The Coventry and Warwickshire authorities and the Local Enterprise Partnership have a well-established track record of joint local plan evidence base work and collaborative approaches to the Duty to Cooperate. In 2019 the group agreed to seek advice and support for taking forward a strategic planning approach for the Coventry and Warwickshire area by accessing support from the Planning Advisory Service. This support work and the progress made is the subject of this case study. The study identifies the issues and challenges the authorities faced, how these were addressed in their particular circumstances, and draws out some broad learning points that are more generally applicable to strategic planning work.
In 2019 the Planning Advisory Service (PAS) invited groups of local authorities wishing to develop a joint strategic plan to bid for independent support to help with this work. This case study reflects the background, outcomes to date and learning points from the work undertaken by local authorities of Coventry, Rugby, Nuneaton and Bedworth, North Warwickshire, Warwick, Stratford-upon-Avon Councils and Warwickshire County Council, in the Coventry and Warwickshire Group, with support from consultants Richard Wood Associates, as part of The Strategic Planning Partnership, appointed by PAS.
The work to inform this case study was largely undertaken during the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020. Consequently, there were restrictions on the type of engagement that could take place, which is reflected partly in the outcomes and progress to date.
The six Coventry and Warwickshire local authorities, Warwickshire County Council (WCC) and Coventry and Warwickshire Local Enterprise Partnership (CWLEP) have worked together to produce various background evidence documents over recent years to support the preparation of local plans. This has included a Joint Strategic Housing Market Assessment (SHMA), a Strategic Green Belt Review, an Employment Land Review, a Sub Regional Strategic Green Infrastructure Strategy and a Water Cycle Study.
Jointly produced evidence on housing and employment informed the agreement of a Housing Requirements Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) in September 2015 and an Employment Land MoU in July 2016. Both MoU’s were agreed by the Coventry, Warwickshire and Hinckley & Bosworth Joint Committee for Economic Growth and Prosperity (Joint Committee) and subsequently endorsed by each local planning authority and used to support respective Local Plans.
In 2016 the Joint Committee and the CWLEP Board considered an outline business case (OBC) for developing a single Statutory Spatial Strategy (SSS) for Coventry and Warwickshire. The OBC set out that this SSS approach would address many of the more controversial strategic and cross-boundary aspects of the then current round of local plans and enable a clear spatial planning framework to be advanced, as a valuable single reference point for the community and development industry alike, and to set the context for each authority to progress detailed site allocations and local policy documents. It would also provide certainty for business investment decisions to occur in a post-Brexit economic environment. The approach was not finally agreed.
In November 2018 the Joint Committee agreed to jointly commission strategic cross border evidence primarily focused on, but not limited to, updating sub-regional housing and employment needs beyond 2031. Support was also given for further discussions on next steps with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG), the Planning Advisory Service (PAS) and relevant neighbouring local authority areas to research the context, governance and financial approach to future joint strategic planning. As a result, support through PAS has been in place to help move forward with a strategic planning approach.
Key Issues and Influences
The six local authorities are at different stages with Local Plan production and review. Some authorities have started reviews and others haven’t. In addition, Stratford-upon-Avon District Council and Warwick District Council are now working together to prepare a new Local Plan for South Warwickshire.
An extensive amount of joint evidence base work has been undertaken for Local Plans. Different joint studies have been undertaken at different times to meet particular policy topic or local plan requirements/timings. Similar pieces of evidence base work have also also been commissioned at different times by different authorities.
There has, and continues to be, uncertainty around the future of strategic planning. Consultation on national planning reforms during 2020 suggested the removal of the Duty to Cooperate and did not include proposals for strategic planning. Discussions also remain ongoing in terms of devolution and future local government arrangements in the sub region and wider region.
Discussions with Leaders and Chief Executives late in 2019 identified key issues that could be helpfully addressed through a strategic planning approach as being: Local Plan Alignment; the climate emergency; key strategic projects; greater certainty about strategic infrastructure delivery; better coordination of necessary infrastructure and major development proposals; more proactive approach with investment agencies; and housing numbers and employment land.
Engagement with a range of infrastructure providers and investment agencies through a workshop at the start of 2020 brought together key transport, utility and community infrastructure and service providers to gauge views about strategic planning and shape future working. The infrastructure workshop highlighted how many providers work at a regional or sub-regional scale and how better delivery of development & infrastructure could be supported by working together and more efficiently at a larger-than-local scale.
Governance Structure and Working Arrangements
The Joint Committee offers a ready-made Governance structure for formal decision making. Memorandums of Understanding (MoU) have been used to date and agreed by the Joint Committee. Planning officers from all authorities and CWLEP continue to coordinate all types of planning work through a Coventry, Solihull & Warwickshire Planning Officers group (CSWAPO). This has included the joint evidence base work over recent years. Joint Chief Executive working arrangements include the Warwickshire Lead Officers Group. Existing arrangements provide a core basis for member and officer working and any evolving and additional working practices and groups to coordinate strategic planning work.
Opportunities and Challenges
Having carefully considered the issues outlined above and advice generated through the PAS support, the Coventry and Warwickshire authorities are moving forward with a programme of joint evidence base work. There is an existing mandate for this from the Joint Committee. Importantly this involves progressing different critical areas of evidence base work together over the same time period. This focussed programme of strategic evidence base work is being taken forward to enable any future development of a strategic planning approach and to inform Local Plan work now underway. This programme is being further explored and built around six workstreams:
a) Wider Strategic Priorities - understanding and integrating the existing and emerging ambitions for Coventry & Warwickshire to help provide overall direction and context for other workstreams and future work.
b) Growth Needs & Land Supply – producing a joint Housing and Economic Development Needs Assessment (HEDNA) to identify the scale of housing need (additional to the standard method), unmet housing needs and economic/labour supply needs and also examining the land supply and development capacity position.
c) Transport – identifying key network capacities and constraints, establishing sustainable transport opportunities (corridors, nodes, active travel, electric vehicles & accessible places), linking to the work and evidence of Midlands Connect, Coventry City Council and Warwickshire County Council and making the best use of existing transport infrastructure.
d) Critical Infrastructure – establishing key infrastructure (in addition to transport) capacities, needs and opportunities that could be a significant driver or barrier to future growth such as utility, waste, education and health infrastructure and understanding energy needs, demand and supply.
e) Water – guiding development towards the most appropriate locations taking into account flood risk, future resilience and climate change impacts and establishing the capacity and need for new water and wastewater infrastructure, through joint Strategic Flood Risk Assessment and Water Cycle Study work
f) Natural Environment – providing an up to date understanding of landscape character, making the best use of, and enhancing the connectivity of, green infrastructure corridors and reflecting and strengthening Ecological/Nature Recovery Networks – building on the work of the Warwickshire Habitat Biodiversity Audit Partnership.
The further development of a strategic planning approach (beyond the coordinated evidence base work) continues to be kept under review so that it develops in a way that responds to changing local circumstances and so that it works for all partners. This retains flexibility at this stage around an end product - as to whether this is in the form of a statutory plan, non-statutory framework or a position statement or memorandum of understanding. All these options would involve the generation and examination of common evidence and can include a shared development strategy for the Coventry and Warwickshire Area. In light of any future implications from planning reforms and devolution, a non-statutory approach may offer more flexibility and speed.
The collaborative evidence base approach seeks to ensure that work on key evidence topics is progressed together. This puts the Authorities in a position whereby the key findings from these evidence workstreams can be drawn together and key policy and spatial implications identified. The working up and testing of spatial options and a spatial vision for accommodating future growth could then flow from this integrated evidence review and assessment work. The foundations would be established for progressing a shared development and distribution strategy for meeting Coventry & Warwickshire’s long term development needs (in whatever form). This represents a pragmatic and flexible approach, which can be adapted to reflect changing circumstances. Wider stakeholder, community and business engagement could be undertaken around a spatial options and vision stage.
Main Learning Points
Work on a strategic planning approach in Coventry and Warwickshire remains ongoing. Undertaking further evidence base work in a more integrated way will enable the authorities to take further steps forward. As a minimum this will serve to reduce costs and inform and improve cooperation on Local Plans. A strategic planning approach offers a means to collectively develop more optimal and coordinated solutions to meeting development needs and to address the big climate change, economic, inclusion, environmental, housing and health challenges facing Coventry and Warwickshire. A joint spatial approach will help in delivering many other strategies, plans and programmes in place to address these challenges, adding value beyond the development plan system. Based on the experience to date, the following broad learning points can be drawn out that are more generally applicable to strategic planning work:
- Workstreams for strategic & local planning – evidence work can be progressed in a way that supports both strategic planning and local plans, effective monitoring and update provisions can address differences in local plan production timescales, ensuring that any later local plan reviews do not suffer.
- Consistency - joint evidence base work offers the opportunity to deliver consistency of evidence in terms of methodologies and outputs across geographic boundaries and between Local Plans, and ensure that genuinely strategic issues are addressed for a strategic planning approach.
- Local Plan soundness – collaborative work on evidence bases and a strategic planning approach will help to proactively address key issues often associated with unsound plans – in particular unmet housing needs and the Duty to Cooperate.
- Integration - progressing key evidence workstreams in tandem will support a joined-up approach to policy development and spatial planning (within and beyond the planning system).
- Governance structures – making the most of existing Governance structures and officer groups can provide a practical way forward. Any approaches need to have authority for decision making with a clear governance structure, both at the technical and political level. Where there is an existing governance structure in place to facilitate cross boundary working it will usually be better to use this as a starting position.
- Dedicated resources – strategic planning work cannot be undertaken as part of the existing ‘day job’. Experience elsewhere points to the need for a dedicated programme manager fulfilling an independent/honest broker role. Someone then has oversight of the work programme and its scope and the budget – with strategic planning top of somebody’s to do list. If this isn’t possible, arrangements need to be put in place (such as workstream leads and a coordinating group) to lead and provide the means and impetus for making the strategic planning approach happen. Any arrangements need to serve to commit resources from individual authorities to support the overall work programme and lead work areas.
- Flexibility – end products can be kept under review, particularly in an uncertain context. The most important thing is that progress is made and things move forward. There may be good reasons why it is not possible or desirable to decide the type of plan early in the process, this does not need to prevent progress. The non-statutory approach offers more flexibility and speed, particularly given Local Plan review timescales. A statutory plan could remain a goal but with a staged approach with outputs that provide more immediate shape and influence to what’s happening in an area.
- Wider benefits – A strategic planning approach offers the scope to join up and make key cross-boundary contributions to addressing climate change, meeting emissions targets, supporting economic recovery, coordinating development & infrastructure provision, facilitating good/inclusive growth, integrating land use and transport planning and establishing investment priorities.
- Growth Narrative – A collaborative approach can provide confidence that future development can be sustainably delivered, identify the strategic infrastructure needed to deliver growth and resilience, establish shared growth ambitions and articulate a convincing strategic case for bidding for Government & other funding.
- Learn from others – There is an increasing number of groups of authorities who are deciding to work together on some form of strategic plan, whether these are statutory, non-statutory frameworks or joint local plans. Sharing experience and learning from others’ challenges and successes is a valuable input to any strategic planning approach and shaping up an evidence base work programme.