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

Written evidence from Councillor Professor Alan Townsend (ARSS 40)


There is an urgent set of issues arising from the revocation of Regional Spatial Strategies (RSSs). This is unprecedented in the period since the passing of the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act, when expansion of travel has interlocked adjoining Districts.

In that context the Committee are wise to consider "the suggestion that Local Enterprise Partnerships may fulfill a Planning function". The view I published in October 2009 was that they should be statutory Planning Authorities; eg the Nottinghamshire/Derbyshire LEP, which includes 18 of the newly independent District Planning Authorities, should broadly work like the Greater London Authority does through the "London Plan".

The Committee are wise to recognize that RSSs covered a wide range of subject matter in all Regions, beyond the problems of housing numbers in the south, following an increased recent recognition in CLG papers of employment sites. There is a strong business interest in co-ordination of 324 soon-to-be independent Local Planning Authorities, and fear of wasteful competition between LEPs and Local Authorities.

The writer is one of the few people who have worked across both Town Planning and Economic Development issues as Councillor, Partnership Chair and Professor, and wrote to the Shadow Secretary of State a year ago (17 September 2009) that "Someone said that Gordon Brown would have failed an exam if he had written that he had "ended boom and bust": equally, anyone who wrote that you could achieve the Planning of England purely by Districts, without sub-regional or regional powers would also fail badly.

Ie planning, housing and transport are not only necessary to LEPs' working but need LEPs strengthening with formal Planning powers for essential purposes of CLG and government at large, and to complement the advances provided by localism.

Problems of co-ordinating Committees and Departments from London may be offset by saving agreed parts of draft integrated Regional Strategies, and re-convening Leaders' Boards with business bodies in Regions that want this, co-ordinating LEPs.

The conserving and updating of Regional Strategy data could be a task of continuing skeleton government Offices.


Professor of Regional Regeneration & Development Studies, University of Durham, 2000-05, responsible to CLG for nine reports. Career interests have been in Physical Planning, member RTPI; Chair of District Council Planning Committee.

Economic Development. DTI Regional Offices; five books on UK economic development at Regional and sub-regional scales; Chair of District Council Regeneration Committee.

Joint activity; held the economic desk on a Land-use Transportation sub-regional Plan; Chair of Wear Valley Local Strategic Partnership.

Currently Vice-Chair, Bishop Auckland College, and Greater Willington Town Council and Rural Durham Employability Steering Group.

Relevant publications:

Can LEPs fill the strategic void? Town and Country Planning, September, 2010 (with L.Pugalis).

The Planning of England-Relying on Districts,Town and Country Planning,October, 2009.

Integration of economic and spatial planning across scales', International Journal of Public Sector Management, 2009, Vol. 7.

The fluctuating record of economic regeneration in England's second-order city regions, 1984-07 (with A.G.Champion, in press Urban Studies).


1.  The peril is that the baby is thrown out with the bathwater. I maintain that strategic spatial planning, ie the Regional Strategy (RS) making process and the RSS exercise before it, served a pragmatic and valuable role.

2.  The present 324 second-tier and unitary authorities, to which independent planning has devolved, are artificial creations which vary considerably in their geographical degree of functional independence and cohesion. Thus dropping RSSs without replacement leaves, for example, Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire with a total of 18 independent District Planning Authorities. It was through a reaction against the Maud Commission's work of 1,969 that the second tier of local government was instituted by government; a fresh commission then bolted together previous smaller authorities to form minimum required populations.

3.  Abolishing the regional tier of strategy multiplies the potential number of boundary disputes, with many planning practitioners suggesting that cross-boundary developments will stall indefinitely.

4.  Within a strategic framework, it is possible to prioritise development schemes in a manner that shares and minimises negative externalities from a wide range of necessary developments. Shropshire, for example, was prepared to receive aggregate waste under the last West Midlands Plan, but has now withdrawn its cooperation under the prospective arrangements.

5.  Efficient infrastructure and new development have to be planned in relation to each other across the map, as in the Milton Keynes South Midlands Growth Area; equivalent bodies are now needed for areas which straddle different Districts. Many past examples can be given of transport proposals which were mistakenly confined within one lower-tier authority area, and which were likely to be inefficient, while water and sewage have to be planned across drainage catchment areas.

6.  Regional targets have been discredited for the time being while there is scepticism over the government's proposed housing incentives. Nevertheless, housing in one second-tier District may be complementary to employment growth in the adjoining one. Constraining housing delivery could significantly hinder economic recovery across the whole of the south. Alternatively, undue speculative activity in some localities could destabilise the wider urban land economy.

7.  In terms of important theory, emphasis therefore on the abandoning of regional planning would be on issues of duplication, sub-regional displacement, negative externalities and efficiency of infrastructure between authorities, along with the planning system's existing machinery for avoiding wasteful competition, as in retailing.

8.  However, many of these purposes of strategic spatial planning are not exclusive to the regional spatial level and were previously administered at the level of counties, including former metropolitan ones. We therefore anticipate the emergence of a new sub-regional strategic planning geography and suggest that the shape of Local Enterprise Partnerships, or LEPs, is recreating such a map. For example, the 18 Planning Authorities of Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire mentioned above are now included in one proposed LEP area.

9.  But the LEPs' lack of statutory planning powers may deny them the very certainty which planners, developers and business demand, as in the letter of 30 bodies to the minister of 5 August.

10.  This author recognises the issues mentioned by the Committee in waste, minerals, flooding, the natural environment, renewable energy and would prefer some of them to be dealt with continuingly at the Regional level. Climate change experts particularly see the loss of the level as important. However, even on environmental topics the proposed 56 LEPs are better than nothing for strategic work. Socially, issues such as the handling of gypsies or the inner city questions of greater Manchester or Tyneside will benefit from an LEP approach.

11.  Department for Transport issues are subject to District Planning judgement in the absence of an RSS. For example RAIL Magazine of September 8-13 cites two Freight Interchanges which have been rejected since May; "this presents a possible barrier to growth "where the parish council will decide what is good"

12.  The approach here is that of an expert on travel-to-work since the 2001 census, noting that "functional economic regions" have been recognised since for example a work of 1947, "City, Region and Regionalism" (RE Dickinson, Routledge). As part of their professional training of up to five years, all Planners are taught the growing interdependence of adjacent towns and suburbs for the activities of work, housing, shopping, leisure and services, which have to be taken into account in providing land, engineering calculations of road needs and Planning approvals. By the end of the 1960s the Ministry of Labour was linking local authority areas together in "Travel-to-Work" areas. It was a normal requirement of Ministry of Transport that new roads could be financed only by calculating detailed forward travel needs in "Land Use-Transportation Surveys" for conurbations and larger growth centres such as Northampton. The Metropolitan Counties of 1974-85 had their own Structure Plans which survived the closure of those Authorities. It is argued here that these plans could not have been produced by the present separate Metropolitan Boroughs.

13.  The needs of the economy are intimately bound up with the topics of housing, transport, infrastructure and planning. Long-overdue integration of these activities was embodied in increasing work between ministries in integrated Regional Strategies, which were to be signed off by BIS and CLG jointly. It was equally correct that the letter of 29 June announcing LEPs was signed jointly by the Secretaries of State of both BIS and CLG.

14.  It is argued here that it is necessary for LEPs to embrace all these topics: and that not as another "talking shop" but as bodies having statutory Planning powers at the centre of their individual work. If, as often stated, LEPs are responsible for "real economic areas", then they must embrace the topics together, none of which can be dealt with purely at the lower level of most Local Authority areas.

15.  Because of the effects on social housing and jobs, this is a moral issue. However, to argue this from an economic point of view: much as one might welcome aspects of devolution to the 324 Local Planning Authorities, the withdrawal of RSSs without replacement nonetheless leaves a vacuum of uncertainty for business investment

16.  Briefly, having 324 separate Planning Authorities could produce:

Unco-ordinated wasteful competition between new shopping centres.

Unco-ordinated buck-passing by between nimby southern authorities.

Irrational development of transport.

As an example in my letter of 26 July to the Minister for Decentralisation, a major development area straddles the boundary between Stockton and Hartlepool Boroughs: the otherwise excellent Partnership (existing and proposed) between Tees Valley Authorities leaves them as entirely independent sovereign Planning Authorities

17.  The allocation of employment land by the Planning system is of fundamental interest to business. For example, successive strategies for North East England since the arrival of the Nissan factory have allocated a small, set number of sites for large inward investments: otherwise all the present 12 Unitary Authorities would wastefully allocate one each.

18.  The location of new growth is the more advantageous if it is carefully calculated in relation to that of existing and new housing and transport for goods and personnel. Quoting the editor of PLANNING 9 August, p.9)

"Following the scrapping of regional spatial strategies, just over half [of 70 LPAs surveyed] expect to review their local development framework housing targets...Only one in five authorities will review employment targets...How many employers will spend big bucks investing in an area if there are serious doubts about housing their staff?"

19.  In short, the business and housing interest is different from the outcome of what 324 Local Authorities might decide. The last government responded to business and Treasury influence in legislating for merging Regional Economic and Spatial Strategies. This may have proved too cumbersome, but the lessons must be learnt, that there needs to be economic input into Planning. It is not the sum total of what Councillors on District Planning Committees might think, and say to CLG ministers through their national associations, when they might refuse applications of interest to DFT, BIS etc.

20.  It is now therefore argued here that LEPs are of value to Planning and vice versa:

(1)  It is necessary at all stages that Planning is part of LEP work, but

(2)  That is not sufficient as the only proposal to fill the vacuum between the 324 Authorities and Whitehall,

(3)  LEPs must have Planning powers: otherwise much of their work could prove nugatory: for example, a LEP containing say five Boroughs could find its separate Planning Committees voting to develop or approve rival out-of-town shopping centres, despite previous accords.

21.  It is now argued that the LEP level is the only one at which to resolve the strategic co-ordination of Planning. This statement does not reflect criticism of the dropping of the RSSs as such, but the surprise of many bodies and of academics at their dropping without replacement.

22.  RDAs have met almost unresolvable conflict, sufficient to risk losing regional projects, between metropolitan boroughs. A "law of the jungle" would leave disadvantaged communities further behind, Bradford behind Leeds, or deprived ex-coalfield areas behind those with Motorway junctions. When we look at the eight leading provincial cities, we find that the average proportions flowing in from adjoining areas summed to no less than 42 % of all workers already by 2001.

23.  LEPs provide a scale at which future essential strategic planning should continue. Government Party speakers over the last year have not been unaware of the gap which their Planning proposals would produce between District and nation. It would be a duty for their Local Development Frameworks "to be genuinely spatial"; unless authorities contributed genuinely to their cluster they would not get their regeneration money.

24.  There is not a large volume of decisions that cannot be transferred down to sub-regional level: they largely concern transport systems from Birmingham northwards as between the Manchester, Liverpool, Sheffield and Leeds areas and between Newcastle-upon-Tyne and the Tees Valley. On the other hand, the 324 Planning Authorities cannot be expected always to work in the interests of all neighbours.

25.  The power of RSSs and previous Structure Plans was that their approved text provided legally-enforceable certainty for implementation through Planning Inspector decisions. Disputes about retail centres were decided on an agreed policy calculated across the whole Plan area.

26.  LEPs will need to have the legal right and duty, in full consultation, to assemble and write the legally-enforceable Plan for the whole area. This need not involve them in all the myriad day-to-day decisions of the Local Planning Committees.

27.  This leaves the issues of Chairmanship and memberships of LEPs. There could be the view that Plans can only be approved by elected Councillors, in which case they could convene as a separate Planning sub-Committee for this purpose. In total the situation would not be very different from the regime from 1974 to 2004 when County Planning Committees undertook strategic work and a few larger decisions, while the lower tier of Districts undertook all the detailed work in the implementation of Plans.

28.  Following the rejection of the North East Assembly through a referendum, many experts looked to the model of two-tier planning of Greater London with its overall "London Plan". Along with the two-tier Planning of the four Scottish City Regions, the proposed use of LEPs would register a convergence of views at a sensible scale.


29.  The Committee are right to draw attention to the value of the data and analyses conducted for Regional Strategies, which include the published Strategy in the case of North West England.

30.  It is important to note that these analyses were publicly funded and reside in a public location. The fact that a current London-based government does not prioritise policy at this scale does not mean that data will not be needed by many public bodies and local authorities in individual Regions. Further, there are certain key data which are not currently available at lower levels, and which it would be uneconomic to produce. ONS are not stating that LEP level data can be produced under their current contract. In any case, LEP agreements may be liable to revision by members over time.

31.  There is ample precedent from the breaking up of Metropolitan and some other Counties in the 1980s for statistical and policy units to be retained for the original wider areas, and these continue today. There is an argument for retaining small government staffs in Regions to provide a minimum of intelligent co-ordination of London departments' activities, at least for the Regions further in travel time from London. If on that basis the southern Regions did not claim or recognize this need, then the government would be entitled to implement a distinction between North and South, which matches frequent practice in many analyses and books.

32.  Regional data should be maintained, updated and be available free of charge in designated bodies. These could be a function of skeleton Government regional Offices or of a neutral statistical body—in the North East these could be the Regional Observatory, ie the North East Research and Information Partnership, or the Institute of Local Government. The 1979 change of government brought the end of the "Strategic Plan for the Northern Region", but its publication in seven volumes in 1977 remained a publicly-recognised repository of new wisdom about the regional economy.

33.  This leads on to the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee's concerns about co-ordination of roles between LEPs and "arrangements for co-ordinating regional strategy". The underlying point is that efficiency requires the salvaging of the best of Regional thinking from ten years' recent work in Economic and Spatial Strategies, and draft Regional Strategies as well as broader arrangements across Sustainable Community Growth Areas.

34.  There are problems in building up a single and complete system of LEPs.

"It is essential that the Government should give real assurances to those for whom a city-regional style of government is inappropriate that the development of policy will not result in a reduction of support for other areas."

(CLG Committee, Is there a future for Regional Government?, Session 2006-07, para.179)

35.  Statistical data over nearly 25 years indicates relative success for the Manchester and Leeds City Regions over their neighbours in Liverpool, Pennine Lancashire, Sheffield, Teesside and Newcastle (Champion and Townsend, 2010). This government, which is concerned with deprivation and the reduction of welfare assistance, will want to retain machinery for assisting weaker areas. These points raise the issue of retaining some measure of co-ordination of strategy between LEPs at the regional level.

36.  It is likely that, for individual functions, the present system of eight units is capable of being cheaper and easier to staff than a sub-regional system of about 60 LEPs, and more capable of understanding and communicating with Whitehall. What must not be allowed to disappear is a floor of basic machinery for strategic co-ordination.

September 2010

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