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

Written evidence from Janet Mackinnon MA (ARSS 31)


This memorandum recommends the establishment of local authority-led regional forums, possibly based on the former SERPLAN—South East Regional Planning Conference—model to replace the former Leaders' Boards. The main purpose of these would be to advise the Secretary of State on the contents of Regional Planning Guidance (RPG). It also recommends the retention of Government Offices for the Regions to manage the RPG process and monitor the compliance of local plans with this and national policies. A "less is more" approach to strategic planning is called for at the present time, rather than the complete dismantling of regional policy infrastructure implied in the Coalition Government's current proposals. Incentives should encourage location appropriate sustainable development and area regeneration in particular. A continuing role for House of Commons Regional Committees is also identified.

Introduction and context

My name is Janet Mackinnon. I have worked in area regeneration for 25 years, with a particular interest in sustainable development, and have an MSc in Urban and Regional Planning Studies.

Earlier this year, I submitted a memorandum to the House of Commons West Midlands Committee for their inquiry into "Planning for the Future".

My submission to the present inquiry by the Communities and Local Government Select Committee broadly covers those issues set out in the terms of reference:

Implications of the abolition of regional targets house building.

Proposals to incentivise local communities to accept new development.

Future management arrangements for matters formerly covered by RSSs.

Adequacy of proposals put forward by the Government, including role of LEPS.

Arrangements to ensure effective management and updating of strategic research.

However, I would first like to put these issues in a wider context as set out below:

A key plank of the previous New Labour administration's approach to spatial and wider economic planning might best be described as "demographic determinism": ie trend-based planning based on population-based growth was strongly encouraged.

There is now increasing evidence that such an approach does not deliver sustainable development for the economy and society, as well as for the environment. Instead it encourages large-scale investment speculation, notably in the housing sector, as happened for much of the noughties.

In a free market-based economy, it is not a proper function of government policy to seek to construct domestic economies of scale for a private construction sector, thereby potentially undermining not only the cost and general competiveness of this sector, but also other parts of the economy. Instead, there must be an adjustment to the current market conditions.

Nevertheless, appropriate government intervention in spatial development and housing provision is clearly of the greatest importance, and I very much welcome this opportunity to contribute to the Communities and Local Government Committee's present inquiry.

Implications of the abolition of regional targets house building

It is important to stress that regional planning pre-dates New Labour, and existed—albeit with a rather "lighter touch"—during the Conservative governments of the 1980s and 90s. Moreover, many of us welcomed, in principle, the creation of the Department for Communities and Local Government's predecessor, a Department for the Environment, Transport and the Regions when New Labour was elected in 1997.

Unfortunately, the later "regionalism" agenda proved unwieldy, subject to excessive "quangoisation", and the positive aspects of regional planning were subsumed by a central government fixation with house-building targets. The culmination of this fixation co-incided with the "Credit Crunch" which began in 2007—and notwithstanding this reality check—continued apparently unchecked through the subsequent financial crisis and economic recession, until the recent change of government.

Needless to say the house-building targets set by the former administration have not been fulfilled, proof—it any were needed—that planned targets in themselves do not necessarily deliver outcomes, even in the former Soviet Union, and particularly in a market economy.

Indeed, I would argue that unsustainable regional targets for housing development actively work against the delivery of house-building, and become instead a vehicle for large-scale speculative land-banking and planning applications which cannot be implemented due to unaffordable—for both the public and private sectors—infrastructure requirements.

It should also be remembered that the previous government "Proposed Changes" to a number of RSSs, with the aim of increasing house-building targets, provoked successful legal challenges by some local authorities on grounds of the non-compliance of the revision/review process with the European Strategic Environmental Assessment Directives.

This was, in effect, the "state of play" when the Coalition Government came into office and may have encouraged the rather precipitative response - which is also currently subject to legal action—to dismantling regional policy. Whatever the outcome of the latest challenge, it is undoubtedly the case that regional planning is more in need of reform than complete revocation, albeit that the withdrawal of undesirable and undeliverable house-building targets is in itself to be welcomed.

Proposals to incentivise local communities to accept new development

The Treasury appears to have already called in to question whether funding would be available to the extent implied in DCLG's proposals. However, some other basic caveats need to be set against such incentive schemes.

Most communities do not completely identify their interests with those of local government, and, in some cases, regard these to be at odds with organisations whose bureaucratic targets may be perceived as detrimental, and in some cases disastrous, for their localities.

Plans and programmes involving the large-scale demolition of housing and business premises illustrate this predicament very well. For it must be remembered that whilst the last government was extremely pious about the need for new housing, a great deal of money was spent on demolishing neighbourhoods which provided precisely the kind of affordable property, both residential and business, about which there continues to be so much political pontificating.

Where there is local opposition to new development in green field areas, this may be precisely because communities are aware of the availability of major brown field sites not far away, where such development would be extremely welcome. This is particularly true of the West Midlands, whose major urban areas have a strategic backlog of unutilised employment land, as evidenced in the Planning Inspectorate Report on the proposed Regional Spatial Strategy Phase 2 Revision.

DCLG should, therefore, focus on incentive schemes which encourage development of the right type and scale for a particular location, and which maximises regeneration opportunities, rather than attempt to bribe local communities to accept inappropriate proposals.

There also needs to be a resurgence of community-based planning, given the preponderance of top-down bureaucratic programmes in recent years. The adoption of this approach by the former Greater London Council in the 1980s ultimately enabled consensus to be reached on strategic transport planning and the acceptance of new development as a consequence of this.

Future management arrangements for matters formerly covered by RSSs "Standing Conference" arrangements of the kind formerly used by local authorities in London and the South East, but with a wider membership, is suggested for areas covered by the RSSs. The main purpose of these forums would be to advise the Secretary of State on the contents of Regional Planning Guidance (RPG). It also recommends the retention of Government Offices for the Regions to manage the RPG process and monitor the compliance of local plans with this and national policies, as well as and where appropriate, House of Commons Regional Committees.

Adequacy of proposals put forward by the Government, including role of LEPS

These appear to risk repeating the mistake of the previous Government's proposals for Single Regional Strategies, led by Regional Development Agencies, in having an inherent conflict of interest between economic development and other planning objectives.

Arrangements to ensure effective management and updating of strategic research

This is a particularly important issue for two main reasons:

1.  It is essential that a high-quality research base is maintained and updated

2.  Strategic research should not be confused with "playing to the music"

To address the second matter first, much research of a strategic nature conducted during the New Labour administration by a range of organisations, including universities, private consultancies, and governmental bodies, might best be described as "playing to the music": ie researchers knew very well what major public sector and commercial interests wanted to hear and delivered data interpretations accordingly.

One consequence of this was that the need for economic adjustment—which many people, and notably the present Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills knew existed by the mid-noughties—was not acknowledged by government until, effectively, it was almost too late. This lesson must be learnt by those who made the mistakes.

However, I am not yet convinced that this has happened, something which has important implications for managing the strategic planning research base, both at the central and local government levels. It should be noted that the latter also tends to have strong vested interests.

I therefore tend to favour some new regional arrangement, possibly involving a partnership between the Government Regional Offices and the Standing Conferences already proposed. A key role of this would be to develop data sets for different growth scenarios and development options at the sub-national, regional and sub-regional levels to inform local planning, rather than impose Soviet-style targets on the latter.

House of Commons Regional Select Committees might oversee this process, and provide organisations and people outside it with the opportunity of challenge.

September 2010

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