Friday, 19 June 2015

Devolution & The Birmingham Shortfall

Birmingham is booming and should set a target to be the UK's fastest growing major city, the council leader Albert Bore has said.

And why not. Midland New Street Station, the Metro Extension, Grand Central Shopping Centre and the new Mailbox work are all set for completion in 2015; there is more than one million square feet of city centre offices in the pipeline; and the Greater Birmingham and Solihill (GBSLEP) area is attracting more foreign direct investment than another local enterprise partnership zone in the country.

So all is rosy in the Birmingham garden? Well not quite. There is quite a large elephant in the corner and that is that Birmingham City Council cannot accommodate the homes that it needs. The submitted Birmingham Development Plan (BDP) identified a need for 84,000 homes to 2031, but is acknowledged and accepted that that figure will be higher by the time the plan's examination has run it's course. Birmingham City Council only has though capacity to accommodate just over 50,000 homes, which, for a city with an aspiration to be the UK's fast growing, is a problem. How though to solve it?

The current planning mechanism is the 'duty to cooperate' (DtC), the legal test of which is to ‘maximise the effectiveness’ of plan preparation'. The BDP has passed this test, but has yet to convince the inspector examining it that the outcome of it's co-operation will be effective. Herein lies the fundamental problem with the DtC because though the inspector would not be justified in recommending the adoption of the BDP without being satisfied that housing needs are “capable of being met” it cannot specify how much land should be allocated in neighbouring LPAs, nor can it await other plans being adopted.

The BDP will ultimately establish the scale of housing need as the first step towards achieving an effective mechanism between LPAs in the housing market area, but ultimately that mechanism will not be able to go much further than a commitment on behalf of neighbouring LPAs to either review already adopted plans or have regard to the Birmingham shortfall and the ongoing DtC in the preparation of new plans, plus of course a commitment by Birmingham City Council itself to review the BDP if the expected rate of progress is not being achieved.

The clear and present danger here is though that LPAs already find it hard enough to get local plans adopted that accommodate their own objective assessment of housing need, but, as the BDP Inspector himself puts it “I see no other way of proceeding that would achieve a faster result”.

Well, maybe there is.

Imagine there's no heaven. It's easy if you try. Now imagine that rather than dealing with the Birmingham shortfall on an incremental, local plan by local basis, each informed by the GBSLEP Strategic Housing Needs Study and Spatial Plan, the GBSLEP Strategic Housing Needs Study and Spatial Plan actually became a statutory development plan for the Greater Birmingham / West Midlands (let us not get bogged down in the name...) Combined Authority.

You may say that I'm a dreamer, but the prospect of a Combined Authority led by an elected mayor is now gathering real momentum and Mike Emmerich, former chief executive of the Manchester thinktank New Economy, has been appointed to work on a prospectus for the combined authority. Mr Emmerich is credited with brokering the 'Devo-Manc' deal, which included the nascent Greater Manchester Spatial Framework.

It is apparent, post-general election, that there will not be any fundamental changes to the planning system, which means that cross-boundary planning issues in places like Birmingham, Liverpool and Oxford will be left to individual planning inspectors examining individual local plans. The fast-evolving devolution agenda may, therefore, provide the leverage for cities to grasp these cross-border challenges and Greater Birmingham (or whatever it is called), it seems, is next in line after Greater Manchester to do so. The sooner it does the more likely it is that it will become the UK's fastest growing major city.