic strategies. The WMCA is about ‘additionality’ – bringing forward more than could be delivered through existing means. The Combined Authority SEP states that it “complements and supports the LEPs’ work rather than replaces it”. It goes on to say: “It focuses on action of strategic importance across the area and/or of sufficient scale to warrant attention at a combined authority level.”

And finally in respect of housing, the WMCA’s housing priority states:

“The West Midlands has a large and ever-increasing population, which needs to be accommodated for in the future. This is why housing is one the West Midlands Combined Authority’s key priorities. The WMCA will therefore establish a Land Commission to help identify the land which can be used or regenerated to create homes for the future.”

The Land Commission

The Land Commission is also significant as it has now reported (to the WMCA Board February 2017 – see my blog Turn on all the taps – the report of the West Midlands Land Commission and my report of the Board discussion featured in the Chamberlain Files (http://www.thechamberlainfiles.com/political-leaders-look-to-hold-heads-above-water-on-land-supply/) with several recommendations which should have far reaching implications for how the WMCA and its future Mayor tackle the challenge set in the SEP of: “accelerating the delivery of current housing plans to increase the level of house building to support increased level of growth”.

I stress here that the Land Commission quite rightly distinguishes two aspects to this challenge.

  1. One is to increase delivery from the current supply of land. This is largely a consequence of there being a lot of identified brownfield sites across the conurbation that are either constrained due to viability (a weak market and high development costs) or major physical conditions such as the need for remediation and lack of infrastructure. Many of these sites have been around for many years and have been the subject of many unsuccessful efforts to bring them forward. The availability of £700m to assist land remediation and develop housing will be a significant step in the right direction, but let’s not imagine that brownfield will deliver the step change required overnight. A proportion of these sites will still be around in 2030 despite the best efforts of the Mayor, the Combined Authority, the LEPs and the local councils concerned.
  2. The second area is to increase supply to meet the requirements of the growth envisaged. The Land Commission recognises that the existing land supply cannot meet current planned needs, hence the existence of a combined housing shortfall across the two Housing Market Areas (HMAs) of about 56,000 homes. In order to supply enough land for these homes by around 2030, several local plans have already released or propose to release Green Belt – in Birmingham, Coventry, Warwick and now Solihull. Others will follow including Bromsgrove, which has accepted that it cannot meet its needs without releasing some Green Belt.

The Land Commission report remarks that the situation for employment land is even more pressing than housing, with the most recent expert report (JLL/PBA 2015) indicating that in addition to the 1,600 ha of brownfield regeneration for employment use referred to in the SEP, some strategic employment sites will are urgently needed. In Birmingham, this has resulted in the release of the Peddimore site from the Green Belt and in Coventry and Warwickshire, the Gateway site by the airport is likely to be released, along with the recent planning approval for JLR at Whitley South.

The West Midlands Combined Authority is therefore already a sub-region where Green Belt release is being allowed, through local choice, to ensure that the supply of land is increased in the longer term to meet future requirements. That is before the added growth mentioned above, which generates a need for a further 50,000 homes across the Combined Authority area.

Where is the Pressure Coming From?

These are big challenges that the WMCA needs to face. They are not, as is often claimed, being pressed on the local authorities by private developers and landowners greedy for more. The Strategic Economic Plan is the WMCA’s own vision for growth. It proposes the creation of 500,000 jobs. This generates the need for an extra 50,000 homes. The existing housing shortfalls for Greater Birmingham and Coventry are generated by the Full Objectively Assessed Needs for housing determined by the local authorities and endorsed by their Local Plan Inspectors.

The private sector is simply responding to these requirements by promoting sites they believe can better meet the demands of the market and can support physical and community infrastructure because they are commercially viable propositions. But everyone agrees that meeting the challenge in full by 2030 will need all types of supply – the most difficult brownfield sites, making best use of the public estate, high density sites in city centres and near stations, new housing providers, smaller builders, self-build, councils as developers, large employment parks, the expansion of universities, major development around the UKC Hub and at Curzon in Birmingham.

The new Mayor will from May 4th need to come to terms, regardless of what strapline wins the election, with the hard realities of delivering the growth promised by the Devolution Agreement and the SEP that the Combined Authority has prepared.

It is rather like becoming Prime Minister when someone else has drafted your manifesto. I wonder when that happened most recently?

 

Turn on all the taps – the report of the West Midlands Land Commission

The West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) Board will consider the final report of its Land Commission at a meeting on Friday 17th February.

wmlc-report

The WMLC was established last summer to consider how immediate delivery and longer term land supply could be increased to achieve the scale of ambition in the WMCA SEP – an extra 50,000 jobs and 50,000 homes (see para 3.8 of the report) by 2030 over and above what is in current local plans.

Stop for a moment and think about that. The current round of local plans have end dates around 2030, so this level of development needs to be accommodated within very early local plan reviews if there is to be any prospect of delivering over the next 13 years.

Para 2.3 of the WMLC report acknowledges that there needs to be a 60% increase in housebuilding rates (from 8,800 dpa over the last 10 years to around 14,300 dpa for the next 15). This requires a major step change in delivery now (see para 4.5) and a substantial growth in the pipeline going forward (see para 3.14). Para 5.20 of the report states “the shortfall of land for employment space is at least as pressing as the shortage of land for new homes, and possibly more so”.

You could say it is a call to turn on all the taps. We will need every kind of supply.

The report’s recommendations are much anticipated, particularly as Turley appeared before the Commission at one of three hearing sessions and submitted evidence on behalf of several developer and landowner clients.

Guiding Principles

The report sets out four guiding principles for the WMCA to take on board:

  1. There needs to be prioritisation
  2. WMCA must add value
  3. WMCA must make full use of its new powers and funding
  4. There must be alignment of development and infrastructure

Game Changers

The report then identifies what it calls 6 “game changers” as its core recommendations:

  1. There should be a single agreed vision (a non-statutory spatial framework)
  2. The designation of Action Zones, with clear delivery and financial plans
  3. Unity of purpose across the WMCA area, with increased use of collaborative delivery models
  4. Transforming brownfield land, using remediation funding, increasing density and better use of public assets
  5. A strategic review of the Green Belt through a coordinated, comprehensive, and evidenced based approach
  6. Clarified governance and responsibility across the WMCA and its member authorities and organisations

My immediate observations are around the effectiveness of a non-statutory plan and the urgency of a strategic Green Belt review.

A Non-Statutory Planning Framework

The Single Agreed Vision (1) is a laudable aim, but requires both the “clarified governance and responsibility” (6) and then “unity of purpose” (3) as the WMCA is not a planning entity at the moment.

Para 2.2 of the main WMCA board report makes it clear that all local authorities will retain their existing sovereignty over land and planning matters within their boundaries. It is illuminating that the minutes of the January WMCA board meeting report at para 3.2 that:

“Councillor Chris Saint sought clarification on what was implied by non-statutory approach on page 46 of the report, Mark Rogers responded that this was a political issue. At present the WMCA did not have a statutory plan for land and therefore clarification was required on what members were prepared to do by not having a statutory plan. In response to a question on whether the WMCA would have a statutory plan, Keith Ireland added that it was a decision for the WMCA to make. Councillor Sean Coughlan added discussion was required on housing and land and whilst he understood the issue was a sensitive one it was one which required addressing for the betterment of the West Midlands.”

The WMLC recommendation is for a non-statutory spatial framework. At the start of Chapter 5, it states: “The Spatial Framework is not intended as another planning document, nor should it replace existing Local Plans, or those in preparation.

The intention would be for local authorities to continue their local plan reviews, whilst participating in the Single Agreed Vision which they would then commit to implement (para 5.9). The spatial framework would show where and how housing and commercial development could be accommodated in order to achieve the targets in the SEP, including in Action Zones and strategic corridors, with proposed regional infrastructure dependency mapping (para 5.11). There would be a pipeline of strategic sites for both housing and employment, including sites which straddle boundaries and have not previously been identified in local plans. There would be the potential for value capture from one authority area to another.

Para 5.13 states:

“The Spatial Framework could provide the basis for future discussions and agreements with Central Government and might consider the extent to which the mayor should be granted more planning and delivery powers, including “call-in” powers similar to those of the mayor of London, as a means of ensuring that the strategic development sites identified in the Spatial Framework as sites of major regional significance are progressed at an appropriate rate.”

Only in the long-term, if the Spatial Framework proves a successful tool for collaboration, might the WMCA consider the adoption of a statutory Spatial Framework.

I see this as a missed opportunity because there is little evidence that a non-statutory approach, however politically sensitive the alternative might be, will deliver the step change in plan-making needed to achieve the SEP’s ambition by 2030. The slow progress of the GBSLEP Spatial Plan for Growth is one such example. With strategic planning powers excluded from the 2015 Devolution Deal, there will be continued resistance to the “loss of sovereignty” from local Councils but this feels like an obstacle the WMCA will need to get over to produce a credible plan.

The pragmatic interim solution could be making best use of existing and emerging strategic planning arrangements, where current resources are being employed which could provide a short term joined-up approach before a WMCA wide agreement can be reached.

Strategic Green Belt Review

There was overwhelming evidence before the Commission that even a strong commitment to transforming brownfield land, maximising the use of the public estate, and supporting a wide range of new housing models would be insufficient and that, in order to provide for urban extensions and strategic employment sites, some Green Belt release would be necessary.

The report says:

“There was widespread agreement amongst respondents to the Call for Evidence from a wide range of organisations, on the need for a co-ordinated, comprehensive and evidence-based review of Green Belt policy in order to meet the public policy goals of the West Midlands and its population in the 21st Century.”

The strategic Green Belt review, the report says, should pick up from and supercede existing local reviews which risk a “piecemeal and unsustainable” chipping-away of the Green Belt.

The WMLC identifies four areas for the review to focus:

  • Broad areas that perform poorly against the statutory GB purposes
  • Identify land that could become part of the Green Belt
  • Identify sites that could support sustainable urban extensions
  • Identify sites suitable as strategic investment locations

The report acknowledges that areas in the Green Belt which have access to good infrastructure and are well-connected to adjoining urban areas are more likely to support sustainable development than entirely new settlements which, in any event, take too long to come forward and could only contribute a small part of the housing supply by 2030. This is an important steer for the forthcoming final stage of the Strategic Housing Study being commissioned by the Greater Birmingham and Black Country HMA authorities.

There is also a suggestion that the land value uplift of Green Belt release could be applied to deliver development in other areas including across local authority boundaries; something that is beyond current Duty to Co-operate agreements.

It is unclear how this strategic Green Belt review will be carried out if the Spatial Framework is to be non-statutory. It will need to be informed by further studies, which the WMLC report recommends on housing (the so-called 4th stage of the GB&BCHMA Strategic Housing Study) and a further study of modern business requirements to establish the need for strategic employment sites.

My overriding concern is that in order to deliver this step change in growth by 2030, these further studies need to be carried out quickly and the governance arrangements put in place to ensure that the WMCA makes progress on the recommendations and local plan reviews can take place by 2020 with the benefit of the strategic Green Belt Review and a (preferably statutory) Spatial Framework.

What Next?

It is notable that the board report says that the discussion on Friday needs to conclude with an agreed programme of work to respond to the WMLC recommendations. It will be interesting to see what response the report does get and whether it provides the wake-up call it should be to the WMCA.

 

Strategic Planning in the West Midlands

The Centre for Cities recently ran a story entitled Move over Manchester in which it suggested that the West Midlands might overtake the Northern Powerhouse with its second Devo deal, particularly if it becomes the only city region Combined Authority with a Conservative Mayor next May.

Last week, the Greater Manchester Spatial Framework was published (see Turley article on draft GMSF), and despite weekend criticism from would-be Mayor Andy Burnham, it reminded those of us in the “West Midlands” that we are still playing catch up on devolution with a very different model for strategic planning.

Of course it depends which “West Midlands” we are referring to. The old County Council of that name, which was abolished in 1986, comprised the 7 metropolitan districts that form the core of the new WMCA which came into being in June 2016. The New Labour era West Midlands Region, with its Spatial Strategy abolished in 2010, stretched from Hereford to Stoke and from Shrewsbury to Stratford whereas the Combined Authority at its greatest extent covers three LEPs that represent the major conurbation and its hinterland.

The geography is simply more complicated than almost any other city region in the U.K. and therefore needs to be borne in mind when considering the scope of strategic planning.

The West Midlands Devo Deal itself did not confer any strategic planning powers on the Combined Authority (or any future Mayor) and the Agreement offered only the ambivalent commitment that:

The Homes and Communities Agency and the Combined Authority will work together to develop a joint approach to strategic plans for housing and growth proposals for the area.

That “joint approach” is still unclear and is a topic on which the recently formed West Midlands Land Commission has sought views.

The Land Commission was established by the Combined Authority to explore how sufficient land could be developed to achieve the economic ambitions set out in the WMCA’s Strategic Economic Plan, admitting in its TORs that there is not enough land coming forward to meet existing requirements, never mind the additional 50,000 jobs the SEP proposes to create by 2030.

The Commission’s breadth is admirable, but Question 5 is possibly the most important:

What the role of strategic economic and spatial planning across the West Midlands should be, and the extent to which there should be local flexibility in the application of the planning system

I appeared before the Commission last week and was one of a chorus of voices from the development community that believes it is time for a return to strategic planning in the West Midlands. There are two key factors to be taken into account.

GEOGRAPHY

barq3009-west-midlands-plan-0_10

Firstly, there needs to be recognition of the patchwork quilt of local authorities and LEPs involved in the WMCA area. It covers three LEPs – Greater Birmingham and Solihull, the Black Country, and Coventry & Warwickshire. These represent 19 local authorities, of which 7 are constituent members of the WMCA and will vote for the Mayor next May. A further 5 authorities are “non-constituent” members of which one, Telford & Wrekin, isn’t in any of the three LEPs.  There are then 5 “observer” organisations awaiting membership including Warwickshire County Council (but not all of its districts) and another, Shropshire Council, which isn’t in any of the LEPs either. That means a number of the local authorities in the WMCA area are not currently “in the tent”.

I don’t say this for any reason other than it is difficult to impose or even encourage co-operation (duty or not) on such a varied group of local authorities to achieve any sensible geographic scope of strategic planning. There will be inevitable compromises along the way.

HOUSING MARKET AREAS

The WMCA area splits into 2 fairly discrete though partially overlapping Housing Market Areas (HMAs):

  • The Greater Birmingham and Black Country HMA is the largest with 14 authorities, including South Staffordshire which isn’t “in the tent”, but not Telford & Wrekin or Shropshire.
  • Coventry and Warwickshire HMA has 6 authorities, all in the CWLEP, although two also play a part in the Greater Birmingham HMA.

Coventry & Warwickshire have a head start having agreed a Memorandum of Understanding on distributing housing requirements across its six authorities (basically the Coventry shortfall of circa 18,000). This is currently being tested through Examinations on the Coventry and Warwick Local Plans although Nuneaton & Bedworth has yet to sign up until it has a better understanding of its capacity. There is also a MOU on employment land requirements.

Greater Birmingham and the Black Country is much more complicated. The Black Country Joint Core Strategy was adopted pre-NPPF and is due to be reviewed, but is awaiting the adoption of the Birmingham Development Plan which will “fix” the extent of the HMA housing shortfall at 38,000. A number of local plans have progressed in the meantime such as Lichfield and Solihull; whilst Bromsgrove and Redditch are creeping towards adoption but without addressing the HMA shortfall. This will fall to early reviews of recently adopted plans. There is no sign however of an MOU any time soon and nothing on employment land.

Into this quagmire comes the Devolution Agreement’s exhortation of a “joint approach” to strategic plans.

A POSSIBLE WAY FORWARD

I see no prospect of a single Strategic Plan for the WMCA area until a Metro Mayor is in place, all authorities are “in the tent”, and the benefits of spatial planning working to the same geography as the Strategic Economic Plan and the West Midlands Transport Plan are fully appreciated. This may depend to an extent on the progress of other CA-wide joint plans like the GMSF and West of England.

In the short term, therefore, we need a sticking-plaster solution which builds on what we already have, which is:

  • an emerging (albeit ever-so-slowly) Greater Birmingham & Solihull LEP ‘Spatial Plan for Growth’. This is non-statutory and needs both more teeth and conviction from those charged with preparing it (the GBSLEP)
  • the imminent Black Country Core Strategy Review which is arguably a successful joint spatial plan but needs to be progressed alongside the GBSLEP plan due to the overlapping HMA
  • a potential Single Spatial Strategy for Coventry & Warwickshire (which Turley has been advising on) and is moving in the right direction, particularly with the huge advantage of MOUs on housing and employment land

Out of these three strategic plans could emerge a joined up approach to spatial planning across the WMCA area for the foreseeable future. There would need to be a strategic Duty to Co-operate between the three ‘blocs’ until such time as a CA-wide plan might emerge post-Mayoral election. Already, there are hints including in Philip Hammond’s speech at the Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham at the beginning of October that planning may be part of a second Devo Deal.

But we cannot wait for further devolution to address the need for strategic planning because the challenges it can overcome are immediate – not just the existing shortfalls in housing and employment land, as recognised by the Land Commission, but the shortfall to come – that contained in the WMCA’s own “super-SEP” which promises to create an additional 50,000 jobs by 2030 and will need a further significant increase in housing.

Whatever the West Midlands is or hopes to be, it needs a strategic spatial plan fast.