What the removal of a block on Birmingham's local plan means for plan-makers

The six-month holding direction on Birmingham's local plan has delayed planning and development proposals in the city region, but other authorities should not be deterred from reviewing their green belt boundaries, experts say.

Birmingham: block on plans process has held up plan-making in city-region, observers say
Birmingham: block on plans process has held up plan-making in city-region, observers say

In May, former planning minister Brandon Lewis used new powers introduced by the Housing and Planning Act to place a holding direction halting the progress of Birmingham City Council’s local plan. The move followed objections raised by Andrew Mitchell, the Tory MP for Sutton Coldfield, about plans for a 6,000-home urban extension at Langley, which is on green belt land in his constituency.

Last week, it was announced that the holding direction should be lifted in a letter to the council from current planning minister Gavin Barwell. The minister’s letter said the government agreed with the planning inspector who found the plan sound. The letter said the government agreed with the inspector that "the vast majority of sites" proposed in the draft plan are on brownfield land and its density policy "seeks to maximise the yield from each development site". The "scale of potentially unmet need in the city is ‘exceptional and possibly unique’", it added.

Explaining the decision, communities secretary Sajid Javid told a conference last week: "Where local councils come forward with sensible, robust local plans - and are willing to take the tough decisions - I will back them all the way."

Commentators said the six-month delay to the progress of the plan has held up key planning work for the city-region. Craig Jordan, the Planning Officers Society’s West Midlands convenor and head of economic growth at Lichfield District Council, said: "For adjacent local authorities, communities and the development industry, it has meant a period of uncertainty and confusion as regards understanding what the future spatial plans are for the city and its environs."

A key knock-on effect has been on plans by neighbouring authorities to help meet Birmingham’s shortfall of 38,000 homes, said Jordan and Mike Best, executive director at consultancy Turley. Best said a planned memorandum of understanding between the city and 13 surrounding councils to share the shortfall has been held up, as has the Greater Birmingham Spatial Plan, involving four authorities. "All discussions about the city’s shortfall have ground to a halt," he said.

Ian MacLeod, the council’s assistant director for planning and regeneration, said that the authority has had to depend on its old 2005 development plan as the direction had placed a potential question mark on the legal status of the new plan.

The holding direction also delayed a planning application for the Langley sustainable urban extension, said Michael Davies, a planning director in Savills’ Birmingham office, which is acting as agents for the promoters. The council said it now expects to adopt its plan early in the New Year.

Commentators agreed that the direction would and should not put off other authorities from reviewing their green belt boundaries. MacLeod said: "Other authorities with a shortage of land for housing shouldn’t be deterred by our experience from reviewing their green belt as part of that process. But you have to have a robust evidence base to justify the decisions you’ve made. We showed the government that we had maximised capacity in urban areas and looked at brownfield land first before making the more difficult decision to release green belt."

Davies added: "The government wanted to make sure that the decision Birmingham took was a sound one. After reviewing the situation, they realised that Birmingham is doing the best it can with the land available."
Jordan agreed that other councils would not be deterred, adding: "The National Planning Policy Framework makes it clear that there has to be strong justification for proposing the removal of green belt land to facilitate development. Nothing has changed as a consequence of the intervention in this respect."

However, Best and Davies said the move may signal a less hardline approach to green belt release compared to previous Department for Communities and Local Government ministers.

The decision to remove the holding direction prompted criticism from the countryside lobby group Campaign to Protect Rural England. Paul Miner, its planning campaign manager, said: "It does seem that by enthusiastically signing off this plan, ministers are continuing to encourage green belt boundary reviews."

But MacLeod said: "The decision is an important step forward in terms of meeting housing need across the UK."

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