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?