The West Midlands is in many ways the cradle of regional strategic planning in England, reaching back to the 1960s. The current absence of any formal mechanism for such planning is therefore a matter of great concern – and some embarrassment - to many planners in the region (and further afield).
Housing shortfall needs strategic regional planning
The problem is exemplified by the identified shortfall of some 38,000 dwellings below the level of need in the planned delivery of homes in Birmingham City. Others, such as the Black Country councils (Dudley, Sandwell, Walsall and Wolverhampton), appear unlikely to meet their own needs in full. As matters stand, there is no mechanism to resolve how these shortfalls are to be met across the region.
The present devolution deal does not provide planning powers to the Combined Authority and it seems unlikely these will ever be conferred other than with the agreement of the councils.
With the impending arrival of HS2 in the coming decade, the shortfall could be exacerbated. There are already indications of London buyers looking to take up relatively much more affordable housing in the region and the house price/earnings ratio is already worsening.
If HS2 has the effect of turning Birmingham into “Zone 5” of the London commuter belt, there will be serious impacts in failing to make good the undersupply beyond Birmingham’s boundaries.
A number of those I spoke to on my recent Presidential visit expressed disappointment that the West Midlands Combined Authority is not taking up this challenge as the one cross-regional body in existence.
Role of the Combined Authority
However, as our discussions with the WMCA uncovered, this risks misunderstanding its current role. In an era of collaborative planning, the Combined Authority cannot impose a solution on its constituent councils. Its very existence is a result of joint agreement between the local authorities and the Government. The present devolution deal does not provide planning powers to the Combined Authority and it seems unlikely these will ever be conferred other than with the agreement of the councils.
The Combined Authority instead is focussed on economic performance and securing the delivery of the 215,000 homes already included in the Local Plans of the West Midlands, unlocking hard-to-deliver sites and ensuring infrastructure enhancements such as Metro extensions and re-opening of rail lines. In many ways, it is assisted in this mission by not being burdened with statutory planning functions.
That the focus is also relatively short-term is hardly surprising: having been established in 2017 and having only staffed up in the past year, the Combined Authority has been under pressure to hit the ground running with initial results required within the next year, prior to the next Mayoral elections in May 2020.
By unlocking the regeneration of brownfield sites across the region, the Combined Authority can only help in securing shared understanding of the outstanding need for further, well-connected, well-planned greenfield sites.
As the WMCA continues to establish itself and develop its relationship with – and trust amongst – the 18 constituent authorities, the Local Enterprise Partnerships and its immediate neighbours (clearly a very complex administrative geography!), it is entirely possible that a broader role in strategic planning may emerge. But that’s for the future.
Fantastic examples of place-making
Meanwhile, as I saw, there are some fantastic examples of place-making under way as was demonstrated by St Modwen Homes’ Victoria Park (the former home of Stoke City FC) development at Stoke on Trent with its clear responses to local community design and cultural concerns.
Birmingham city centre
The remarkable regeneration and remaking under way in Birmingham city centre is something which has to be seen. There are also fine examples of collaborative and cooperative working – between local authorities (joint local plans for Stoke-on-Trent and Newcastle-Under-Lyme and for the Black Country councils) and between the authorities and the private sector. Great planning is delivering great results across the region.
Role of local authorities
But there is an outstanding challenge in tackling the unmet needs, one that can only be addressed by collaboration and growing trust. The solution doesn’t lie just with the Combined Authority – it is a matter for the local authorities collectively to address and resolve. The young planners with whom I met (from across the sectors) show there is a strong desire and enthusiasm to address the issues.
Ian Tant with Stephanie Eastwood, Chair of the Young Planners West Midlands
As ever in planning, each challenge is an opportunity. The opportunity in the West Midlands is to rebuild a strong strategic planning mechanism in the best interests of all across the region.
Ian Tant is President of the RTPI.