Last week I was at Futures Network West Midlands’ (FNWM) event on the Greater Birmingham & Solihull LEP’s new spatial plan, currently out for consultation.

It would be possible to caricature FNWM as a support group for people who terribly miss regional planning and who get together to mourn its passing and discuss its potential rebirth under a future more progressive government. But actually – hats off to David Thew and other members – it’s a truly useful network, a forum for valuable strategic planning thinking; and it is by no means alienated from those who are involved in the new structures: it was the city council’s Dave Carter who presented the LEP spatial plan to us.

So in the discussion around this new spatial plan participants raised some of those ghosts of progressive planning – reducing the need to travel, urban renaissance, challenges to things like sprawl and south-east-centricity – some reflected well in the plan, others weaker.

There was also some talk of the accountability and transparency of this model of planning. No-one claims regional planning was exactly a community-orientated process, but our local elected representatives were accountable for it at least. The LEP process doesn’t have this, and doesn’t have the other formalities of public participation; but its informality gives it a flexibility that has its own potential. What would happen if local people got together some fantastic radical idea and pressed for its inclusion in the spatial plan?

A couple of things struck me about the plan as it was presented to us (bear in mind I’m yet to read it through in detail):

  • At first glance, better than I expected!
  • It’s been greatly contributed to by knowledgeable people acting on a voluntary basis. Genuine voluntary time from people who want to see something work well, as opposed to for personal gain. Whether or not we like what they come up with, that’s impressive.
  • It’s aware of and to some extent reflects global resource limits – referring to the waste hierarchy, for example, and valuing green infrastructure. I suspect Prof Alister Scott had a hand in this.
  • It talks of urban renaissance.
  • It actually mentions social and environmental justice. In a spatial plan! In a LEP paper!

Still, though, there remains a tension around the LEPs’ Government-imposed growth-at-all-costs agenda, and its stated social and environmental aims. In its “vision” section it says “We are unashamedly biased on growth but we know the ultimate point of creating jobs and wealth is to improve the lives of all the people who live in our area.”

Knowing this purpose of economic activity is good, but of course knowing it doesn’t make it happen.  There will always be tensions here. It’s usually the big projects and the big sites that win favour, not necessarily the collection of smaller ones that improve the lives of local people. Of the consultation’s ‘ten ways to accommodate growth’, eight could look very much like sprawl, with its attendant problems for quality of life, place, and environmental justice.

I’ll be trawling through the consultation paper on the plan over the coming weeks, seeing how these promising guiding principles translate into more “concrete” proposals,  and seeing to what extent the plan maximises local benefit as per our Mainstreaming Community Economic Development work. So I’ll be aiming to write again from a more informed perspective.

Karen Leach