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Devo Mids: What The Latest Devolution Deal Does (And Doesn't) Do For Midlands Property

Tram in Corporation street, Birimingham, UK
The Midlands Metro will get £250M for a new extension as part of the Devo Mids 2 devolution deal

The newly unveiled second devolution deal for the West Midlands is an early win for Metro Mayor Andy Street, coming just six months into his three-year term of office. But does it give him the powers he needs? 

What is Devo Mids 2?

As part of the budget on 22 November the government announced a new devolution deal for the West Midlands – Devo Mids 2. It grants the mayor, Andy Street, and the West Midlands Combined Authority, new powers over industrial strategy, skills and housing. It also came with the promise of £250M for transport infrastructure, which will be used for the extension of the Midland Metro from Wednesbury to Brierley Hill

Sounds great. So what's missing?

Not all mayors are created equal. Greater Manchester’s mayor, Andy Burnham, has a raft of additional powers, including economic development and a big say in strategic planning. His team is now working on a Greater Manchester Spatial Framework, designed to release 11K acres from greenbelt and provide 24M SF of new industrial floor space in the north of the city. Street does not have those strategic planning powers — meaning he cannot directly allocate land to fulfil his industrial strategy.

OK, the mayor has no spatial planning powers. Does it matter?

That depends. A spokesperson for the West Midlands Combined Authority told Bisnow: "This is a conscious choice by the West Midlands and reflects the opportunities and challenges we have." They also pointed to a land delivery plan aimed at overcoming viability problems caused by transport, low values or contamination. "Barriers in the planning system are not the issue here," the spokesperson said.

Not everyone agrees. Plenty of property people think that at best it adds another layer of complexity to Street’s already formidable challenges, particularly in areas like logistics and manufacturing where land supply is already tight.

“This is a very real concern — you’ve got on the right hand the mayor doing the industrial strategy, and on the left hand the seven West Midlands local councils with the strategic planning powers, and they really need to be working together to deliver jobs," planning director at logistics developer db symmetry Jonathan Dawes said.

“The best solution would be to give Mayor Street the spatial framework powers of Mayor Burnham. You need the tools to allocate the land, you need land supply coming through the industrial strategy process because you can’t just flick a switch and produce land.”

Looming disaster, or is there a work-around?

There definitely is a work-around: it’s called politics. The seven West Midlands councils already have planning powers, and if Street can persuade them to use those powers, all is well.

In the meantime the mayor can use other powers like transport to help achieve his land-use aims.

“If the mayor can get a consensus on planning issues, then he doesn’t need planning powers because the local councils have them," Senior Director in charge of planning at GVA Stephen Hollowood said. "If he can be a good chairman, the West Midlands devolution package can work because he is very able, and very respected and persuasive. It all comes down to those soft skills, not to statutory powers.”

UK Prime Minister Theresa May (left) with West Midlands Metro Mayor Andy Street (right)
Prime Minister Theresa May with West Midlands Metro Mayor Andy Street

Great. So everything will be a breeze?

This is where it gets tricky. West Midlands councils — Birmingham, Coventry, Solihull, Dudley, Wolverhampton, Walsall, Sandwell — have not always been the best of friends and the current devolution deal had to be patiently stitched together. Moreover, apart from Solihull they are all Labour-led councils facing a Conservative mayor.

They managed it in Manchester, so surely the West Midlands can manage it too?

Actually, Greater Manchester’s story is not a very happy one. Despite 30 years of close co-operation, and no party political differences worth talking about, the draft spatial framework prepared in March has had a rough time. Local campaigns have undermined its housing and greenbelt allocations, whilst newly elected Mayor Burnham insisted on a rewrite. A new plan is due for consultation in June.

Gently does it, is that the answer? If Mayor Street waits, perhaps he will get his planning powers?

That is a widely shared view, and it makes sense because co-operation across the West Midlands is a young and fragile flower. Too much power too soon could break the delicate concensus.

“Five or six years ago nobody would have predicted Birmingham would be working so well with Solhiull, or with the Black Country councils," Regional Director at Argent Rob Groves said. "I’m surprised how well they’ve pulled together. If the lack of planning powers becomes a problem it would make sense to bring it under his remit, but let’s go one step at a time. Given how recently the Combined Authority was formed it's come out quite well so far.”

The bottom line is it is all down to Andy?

Pretty much. “If Andy Street can glean those planning powers — and he’s a forceful person — that would be good," Senior Director at Cushman & Wakefield  David Smeeton said. "The most significant, the most influential person in the West Midlands is Andy Street. The fact that he had the political leverage and acumen to get that second devolution deal means he should be able to cajole and persuade everyone in the region to come together in glorious union."