What could the government’s proposed planning reforms mean for the Midlands?


The proposals recently put forward by the government in its ‘Planning for the Future’ White Paper represent the biggest changes to the UK planning system since arguably before the 1990 Planning Act.

These proposed reforms will be significant for a wide cross-section of stakeholders, including developers, local authorities and housebuilders, as well as communities, families and individuals across the UK.

The changes, now out for consultation, include the allocation of the government’s annual housing target of 300,000 homes across England now being set for individual local authority areas at a national level, and an overhaul of the Local Plan process.

This will see development management policies replaced with national policies with zones assigned as either ‘Growth’, ‘Renewal’ or ‘Protected’, to manage where development can and cannot take place.

But what does this all mean for the Midlands? WSP’s Planning Consultancy has outlined five key take outs from the government’s White Paper for the East and West Midlands:

  1. How many houses does this mean will be built in the Midlands?

The White Paper proposes to change the way housing requirements for each area are worked out. Affordability remains a key issue, as does the size of existing stock. Unlike areas in the North-East and North-West, the prospect for the Midlands is similar to that of regions in southern England, with the proposed new method appearing to yield higher housing requirements.

However, at a local, level there might be some surprises as to where these houses are built. In aggregate terms, the new method would yield higher housing requirements than historic benchmark levels, but some of the Midlands’ larger cities, such as Stoke, Leicester, Derby and Nottingham, may actually have targets not significantly higher than they’ve recently been.

  1. A boost for supporters of “brownfield first”

The White Paper looks to maximise the development of brownfield land – areas that are likely to be allocated as “Growth Zones”. This is something which is already very popular with political leaders in parts of the Midlands, given the region’s position in the UK’s manufacturing heartland and the abundance of former industrial sites. While many of these are contaminated by their previous use and remain derelict, the zoning of these sites as Growth areas could help unlock numerous sites for development, especially if Central Government funding is secured to support their regeneration.

  1. Unleashing the potential of station-led development

New HS2 stations in the Midlands – Curzon Street Station, Birmingham Interchange and the East Midlands Hub at Toton – already provide generational opportunities for growth. The White Paper proposes planning new places which will be built closer to where people want to live and work, so reducing our reliance on carbon-intensive modes of transport. The 73 existing stations in the Midlands will benefit from increased capacity and will make perfect sites for new “Growth” and “Renewal” zones. This would give confidence to the private sector to deliver high-quality growth and regeneration schemes that matter to people in the Midlands.

  1. Can the Midlands bring planning into the digital age in an inclusive way?

The White Paper proposes that England becomes “an international world leader” in digital planning. This could open up participation in the planning system to a whole new generation, but might also present a barrier to participation where there is less digital literacy. This could be a positive where digital literacy is higher – often in younger populations and areas with existing digital infrastructure such as Birmingham – but could be a risk in more rural areas of the Midlands and those with an older demographic. This is both a risk but the focus on using digital technologies also represents a great opportunity for those working in the planning sector across the Midlands.

  1. A welcome boost for the automotive sector?

The automotive sector remains a key economic component that drives the Midlands Engine. A consolidation of ‘simplified planning zones’ and ‘enterprise zones’ through Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) could remove barriers for existing domestic automotive firms to easily expand their businesses, and for the area to continue attracting foreign direct investment to catalyse a new intelligent automotive sector recovery. This could also be rationalised in the new local plan making process with automotive industrial districts within growth and renewal areas, but it would require better links between plan making and local industrial strategies that are prepared by the LEPs.

WSP is looking closely at the proposals, engaging with our clients and contributing to the discussion on what is a key issue if we are to create sustainable places for the future. The ask of local authorities, many of whom are already challenged by capacity as well as a reprioritisation due to COVID-19, is very significant. The ball remains in the government’s court to ensure that once the consultation is complete, their commitment is followed through with the necessary investment.

Interested to know more about planning in the Midlands? WSP’s new ‘A-Z  of Midlands Planning 2020’ provides insightful data for planning professionals – you can find it here.

Becky Dewey
Associate Director, Planning Consultancy