The science and art of strategic planning

For planners that can remember when regional or strategic planning was a fundamental part of local authority practice, and witnessed its demise, they cannot fail to be struck by the irony of recent Inspectors decisions on the North Essex Authorities shared strategic plan (NEASSP) and West of England Joint Spatial Plan (WEJSP).[1] The irony lies in the rejection of plans that were begat from the government’s confused approach to strategic planning 

To be clear, I am disappointed that that the hard work of dedicated planners in trying to find a way of developing a spatial plan that satisfied disparate political imperatives has been for naught.  

However, this situation that has been some time in the making. The antipathy towards regional and strategic planning was signalled in the Green Paper entitled: Open Source Planning in 2010; followed thereafter, by the abolition of Regional Spatial Strategies (RSS) in favour of neighbourhood planning enacted in the 2011 Localism Act. 

In March 2011, the all-party Commons Communities and Local Government Committee published its report on the abolition of RSS. It stated that:  

“The intended abolition of regional spatial planning strategies leaves a vacuum at the heart of the English planning system which could have profound social, economic and environmental consequences set to last for many years.” [2] 

The duty to cooperate as set out in Section 110 of the Localism Act to bring about strategic planning across administrative boundaries has proved an abject failure in filling this vacuum 

More recently, to try and address the strategic planning vacuum and encourage housebuilding, the Government introduced further tweaks to the planning system; including changes to the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) (paragraphs 11 and 13) and Planning Policy Guidance (paragraphs 59-60).[3]  

Nevertheless, the WEJSP still foundered on rocks of the NPPF. The Inspectors examining the plan recognised the huge effort and resources invested in preparing the plan and the commitment to joint working. However, when examined against the NPPF to ensure that the WEJSP was justified and effective, they were unable to find the plan sound.  

The flaws that the Inspectors identified laid bare the deficiencies in the current approach to strategic planning. For example, in respect of housing the WEJSP primarily adopted a ‘bottom-up’ summation of existing local plan commitments, coupled with assumptions on non-strategic growth. Furthermore, Strategic Development Locations were selected on the presumption that any candidate Strategic Development Location anywhere within the plan area could meet the plan area’s housing needs just as well as any other candidate locationThe Inspectors however, were not persuaded that this approach was justified. This flaw also undermined the WEJSP approach to Green Belt release. 

What these flaws show is that strategic planning cannot simply be about amalgamating a group of small-scale plans or initiatives. Currently, there is a cadre of planners who have little or no experience in practicing the science of regional or strategic planning. Even more significantly, there is a generation of politicians who have never worked in a strategic planning environment. There is no recognised political or administrative framework in which to enable them to carry out deliberations, discussions and negotiations that are fundamental to planning across administrative boundaries. As the Raynsford Review points out: ‘The single greatest democratic deficit lies in strategic planning (p. 94). [4] Modern professional planning is about the exercise of expert professional judgement in a political context. Political tensions have dogged and delayed the progress of the Greater Exeter Strategic Plan. The political tensions will always need to be balanced even where planning practice is of the highest calibre.  

There needs to be a proper framework in which politicians can consider their options on the basis of professional advice in a way that commits them to an outcome. Joint Committees under Section 29 of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004, or adhoc committees have not so far, been effective in achieving this. It is time to rethink the current approach.  

The events arising from the NEASSP [5] and WEJSP demonstrate that strategic or regional spatial planning is an area of planning practice that requires planning skills and expertise broader than just local planning; and, a political outlook unconstrained by administrative boundaries. It needs the full-throated support of government; a properly developed legislative and policy framework that enables the political process to operate effectively across a wider canvass than just individual local authorities. Recent history has shown it is unlikely to work organically or on an adhoc basis. This framework is necessary to enable planners to exercise their professional expertise, and for elected politicians to reach a political consensus without which it will never be possible to achieve the science and art of strategic planning. 

Dr. Peter Geraghty is a Trustee of the TCPA, but is writing in a personal capacity, and the views expressed here are his own.






Dr. Peter Geraghty is a Trustee of the TCPA, but is writing in a personal capacity, and the views expressed here are his own.

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