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Political leaders look to hold ‘heads above water’ on land supply

Political leaders look to hold ‘heads above water’ on land supply

🕔22.Feb 2017

It seems like a lifetime ago, given developments at Birmingham city council over the weekend, but the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) board met only last Friday where it took official receipt of the West Midlands Land Commission’s report. Mike Best writes on how the report from the Commission, set up in Summer 2016 to consider how land supply could be increased to achieve the scale of ambition in the WMCA’s super-SEP, was received by council leaders. 

The report identifies six core recommendations (what it refers to as “game-changers”) including:

1. A single agreed vision (a non-statutory spatial framework)
2. Designation of Action Zones including strategic transport corridors
3. Unity of purpose across the WMCA area
4. Transforming brownfield land, using remediation funding, increasing density and better use of public assets
5. A strategic review of the Green Belt
6. Clarified governance and responsibility across the WMCA and its member authorities and organisations.

There is much to commend in the report in its comprehensive coverage of the issues and, as the Commission chair Paul Marcuse said in opening his verbal report to the WMCA board, the solution to the challenge the new Combined Authority has set itself requires a “mixed land use strategy” – referred to in my recent post as “turning on all the taps”.

This means drawing on all possible types of supply to meet housing and employment needs including brownfield remediation, densification, estate renewal, infill development, new settlements and urban extensions. This, the report acknowledges, will require the release of some Green Belt.

In opening the item at the board meeting, Councillor Sean Coughlan of Walsall MBC said it was time for “grown up conversations”, and that the Land Commission report was always likely to be controversial and challenging.

Paul Marcuse, in his presentation, referred to the “step change” required to deliver the growth target the WMCA has set itself and said that whilst the Commission respected the role of each Council, the report was peppered with the words “collective”, “collaborative” and “joined up”.

Bruce Mann, another of the Commissioners, confirmed that all possible means should be used to deliver brownfield land as a priority through the collaboration of central and local government, but also that there would need to be a strategic review of the Green Belt carried out by the WMCA.

The discussion that followed highlighted a number of the challenges which will face the WMCA in taking forward the recommendations of the Commission.
David Jamieson, the Police and Crime Commissioner, made a plea that Action Zones in particular should target deprived areas to ensure inclusive growth.

Roger Lawrence, leader of Wolverhampton City Council, also supported the brownfield first approach and said that “huge challenges” remained for Transport for West Midlands in linking homes and jobs.

Ian Courts from Solihull MBC said that “deep political engagement” was needed in order for all Councils to buy-in to the proposals, specifically referring to the recent Housing White Paper and its reference to protecting the Green Belt.

Rugby Borough Council commented that the Commission had not engaged with all districts in two-tier authority areas, so there was an issue about how to engage with non-constituent members and those awaiting membership.

Chris Saint of Stratford-on-Avon District Council confirmed that the districts were “disappointed” and there was a need for further engagement about how the report’s recommendations might be taken forward, because some of the proposed mechanisms were “overwhelmingly bureaucratic”. He was also concerned that the report might be construed by some as a policy document, which it is not. This was supported by Herefordshire Council.

Cllr Bob Sleigh, in the chair, confirmed that it was only being “received” and further work would be done to consider the recommendations.

Izzy Secombe, leader of Warwickshire County Council, said that it was important the sovereignty of districts over their Local Plans should be respected, and account needed to be taken of emerging Government policy on housing and Green Belt. She invited these matters to be explored within the Coventry and Warwickshire LEP Planning and Housing Group.

North Warwickshire Borough Council expressed concern that they were willing to explore accommodating some of the housing shortfall, but the inference was that they and others may need to take even more. It was described as like “pushing water uphill” but the risk was they would “end up drowning”. It would be a serious problem if the numbers on which co-operation was being undertaken were “wrong in the first place”.

Nuneaton and Bedworth Council noted the recommendations in the report but emphasised that further work was needed and there should be no question of taking away the sovereignty of local authorities.

In concluding the discussion, Councillor Coughlan acknowledged the concerns expressed but said that as leader of Walsall Council, he knew that there would be difficult decisions around the location of development which could not be shirked.

He added two further verbal recommendations to the board about the Housing White Paper and the HS2 Connectivity Package, and the meeting supported them all including a programme of work to determine the WMCA response to the Commission’s report and agreeing that the report itself was not a material planning consideration in either planning applications or the formulation of planning policy.

This is another step forward in the progress towards delivering on the promise of devolution but, returning to my “turning on all the taps” analogy, political leaders need to be prepared to hold their heads above the water.

Mike Best is Senior Director of Turley and Chair of the Place Marketing Group for Colmore Business District. 

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