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‘Metro mayors should use technology to create smart city-regions’

James Harris
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In the chancellor’s meetings with northern metro-mayors in the North earlier this month, it is unlikely strategic planning was top on the agenda – but it should have been.

Planners play a role in everything from tackling the housing crisis to climate change, from boosting economic productivity to improving public health. The breadth of this remit is why the Royal Town Planning Institute has long been calling for more strategic planning.

Strategic planning simply means complex issues cannot be dealt with solely at the local level or by focusing on a single issue. Responses need to consider and be coordinated across wide geographical areas and different sectors. It is all the more urgent with Brexit and the need for regions to reach their full economic potential.

But it is difficult to achieve. In England, policies and plans are typically made in departmental silos with little coordination. Localism provides few mechanisms or incentives for councils to cooperate. Planning departments often struggle to do proactive planning due to tight resources.

The recent wave of devolution offers new opportunities for strategic planning. Nine combined authorities can now govern on a city-region level, with the ability to create joined-up plans and take initiatives to coordinate land assembly and infrastructure delivery.

But unless they tackle the barriers to strategic planning, they won’t be going too far. The National Audit Office has warned that combined authorities are at risk from a lack of resources, internal political tensions and the complexity of their mandate. It said combined authorities could become just another ‘curiosity of history’.

So how to avoid this outcome?

Through our work with the Future Cities Catapult, we’ve seen how data and technology can make it easier to plan across geographical boundaries and sectors. For example, the Greater London Authority requires all boroughs to enter standardised planning information into a single database, which can be used to monitor development trends across the city-region.

Elsewhere, the Greater Manchester Combined Authority is developing an integrated infrastructure map. Birmingham City Council is testing a tool that models the impact of development proposals on ecosystem services.

Many organisations like Ordnance Survey are developing analytical tools that could support strategic planning. Advanced 3D models offer new ways to visualise the impact of development proposals and model growth scenarios. National datasets have been turned into interactive maps that make it easier to understand cross-boundary issues like commuting patterns and demographic change. They can help prioritise infrastructure investment and pinpoint future constraints. They make it easier to see whether planning policy is effective, and can help to engage communities in decision-making.

Our Smart City-Regions will explore this potential further. If you have experience to share, please get in touch.

James Harris, policy and network officer, Royal Town Planning Institute

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