The planning system is essential to achieve positive outcomes for people, places and the environment. CPRE – the countryside charity – in their planning explained guidance notes, “once the Local Plan is adopted, many of the big decisions have usually been made, and your influence becomes more limited”.
It stands to reason that whoever can influence the local plan choices decides what’s built where (and what land is protected). Typically, that might include landowners, developers and speculators – but would you be surprised to learn that the mayoral-led West Yorkshire Combined Authority (WYCA) has a largely secretive role in influencing large-scale building projects in West Yorkshire that is not routinely subject to public scrutiny? Although apparently benign mechanisms, the need for councils to chase receipts could mean the mayor’s bulldozers tearing up more greenbelt without adequate oversight.
Land allocations – what to build where
During the local plan process, allocating small plots of land for building on is relatively simple; usually, these will be brownfield sites previously built upon or small tracts of ‘infill’ greenfield land. Although there might be some local concerns or the odd nimby protest, these are rarely contentious allocations.
But what happens when more significant developments are proposed that need road investment and other infrastructure? Sadly, in West Yorkshire, the greenbelt is usually the target for these large-scale strategic growth opportunities.
West Yorkshire’s strategic economic plan
WYCA’s 2014 strategic economic plan (Priority 4: infrastructure for growth) identified the region’s most significant and strategic growth opportunities. Known as spatial priority areas (SPAs), these opportunities represented West Yorkshire’s best development ambitions and set the basis for the growth deal negotiations with the government.
The 2014 strategic economic plan identified 11 areas of strategic importance. Fast forward two years, before the bulldozers were on a few of the sites, and a WYCA review quietly doubled the number of priority sites.
Just six years after establishing the spatial priority area principle, WYCA discovered that the previous SPA list no longer aligned with their strategic policy position and did not allow for priorities being put forward by local authorities. The solution? A ‘refresh’ removing York and Barnsley and adding new SPAs across West Yorkshire. It’s striking that this refresh significantly increased the scale of the greenbelt land grab.
The refresh process to add new priority areas, not regarded as a WYCA key decision, was managed by chief planning officers, strategic place officer group, directors of development and West Yorkshire chief executives, meeting under the watchful eye of WYCA’s Leeds City Region planning group. Although the SPA refresh was technically open to call-in by the scrutiny panel, no decisions have been subject to call-in over the last 12 months.
What is a spatial priority area (SPA) and why does it matter?
SPAs (the region’s most strategic opportunities) have no legal status or designated WYCA budget; the idea is that they attract investor interest in the area and help prioritise business cases when funding becomes available – supposedly catalysts for growth.
There are, however, issues with this approach. Firstly, there is limited democratic accountability – the SPA is not subject to local public consultation or approval by ward councillors before designation. There was no external consultation for WYCA’s current ‘refresh’.
Making a location a spatial priority area might not bring immediate financial benefits, but planners have been quick to wave them in front of planning inspectors. In Calderdale’s local plan hearings, Calderdale Council attached great significance to WYCAs South East Calderdale SPA designation for the garden suburbs without explaining that their planning officers were part of the allocation process.
Secondly, the meeting minutes are not routinely published; a recent freedom of information request to WYCA requesting where the minutes were published confirmed that they are not published because “they are not public meetings”.
Also important, if a spatial priority area represents the most significant opportunities for attracting investment and growth, it sets in motion a chain of events, reports and studies that become very difficult for ordinary local citizens to understand and influence. The odds are stacked against local opinion, particularly if they have no say in the decisions that lead to a priority area designation.
Unintended consequences and challenges
Investment opportunities don’t necessarily correspond with community needs. Commercial developers will build in areas that will attract new buyers and tenants. Maximising your return in the shortest time is critical when making a profit depends on selling houses or letting industrial units quickly. A developer might not be interested in building in inner-city areas with high deprivation if it will take longer to let or sell the development.
The challenges of local authority funding are well-documented. As central government funding continues to decline, councils must consider how to plug their financial shortfall. Increasing council tax receipts must appear attractive to councils that are spending more and more of their annual budget on essential social care.
New threats – compulsory purchase orders and the mayor’s bulldozers
In early January, WYCAs place, regeneration and housing committee endorsed the 2023 programme development: creating great places and accelerated infrastructure. To support the delivery of SPAs, a flexible revenue fund is proposed, which could include compulsory purchase orders and the potential use of mayoral development corporations to help develop individual SPAs.
In summary, WYCA’s SPA process was managed by the very officers responsible for growth and development, sites were selected with limited democratic accountability and local community support by an organisation not routinely subject to scrutiny. The ambition of mayoral development companies and compulsory purchase orders to try and force these developments through means West Yorkshire’s greenbelt is at a greater risk now than ever before.
The WYCA’s approach to SPAs raises questions about whether they are focusing on alleviating poverty and protecting the environment or just pursuing large-scale development opportunities by stealth.