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

Written evidence by Graham Pearce, Aston University, and Sarah Ayres, Bristol University (ARSS 60)


This memorandum draws upon research conducted by the authors over the past decade into sub-national government in England supported by the Economic and Social Research Council. The abolition of spatial planning at the regional level and the transfer of this function to local authorities, as well as the establishment of Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs), are held to offer a more effective and accountable approach to sub-national planning. Nevertheless, there are potential contradictions, uncertainties and costs arising from changes to the planning system, which carry significant risks for the delivery of key policies. We contend that:

1.1  The legacy of regional working should not be dissipated. Indeed, there is a compelling case for establishing some form of light-touch region-wide partnerships of local authorities, business leaders and other key partners to mobilise around strategic issues and for the retention of regional data and intelligence capabilities.

1.2  The absence of a national spatial planning strategy and limited spatial awareness in key Whitehall spending departments will continue to undermine efforts to coordinate disparate public funding streams and provide the continuity necessary to deliver private sector investment at the sub-national tier.

1.3  There is no right scale of government at which spatial planning should be pursued. Nevertheless, there is an array of key long-term, cross-cutting issues that demands strategic responses from both public and private sectors and vary in their impact within and between regions, but which transcend the capacities of individual local authorities.

1.4  Removing the statutory regional planning tier will undermine efforts to secure sustainable patterns of development, especially in accommodating urban growth in the Greater South East and tackling regional economic inequalities.

1.5  The effectiveness of financial enticements for councils to encourage house building is untried and could have serious economic and social consequences, for which central government will be held responsible. At least a staged approach should be adopted that tests the effectiveness of such incentives, alongside some form of penalty for authorities that eschew housing land releases.

1.6  There are merits in promoting functional economic geographies as opposed to structures based on administrative boundaries for policy-making and delivery purposes. Nonetheless, in the absence of financial incentives, or the appointment of elected sub-regional bodies, securing lasting cross-boundary working between individual local authorities will raise political, financial and technical challenges, with the risk of significant geographical variations.

1.7  The proposed LEPs could provide a mechanism for dealing with a range of cross cutting issues relating to economic development, but they will not be wholly elected and may not be statutory bodies. As such they are likely to replicate the same weaknesses of legitimacy associated with the unelected regional assemblies and RDAs.

1.8  The business sector is expected to voluntarily engage in LEPs, but business partners do not want to be part of bureaucratic "talking shops". Local authorities will, therefore, face the dilemma of having to balance private business interests with public interests, including a complex array of social and environmental issues.


2.1  Many North West European countries possess comprehensive and long term spatial planning systems and in England regional planning has existed in various forms since the inter-war years as a way of tackling spatial inequalities, especially the north-south divide and managing the process of urban and rural change. Successive regional plans primed by groups of local authorities, but often issued by central government, have sought to link economic development, housing and transport issues. In recent years the statutory Regional Spatial Strategy and, latterly, Single Regional Strategies have became tools for aligning a range of other strategies and their associated funding streams at regional and sub-regional levels over a twenty year time horizon. They have the overall objective of promoting sustainable development by embedding regional action on issues such as economic development, education and skills, energy, the environment, health, housing, transport and waste into planning policy. Given the absence of any form of national spatial strategy, the abolition of structure plans and the slow emergence of local development frameworks, regional strategies have in practice provided a degree of continuity for local decision making.

2.2  There is no single or right spatial level at which planning policies should be framed and delivered and different approaches will be necessary to suit different areas. Nonetheless, there are key economic, environmental and social challenges that cannot be met solely through reliance on national or local decision-making, which underlines the need for a form of intermediate or "meso" level strategic planning. Our research indicates that even some Conservative local authority leaders with experience of regional working, who are philosophically unsympathetic to regions, acknowledge the benefits of regional collaboration in a statutory context to tackle cross-cutting strategic issues, provide a degree of spatial coordination and exert influence in Whitehall.

2.3  Interrelated and often contentious drivers of change transcend local authority boundaries, urban and rural areas and regions. For the foreseeable future, some regions (especially those in the North of England and the Midlands) face deep-seated economic problems that demand a collective response from both public and private sectors. In addition, there is a set of longer-term, but no less, significant challenges. These include economic competitiveness, migration, mitigating and adapting to climate change, the provision of infrastructure for the projected additional nine million people in the UK by 2031 (especially in the Greater South East), increasing pressures on natural resources and new technologies. The recent Foresight Land Use Futures Project (Government Office for Science, 2010) examined the implications of these developments for UK land use over the next fifty years and concluded that there is a strong case to develop a much more strategic approach. Moreover, though there are common land use and management challenges, the presence of spatial variation in the demand and supply of land resources confirms that responses need to vary considerably within and between regions.

2.4  Pressures on both public and private sector funding will intensify and the need to prioritise, align and deliver funding for development and infrastructure spatially will be essential. Individually, the 292 district councils outside London are unable to perform this function. Equally, important Whitehall spending departments remain "spatially blind" to the geographical implications of their decisions and actions (Pike and Tomaney, 2008). In these circumstances, the regional tier has emerged as an efficient and effective locus for the coordination and integration of sub-national spatial and investment priorities, where certainty is vital for both private and public sectors (see for example the contribution of Regional Funding Allocations).


3.1  Given the absence of sufficient resources for supporting infrastructure and the potentially adverse environmental impacts, it is hardly unexpected that local authorities and citizens should object to the imposition of Whitehall housing targets via regional strategies. Ministers have been highly critical of this top-down process, which they see as counter productive in terms of bringing forward the housing necessary to meet anticipated household growth, especially affordable dwellings. They favour a bottom-up approach using financial incentives for local authorities to release land for development so "that existing communities will genuinely benefit when they decide to develop" (Conservative Party, 2009. p.20). However, this is to ignore the scale of extant planning permissions for housing and the continuing impact of the banking crisis on credit availability and to underestimate the scale of public hostility to new housing developments in many areas.

3.2  The role of strategic planning is not only about identifying housing targets. Its main purpose is to provide a basis for making decisions about how sustainable development can best be achieved, in the context of economic, environmental and social limits. Such decisions are frequently contested and parochial interests and rivalries often overshadow policy debates. Nevertheless, in all regions strategic planning has provided an effective mechanism for local authorities to reach agreement on a range of issues, including the location and scale of future housing. Removing the regional planning function will not absolve the need for decision-making in this key policy area. Indeed, in order to counter the balkanization of housing policy, alternative institutional arrangements are likely to emerge, if only to coordinate the outcomes of local authority housing needs assessments. Nonetheless, evidence drawn from separate districts provides a weak measure of aggregate need and, given the difficulties in drawing housing market areas and because of the variable and contested quality of local data, efforts to prepare assessments on the basis of housing market areas have proved hazardous (Coombes, 2009).

3.3  The statutory planning system is interconnected and there is already evidence that the abolition of its regional component is leading some local authorities to reduce their land allocations for housing. Whether the proposed financial incentives to local authorities for house building will be sufficient to encourage them and local citizens to support the release of additional land is a moot point. The assumption is that local communities, through a combination of financial inducements and the need to meet their own needs, can be persuaded to accept more housing developments. Nonetheless, there is a real prospect that in the absence of financial penalties, in areas of greatest demand where resistance to new development is strongest, additional land allocations may be minimal. The outcome of this market-drive approach to land-release is likely to be further house inflation, especially in more prosperous areas and a reduction in the already under supply of affordable housing for lower income households. "The spatial distribution of housing output is critical but without targets and some form of top-down pressure housing may not be delivered where it is needed most …." The trick is to find a way of balancing these two approaches to meet both local and national objectives (Burgess et al., 2010). In sum, there is no guarantee that the level of provision will be sufficient to meet national needs, with serious economic and social consequences.


4.1  The Government takes the view that the devolution of powers to sub-regions, comprising "natural" or "functional" units, in the form of LEPs offers a more effective reference point for the co-ordination of public policies and resources (New Local Government Network, 2009). It expects that they will tackle a wide range of policy issues that contribute to creating the right environment for business and growth in their areas including planning and housing, local transport and infrastructure priorities, employment and enterprise and the transition to the low carbon economy. The Labour Government also acknowledged the need to identify sub-regions that reflect economic geography and the functional relationships between areas not captured by existing local administrative boundaries and presided over the creation of fifteen Multi Area Agreements, covering 105 councils and including over one-third of England's population (Russell, 2010).

4.2  Coordinating the activities of different public bodies has long been the holy grail of public administration. For example, despite their wide-ranging statutory responsibilities as planning bodies the unelected Regional Assemblies lacked executive power, political legitimacy, leverage and resources and were reliant on internal debate and partnership arrangements to broker consensus. In addition, efforts to tackle interconnected issues beneath the national scale have been frequently frustrated by Whitehall's silo culture, in which policies and budget lines are fragmented and where local discretion is limited. Furthermore, the geographical boundaries of public agencies are not always co-terminus and different organizations have different planning cycles, hampering efforts to join-up policies and budgets.

4.3  The new LEPs will face the same set of challenges. Indeed, removing the regional strategic planning tier risks squandering the benefits of coordination and could lead to more disputes arising at the local level, where competition could well replace cooperation leading to greater uncertainty for both the private sector and public bodies. Ideally, local communities should have the freedoms to orchestrate policies to meet their own long-term priorities. But in the absence of local government reorganisation these business led, sub-regional partnerships will not be elected and, therefore, will lack visibility and accountability to citizens. Furthermore, the need for statutory planning across sub-regions is not currently recognized (Townsend, 2009). In addition, while LEPs will be expected to work in close harmony with the patchwork of public bodies involved in supporting economic development in its various forms, many face severe budget cuts or even closure and will have very different levels of commitment to the sub-regional tier.

4.4   Institutional arrangements at the local level are also already crowded and the potential contribution of established mechanisms should not be ignored. Local Strategic Partnerships, which lie at the heart of the Local Community Strategies, as well as Local Planning and Economic Planning Strategies, already provide appropriate mechanisms for joining up policies and programmes and engaging a wide range of interests, albeit at a local rather than a sub-regional level. Social and environmental partners, for example, are represented on LSPs but there are no plans for them to serve on LEPs.

4.5  The coordination of spatial planning across local authority boundaries is clearly desirable Nonetheless, the outcome of previous efforts to encourage local authorities to cede powers to joint bodies have been uneven and variable in strength. Added to which are the difficulties of securing collaboration in predominantly two tier areas. There is also the risk of unproductive forms of "place marketing" to attract mobile investment and jobs. Local authority collaboration is most likely to be reached when there is collective agreement on the need for action on a particular issue or where there are financial advantages. However, in the absence of such incentives or a statutory requirement, the willingness of councils to voluntarily put aside local interests and provide a collective voice on issues that have a strategic dimension cannot be assumed.


5.1  Unlike other comparable North-West European states, the stripping away of the statutory regional planning function and the demise of structure plans in 2004 leaves England with very limited strategic planning capacity. Experience indicates that many districts, especially in two-tier areas, lack both the capacity to think strategically and the resources to execute their own local development plans. Furthermore, compared with local government internationally, English local authorities possess limited financial autonomy.

5.2  The small planning teams established initially by 1990s Regional Planning Conferences and, more recently, by Regional Leaders' Boards comprising some 100 staff across England, provided a set of strategic planning skills that has now been dissipated. They not only assisted elected politicians mediate on a range of often controversial spatial planning issues, but also adopted a proactive approach in developing strong working relations with organisations responsible for a variety of public sector programmes and the private and voluntary sectors.

5.3  The transfer of planning and economic functions to the local level can be regarded as a response to the limited accountability of the Leaders' Boards and the Regional Development Agencies. Nonetheless, tensions over the weight to be given to economic development, environmental protection and housing policies will remain, underlining the need for a coordinated rather than a set of singular local authority or sectoral responses. A key strength of the development plan system is that is that it provides a comprehensive approach to the development of an area in a publicly accountable environment, counter-balancing the tendency towards undue influence by single-issues. By contrast, LEPs are expected to have a business orientation and while business interests are important they should not automatically take precedence over other economic, social and environmental priorities. If LEPs were to take over a significant element of the development plan function this would not only give rise to alarm in communities, but also potentially discourage business sector involvement in policy areas in which they are neither willing nor able to engage. Indeed, the inclusion of planning and other key policy areas could threaten what will be new and potentially fragile relationships between business and local authorities in emerging LEPs.

5.4  A strong and shared evidence base is vital in identifying the factors that are influencing development in particular areas, in policy formulation and in monitoring and measuring performance. Considerable expertise has been developed at the regional level over the past decade in collecting and disseminating data and intelligence, which has underpinned the development of a range of strategies, eg climate change, economic, housing, energy, environmental, spatial and skills. This represents a huge store that cannot be replicated by individual local authorities or LEPs and it is vital that it is not abandoned.

5.5  From April 2010 all upper tier and unitary authorities, in consultation with other key partners, were required to assess the economic conditions in their local areas, which would provide the evidence to underpin a range of local and regional strategies. In July 2010, however, the Government announced its intention to remove statutory guidance on Local Economic Assessments (LEAs). Local authorities are still required to have a local economic evidence base, but there is a danger that the quality and rigour of evidence gathering may be jeopardized. Indeed, in the absence of statutory guidance indicating what LEAs should contain, there can be no guarantee that counties and districts within LEPs will apply a similar template to collecting, analysing and presenting data.


Burgess, G, Monk, S and Whitehead, C (2010) How can the planning system deliver more housing? Joseph Rowntree Foundation, York.

Conservative Party. (2009) Control shift: Returning power to local authorities, Responsibility Agenda Policy Green Paper No.9, Conservative Party, London.

Coombes, M (2009) "New policies for rural housing markets: some inconvenient truths", Planning Practice and Research, 24, 2, 211-232.

Government Office for Science. (2010) Foresight Land Use Futures Project, Final Project Report, Government Office for Science, London.

New Local Government Network (NLGN). (2009) Bordering on prosperity: Driving forward sub-regional economic collaboration, NLGN, London.

Pike, A and Tomaney, J (2008) The Government's Review of Sub-National Economic Development and Regeneration: Key Issues 1, Newcastle upon Tyne: CURDS, Newcastle University.

Russell, H (2010) Research into multi-area agreements, Report for the Department for Communities and Local Government, DCLG, London.

Townsend, A (2009) "The planning of England: Relying on districts", Town and Country Planning, 78, 10, 425-428.

September 2010

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Prepared 31 March 2011