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.