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

Written evidence from West Midlands Regional Sustainability Forum (ARSS 16)

In summary we are concerned that there could be a policy vacuum. We could see uncoordinated planning especially at boundaries. There is much more to the RSS than housing. While not fully democratic they did engage a range of partners. The RSS consultation and examination process was open transparent and allowed many views to be aired.

We would wish to respond to the decision to abolish the Regional Spatial Strategies inquiry. While much of the focus will be on the provision of housing we would wish to stress that this is throwing out many other policies and evidence based work which covers a whole spectrum of local and regional planning and the coordination of that evidence and the data behind it. The areas with which we are most concerned would include Biodiversity, Climate Change, (both adaptation and mitigation), resource use and waste, transport, air quality, minerals, general infrastructure, flooding and renewables.

The establishment of various regional bodies enabled the evidence to be collated and shared across the region in a manner which enabled planning inspectors determine after full examination a vision for the future of the region to deal with land use issues over the medium to long term. We are very concerned that the loss of this coordination will lead to a lack of data and information which can be shared when policy decisions are made and the land uses that occur as a result.

The Regional Assemblies were not fully democratic BUT 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 to enable us all to deal with longer term land use planning issues.

We are concerned that moving forward these decisions will be made without this information and that there will be a lack of policy coordination especially at the "boundaries".

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 do they not only made their views know in consultations BUT also took up the opportunity to speak at the public examination.

We do wonder what opportunities there will be moving forward whether through the Core Strategies or the Local Enterprise Partnerships.

It is also important to note that strategic planning did not begin in 1997, but has been a vital part of our system for over half a century, indeed the West Midlands have benefitted from this since the 1950s.

We would argue that it vital to have a level of strategic planning between local councils and national government to ensure proper coordination across council boundaries. The hasty abolition of regional planning could leave a vacuum in terms of the policy needed to give the certainty to take major investment decisions that will help get us out of recession.

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 a local level.

The 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 a local authority's decision making. In putting forward an application for a particular development they could successfully argue that such a scheme is needed if regional targets are to be met.

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.

In recent years there have been ongoing reviews of the West Midlands RSS where we all had to address important strategic decision making and engage in a process where we were not going to get everything that we wanted. This was a hard learning process for many BUT mutual respect and relationships were developed along with a wider understanding of what need to be done. One area where we seemed to be progressing well was on green infrastructure especially in the Black Country. This could all now be lost.

In terms of moving forward we would urge that whatever structures emerge that they are open transparent and inclusive.

Plans to incentivise local communities to accept new housing development should reflect appropriate mechanisms to ensure that the planning process still provides protection for irreplaceable natural habitats like ancient woodland. We are concerned that incentivising housing could lead to houses built where there is least resistance and where house builders can afford to provide sweeteners for development rather than in the areas that are most sustainable and best protect the environment and the countryside. We are also unclear how incentivisation will protect environmental and landscape assets or provide for enhancement of those assets where development happens' which is a slightly broader approach.

Local community house building incentives should be coupled with similar local incentives to improve peoples' quality of life, such as creating new native woods. Environmental improvements should be planned and coordinated at a "landscape scale".

The positive benefits of sub national level environmental planning and delivery should be carried forward into the new localism model.

The Local Enterprise Partnerships should not be given any planning powers once held by regional and local government as it risks undermining the notion of a planning system that is democratically accountable and able to integrate environmental, social and economic concerns.

All sub-regional data and information needs to be banked and widely available to all parties. There is an urgent need to consider at what level future data will be collected, especially where it is appropriate at a level between the sub-regional and national level (eg journey to work areas). The concept of landscape scale has become increasingly important in environmental policy and data on this will need to be maintained at that level.

September 2010

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