There is a clear consensus amongst both academic commentators and the professional community in England that current arrangements for strategic planning are inadequate. The abolition of Regional Spatial Strategies (RSS) between 2010-2013 opened a gap between national and local levels which has not been adequately filled. Instead, a complex patchwork of institutional and policy forms has emerged, lacking overall cohesion and adequate rationale. Moreover, 96% of respondents to a County Council’s Network survey on the Government’s 2020 Planning for the Future White Paper were concerned or very concerned about the ‘lack of proposals around strategic planning and replacement of the duty to cooperate’. The subsequent Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill (LURB, 2022) is similarly agnostic, however, suggesting only that the Duty to Cooperate between neighbouring local planning authorities be replaced with a “more flexible alignment test” though with no detailed specification to date.
Explaining the context
The problematic state of English strategic planning derives from multiple causes. Following the removal of RSS, the Duty to Cooperate was introduced as a legal requirement for cross-boundary engagement on strategic planning matters but was widely seen as ineffective. Alternative Joint Spatial Plan exercises have frayed or fallen apart, including in the West of England (withdrawn in April 2020) and in Oxfordshire (August 2022), so that at the time of writing only two statutory strategic plans are currently being progressed in England, in South-West Hertfordshire and in Liverpool City Region. And perhaps most notably a proposed spatial framework for the totemic Oxford-Cambridge Arc, launched to some fanfare in February 2021, as unceremoniously ‘flushed away’ in early 2022.
The Oxford-Cambridge Arc (MHCLG, 2018)
More widely, strategic planning practice has been set against a background of sustained austerity; in May 2019 the Institute for Fiscal Studies reported that average local government spending on services in England had declined by 21% in real terms since 2009-10, with spending on planning, development and housing down by more than 50% over the period, and highways and transport services down more than 40%. A concomitant decline of strategic planning capacity has been apparent across all tiers of government, with the loss of over 1000 policy planners from local authorities between 2009-10 and 2017-18.
Meanwhile, local government structures have become an assortment of unitary, combined, and two-tier arrangements operating at diverse scales and with varied patterns of leadership and powers. Further progress with local government reorganisation had been expected in a ‘Devolution and Recovery’ white paper in 2020, though this generated a good degree of opposition amongst local authorities, resulting in a long delay of the paper which was then superseded by the recent LURB. Additionally, strategic planning has been impacted by the vagaries of ‘deal-based’ policy, uncertainties around the status of Local Enterprise Partnerships, the vague specification of the Government’s levelling-up agenda; and a predominant focus on housing numbers over wider issues of infrastructure and place-making.
Recovering strategic planning?
Rebuilding strategic planning in England requires a restatement of its fundamental rationale and understanding of its basic definition and tasks. The current conjuncture emphasises localism, rebalancing, and levelling-up via devolution and decentralisation, setting the context for strategic planning in: (i) ensuring coordination and coherence amongst policy structures, mechanisms, and commitments; (ii) providing an effective basis for policy negotiation, decision-making, and delivery; and (iii) securing a foundation for effective political leadership and accountability at larger-than-local scales. These are therefore key objectives for contemporary strategic planning in England, but current arrangements are simply inadequate in these terms.
Responding to this context, several serious and well-founded proposals have already emerged from the Planning community, including those developed by the County Council’s Network, the London and Wider South-East Strategic Planning Network, the RTPI, the One Powerhouse Consortium, and contributors such as Gordon and Champion. However, to date these have had limited traction and the political commitment and institutional foundation required to drive them forward has been lacking. A critical precondition for progress remains here in providing momentum for change. This requires, at heart, political leadership and democratic accountability at national, city-regional and sub-regional scales to make the case for strategic planning, to navigate the institutional complexity and to rebuild strategic planning capacities. In particular it requires acknowledgement of the limitations of localism in resolving strategic planning dilemmas and delivering sustainable development, and courage especially from national politicians in remaking the essential case for larger-than-local planning.
Dave Valler (Website) is Professor of Spatial Planning in the School of the Built Environment at Oxford Brookes University. He specialises in spatial planning, urban theory and politics, local governance, and sub-national economic development. Dave is a Fellow of the RSA and currently chairs the London and South East branch.
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