The Medici Code – Essay 2: ‘A planner’s view’ by Catriona Riddell, visiting fellow, Localis

The Medici Code – Essay 2: ‘A planner’s view’ by Catriona Riddell, visiting fellow, Localis

The white paper recognises that a “strong planning system is vital for levelling up communities”, yet it dedicates just over one page (page 227) out of nearly 300 to planning reform, with under ten references throughout the document to land-use or spatial planning.  Even then, it simply repeats what we already know about the commitment to ‘beauty’; the emphasis on digitising the planning system; the reforms to developer tariffs; and the priority given to brownfield over greenfield sites. There is not much more on planning in the document than that. Or is there?

The word ‘spatial’ appears 119 times in the document. The government is advocating a ‘systems’ approach to levelling up, with spatial considerations shaping national policy development and ‘hard-wired’ into investment priorities. So why then is spatial planning given so little print space?

This is partly because we have yet to see the next iteration of the planning reforms package following the 2020 Planning White Paper. But it also probably says more about the lack of understanding around what spatial planning is than about its potential role in levelling up.  Spatial planning, especially at the strategic level, has historically played a critical role in any national socio-economic policy, given the importance of how this is translated on the ground and the critical relationship between where people live and work.  This all changed in 2010 when the formal approach to strategic planning (regional spatial strategies) was replaced by the Duty to Cooperate. The government has since recognised that this has not worked well and is likely to replace it through the forthcoming planning reforms.   In the meantime, however, the real purpose, understanding and value of strategic planning has been lost over time.

Strategic planning is not a big local plan. It is a long-term spatial investment framework for integrating economic, social and environmental considerations within a place-based context and aligning these with infrastructure priorities. It acts as the essential pivot between the national and local levels, giving effect to national policy in a way that reflects local circumstances and context. It provides a larger spatial canvas for growth, offering choices and ensuring it is delivered in the right way and in the most sustainable locations.

But to do all of this, strategic planning will have to be an integral part of how national levelling up priorities are implemented locally, especially through the devolution process. Currently, there are no references to ‘spatial considerations’ or ‘planning’ in the Devolution Framework. Yet there will be a clear need for the ringmaster role it plays to ensure that many of the functions are integrated and capable of being delivered on the ground. Such as in transport infrastructure, promotion of health and wellbeing, local nature recovery strategies, regeneration priorities.

If the government is serious about rewiring the way it operates to deliver an integrated approach to levelling up, this has to be applied vertically from the national to the local level, not just horizontally across government departments. The absence of any reference to strategic or spatial planning explicitly is therefore not only a lost opportunity but is a significant flaw in the government’s overall approach. It could be rectified by requiring all devolution deals to include spatial investment frameworks within which local plans, transport plans and other plans and strategies could be prepared.

This links nicely to the other clear omission from the document, the thorny subject of housing numbers. The white paper confirms that much of government funding to support housebuilding will be redirected to the levelling up priority areas and away from the ‘maximum affordability areas’ that have benefited from most of the funding in the past (ie London and the South East). It also confirms that priority will be given to development on brownfield sites, with the implication being that this will protect greenfield sites and specifically Green Belt. Whilst this will be a welcome commitment for many, it will have to be supported by a compensatory change in the way local plan housing targets are set (i.e. the formula underpinning the Standard Methodology) and the overall spatial distribution of growth across England.

And here is why. Firstly, if Green Belt is to be protected and improved, with the priority given to the reuse of brownfield sites, the number of opportunities within those areas that are currently expected to deliver the highest rates of housing, will be significantly reduced. Secondly, if public sector funding to support the development of brownfield sites is to be directed away from places like London and the South East where land values are highest, there will inevitably be site viability challenges, with a knock-on impact on things like affordable housing and infrastructure provision. Thirdly, if London is still to be expected to deliver a 35% uplift over and above its needs, it will have to rely on the surrounding areas, most of which already have huge challenges in absorbing their own needs. This brings us back to strategic planning.

Many other questions will have to be answered, not least what the refocus of R&D and medical research away from Cambridge and Oxford means for the Ox-Cam Arc Spatial Framework and what the review of neighbourhood governance will mean for local and neighbourhood planning. This will clearly all have to come out in the wash when planning reforms are taken forward but, until then, the government’s message of ‘business as usual’ is going to be a difficult one to swallow for planners.

Catriona Riddell is visiting fellow, Localis