Select Committee on Office of the Deputy Prime Minister: Housing, Planning, Local Government and the Regions Written Evidence

Supplementary Memorandum by the West Midlands Regional Assembly (WMRA) Secretariat (AH 55(a))



  The Regional Planning Partnership of the West Midlands Regional Assembly met to receive a full and detailed paper at a specially convened meeting on Friday 19 November 2004. The consultation response comprises this letter and the appended summary report to the Regional Planning Partnership of 19 November which is attached in full. Also appended as part of the formal response is the relevant extract of a longer report to the Regional Planning Partnership (RPP) on the same date which contains the formal recommendations on this matter which were agreed by the RPP. This letter contains some key points the Partnership felt should be stressed in this response.

  The intention to merge the Regional Housing Board and the Regional Planning Body was generally welcomed in principle as it helped to address the criticism that the Regional Housing Boards are currently undemocratic. In addition the closer working of both Housing and Planning regional processes builds upon the West Midlands approach to partnership working and is welcomed.

  You will see below the preferred form in which this merger should take place which the West Midlands Regional Planning Partnership agreed. This ensures parity of influence and esteem between the disciplines in the Regional Assembly structures. Cross membership between Planning and Housing bodies and occasional joint meetings should be sufficient for this process to work well under the overall control and ultimate resolution of the Regional Assembly itself. Membership of a new Regional Housing Partnership would reflect the proportionality currently prevailing in the Regional Assembly structures, namely 4:1:1 between, elected LA Councillors, the business community and the other regional stakeholder representatives.

  The one issue which members felt most strongly about was the need for this merger to be properly resourced. Failure to do this would prejudice the success of this venture from the outset. The production of the Regional Housing Strategy, the Regional Housing Allocation Strategy, the servicing of the current Regional Housing Board and the allocation function advising the Minister on the split of funds to local housing authorities and to Registered Social Landlords, all require proper resources to be executed effectively. Up until now the West Midlands Government Office has found the resources within its own organisational arrangements to absorb these costs. The GOWM is a much larger organisation than the Regional Assembly. No such flexibility exists in this much smaller and tightly constrained organisation. Without the delivery of appropriate financial resources ODPM should not embark on this course. In the worst case, in the absence of these additional funds the Regional Assembly may be forced to decline the opportunities offered by the merger. The WMRA secretariat would welcome further discussion with GOWM/ODPM about what it is that you are actually proposing in detail in order to demonstrate the clear logic and justice of this position.

  Turning now to the second part of the Barker Recommendation 6, the West Midlands Regional Planning Partnership was much less convinced of the ODPM case for establishing a national advice unit.

The ODPM consultation has perhaps been less than helpful to its own case in that important aspects of the proposal are less than plain. In short the West Midlands Regional Planning Partnership was not persuaded of the merits of the national advice unit, and the degree of apparent sophistication intended in its governance.

  The West Midlands Regional Planning Partnership feels the emphasis on "independence" is illusory and misleading. No experts are free of professional or political bias, especially when working in the public sector policy domain. As such their functions in devising advice and in monitoring and reviewing compliance simply cannot be undertaken without making "political" judgments. The same views apply to the reservations about the "independent" oversight committee.

  If the Minister is minded still to proceed with the formation of this national advice unit, the West Midlands Regional Planning Body would be willing to accept a non statutory advisory body issuing non mandatory advice on methodologies and general advice on affordability issues.

  In the event that a national advice unit is created it would be preferable to have a Regional representation from each English Region engaged with it in some formal relationship. The suggestion that has been mooted for a Regional Sounding board to work with the national advice unit would be supported and welcome, though some other arrangement engaging all of the Regions could be equally useful and acceptable.

  The integrity of the Regional Planning Body as the regional planning policy advisory body to Ministers is valued very highly by the Regional Assembly. The creation of an "independent" unit which may prescribe either directly or indirectly the way land release for housing in the Region should be conducted would be seen as undermining the discretion of the Regional Planning Body. It is whether the consultation document does or does not intend this that leaves the Regional Planning Body unable to respond more precisely until ODPM makes its proposals plainer.

  Government attention towards issues of affordability is welcomed, and shared by the West Midlands Regional Planning Partnership. However the intention to persist with shaping the Regional Planning process through the Barker Agenda, as clearly stated at para 1.10 of the consultation paper, remains the most serious concern to this Region and its partners. The concern about the potentially unworkable nature of the Barker Agenda in the West Midlands has been explained before in our response to the Final Report. To repeat, the logic of this concern is that this Barker model is very likely to be unworkable within the rationale of the Regional Spatial Strategy for the West Midlands. West Midlands Regional partners worked hard to achieve this challenging but vital urban and rural renaissance strategy, now approved by the First Minister in June this year. The West Midlands Regional Planning Body would be dismayed to see it reversed by the imposition of an inappropriate solution, founded upon a short run economic model driving land release changes which would only perpetuate unsustainable regional trends.

  The overwhelming logic of our regional sustainability agenda sets a long trajectory course to genuinely and sustainably address issues of affordability. It should achieve the same theoretical ends but via sustainable routes. The West Midlands Regional Planning Body would not wish to see its Regional Spatial Strategy driven off track by advice from a national unit pursuing the logic of oversimplified, idealised, theoretical models of supply and demand. The results of such an approach could be seriously damaging to parts of the Region where high demand, high prices and high affordability issues exist at present but precisely do not need additional quantities of more market housing as a false solution.

Steve Forrest

Strategic Housing Advisor

29 November 2004

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