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”