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GBSLEP flies under the radar with a new West Midlands spatial strategy

GBSLEP flies under the radar with a new West Midlands spatial strategy

🕔01.Oct 2013

The beginning of what may develop into a 20-year growth plan for Birmingham and a large part of the West Midlands is out for consultation, but it’s highly unlikely that anyone outside of the planning community will be aware of this.

The Greater Birmingham and Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership has released a document called the Spatial Plan for Recovery and Growth (SPRG). This approach is different from any other strategy of its type in the UK because it takes such a long term view, according to GBSLEP.

Readers with long memories may recall that the LEP already has a strategy for growth promising a net increase of 100,000 jobs by 2020, but you can never have too many strategies and the SPRG is to “align directly with the Strategy for Growth and be developed through collaboration between local planning partners in the LEP”.

The Government might sit up and notice that the dreaded s-word has crept back into the planning lexicon.

One of Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles’s first decisions upon taking office was to scrap the Regional Spatial Strategies, which were despised by most local councils because they took a top-down Government approach to house building targets.

GBSLEP, it would seem, is intent on supplanting the RSS with its own spatial strategy, albeit somewhat under the radar at the moment..

Unfortunately, as the SPRG consultation document admits, GBSLEP doesn’t actually have any powers to tell West Midlands local authorities how they should go about planning for housing and industry so the latest strategy is designed to “provide a helpful context for Individual local plans and core strategies rather than supplanting them”.

The SPRG will look at the scale and broad distribution of growth across the GBLEP partners. That is, Birmingham, Solihull, Tamworth, Lichfield, East Staffordshire, Cannock Chase, Redditch, Bromsgrove and Wyre Forest.

But the document, we are told, is only meant to provide a “strategic steer” to the councils who are, by law, required to prepare their own individual development plans. There is no intention that SPRG should “undermine local plans that are at an advanced stage of preparation”.

The SPRG will not, therefore, trump Birmingham’s Big City Plan, or Solihull’s Draft Local Plan, or indeed any of the local planning strategies drawn up by GBSLEP’s councils.

The consultation document accepts that the outcome of the SPRG “is not a given” and depends on collaboration and “respect for local sensitivities”.

It is with this in mind that those being consulted might reasonably ask themselves what is the point of the SPRG?

In fact, the SPRG isn’t yet at the stage where the scale of development and locations for development can be identified; it is dealing solely with principles.

A motherhood and apple pie list includes recognition that “the environment and community needs to be seen as integral assets for sustainable growth not bolt-ons or luxuries”, and that “improving the quality of life for all is a key ingredient of the plan with strong social and environmental justice issues reflecting the continued importance of targeting investment into the areas of greatest need as well as responding to the market across the GBSLEP”.

Intriguingly, the section about principles of the emerging SPRG states: “The conurbation should meet an increasing share of the development needs it generates continuing the record of achievement in urban renaissance. The specific needs of rural areas will be addressed.”

And there’s more: “The plan will assist in identifying sustainable locations beyond the conurbation to accommodate development requirements that cannot be met within it and use this as an opportunity to provide more balanced communities.”

Finally, the consultation document makes a stab at the elephant in the GBSLEP room – housing development across the West Midlands. This, of course, is where the Regional Spatial Strategy fell apart because councils couldn’t or wouldn’t face up to the need to identify land for housing development.

The SPRG suggests a tripling in the scale of development land currently available if the housing crisis is to be tackled. Good luck with that one, then.

It’s at this stage that the SPRG consultation document gets more than a little nerdy with a circular diagram depicting an “overarching framework, strategic objectives and strategic policies”. It is, as I said, all very strategic, not to mention overarching.

Ten different ways to address housing, industrial and commercial growth are proposed. These include prioritising development in the M42 Gateway, on land alongside the M6 Toll, promoting dormitory settlements and developing New Towns.

Whether GBSLEP with its SPRG, can emerge as a strategic planning force depends on two factors. The first is the Government’s willingness to give LEPs executive powers, enabling them to pull together regional planning targets. The second is the ability of the Labour and Tory council leaders in GBSLEP to set political differences aside for the greater good by reaching agreement on thorny issues like housing land and industrial development.

And when the SPRG is finally approved, if it ever is, GBSLEP would be well advised to employ someone to translate the document into English.




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