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Future Wales: A lever for change?

Future Wales: A lever for change?

Stephanie Irvine 25 Feb 2021
Future Wales: The National Plan 2040, described by the First Minister as a “major milestone in the ongoing development of a distinctively Welsh planning system,” was formally launched by the Welsh Government on 24 February 2021. Future Wales represents the top tier in the development plan framework for Wales, to be built on and taken forward by Strategic Development Plans (SDPs) and Local Development Plans (LDPs). It is established in legislation and is informed by, and will inform, a variety of Government strategies and plans, as illustrated in Figure one. Figure one: Model of Future Wales influence Source: Welsh Government, Future Wales - The National Plan 2040 / Lichfields The timing of the publication of Future Wales, together with an updated version of Planning Policy Wales (edition 11), towards what we hope is beginning of the end of the Covid-19 pandemic, has had a key influence on elements of its content. Importantly, the final document includes a greater acknowledgement of the need to support economic growth, and this is to be welcomed. Economic growth Although Future Wales misses the opportunity to set out an overarching strategic economic policy for Wales, it provides support for the aims set out in the Welsh Government’s Prosperity for All: Economic Action Plan (December 2017), including: The development of key sectors such as advanced engineering, renewable technologies and transport; Growth of innovation, research and development; and, Support for the foundational economy, which includes care and health services, food and drink, housing, energy, construction, tourism and high street retailers. The need to “re-energise” the Welsh economy following the Covid-19 pandemic is heightened by the nation’s pre-existing economic vulnerability, especially when compared to other parts of the UK. To illustrate this point, on average GVA per worker in Wales in 2018 was £20,700 compared to the UK average of £28,700 (72% of the UK average). Figure two: Average GVA per head of population Source: ONS Regional Gross Value Added (2018) (provisional) / Lichfields Future Wales supports a regional approach to economic development and provides an important link between economic strategy and planning. It notes that there are current and emerging City Deals and Growth Deals in each of the four regions across Wales and that Regional Economic Frameworks are being developed under the leadership of the Welsh Government’s Chief Regional Officers. Critically, Future Wales sets out that these Growth Deals and Regional Economic Frameworks should assume a “reciprocal and iterative” relationship with SDPs. This connection will be important in order to ensure that sufficient land is brought forward for (the right type of) development in the right places to support and not constrain sustainable economic growth. Hence, the importance of understanding the economic context of each region, with its own particular strengths and weaknesses, when planning for development – an area of work we specialise in at Lichfields. Placemaking and planning for a post-Covid world There are many unresolved questions about what life will look like after Covid and to what extent previous patterns of living, working and travel will go back to the way they were. Future Wales highlights that, during lockdowns, well-designed communities played an important role in supporting health and wellbeing. It advocates that key placemaking principles, including access to parks and green space, cycle routes and local shops, will continue to be important during the post-Covid recovery. PPW provides further policy to support this recovery, supported by the Welsh Government’s “Building Better Places” document (July 2020), which we reviewed in our July 2020 Insight Focus. Housing The final version of Future Wales retains its focus on affordable housing as a clear national priority but still does not acknowledge the need to increase the supply of market homes. There are significant concerns with this approach, as discussed in our November 2020 Insight Focus. It is important to recognise the value of private housing, not just in terms of providing somewhere to live but also in the economic and social benefits of good quality homes in well-designed communities (reflecting Future Wales’ focus on placemaking). It should also go without saying that the delivery of private housing is a major driver for the provision of affordable homes. The final version of Future Wales does, however, recognise that there is a need to “think about how we will retain and attract young people to all parts of Wales” in the context of the ageing population. This is absolutely vital in order to sustain services as well as providing the needed labour force to support economic growth. Furthermore, the increased focus on universities in this final version of Future Wales should also be reflected in the aim to retain graduates and skilled workers more generally. Providing a sufficient number of homes in the right locations will be key to achieving this aim, and housing requirements in SDPs and LDPs must not be constrained by the past demographic trends that are embedded within the Welsh Government’s national and regional estimates of housing need. Indeed, Future Wales clearly states that these estimates do not take any account of future policies and states that “it is expected the housing requirements will differ from the estimates of housing need.” Urban growth and regeneration led by the public sector Future Wales sets out that the public sector will need to play a greater role in assembling land and enabling development in order to achieve the Plan’s growth and regeneration aspirations. Intervention by the public sector is certainly needed in order to unlock many brownfield sites for development, some of which have lingered in the planning system for years. However, there are widely held concerns that public funding is vastly inadequate to enable delivery where it is most sorely needed. Furthermore, the role of the private sector should be recognised, including developers of all sizes, bringing a wealth of skills, experience and investment potential and offering opportunities for partnership working to bring forward regeneration schemes that are currently unable to progress. The future starts now – or does it? While it is positive to see the top tier of the new planning system now in place, there are noticeable gaps at the lower levels – meaning that in many areas development is currently unable to come forward. The SDPs for each region will be led by Corporate Joint Committees (CJCs), as set out in the Local Government and Elections (Wales) Act (2021). The CJCs will be comprised of the leaders of each local authority together with any additional invited representatives from councils or other organisations. It is not anticipated that the CJCs, once convened, will reach Delivery Agreement stage until 2022. Hence, it will be several years before the first SDP is adopted. It is therefore vital that new and revised LDPs come forward to enable needed development in the medium term, guided by Future Wales and bringing forward deliverable allocations to meet the needs of the nation. Short term solutions are also needed, recognising that plan making is an inherently slow process. Critically, eight of the 25 local planning authorities in Wales have LDPs that are due to expire this year and a further two do not have an adopted LDP at all. Sustainable development that is in accordance with Future Wales and PPW should therefore be supported in advance of the adoption of the next round of LDPs. Future Wales is presented as a “lever” to deliver real change – responding to the climate emergency, re-energising the economy and supporting opportunities for a better Wales “with every mechanism at our disposal”. With the national plan now in place and the hope of a post-Covid recovery, it is high time to activate the mechanisms available within the planning system to deliver this needed change.  

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Future Wales – the future starts now

Future Wales – the future starts now

Gareth Williams 10 Dec 2020
Future Wales is due to be approved by the Senedd in 2021 and will then form the top tier of the development plan system in Wales. The draft document is strong on vision and identifies a series of positive outcomes such as: “A Wales where people live in distinctive regions that tackle health and socio-economic inequality through sustainable growth.”  It is difficult to argue with these ambitions but the document is very light on how these outcomes are to be delivered. Instead, the land use elements of these outcomes will need to be developed in forthcoming Local Development Plans (LDPs) and eventually in the Strategic Development Plans (SDPs) once the new Corporate Joint Committee governance arrangements are in place. The policy approach to delivering more positive economic outcomes for Wales are to be led by Chief Regional Officers  who will be responsible for delivering Regional Economic Frameworks. Future Wales states that SDPs should take strategic locational decisions on housing, economic growth, key services and essential infrastructure that will help support growth deals and Regional Economic Frameworks. There is a logic to a strategic approach linked to the City Region and Growth Deals. The land use planning process has however already been left behind, particularly in SE Wales and the need for essential investment cannot be put on hold pending the production of SDPs which currently don’t even have a timescale. Previous experience of strategic planning in the UK demonstrates that this is not a straight forward process particularly where difficult political choices need to made that will see investment directed to one local authority ahead of another. In the meantime there is an urgency to secure investment to address the very real current social and economic crises. The land use planning process must play a role in this process and we can’t await production of the SDP before we allow the necessary investment decisions to be made. A new round of LDPs are in the early stages of production and have understandably been hampered by the limitations arising out of the Covid restrictions. In the absence of SDPs it is essential that we now push these plans forward quickly to provide the necessary framework for new investment decisions. These must include strategic allocations which are the proposals most likely to bring transformational benefits through their scale of investment and ability to deliver supporting infrastructure. It must be remembered that plan making is not the end of the process and that new development will still need to secure planning permissions, discharge pre-commencement decisions and open sites up before the benefits of new development can be delivered. LDP preparation is due to be accelerated but is still likely to take 3 to 4 years. Lead-in time from submission of a planning application to first occupations can take a similar timescale for major sites. This means that, even with a fair wind, major sites currently being put forward as candidate sites may be at least six years away from delivery. It is essential therefore that there is flexibility in the existing process to allow new development ahead of LDPs being adopted. PPW, Future Wales and existing LDPs provide a framework within which development proposals can be considered in the short term. The placemaking agenda has been at the heart of Welsh Government’s agenda and the need for all new development proposals to take account of the place making principles is reiterated in the Future Wales document. It is important that we don’t bring down the shutters to new development in the short term and force investors away from Wales. My conversations with local planning authorities, particularly those with aging LDPs, indicate that there is a recognition of the social and economic benefits that new development brings and that we do need to consider windfall development of a suitable scale ahead of the next round of LDPs.         A recent appeal decision by the Minister for Housing and Local Government at Bedwellty in Caerphilly CBC [Minister’s letter ref:qA1399761] is a major cause for alarm by suggesting that new development should not come forward on greenfield windfall sites until the next round of LDPs are in place 3 to 4 years hence (and possibly longer in Caerphilly). The Minister refers in her decision letter to the reliance on a Plan-led system irrespective of the acceptance by the local authority that there is a lack of locally deliverable sites. Welsh Government’s own research in the ‘Longitudinal Viability Study of the Planning Process’ (2017) acknowledges that existing plans have failed to allocate sufficient deliverable sites. Accordingly, deliverability has rightly become a key focus of the new plan making process. However, development, particularly housing delivery, is required in the short term. Waiting on the next round of LDPs for new delivery also runs counter to Welsh Government own statement in ‘Building Better Places – Placemaking and the Covid-19 recovery’ (July 2020) that it will support decisions taken in the context of PPW and Future Wales where the LDP is silent or out of date. Clarification is urgently required from Welsh Government that it will support well considered schemes that reflect placemaking principles in the short term and will not simply require the development industry to take a pause for 3-4 years until LDPs are in place. It is inconceivable that any other sector of the economy would be asked to stop production for several years whilst a new economic strategy is prepared.    It is clear that the focus in Future Wales is very much on the public sector leading transformational change in Wales. Policy 3 deals with public sector leadership in supporting urban growth and regeneration whilst Policy 7 sets out how the Welsh Government will increase delivery of affordable homes. There is, however, no policy dealing with market housing delivery or a national employment land strategy for Wales. There is in fact very limited policy reference to the positive role that private sector investment can play in delivering the ambitions of Future Wales. Delivery of the positive socio-economic outcomes sought by Future Wales will require particular attention as we come out of the Covid-19 pandemic and face the uncertainty of a post-Brexit world. Whilst the role of a strong public sector will be important there is the real prospect of a tightening of public sector purse strings. It is therefore likely that major future investment will still need to be driven by private sector finance. This must be acknowledged in the way in which forthcoming LDPs and SDPs make land use allocations ensuring that sites are deliverable and where there are barriers that sources of public sector investment are clearly identified. Many local authorities are starting to build essential new homes and this is welcomed. Unsurprisingly, given the length of time since they have played this role there is need to build up knowledge and capacity to deliver. It will be many years before local authorities are able to build “at scale and pace”  as proposed by Future Wales and even then it is unclear what public sector resources will be available to fund this programme. Increased public sector housing delivery should, in my view, be in addition to supporting increased delivery of market homes, and not in place of it. Private housing enables delivery of positive social and economic outcomes both directly through the delivery of somewhere to live and associated physical infrastructure but also in terms of investment by construction firms and then by the spending of new residents in local communities. Lichfields estimate that for every 100 homes built there is direct investment of over £13 million, c.220 direct FTE construction jobs, and £3 million in spending by new residents. If we are to deliver the ambitious outcomes sought by Future Wales we need to start acting now. The way in which we consider and plan for develop does need to change and place making must be at the heart of this process. But there is a need to embrace these changes in the short term so that we start finding our way out of the economic and social turmoil that the combination of Covid-19 and Brexit has delivered. This is best addressed through constructive dialogue between the private and public sector about how delivery can happen now and not just in 6-8 years’ time. I discuss these and associated issues in further detail in our insight focus:

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