Friday, 11 August 2017

Devolution & The Birmingham Shortfall 3

I first wrote about the Birmingham shortfall in June 2015. Mike Best of Turley provides the background to it’s emergence through the Birmingham Development Plan (BDP) here, but by June 2015 it was becoming clear that the challenge presented by accommodating some 38,000 homes beyond the city’s administrative boundary and across a housing market area (HMA) represented by 13 other LPAs would not be met by the Duty-to-Cooperate (DtC).

The mechanism introduced into the BDP (late in the day as a main modification) is little more than a commitment on behalf of Birmingham’s neighbours to either review already adopted plans or have regard to the shortfall and the DtC in the preparation of new plans. Birmingham, for it’s part, is to review the BDP if the expected rate of progress is not being achieved.

What else could have been done about it though? As the BDP Inspector himself put it, “I see no other way of proceeding that would achieve a faster result”, but the optimist in me wondered in June 2015 whether the joint working that at that time was going in to the GBSLEP’s Strategic Housing Needs Study and Spatial Plan might, one day, create a framework for joint working that might, one day after that, provide the platform for a statutory development plan for the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA). Whilst there was no other practical solution available to either the officers preparing the BDP or the Inspector examining it, I optimistically speculated that the fast-evolving devolution agenda might provide the leverage for cities to grapple with cross-border challenges in a faster, multi-lateral way, rather than, as is the task facing Birmingham now, on a bilateral, local plan by local plan basis.

I revisited the Birmingham shortfall again in August 2016 when little had changed. The BDP had not actually been adopted because an intervention by Andrew Mitchell MP, concerned about the loss of Green Belt around Sutton Coldfield, had resulted in a DCLG holding direction. An agreement had not been reached on the distribution of the shortfall across the HMA, but since discussions between LPAs were being held behind closed doors it was difficult to know. What was becoming clear by then was the practical implication of the shortfall. With a recently adopted Core Strategy (CS) in place Lichfield, as an example, was faced with a choice between identifying allocations pursuant to the CS with a commitment to an early review of it once the situation with Birmingham was clearer; or reviewing the CS now, either partially or fully, to deal with both the allocations and Birmingham’s housing need. The Council went with the first option.

What had changed at that point though was the formation on the horizon of the clouds of the next housebuilding storm. The WMCA had published a Strategic Economic Plan (SEP) ("to complement and support" the SEPs of the SEPs of areas three LEPs) and it’s economic vision assumes “a higher level of housebuilding than is currently provided for in development plans, or is being delivered across the area’s two strategic housing market areas.” So even before the current shortfall had been worked through a further round of future housing need was being prepared for layering on top.

I resolved last year to revisit the situation in twelve months’ time, which is now. So here we are. August 2017.Twelve months on there has been both lots of change and no change at all. 

The West Midlands Land Commission Report has been produced on behalf of the WMCA and considers the identification and delivery of suitable land to meet housing and employment needs. It has been produced to inform decisions by the WMCA as to the nature of possible interventions required by the CA and it’s partners. The first of the Commission’s ten recommendations was that WMCA Board develops a Spatial Framework for the West Midlands, initially on a non-statutory basis, but the WMCA is still giving due consideration to the outputs and recommendations of the Land Commission Report, which was published in February.

Also in February came news that Birmingham City Council, on behalf of it’s HMA partners, was to tender for what was initially called a ‘Strategic Growth Study’ (SGS) (now a ‘Strategic Locations Study’, but let us not read too much into that). 

The brief set out that the study should build upon the GBSLEP Strategic Housing Needs Study, which ‘explored spatial options for meeting the shortfall’, by considering:
  • The level of HMA need and shortfall compared with the supply already identified (and the potential for greater density upon it) in adopted and emerging local plans;
  • The housing implications of the growth proposed in the WMCA SEP;
  • The potential supply from land outside of the Green Belt;
  • The development potential and suitability of any large, previously developed sites within the Green Belt in sustainable locations; and
  • Undertaking (where the inevitable shortfall remains) a full strategic review of the Green Belt within the HMA, taking into account ‘market capacity to deliver’.
It has been confirmed subsequently that GL Hearn, which won the instruction, will include shortfalls identified elsewhere in the HMA. This includes Tamworth’s shortfall, which is small, and the Black Country shortfall, which is not small. The recently published Black Country Joint Core Strategy Issues & Options document identifies a shortfall of 22,000 homes. 

What this study will do then is to provide:

Clear recommendations on the broad locations for growth, a range of potential housing capacity from each growth location and an indicative delivery timetable. The merits of these growth locations will then be tested through the Local Plan process.

What this study will not do then is result in the apportionment of the now 60,000 home shortfall, plus the implications of Super SEP-level growth, across the 14 LPAs. There will remain no clear path between the recommendations on the broad locations for growth and the proportion of the shortfall that each LPA will test through it’s respective local plan review. Given that a GBSLEP Spatial Plan is still a stated aspiration, and given that the Black Country Core Strategy, which is aligned with the South Staffordshire Core Strategy review, is likely to draw in more LPAs than the current 14, and given that Stratford upon Avon and North Warwickshire also straddle the Coventry & Warwickshire HMA, this path will be a very difficult one for LPAs acting in isolation to navigate.

If you are a glass half-full kind of person, just reaching an agreement across the 14 LPAs to commission the SGS represents a positive step forward and it could provide a firm platform for discussions about the capacity for development in each LPA. If you are a glass half-empty kind of person though then anything other than a definitive piece of work published punctually and with the public endorsement of 14 Council leaders could give the impression of a can with Green Belt written on it being kicked down the road.

Another thing that has changed in the past twelve months is the election of Andy Street to the West Midlands mayoralty. Is Mr Street the man to grasp this nettle? Whilst acknowledging that Mr Street is still new to a new role within a new organisation that has been placed atop an already complex web of public administration (see graphic from Turley below) the early signs are not encouraging. Mr Street spoke during his election campaign of the need for ‘a joined-up approach to housing across the West Midlands region’, but has stopped short of endorsing the recommendations of the WMCA Land Commission. He also campaigned on the basis that Green Belt is a development option of last resort.

Mr Street also spoke during the election campaign of ‘knocking heads together where there are obstacles.’ In so far as the shortfall is concerned, since two of Birmingham’s 13 HMA neighbours, Stratford and North Warwickshire, have signed agreements with Birmingham to take a total of 7,090 homes, it is the heads of the eleven other Council leaders that need knocking. An important head to knock, so to speak, will be that of Solihull’s leader Bob Sleigh. Solihull Council raised eyebrows in November last year when it’s draft Local Plan proposed to ‘test’ only a 2000 home contribution to the shortfall, which the development community and eight of Solihull’s HMA neighbours believe to be too much too low. Mr Street has appointed Mr Sleigh as his deputy.

Mr Street will mark his first 100 days in office on 12 August and will be buoyed by the recent announcement about second Devo Deal for the West Midlands, which could be announced in the Budget towards the end of the year.

It is almost inconceivable that brownfield land reclamation and new measures to bring unoccupied homes into use won’t be two of Mr Street’s ‘asks’, but whilst he may be moved privately to acknowledge that knocking heads together will not solve the shortfall dilemma, it is equally inconceivable that he would request statutory, region-wide spatial planning powers in order to deal with it. The mayor’s current powers are extremely limited for a reason, which is that councils did not and will not want to pass powers, and controversial decisions about Green Belt, upwards. What chance though of a solution to the shortfall being a condition of Devo Deal II. Whilst a recommendation of LPEG, and whilst ministers may be moved privately to acknowledge that the Duty to Cooperate will simply not address these issues, will anybody in Government be so moved by the significance of the shortfall to local plan progress in the West Midlands as to make resolving it a condition of a new devo deal? Perhaps one day.

Oh, one final thing that has changed in the past twelve months is that the BDP was adopted in January, which means that the clock is now counting down towards the three year deadline within which the BDP expects the shortfall to have been distributed within replacement or revised Local Plan that have been submitted for examination.

When I write about the shortfall again in twelve months’ time that deadline will be 18 months away.