Great strides have been made in securing investment into Greater Birmingham – but progress on forward planning however has been a different matter.
The Local Growth Deal secured by the Greater Birmingham and Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership (GBSLEP) and positive news around HS2 and the Curzon Urban Regeneration Company have been a major boost to the region.
But progress on forward planning has been harder to find. The GBSLEP has embarked on the preparation of a spatial planning framework. As a member of the planning sub-group, planning consultancy Turley has seen first-hand how this work has developed.
The framework entitled A Spatial Plan for Recovery and Growth (SPRG) started life in February 2012 but initially focused on the current state of play rather than producing a forward-looking vision.
Theoretical growth options were explored in the consultation draft SPRG published in September 2013, such as urban consolidation, urban extensions, growth corridors, or new settlements, but without any sense of how much growth was required.
As a result, there was a disappointing response to the draft SPRG and some doubts as to whether an informal plan would ever have much influence over local authorities.
It was decided in late 2013 that background work was needed on housing needs and employment land requirements and this month the initial findings of the long-awaited strategic housing study were presented to a workshop of local authority officers and private sector representatives.
The presentation revealed that the latest raw population projections pointed towards some 8,000-plus additional dwellings being required across the GBSLEP area compared to the 5,500 currently in draft local plans with Birmingham’s needs representing 70 per cent of the total GBSLEP requirement.
Currently, the Birmingham Draft Plan, which has already been submitted to the Secretary of State and will be the subject of a public examination in the late autumn, is only proposing to supply 2,500 dwellings per year of the 5,500 a year across the GBSLEP area of which some 5,000 dwellings and a large employment site would be in the green belt at Sutton Coldfield.
The plan assumes that over 30,000 houses will be accommodated elsewhere, even though some developers say that Birmingham could accommodate another 5,000 within its boundaries. The question is who will make up the deficit and more importantly whose green belt will have to be rolled back to make way for them?
On the face of it, the other eight authorities in the GBSLEP area could be faced with doubling their own housing supply to help house the city’s growing population.
That could mean authorities like Solihull, where the adopted local plan has been subject to a successful High court challenge, or Lichfield, where the local plan was delayed while the authority increased the number of housing sites, may have to provide two houses for every one that they need themselves.
That will not go down well if those additional dwellings have to be found in those districts’ green belt.
The next stage of the strategic housing study for the GBSLEP area is intended to consider the spatial distribution of housing.
The report should be available by the time of the Birmingham examination. This could have several implications.
Firstly, the ‘duty-to-co-operate’, which is an essential part of the Localism Act, requires that authorities show how and where their ‘objectively assessed housing needs’ are to be met. If Birmingham cannot reach a consensus with adjoining authorities, there is a risk that their local plan will be found ‘unsound’ unless they can accommodate more housing on the city’s own green belt. Secondly, as a result of the recent High Court decision, Solihull will need to revisit their housing numbers just as Birmingham’s needs have been firmed up.
Solihull, the natural destination for many of the city’s upwardly mobile migrants, is challenging the High Court decision in the Court of Appeal but it is highly unlikely that Solihull will make any commitment to Birmingham until this is resolved,
Thirdly, the Birmingham housing market area is wider than the GBSLEP area and includes not only the Black Country but North Warwickshire and Stratford-on-Avon, (arguably more so than East Staffs or Wyre Forest which are in the GBSLEP).
That means Birmingham will need to negotiate outside the GBSLEP area to meet its needs, with those authorities possibly further advanced with their own plans.
Finally, of course some will argue that housing needs in the LEP area should be even higher than the study suggests, because it fails to take account of economic growth, affordability or market signals.
The next stage of the GBSLEP’s Spatial Planning Framework will distribute new housing and employment with the aim of giving life to the GBSLEP’s growth strategy and realising the vision for a thriving city region, creating many more jobs and retaining aspirational and well-educated people.
Where will they want to live? Probably in the same areas that will be resisting Birmingham’s needs. The battleground will inevitably be the West Midlands green belt.
* Mike Best is executive director at Birmingham planning consultancy Turley and a partner to the Greater Birmingham and Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership spatial planning group