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

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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.