Intelligence: 16 February 2017WMLC Recommendations: Igniting the Midlands Engine?

The West Midlands Land Commission (WMLC) has published its ‘Final Report’ to the West Midlands Combined Authority. Following last year’s ‘Call for Evidence’, the document contains recommendations (not site-specific) on how the amount of developable land could be increased at the strategic and regional level. This is with a view to raising the level of housing completions and quantity of developable employment sites to accommodate the level of growth outlined in the Strategic Economic Plan (SEP), which includes the creation of 500,000 new jobs by 2030. The Report states that a 60% increase on the current annual level of housing completions is needed, along with a large increase in employment land. 

The WMLC’s recommendations are, therefore, predicated on the provision of a ‘balanced portfolio of development across the Combined Authority area’, whereby local authorities and the constituent Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) work collaboratively to maximise investment decisions and deliver economic growth. Clearly, the scale and speed of delivery will need to improve.

It is clear that there are a number of consistent ideological principles emanating from the Government’s productivity plan ‘Fixing the foundations’, industrial strategy ‘Building Our Industrial Strategy’ and Housing White Paper ‘Fixing Our Broken Housing Market,’ that have percolated down to this regional tier of governance. This is evident from the four overarching principles the Commission believes to be vital to success:

1. Prioritisation – recognising that all parts of the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) should benefit, but not necessarily at the same time or in the same way.

2. Adding value – WMCA should only intervene where intervention adds value beyond the actions of its individual members.

3. Full and holistic use of both the new powers and the funding - following the Devolution Deal.

4. Aligning development and infrastructure – accords with the strong emphasis on infrastructure delivery contained in the Autumn Statement, the ‘upgrading infrastructure’ section of the Government’s Industrial Strategy and the promise of unlocking housing sites through infrastructure investment in the White Paper.

From these principles flow six collective and transformative actions that the WMLC believe will be required if the step-change required to meet the SEP targets is to be achieved:

1. Single Agreed Vision - expressed as a non-statutory Spatial Framework, comprising a mixed land use strategy encompassing a range of options (e.g. brownfield remediation, densification, estate renewal, infill development, new settlements and urban extensions).

2. Action Zones - designated zones where significant employment and housing land can be accommodated, preferably concentrated around strategic transport corridors. These would be underpinned by a delivery plan and financial plan for each zone with assistance provided by an ad hoc Project Delivery Team to support and enhance implementation.   

3. Unity of Purpose – the West Midlands has a complex planning landscape, so new collaborative delivery models that utilise the full range of available planning powers could be used to strengthen the region’s identity and attract inward investment. This may include CPOs, LDOs, Permission in Principle, Enterprise Zones and Housing Action Zones.   

4. Transforming Brownfield Land – a radically expanded programme of regeneration and remediation of brownfield sites across the West Midlands. To accommodate the new jobs, the SEP anticipates 1,600 hectares of land will need to be remediated. One recommended mechanism is the potential for re-investing a proportion of the value realised in granting planning consents in one area (through Section 106 or CIL payments) in the assembly and remediation of major sites elsewhere to the collective benefit of the WMCA overall; an obvious linkage to the theme of prioritisation above.

5. Strategic Review of the Green Belt that picks up from and, where appropriate, supersedes local authority reviews already underway to avoid a piecemeal approach to Green Belt release. The Report acknowledges that even an effective, well-funded remediation programme is unlikely to provide a sufficient supply of developable land to meet the SEP’s ambitions and targets.

6. Clarified Governance and Responsibility – recommends the WMCA reviews current governance processes and the distribution of roles, responsibilities and accountabilities to ensure it can provide the strategic leadership and oversight of the other recommendations.

Governance and responsibility will be crucial to unlocking sites for ‘larger than local’ growth in the right locations at the right time. The Report highlights that the Spatial Framework could be used as a basis for discussions with Central Government around the extent to which the elected mayor should be granted more planning and delivery powers as part of a more interventionalist approach. This could include ‘call-in’ powers similar to those of the Mayor of London, to ensure sites of major regional significance are progressed expeditiously. Such overarching authority and co-ordination will ensure the other recommended actions can be deployed to meet the SEP targets. Importantly, such governance will respond positively to the idea of comparative advantage promoted through the Government’s Industrial Strategy; whereby the Midlands can capitalise on its inherent strengths through carefully planned strategic clusters and the consequential benefits associated with agglomeration. There are lessons to be learnt from the emerging Greater Manchester Spatial Framework on how this can be achieved to ensure this caters for the needs of specific growth sectors.

The full document, which is available to view here is being considered at the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) Board Meeting this Friday, 17 February 2017 and it is for the WMCA to decide if it agrees with, and takes forward, its recommendations.

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