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

Written evidence from Localise West Midlands (ARSS 144)


1.1  This report sets out the views of Localise West Midlands, a not for profit organisation which believes that economic development and government are inextricably linked and that decisions in both areas are best taken at as local a level as possible by citizens or by their democratically accountable representatives. For further information about LWM, its objectives and activities see its website at www.localisewestmidlands.org.uk.

1.2  LWM welcomes the Committee's decision to undertake an Inquiry into the revocation and abolition of Regional Spatial Strategies. It notes the Committee will be focusing on the implications of this decision for house building; what arrangements should be put in place to ensure cooperation between local planning authorities on matters formerly covered by Regional Spatial Stategies; the adequacy of the Government's proposals including a duty to cooperate; the suggestion that Local Enterprise Partnerships have a Planning Function and the provision of Regional Data and Research services.

1.3  The response focuses on the West Midlands Region and draws on LWM, s works in the Region. It has also considered the proposals in the context of its approach to making Government work for all local communities in the region and the region as a whole.[179], We have also taken into account observations we made on the previous Governments proposals for Sub National Government in England [180] and proposals submitted to the Government about establishing Local Enterprise Partnerships in the West Midlands Region[181].

1.4  The Key Points we wish to make are set out in Section 2. Further supporting arguments for our position are set out in Section 3.


2.1  LWM is concerned that the abolition of Regional Spatial Strategies and related regional institutional infrastructure will:

Ignore the long history of Regional Working in the West Midlands Region and disadvantage the region compared to other parts of the UK which benefit from devolved democratically accountable Government.

Result in a policy vacuum to be filled by a return to and increase to ad hoc decisions being taken at Westminster and in Whitehall with inadequate understanding of the issues, and little or no ownership of them in the Regions. The hasty abolition of regional planning could leave a vacuum in terms of the policy resulting in an uncertain environment in which to take the major investment decisions.

Lead to uncoordinated planning and friction especially at boundaries between Local Enterprise Partnerships and individual Local Authorities.

Deny that there is much more to the RSS than housing including Economic Development, Biodiversity, Climate Change, both adaptation and mitigation, resource use and waste, transport, air quality, minerals, general infrastructure, flooding and renewables.

Undermine the joined up coherent approach which is required to promote Sustainable development. Such an approach is impossible at the National level at which policy is driven by the silo cultures of Central Government.

Emphasise the National and Global to the detriment of moves, which have been starting to take place to support a more localised and therefore sustainable approach to economic development.

Mean progress on developing Green Infrastructure could be halted as new relationships and understandings have to be established. In recent years there have been ongoing reviews of the West Midlands RSS where all those involved had to address important strategic decision making and engage in a process where everybody was not going to get everything that they wanted. This was a hard learning process for many BUT mutual respect and relationships were developed along with a wider understanding of what needs to be done.

Exclude from decisions a wide range of views in the region outside the political and business elites. While not as fully democratic and locally accountable as is desirable the RSSs, s processes and supporting institutional infrastructure did engage a range of partners.The consultation and examination process was open transparent and allowed many views to be aired. Although the Regional Assemblies were not fully democratic they did engage a wide range of bodies and views in a way that might not have been to everyone's liking BUT did at least ensure that there was a much more grounded understanding of the reasons as to why decisions had to be taken.

"As not only an organisation which took up a seat on the Assembly BUT one which engaged actively in the RSS process we also tried to enable as many community groups as possible to engage and make their views heard. Indeed as a result of this many local communities did actively engage in the process. By doing so they not only made their views know in consultations but also took up the opportunity to speak at the public examination."

Friends of the Earth, West Midlands Region

Ignore much regional data and evidence-based work generated by the RSS process covering a whole spectrum of local and regional planning policies. There is likely to be a loss of data and information, which could otherwise be shared and coordinated when policy decisions are made. The RSS process and the establishment of various regional bodies enabled the evidence to be collated and shared across the region in a way that made best use of very limited spcialist resources. It also informed policy decisions across the region including those of planning inspectors determining development proposals.

2.2  LWM believes that the Committee needs to recommend to Parliament that:

Regionally based and owned Strategic Planning inform policy making both nationally and Locally. It is vital to have a level of strategic planning between local councils and national government to ensure proper coordination across council and other instiutional boundaries and to create a degree of certainty on which to base investment decisions.

Communities need some level of strategic thinking beyond the local level to deliver many of the things they want, such as hospitals, transport links, waste management and flood protection. The most pressing issues facing the nation, for example, such as the housing crisis, economic recovery, climate change and biodiversity loss, cannot be dealt with solely at the level of local authorities, the proposed LEPs, or nationally.

Housing Polices especially New House Building have to be sustainble which requires they be shaped by the Regional and the Local taking into account a whole range of factors including employment,the character of our town and country, climate change, resource use and waste, transport, general infrastructure, flooding and renewables.

RSSs were useful in that they provided the much-needed direction on how national targets were to be met and a body of knowledge that often underpinned local authority and other decision-making. In putting forward an application for a particular development local authorities and developers could successfully argue that such a scheme is needed if regional targets are to be met.

Strategic Policy making both regionally and Sub Regionally including Local Enterprise and other Partnership approaches must be inclusive, transparent.

Resourced opportunities are required to maximise the participation in Regional, and Sub regional Planning and other policy making of the Voluntary, and Community Sectors as well as Local Government and the Business Communities.

Regional Strategic planning has helped ensure local authorities make consistent decisions on development across their boundaries, including affordable housing, public transport and waste provision. These developments need a high level of cross-authority working and the Government will need to outline a credible alternative to fill this void.

Decisions should be made at the lowest practical level and democratically accountable representatives must hold the responsibility for those decisions and the authority to take them at the same level.

Therefore Local Enterprise Partnerships should not have any Statutory Planning Function.

Local choice and therefore diversity must be recognised as a positive; the system must be simple enough for those engaged in or with it to be able to identify who is responsible for what decision; democratic accountabilities and responsibility need to be maximised so as to be strong enough to resist the return to the slow and hideous growth of centralisation.

The way regional development including it's economy is managed and governed needs to be tailored to the experience and needs of each region and not dictated by the centre. There needs to be a dramatic curtailing of the role at the regional and local levels of Central Government Departments, their executive agencies and remaining quangos.

The financial independence of the different tiers of government needs to be maximised. The only role for central government should be distributing and equalising resources in relation to need. This must be formula based and accepted that it gives a higher tier of government no right whatsoever to even try and influence how that funding is spent.

If the higher tier of government wishes to see a different provision of services from the choice of the democratically elected lower tier then it must fund, manage it and win a local referendum.

Each tier of democratic accountable government should have a duty to fully consult and involve other stakeholders and the general public.

We need:

A new green approach to the Region's economy.

A stronger, more inclusive and democratically accountable regional Government.

A stronger more inclusive and independent Regional Stakeholder and Civic Society Organisation.

A really local local government.


Cooperation-Regional Working in the West Midlands

3.1  There has been a long history of Regional Working in the West Midlands going back at least to the 1940,s. Despite challenges driven by successive Governments and at times by individual Local Authorities support for a joint approach to the needs of the region have been sustained. This approach and the benefits it has produced are now at great risk of being lost.

3.2  A coordinated regional approach emerged in the 1950s, in response to the then pressures of economic and population growth. This followed repeated failed attempts by Birmingham City Council to force on the Shire areas new housing and ad hoc decisions taken by successive Government Ministers in London. Eventually all the Local Authorities recognised that they needed to work together across their boundaries to agree how they jointly would manage the needs of the region in a balanced way which was sustainable.

3.3  Regional Working in the West Midlands has in many ways shaped the region of today. It has brought forward and supported the successful New and Expanded Towns, the maintenance of the Green Belts, Urban and Rural regeneration, responded to the major challenges faced by the region's economy in the 1970s, 80s, 90s, and the impact of the recent credit crisis.

3.4  In the early 1990,s the EU insisted that a prerequisite for accessing EU Regional Development Investment was Regionally produced Regional Strategies and Development Programmes a requirement that was met in the West Midlands by LA led Regional Planning. This initiative was closely related and drew on the Local Authority led Regional Planning Guidance work the forerunner of Regional Spatial Strategies. Previously Central Government had produced in London Regional Development plans and programmes for the English Regions all of which were virtually identical apart from name changes!

3.5  The Local Authorities and other interests have worked to support a strong regional voice, focusing on regional needs, collaboration, local action and mobilising support from within the region, the UK. Government and beyond. Now they have been forced in a matter of months to deny all that has gone before and to compete with each other for patronage from Westminster and Whitehall.

3.6  Regional Stakeholders have been actively engaged in regional policy, strategy, and scrutiny. These stakeholders brought forward alternative, non-parochial and party political views from across the region, challenging the views of Central and local government. Those directly involved in Regional decision-making have invariably seen these contributions as a real strength.[182]

3.7  Conversely, stakeholders involved in the Regional Assemblies were frustrated by the adoption of local government committee procedures when the regional arena was seen as presenting an opportunity to introduce more efficient and streamlined forms of decision-making.[183] There have also been real tensions between Local Government and Stakeholders about the legitimacy of non-elected stakeholder participation in the work of the existing Regional Assemblies.

3.8  Local Government involvement of the local, and other regional stakeholders in regional decision-making has been poor and limited at best. Local Government has done little to involve local people in regional decision-making and the wider devolution agenda. As a consequence there has been very little reporting of these issues by the local press and broadcasters and therefore very limited appreciation of the issues by the public. It is relevant that none of the bids submitted to Government for LEPs, has been subject to any public and wider stakeholder consultation let alone make reference to how the proposers intend to engage them.

3.9  Despite these problems LWM believes there is a need to build on rather than discard regional working in the West Midlands, and to strengthen civic society involvement in it as an important counterbalance to a single powerful institutional voice. Local Government does not have the monopoly of truth about the region. Indeed it was not designed to operate at the regional level.

3.10  The local government electorate process inevitably leads to a local authority and party political focus often at some distance from the really local. This makes it is difficult for local government leaders to always take a regional view. The experience of the Regional Assembly showed that when this happened regional stakeholders outside local government were able to challenge municipal parochialism and encourage the development of a new vision.

3.11  It needs to be recognised that with the exception of the private sector, most regional stakeholders in the non-local government bloc cannot afford to resource themselves their engagement in regional or sub regional work having relied largely in the past on support from the now abolished Regional Assemblies.

3.12  In contrast arrangements are in place in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and Greater London to facilitate the element of stakeholder and civic society participation in the work of the Assemblies and the Scottish Parliament. At present stakeholders and Civic Society in the English regions appear to be very significantly disadvantaged compared to other parts of the Union.

3.13  Decision-making will be seriously flawed without strong engagement of non-local government regional stakeholder. A collective regional stakeholder voice needs to be maintained. Central government needs to provide finance to run a stakeholder office and some technical support to foster a strong an effective stakeholder participation in all aspects of Regional and Sub Regional decision-making and Governance.

Sustainable Development

3.12  Recent events have confirmed our view that a focus on global economic competitiveness and credit-driven economic growth is not sustainable and very high risk in terms of social, economic and territorial cohesion across regions. Of particular concern is the impact of this approach for employment. In 2008 we argued that a global as well as a British downturn appeared likely given the nexus of problems such as the credit crunch, energy and food shortages, hence price rises and the fall in property values and consumer demand.

3.13  The idea that we can out-compete China and India in future high tech markets is a delusion. While they have and will continue to have far cheaper wage rates, they are already developing very large graduate workforces, and are increasingly we are seeing many higher skilled jobs moving to these and other countries with their workers able to effectively deliver many professional and administrative services via the Internet.

3.14  The way out of these problems is to decentralise fiscal and monetary policies so as to connect them more closely to the local and to focus on bringing together the demand and supply of goods and services so as to strengthen social, economic and territorial cohesion. Interest rates need to more accurately reflect local and regional inflationary pressures .New sources of finance such as local and regional bonds need to be promoted to finance local and regional investment, including housing, which could generate a huge number of hi and lower tech jobs, substantial new businesses. Most importantly regional and local action has to tackle climate change by cutting carbon emissions.

3.15  This new "Green Deal" could begin by funding decentralised energy production, storage, distribution and conservation. Such a programme would ensure high standards of insulation, extensive use of combined heat and power programmes. It would encourage the use of renewable to meet a new goal of every building being its own power station.[184]

3.16  It is this fundamentally different approach to the Region's economy that needs to underpin how we approach it's future development .The LEP bids from the West Midlands region touch on the need for Green Initiatives, but they are still rooted in an outdated economic development paradigm which accepts dependence on London patronage and focuses on global competitiveness and Supply side economics.

3.17  The LEP bids by focusing on journey to work/Labour markets take a far too narrow view of what constitutes a regional economic entity. Much more attention needs to be paid to the flows of goods and services between different localities and the potential to increase them as part of a strategy to strengthen localisation and therefore greater self-sufficiency and sustainability.

3.18  Such a radical new approach to the economy needs an equally radical approach to decision making; there needs to be a real transfer from London to the local and the region, of public and private decisions, leadership and resources.

September 2010

179   Making Government Work for Local Communties: LWM Policy Statement No.1, 2006. Back

180   LWM Response to the Government's Consultation About "Prosperous Places: Taking Forward the Review of Sub National Economic Development and Regereration"; June 2008 Back

181   See West Midlands Councils, Web Site at www.wmleadersboard.gov.uk Back

182   SnapeS and Mawson J (2005) The role of Regional Assembly Members. ERN-Warwick University. Back

183   Snape and Mawson J (2005) Policy and Decsion Making in Regional Assemblies. ERN-Warwick Univesity. Back

184   Seeing Off the Credit Crunch with a Green New Deal; Colin Hines, Localise WM: Birmingham Post article Feb 2008. Back

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Prepared 31 March 2011