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

Written evidence submitted by Alan Wenban-Smith (ARSS 103)


Successive Governments have long had the aim that all households should have access to decent housing. The assumption has been that this aim can only be achieved by way of building enough new houses—"enough" being sufficient to add to the housing stock a number equal to the projected increase in the number of households.

However, only 10% of housing transactions involve new housing, the vast majority of households (especially the poorest) meeting their needs through the turnover of the existing stock. Lower house price inflation and a better match between supply and demand are both desirable aims, but there is no "quick fix" available by increasing housing land supply through the planning system.

To meet the need for decent, affordable housing requires greater attention to the housing that we already have, focused on tackling urban decay and uneven regional growth. With the abolition of RSSs, this means paying particular attention finding other means to integrate spatial and transport planning. There are implications for more joined up and devolved patterns of governance.


1.1  I have worked for major urban authorities (Newcastle, Tyne and Wear and Birmingham), with senior responsibilities for planning, housing, transport and regional collaboration. My consultancy work over the last 10 years has been across a similarly broad range.1 The process by which governments have sought to manage housebuilding rates (the "housing numbers game") has been a continuing issue over the whole of this time.


2.1  Successive Governments' over-riding housing objective has been that "… everyone should have the opportunity to buy or rent a decent home at a price they can afford".2 The assumption has been that this can only be achieved by way of building sufficient new houses to add to the housing stock a number equal to the projected increase in the number of households. However:

(a)  New build numbers have only marginal effect on prices or meeting needs (NHPAU analysis showed that affordability would only return to 2007 levels (regarded as unacceptable) even with a 50% increase in new building.3 Figure 1 shows how most of the net increase in projected households is in the stock of old households (elderly and very old living alone), and that the net increase approach does not address the flow of new households;

(b)  Increasing land supply is in any case likely to have only a marginal effect on new build numbers—though it does affect where new houses are built (suburban and greenfield not urban and brownfield);

(c)  It is very unlikely that the market for new private housing will recover to pre crunch levels (let alone the higher numbers promoted under previous policies) for a long time—if at all. The finance required to maintain past levels of lending to new market entrants is unlikely to be forthcoming for what may well be seen for a long time to come as subprime lending;

(d)  A focus on new housing (whether by RSSs or alternative local incentives) is likely to distract attention and divert investment from securing the continued attraction of existing communities. Since this is where 90% of needs are met, it risks undermining rather than supporting real housing needs.

2.2  Figure 1 uses the example of household projections carried out for the West Midlands Regional Spatial Strategy to illustrate these points in concrete form:

(a)  Two-thirds of the net increase in households (250,000 out of 371,000) was accounted for by the net increase in elderly households. However, the main dynamic factors are quite different: there is a large inflow of entirely new households (+912,000 over 20 years) and outflow of expiring households (-453,000), while the numbers of households in-between are broadly stable (though there will be changes in the identity and composition of households even where numbers are stable).

(b)  In the regiona, as nationally, around 10% of existing homes change hands each year. This process (known as "churn") will provides around five million housing opportunities in the West Midlands over the next 20 years. In contrast, new housing in line with the net increase in needs (370,000) would offer less than a tenth of this number.

(c)  An important implication is that the needs of new households amount to around 20% of the overall annual flow of housing opportunities across all tenures (912,000 out of five million). To the extent that owner-occupation is unaffordable to these households, access to other forms of tenure will be needed. The existing stock of social housing is by far the most important source.

Figure 1


2.3  In the 1980s the then Government sought to raise private housebuilding rates by requiring the planning system to provide more land, particularly in places where builders want to build.4 Essentially the same conclusion was put forward by the Barker Report and formed the basis of the last Government's policy from 2005. On both occasions there were extensive releases of greenfield sites, but the output of new housing did not increase for long (Figure 2).

Figure 2

1946-2007 + NHPAU projections 2008-2026


Transport and urban change

3.1  We tend to think of transport as a fairly self-contained system. If we are asked (for instance) to contemplate reducing our use of the car, our reaction is to look at the alternatives for that particular trip (Is there a bus? Is it too far to cycle comfortably? etc). The result is that we are generally very unwilling to do anything about it. But if we look at behaviour over the somewhat longer term we see that we actually employ a much wider range of responses to changing transport. Over the last 30 years we have hardly changed the number of trips we each make, but the length of those trips has increased by nearly 50%, and the amount of travel by car has more than doubled (Figure 3).5

Figure 3

Increase in population 8%
increase in trips/head12%
increase in trip lengths48%
Increase in car travel109%
Source: DfT (2008), "UK transport statistics"

3.2  The main mechanism driving these changes is different from day-to-day transport decisions (which are typically about time of day, route and mode of transport). The longer-term pattern is dominated by our choices of location: where we live, where we work, where we go for shopping and leisure—and for businesses, where to locate, where to site depots and branches, what areas to serve, and where to source materials and services. These locational choices are themselves influenced by what the transport system offers, and are the key to the importance of transport to urban regeneration.

3.3  In the case of housing, as has been discussed above, most of this movement takes place within the existing stock of buildings—90% of the housing market is second-hand and only 10% is new. While "urban sprawl" may help to confirm and solidify a more dispersed pattern, this does not have to wait upon the realtively slow process of new development (around 1% of stock a year).

3.4  This has some huge implications for housing. The dispersion of households away from urban centres as new housing opportunities were opened up, in new suburbs and existing towns and villages in commuting range was not a cross-section. On average, the best-off moved furthest, while the poorest stayed put. This process (reinforce massively by post-WW2 housing clearance and redevelopment has widened the social gaps between inner city, suburbs, commuter-land and outer estates. Deprived areas have become more deprived and rich areas more exclusive.

3.5  It is these large-scale shifts of people, and the associated sorting and filtering processes, that leads to neighbourhoods with concentrations deprived and vulnerable people. Once established, such areas can be extraordinarily persistent, because the transport system means that the most mobile and active escape. This makes transport a key to the quality of the places we live in, connecting in deep-seated ways to issues as diverse as social cohesion, house prices and the economic vitality of cities. These issues are crucial to the contribution of the existing housing stock to meeting people's needs for decent housing.

Transport and spatial planning

3.6  The conventional approach is that transport provision should respond to the pattern of demand placed upon it: "predict and provide" has been the basis of road investment for the last 50+ years. But the pattern of demand is the outcome of the transport that is provided: transport leads rather than follows patterns of location and activity.

3.7  RSSs and Local Transport Plans (LTPs) originated in the West Midlands6 as local expressions of integrated land-use and transport policies in the mid-1980s and early 1990s. In a close parallel to present circumstances this action was prompted by the abolition of the Metropolitan Counties and their Structure Plans.

3.8  The benefits of local collaboration were substantial, and costs were limited, but depended on:

local political leadership and technical capacity;

limiting the scope to matters intrinsically needing wider consideration; and

respect by central government for local conclusions.


4.1  The relationship between transport and spatial policy has not been well-handled in RSSs, because of different regimes at the centre: centralisation has undermined integration7,8.

4.2  In the case of transport central control has been reinforced by a standardised system of appraisal (WebTAG), which has the effect both of limiting transport decision-making to transport impacts and of making national strategic decisions the sum of scheme appraisals. There are parallels here with the excessive role accorded to housing numbers in RSSs.

4.3  To this extent greater localisation offers potential for improvement. However, the lesson to be learnt from the failure to realise the potential of RSSs and LTPs is that devolution must be genuine:

(a)  While much decision-making is appropriately devolved to local and neighbourhood levels, the geography of many key processes is intrinsically on a broader level, aspects of transport being an example. While voluntary cross-border collaboration can achieve much, central government is inescapably accountable for setting a framework within which subsidiarity can work;

(b)  Government needs to decide priorities between broad geographical areas and expenditure headings, leaving local authorities to decide their priorities within them;

(c)  Government should withdraw from more detailed guidance and control. Its own policy requirements need to be expressed as fewer and more strategic targets. Such targets should not in general be numerical (though numbers do have a role in informing broader judgements);

(d)  The direction of travel should be towards more local revenues being raised locally, and less collected centrally and then disbursed. The Lyons report had important suggestions on the need to enhance local capability in parallel with devolution, and how to build such capability.


1  I have given evidence to several Select Committee Inquiries on housing matters over the last 10 years, and acted as a special adviser to the ODPM Select Committee Inquiry on Growth Areas in the South East.

2  NHPAU (2008) "Meeting the Housing requirements of an aspiring and growing nation: taking the medium and long-term view".

3  National Housing and Planning Advice Unit (2008) "Meeting the housing requirements of an aspiring and growing nation: taking the medium and long-term view. Advice on ranges to be tested in RSSs".

4  Dept of the Environment (1980) Circular 9/80.

5  A Wenban-Smith (2009) Contribution to expert workshop for Commission on Climate Change http://downloads.theccc.org.uk/CCC_land_use_transport_report.pdf.

6  In the form of Strategic Planning Guidance to the West Midlands Metropolitan Districts (1987) as a context for their Unitary Development Plans. SPG was issued on the basis of advice from the seven Districts. This procedure was later taken up by central Government for Regional PlaningGuidance and then RSS (increasing in cost and complexity each time). Similarly LTPs were the successor of the intregrated transport "Packages" developed by the same local authorities following their own Integrated Transport Studies (initiated by Birmingham in 1989).

7  DfT (2004) "Integration of Regional Transport Strategies with spatial planning policy", report by MVA

8  See English Regions Network (2006) "Implementation of RSSs" report by MVA.

September 2010

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