Abolition of Regional Spatial Strategies: a planning vacuum? - Communities and Local Government Committee Contents

Written evidence from Worcestershire County Council (ARSS 141)

1.  Summary

We must find new ways to match investment certainty with locally-driven strategies. The County Council will support local decision making with our expertise in demographic analysis and forecasting.

It will be essential to get a complete understanding of local perceptions of housing needs. The County Council has particular expertise in opinion polling cross sections of the population and of focus groups which can be used.

The ability of the Homes and Communities Agency to continue to deliver affordable housing funding is critical to meeting local need.

We welcome the proposed New Homes Bonus which will need to be shared between the collecting district councils and the County Council which provides such key infrastructure as roads and schools to support new housing.

Strategic infrastructure will however still be needed in advance of housing development. Through our Local Strategic Partnership and the proposed Local Enterprise Partnership we will gear up to bid for all available sources of funding.

We will take the Government's new localism agenda as an impetus to strengthen the bottom up review of the Sustainable Community Strategy to provide a framework for local housing initiatives.

We will make arrangements to deliver a "Total Place" approach through the Worcestershire Partnership ensuring that the Local Enterprise Partnership is fully integrated and not operating in parallel.

We are concerned to see that there are collective West Midlands resources to continue preparation of an annual monitoring report to replace that formerly required for the RSS. This provides information on development patterns down to district level and is essential if we are to see if the localism agenda is being delivered.

2.  "The implications of the abolition of regional house building targets for levels of housing development"

Regional Spatial Strategy (RSS) targets provided certainty but were not universally welcomed at local level. They did, however provide a level of certainty developers and house builders to invest, assemble land and build. We must now find new ways of matching investment certainty with locally-driven strategies. The proposed Local Enterprise Partnerships may provide a means of doing this. The County Council sees its role as informing a local evidence base that will address both need and opportunity, thus facilitating locally based decision making on housing type, location and quantity. We will do this to support the district councils in their Strategic Housing Land Assessments and by making available our expertise in demographic analysis and forecasting.

It will be essential to get a complete understanding of local perceptions of housing needs and the geographic definitions of local communities for the purposes of surveying those perceptions. In rural areas, this work will often be based on parishes, but in towns the perception of "what is my community?" will be more complex. The County Council has particular expertise in opinion polling, for example, via the "Worcestershire Viewpoint" electronic surveying of a representative cross-section of the population, or through electronic voting at focus groups or other local meetings. Now that housing targets are to be determined locally, it is essential that the evidence base for this is as informed, timely and representative as possible.

The Government has confirmed that meeting the Nation's housing needs is a high priority. We look to the forthcoming National Planning Policy Statement to articulate what that need is so that communities can be certain what contribution they are making. There will need to be a clear expectation that local housing provision is balanced by the necessary infrastructure and is associated with local employment opportunities so that growth occurs in a balanced and sustainable way at appropriate locations.

There is a particular issue with regard to affordable housing. The former RSS Phase 2 Revision included indicative affordable housing targets for the four strategic housing market areas. This provided a reference point for local authorities in reviewing their own affordable housing needs. These arrangements have been superseded, not only by the RSS abolition, but also by the Homes and Communities Agency's (HCA) "Single Conversation" direct with local housing authorities. The ability of the HCA to continue to deliver affordable housing funding is critical to meeting local need, particularly during the current recession when delivery through S106 Agreements with commercial house builders is at a very low ebb.

"The likely effectiveness of the Government's plan to incentivise local communities to accept new housing development and the nature and level of the incentives which will need to be put in place to ensure and adequate long-term supply of housing."

The County Council welcomes the proposals to introduce a New Homes Bonus. Receipts will need to be appropriately shared between the districts (who will collect) and the County Council which has key responsibilities for providing roads, supported public transport, schools, social care, libraries and countryside recreation services to support growth. County and district councils will need to put robust monitoring systems in place to demonstrate to local communities how that money collected has been spent so they can judge whether value for money has been achieved.

Strategic infrastructure will still be needed in advance of development, to address development impact thresholds, including that created by the cumulative impact of a number of smaller, local developments. It is therefore likely that it will have to be funded other than by developers through such mechanisms as the Regional Growth Fund. Medium term certainty about the availability of such funding streams would enable us to commit the substantial resources required to develop, for example, a major road scheme. Strategic infrastructure will also have to include Super Fast Broadband provision. This has become increasingly important and is often essential to enable home based working. We will ensure we are fully geared up through our Local Strategic Partnership and the proposed Local Enterprise Partnership to bid for all available sources of infrastructure funding, including the Regional Growth Fund.

We will need to re-visit our Code of Conduct to safeguard the position of members and officers involved in planning decisions for new housing to minimise any public perception of the selling of planning permissions for financial gain regardless of the proper planning merits. Whilst residential development is a matter for district not county councils, many of our councillors serve at county, district and indeed parish levels. The reputation of local government as a whole needs to be protected.

3.  "The arrangements which should be put in place to ensure appropriate cooperation between local planning authorities on matters formerly covered by regional spatial strategies"

Cooperation arrangements in Worcestershire are long standing as is essential in a two tier local government structure. The Worcestershire Partnership is our local strategic partnership at county level and its Sustainable Community Strategy (SCS) is an established statement of local community priorities. The existing SCS was refreshed in 2008 using a bottom up approach. We will take the new localism agenda as an opportunity to strengthen the bottom up feed of policy and priorities, including in housing. We will integrate these arrangements with the new Local Enterprise Partnership which we hope and expect will be based on co-terminus Worcestershire boundaries. None of this will prevent us co-operating with neighbouring authorities in Wales and other former regions when this is appropriate.

The 33 local authorities of the West Midlands have agreed to continue cooperation through our West Midlands Councils organisation. This gives us the ability to broker cross boundary agreements and to share best practice, particularly in the specialist areas of policy formerly covered by RSS where no one authority has all the necessary expertise.

4.  "The adequacy of proposals already put forward by the Government, including a proposed duty to co-operate and the suggestion that Local Enterprise Partnerships may fulfil a planning function"

We look for more detail from Government regarding our role in addressing "strategic planning and infrastructure issues." We have already commenced work on a County wide Infrastructure Delivery Plan in partnership with our district councils. We have commenced work on restructuring the Worcestershire Partnership governance arrangements to ensure we can deliver a "Total Place" approach and we will ensure that the Local Enterprise Partnership is fully integrated not operating in parallel.

5.  "How the data and research collated by the now-abolished Regional Local Authority Leaders' Boards should be made available to local authorities and what arrangements should be put in place to ensure effective updating of that research and collection of further research on matters crossing local authority boundaries."

We would welcome a commitment from Government to assist West Midlands Councils in maintaining and updating the "legacy" websites where a great deal of information is currently housed. This is particularly important given Government confirmation that the information base on which Regional Spatial Strategy was prepared is still a material planning consideration. We understand that West Midlands Councils have given an undertaking to Government that the RSS evidence base inherited from their predecessor bodies will be maintained via a spreadsheet hosted on their website. Where a resource is of particular sub-regional interest, it will be highlighted. This will be particularly helpful to local authorities in progressing their Local Development Frameworks.

A particular current concern is to have the collective resources within the West Midlands (personnel and financial) to continue the former statutory duty of preparing and publishing an Annual RSS Monitoring Report. This provides a detailed time series of development trends down to district council level and is an essential component of the local planning evidence base. In the absence of any regional organisations, this report will also be essential for Ministers to gain an overview of progress on their localism agenda. The local authorities, including Worcestershire, are prepared to continue the collection of data for this report but it will require a collective resource to produce and publish.

September 2010

previous page contents next page

© Parliamentary copyright 2011
Prepared 31 March 2011