Blog: 28 February 2022Is Levelling Up in the South West all ice creams & carousels?

Oli Haydon

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Oli Haydon

Senior Planner

Bristol office

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Inspired by seaside holidays of old and with the recent publication of the government’s Levelling Up White Paper (LUWP), it seemed a good idea to put a few headlines on a ‘Postcard from the South West’ for our regional colleagues across the country.

Whilst perhaps not the region of focus for the main thrust of the White Paper - Dorset and Somerset benefit from a total of four mentions in the main 250-page text - there are still some fascinating aspirations and unusual omissions within the Government’s 300-page flagship document.

In Bristol, significant pressures were already on our doorstep with the failure of the West of England Joint Spatial Plan (JSP), which, after facing serious and detailed criticism by examining inspectors in late-2019, saw the gradual withdrawal of each of the plan’s founding Authorities and the JSPs eventual demise by Spring 2020.

The recent and unexplained shortfall of 2,500 houses in North Somerset’s new draft local plan housing targets and the ever-stretching timescales of the region’s other strategic plan, the Mayoral Spatial Development Strategy for the West of England Combined Authorities (WECA is made up Bristol, Bath, NE Somerset and South Glos), don’t make for great reading either. So what might the LUWPs aspirations for the South West offer?

One of the key headlines across the country is the ambition for extending, deepening and simplifying devolution. In the south west the invitation for Cornwall; Devon; and Plymouth and Torbay to start formal negotiations to agree new County Deals by Autumn 2022 is exciting. It brings the potential for greater flexibility in budgetary and resource allocation to address local needs and priorities (in principle, positive, but successful and effective implementation is another matter). For WECA, a pledge to establish a new form of combined authority model, made up of upper-tier local authorities only with the aim of providing a single, accountable institution across a functional economic area with district councils forming non-constituent members. But when we consider the ‘fragile nature’ of policy formation within WECA, is one cover-all sentence in a 300-page document likely to build confidence in the new model’s effectiveness? Especially given the ambiguity and imprecision of many of the strategies within the White Paper.

More generally, whilst the shift away from local-scale decisions could be of benefit to the efficiency of the planning process, it does risk a further disenfranchisement between local people, the planning system and the development that affects them most.

More specifically the White Paper does however set out that the WECA will receive an injection of £900m over 30 years to boost economic growth and investment in the region. This good news continues across the £198m Towns Fund and £138m Future High Streets Fund, with regional highlights such as St Ives, Glastonbury and Salisbury as well as those areas that perhaps don’t feature so heavily on your stay-cation road-trip, Swindon, Yeovil and Camborne, lined up for funding for job creation, public realm improvements and new homes.

The goal of balancing regional disparities in transport quality, availability and cost will be realised in Cornwall with the pilot of the ‘Superbus’ network, a conglomerate of the county’s bus and train operators with the aim of connecting communities, more reliably and regularly and at lower prices. A Bristol-Bath priority bus lane, cycle freeways across Dorset and Devon and the reopening of two stations at Wellington and Cullompton will also be delivered through the £540m fund.

How the government intends to incentivise investment into these settlements or address historic issues of commercial unviability of some South West locations is a telling omission. Such questions are at the root of many of Levelling-Up criticisms, with distribution is addressed but no new funding provided, and ambiguity running throughout. Ambiguity that, for the Green Belt-dominated WECA, is particularly relevant in a single sentence within the White Paper that states “the UK Government will develop plans for further greening the Green Belt in England”,with no further reference throughout.

Whilst local councils face a crisis of resourcing across the country, resolution of the existing planning policy issues in the South West will only be complicated further by the upsurge in house prices and influx of new residents associated with the COVID-fuelled working-from-home renaissance. The White Paper makes little reference to planning reform and improving capacity within local authorities, perhaps being saved for the upcoming Planning Reforms White Paper. To put it frankly, the impetus hasn’t been demonstrated from the Government at either a national nor local level, that the south-west region can sustain what awaits it and whatever future pledges the LUWP makes, there is a need to be boosting supply now.

Perhaps a single break in the clouds is in the form of Homes England Levelling Up Home Building Fund, a £1.5bn pot for developers and SME housebuilders launched in early-February to access loans to push the delivery of their schemes. The fund will favour greener homes, innovation, diversification and strengthening of the SME developer market.

Well, a seagull has nabbed my 99 Flake and I’m all out of pennies for the amusement arcade, the forecast in the South West looks a little unsettled for the days ahead while we await the swathe of planning, regeneration, and social housing legislation that’s due to follow the LUWP. The blueprint has been drawn but the pencil needs sharpening.

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