Mayoral monitor: the planning progress made by England's metro mayors

What progress have the mayors of England's combined authorities made on key planning issues in their first 12 months in office? Mark Wilding reports.

West Midlands mayor Andy Street
West Midlands mayor Andy Street

It is now more than a year since the first generation of mayors took office in English combined authorities with central government devolution deals. Some of these mayors have statutory planning powers, while others have to rely on their powers of persuasion.

Simon Jeffrey, policy officer at the Centre for Cities think tank, says: "Even if they don’t have a formal spatial plan, these mayors have control over the local transport budget and have the ear of government to bring down more funding for transport, infrastructure and skills." He adds: "We’ve already seen some of the mayors use funding and influence to get things moving," on issues such as housing supply and infrastructure provision.

Planning takes a look at the progress these six metro mayors have been making on spatial planning, housing and infrastructure investment.

Tim Bowles West of England (Conservative)

Powers: Strategic planning; spatial plan; compulsory purchase; mayoral development corporations; local transport plan; £900 million investment fund.

In March 2017, Tim Bowles made a pledge. Plans for a 3,000-home garden village in Buckover, near Thornbury, had generated significant local controversy. "If elected, these plans will be reviewed," he said. "I am saying no to Buckover."

However, Bowles soon discovered that making pledges on the campaign trail is easier than delivering once in office. In November 2017, four councils in the West of England region published a joint spatial plan, which included Buckover garden village, and Bowles had little power to stop it. He told the Bristol Post: "It is now clear that as mayor I am not part of the joint strategic plan process and I have no vote on the plan."

The mayor was granted strategic planning powers in May 2018, just a month after the local authorities submitted their joint plan for examination. Bowles decided that to embark on a new plan-making process would be counterproductive. "Coming in and saying let’s stop all the good work that’s been going on isn’t going to help us deliver," he told Planning last year.

There is also a complex governance situation. The joint spatial plan covers Bath & North East Somerset, Bristol, North Somerset and South Gloucestershire councils. Three have joined the West of England Combined Authority, while North Somerset has opted out. Each authority also has its own set of local policies.

Despite these issues, Bowles has made some progress. Most recently, a housing package was agreed with central government, with a full deal to follow. In November, the city-region also secured £80 million for transport infrastructure.

Andy Burnham Greater Manchester (Labour)

Powers: Spatial framework; compulsory purchase; mayoral development corporations; transport plan; £900 million investment fund.

One of Andy Burnham’s first acts as Greater Manchester mayor was to order a "radical rewrite" of the spatial framework. "There will be a substantial reduction in the loss of green belt," he said at the time. "Our plan will build the right kind of homes in the right places." Salford city mayor Paul Dennett was appointed to oversee the work and publication was delayed until June this year.

That now looks likely to slip, according to one commentator. "I think June is ambitious," says Rob Haslam, planning director at consultancy Savills. "The fact we’ve not seen any of the documents starting to move through the political process yet suggests to me we’re not going to see anything emerge until September."

Burnham has been at work in other areas. In November 2017, he launched a "town centre challenge" to identify brownfield sites for development. He described this as a "move away from the developer-led, greenfield-first approach of the past". Then, in March this year, he agreed a £68 million deal with the government to deliver 227,200 homes by 2035, requiring a similar annual rate of provision to that suggested by the October 2016 draft spatial framework. "He’s opened up that connection with Whitehall and has been really successful in securing funding for some of his priorities," says Haslam. However, the deal also requires publication of the spatial framework in June, and adoption by the city-region’s local authorities of local plans that reflect the 227,000-home target by the end of 2019.

Alan Houghton, director at consultancy WYG, says: "[The spatial plan] will be contentious irrespective of what it contains. But his political standing is still strong and planning is as much a political game as a technical one. He’s well placed to play that game."

Ben Houchen Tees Valley (Conservative)

Powers: Mayoral development corporations; transport plan; £450 million investment fund.

Ben Houchen, who does not have strategic planning powers in his role as Tees Valley mayor, can point to at least one major victory in his first year in office. In August 2017, he welcomed Prime Minister Theresa May to Redcar for the launch of the first mayoral development corporation outside Greater London. "That’s a real coup," says Phil Jones, planning director at consultancy Lichfields.

Covering an area of 1,800 hectares, including the former Redcar steelworks, the combined authority has said it hopes the South Tees Development Corporation could eventually provide 20,000 jobs.

Other current priorities include infrastructure projects, such as a revamp of Darlington station, for which the combined authority has committed £25 million and is seeking further funding from central government. "Enough of the talk, enough of the pretty pictures," said Houchen when launching the scheme. "The people want us to deliver this, and we will."

However, Jones would like to see the mayor take a more active role in the plan-making process. While Houchen may not be able to create a spatial plan, he could use his influence to support councils at examination when making the case for growth, says Jones, "standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the local authorities and really driving that ambition forward".

Matthew Good, associate director at consultancy WYG, hopes that Houchen will use his influence in Whitehall to secure an equivalent footing to other metro mayors. "I would like to see him pushing for further powers so he can push through some of his pro-growth ideas."

James Palmer Cambridgeshire and Peterborough (Conservative)

Powers: Non-statutory spatial plan; mayoral development corporations; local transport plan; £600 million investment fund; £170 million affordable housing grant.

Some might regard it as ironic that James Palmer was the first metro mayor to publish a spatial plan. After all, his role at the head of the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority does not come with any statutory planning powers.

When members at the authority approved the plan in March this year, the committee report advised that "the strategic spatial framework will be afforded very limited, if any, weight" in relation to planning. Nevertheless, Palmer said: "Drawing together all of these ambitious growth and transport plans is an important step forward for the area."

Rob Hopwood, partner at consultancy Bidwells, says the plan contains no radical ideas, but is a promising sign that Palmer is ready to take charge. Palmer has certainly shown no lack of ambition. In January, the combined authority approved funding to draw up a business case for an underground metro in Cambridge. His other initiatives include "masterplans for growth" in the region’s market towns. He has also outlined proposals to capture land value uplift. However, the mayor would need parliamentary backing to introduce this scheme.

Nicky Parsons, executive director at consultancy Pegasus Group, suggests there are limits to what Palmer will be able to achieve in his first four-year term. "I think what he’ll end up doing is laying the foundations to build on in the future," she says.

Hopwood is more hopeful. "It’s exciting, an opportunity," he says. "And it’s great for planners because we’ve got a different dynamic going on. It was like a ship without a tiller and now he’s got his hands on the wheel."

Steve Rotheram Liverpool City-Region (Labour)

Powers: Spatial framework; call-in powers; compulsory purchase; mayoral development corporations; transport plan; £900 million investment fund.

In the run-up to his election as mayor of the Liverpool city-region, Steve Rotheram told voters: "We will use our strategic planning and housing powers to encourage better use of brownfield land, promote good design and support concerted action to improve the quality and attractiveness of neighbourhoods across the city-region."

Among Rotheram’s powers is the ability to draw up a sub-regional strategy, which is due to be in place in 2020. He told Planning earlier this year that he wanted the strategy to "pull together" the local plans of the city-region’s six councils with the city-region’s Strategic Housing and Employment Land Market Assessment. Local plans would be "subsumed" into the spatial development strategy, he said.

While details of the sub-regional strategy are still to emerge, there are reasons to believe things are happening behind the scenes. Most significantly, a statement of cooperation on local planning was approved by the city-region’s local authorities in the autumn of last year. The document identified key areas for discussion, including housing, transport, utilities and the environment, and set out a cross-boundary engagement process for the preparation of local plans.

Alan Houghton, director at WYG, says: "Local authorities are engaged and need [the sub-regional plan] to come forward to provide context for their own local plans."However, he adds, there is a need to establish administrative structures that are already in place elsewhere: "Manchester is much more organised as a city-region," he says. "In Liverpool, that’s developing."

In the meantime, Rotheram has put his weight behind some big-ticket items such as the Mersey Tidal Project, an infrastructure scheme intended to generate energy from the river. In March, the mayor said he was in negotiation with government agency Homes England about the city-region’s "housing deal", the mechanism through which government offers extra sub-regional infrastructure funding in return for certain housing promises, adding that he was confident it would be agreed "very quickly".

Andy Street West Midlands (Conservative)

Powers: Compulsory purchase; mayoral development corporations; transport plan; £1.1 billion investment fund.

Andy Street scored a big win in March when he became the first metro mayor to seal a housing deal with central government, putting the West Midlands in line to receive £350 million, including £250 million from the government’s Housing Infrastructure Fund. "He has delivered that within a very short period of time," says Mark Sitch, senior partner at consultancy Barton Willmore. However, the deal includes a caveat – councils in the region must update their local plans by 2019 to allocate land for 215,000 homes.

Roger Tustain, director at consultancy Nexus Planning, says that is "quite an aspirational target", although it is not quite as high as the most recent assessment of need in the authorities. The West Midlands has to deal with Birmingham’s housing overspill – and recent years have seen some robust discussions between neighbouring councils about how these homes should be accommodated.

Street’s role overseeing those discussions could be limited. Chris May, director at consultancy Pegasus Group, says: "We've got a mayor with no statutory planning powers and tightly drawn boundaries which don't reflect the housing market area. That means the mayor is not going to play a significant role in tackling how to build enough houses."

Sitch says Street’s key focus so far has been infrastructure, winning funding for projects such as a Midland Metro light rail/tram extension to Dudley. Craig Jordan, chair of the Greater Birmingham and Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership planning subgroup, last month told Planning that the mayor seemed more focused on delivering homes that have already been planned than persuading the city-region’s authorities to plan for more.

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