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We risk facing a strategic policy vacuum

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It is a relief ministers are delaying the Decentralisation and Localism Bill until the end of the year. The implications of key aspects of their localism plans, not least the move to scrap Regional Spatial Strategies (RSSs), need careful thought.

Critically, ministers need to determine what is to be gained from scrapping RSSs if the consequence is simply devolving planning powers to local planning authorities.

The Royal Town Planning Institute has said it believes there needs to be a level of planning between local and national levels to avoid “a strategic policy vacuum at the sub-national level”.

Some form of strategic planning, either at regional or county level, has been the rule, rather than the exception

Professor Alan Townsend

The RTPI said it was not convinced new incentives to encourage councils to build homes would be enough to “win over the hearts and minds of communities to support development proposals in their local areas” - or in other words, to quell nimbyism.

Centralising impositions

It is understandable that a generation of councillors, lacking historical knowledge of what went on before 2004, have reacted against RSSs as anti-democratic centralising impositions on local areas.

When I was a planning committee chair at the lower tier, I recall reading with some shock that a particular planning application was subject to conformity with the region’s “emerging RSS”. But this would have seemed less foreign if the reference was not to an RSS, but to a County Structure Plan.

Over the years, some form of strategic planning, either at regional or county level, has been the rule, rather than the exception.

What is surprising is that the coalition government is proposing to scrap regional-level planning without anything like a county or sub-regional level between central government and local councils.

Own area first

Of course, most councillors rightly think first of their own area. However, a quick look out of their town hall window should remind them commuting, shopping and leisure journeys have increased heavily between neighbouring local authorities, while business and investment doesn’t recognise arbitrary administrative boundaries.

The Conservatives recognise “real economic areas” for their Local Enterprise Partnerships

Professor Alan Townsend

The risk is that in handing planning down to councils, the interdependency of local authority areas in planning is lost.

This could mean it would be all too easy for independent local plans to “beggar-my-neighbour” in competing for retail sales and jobs, while some essential housing need would be refused as part of widespread objections to development in present-day England.

The Conservatives recognise “real economic areas” for their Local Enterprise Partnerships. So if the counties and unitaries are not to be given the work of sub-regional planning, then the only way forward is to make such sub-regional or city regional partnerships a full set of statutory planning authorities.

Professor Alan Townsend, University of Durham, Alan.Townsend@dur.ac.uk

See also; The Planning of England - Relying on Districts? Town & Country Planning, Vol.78, No.10, October, 2009.

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