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

Written evidence from Dr Alister James Scott (ARSS 147)


Dr Alister Scott is a spatial planner with significant expertise in governance and public involvement particularly relating to the operation and impact of the planning system. He has widely published in academic and policy press and is an active researcher on behalf of Scottish, Welsh and English governments, agencies and local government clients. He has chaired Cardigan Bay Forum and been a board member of Scottish Natural Heritage dealing with planning and landscape concerns.

In my submission I am able to draw upon experience in the devolved countries and New Zealand.

Key Points about the abolition of Regional Spatial Strategies (RSS)

1.  The abandoning of the RSS with immediate effect represents a fundamental change to the planning system in England and appears to have been done without taking stock of the lessons learnt from their operation. It is important that policy decisions are based on "good" and "sound" evidence. Statements in Open Source planning (2010) Green Paper represent political arguments rather than any substantive analysis of the need to abolish the regional tier of planning. There might be compelling reasons why RSS was not appropriate and there is an urgent need to learn the lessons from that process to inform something different. But surely that involves consultation. Here the planners might have a valuable role to play as trained professionals separate from their political representatives. In my view the planner and the planning profession has become a political football without a full understanding of the role and remit and value of the planning system. Here the RTPI and TCPA have been remarkably silent but, in my view, there is a lot of ignorance about the planning system as an agent of social, economic and environment change; more often than not it is widely perceived and cited incorrectly that planning inhibits development.

2.   Regional planning represents one tier of a two way spatial planning system. Spatial planning is more than New Labour rhetoric and represents a professional and strategic approach to land and resource management emanating from the European down to the neighbourhood level and horizontally across the various policy sectors (agriculture, economic development, environment, housing, transport etc). Within the vertical hierarchy are various policy imperatives that cross local scale boundaries. For example climate change (COP 15; Kyoto), water catchment management (water framework directive) and nature conservation (Natura 2000, Marine Framework Directive) and landscape designations (European Landscape Convention) cut across local authority boundaries and require formal structures to co-operate at "regional" level. Indeed, many of the key planning issues raised by the recession demand a regional scale of collaboration but perhaps based on a more flexible approach. I fear that the proverbial planning baby has been thrown out with regional bathwater and that I see the simple deletion of the "region" from current thinking. However much of European funding is based on regional identity and structures and there is a clear risk of disjuncture here which will prevent much needed monies to support regeneration and development activities.

3.  One of the key lessons from the RSS episode was the need for staff to prepare adequate and sound SEA (Strategic Environmental Assessments). Many were held up or rejected due to simple procedural failures such as the need to consider alternatives in a preferred option. These requirements are enshrined in European Law and are therefore subject to legal challenge by anyone. The idea that neighbourhood plans can be drawn up and inform development plans is a very useful idea and raises issues of the status of parish plans and community strategies. But it is clear that whether it is a RSS or neighbourhood plan influencing core strategies they will need to follow SEA procedures or be subject to legal challenge resulting in their deferral or rejection. The capacity of neighbourhoods to do all this is questionable as is the logic in the extra burden falling on local authorities with reduced numbers of policy planners.

4.  The localism agenda however is an important part of the spatial planning hierarchy and arguably has not been given the attention it needs. However the danger of local politics and the power of influence can easily distort planning in the wider societal interest which is what I understand planning to be about. Therefore we need to have a top down and bottom up approach that meets somewhere and a conversation that produces legitimacy but also excellent planning products. I fear that we have become so wrapped up in the rhetoric of consultation, involvement that we lose sight of the purpose of planning in producing excellent outputs and policies. Such changes as proposed require significant capacity building, which requires investment in staff to bring this about. It is clear that there is no new money and therefore raises key questions of who will do this work. I suspect when it fails planners will again be seen as the fall guys.

5.  Support and sound information is a pre-requisite for effective participation. When we are considering future development options communities need to be able to understand the implications of various development options and therefore a whole new set of planning posts need to support this requirement. We would not let communities conduct brain surgery on ministers but equally I think there is a perception that planning is something that the public can easily do. As a university lecturer I spend a lot of my time training planners to be effective and skilled people. This can't be simply derogated to the community.

6.  The local enterprise partnerships are, as yet, unknown beasts. My understanding is that many of them will be incorporated within existing local authority strategic partnerships. My contention is that in order to plan effectively for climate change and for the future we need to adopt more meaningful regional partnerships and boundaries and rather than the current trend to create new structures. The current river basin management groups within water catchments under the Water Framework Directive afford a potential model for wider spatial planning as they represent real and logical natural boundaries which shape many contemporary planning responses. This is a cost efficient way to redraw the map of planning in the UK, facilitating joined up planning to feed from European level to neighbourhood and allowing for horizontal integration across the key sectors of conservation, transport, economic development and housing.

7.  It is interesting to me that a lot of the planning debates focus on housing numbers when they only represent one aspect of the jigsaw. Few people embrace the proper spatial planning approach which is about building sustainable communities and allowing a range of developments within areas. It is also important to realise that there is no such thing as community. There are, however, communities and public(s). Consequently you will never get a universal view or consensus. Planning decisions result in winners and losers in many cases but should be located within a process that is fair and equitable and in the societal interest. Recognising this and dealing with multiple public(s) is a key first step but unfortunately the push to localism will only exacerbate these tensions.

8.  This leads on to my final point. There is no national spatial plan within which any planning takes place in England. What kind of society do we want and what and where are the key places for our national infrastructure and developments? Rather than a cut and paste of existing policy the Government should portray a spatial picture of England within which strategic planning at the different levels can take place working towards that spatial vision. Otherwise we will see ad hoc planning and powerp lays which pit communities against each other. A lot of my research has shown increasing public disaffection with planning simply because they appear powerless to influence it. The abolition of the regional spatial strategies and a switch to localism will not prevent this happening, particularly in light of reduced professional planning resources to enable it.

September 2010

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Prepared 31 March 2011