The question this essay tries to answer is two-part. Firstly there is an assessment of how arrangements for strategic (i.e. greater than local) planning have changed since 1997. This is done in 3 sections covering the different governments in power from 1997 to today. I used this approach as it is their ideology and vision, or possible lack of it, which has shaped the direction of strategic planning in England. The essay then analyses to what extend the Duty to Cooperate introduced in the Localism Act 2011 has provided an effective mechanism for strategic planning. This is underpinned with examples of the author’s, and his colleagues’, own experiences while working in local government.
When the New Labour government came into power in 1997, planning returned to the political agenda and was given an essential role in sustaining and improving economic competitiveness. The government put forward a much more positive view of the role of planners (Rydin 2013, p19) with the planner at the centre of it all, in the role of the conductor of the orchestra. Facilitating growth was still the main objective of planning with a focus on strengthening regional planning in particular (Haughton, Allmendinger & Oosterlynck 2013, p225). The Sustainable Communities Plan 2003 identified four major growth areas in the South East area where new development was to be encouraged. Housing Market Renewal Areas were identified as the strategy for more northern parts which later turned into the Northern Way with eight city regions, which Haughton, Allmendinger & Oosterlynck (2013, p225) call a meta-regional softspace, as it didn’t follow any formal statutory boundaries of government (Allmendinger & Haughton 2010, p812).
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It was the start of a complete overhaul of the existing planning system, culminating in the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 which marked the beginning of a new era of developing spatial plans (Baker & Wong 2013, p90 and Allmendinger & M Tewdwr-Jones 2009 p75). The Act introduced Regional Spatial Strategies (RSS) and Local Plans in the form of Local Development Frameworks which replaced the old structure plans. RSS were viewed as offering potential for promoting economic growth and comprehensive, strategic planning away from administrative county boundaries (Morphet & Pemberton 2013, p386). However they soon were criticized by the opposition for being too top-down, bureaucratic and focused on housing targets (Haughton & Allmendinger 2013, p2). The overseeing Regional Assemblies were seen as suffering from a democratic deficit, as the government imposed its own agenda on member-led organisations with local politicians (Swain, Marshall & Baden 2013, p180).
The 2008 Planning Act introduced the Infrastructure Planning Commission (IPC) to oversee Nationally Important Infrastructure Projects (NSIPs). The IPC received similar criticism for not being democratic as it was a wholly unelected body. These criticisms fed into the Conservatives’ Localism agenda which was gaining momentum leading up to the 2010 general election. Prior to this election the New Labour government replaced RSS with integrated regional strategies (RS). However, with the Conservative/Liberal Democrat Coalition winning the election, New Labour never saw its evolving project for planning finished.
The abolition of the existing regional strategy was announced almost immediately after the new government came into power. This was formalised in the Localism Bill which not only revoked RSS, but also introduced Neighbourhood Planning and the Duty to Cooperate, which is analysed later in this essay. It established the Major Infrastructure Planning Unit within the Planning Inspectorate to replace the IPC, this body made recommendations on NSIPs but left the Secretary of State with the final decision making powers. The coalition government also created various regional arrangements like City Deals, Combined Authorities and Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs). The latter were another kind of softspace governance which hoped to draw on business expertise to deliver economic development (Haughton, Allmendinger & Oosterlynck 2013, p228).
In 2012, the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) was introduced. This turned 1000s of pages of national planning guidance into a 50 page document, backed up by more detailed Planning Policy Guidance documents. The NPPF reintroduced the presumption in favour of development that existed under the 1980s Conservative government, but in a slightly different form: ‘Development that is sustainable should go ahead, without delay – a presumption in favour of sustainable development that is the basis for every plan, and every decision.’ (DCLG 2012, Ministerial foreword). This presumption in favour of sustainable development was seen as the government’s main tool to promote economic growth while at the same time the meaning of sustainable development was left open in light of the localism agenda which saw planning as something best defined locally (Allmendinger, Haughton & Shepherd 2015, p40). This illustrated the duality of the collation government’s approach to planning. On one hand there was the focus on localism, where power to resist development was put in the hands of local communities, and on the other hand the desire to promote economic growth in light of the neo-liberal idea to open up planning which acted as a barrier on investments (Boddy & Hickman 2013, p747).
Already back in 2010 the Conservatives had mentioned they considered the planning system to be broken (Conservative Party 2010, p3). They felt it was too slow, bureaucratic and requiring more deregulation. It was seen as a problem that restricted productivity. (HM Treasury 2015, p 41). This lead to a series of planning acts which tried to make it easier to develop land such as the Housing and Planning Act 2016, with Brownfield Registers and Permissions in Principle, and the Housing White Paper 2017 which strengthened the Duty to Cooperate by introducing Statements of Common Ground, introduced the Housing Delivery Test and put the focus of Local Plans to a more strategic level (DCLG 2017)..
These acts showed the focus had now changed to the housing crisis and housing delivery, an issue that had been growing for some time. In his last book, the late Peter Hall said: ‘One of the most extraordinary facts about UK national housing performance, noted by commentator after commentator, is that for many years there has been a failure to build enough new homes to meet the predicted growth in population and households. Indeed, even more remarkably, the deficit has progressively got worse.’ (Hall 2014, p25). One approach of the current government to boost housing delivery is the push for joint strategic plans covering a larger area. In Oxfordshire’s case, a Joint Strategic Spatial Plan is being prepared for the whole county. This new model of joint strategic plans lets local authorities focus on key strategic policy areas and should therefore deliver plans faster than full, detailed local plan (Riddell 2018, p15). The government’s largest attempt at tackling the housing crisis is the revised NPPF, launched in July 2018, with a focus on housing delivery. But the introduction of a standardised methodology for housing needs and the Housing Delivery Test seem to echo the top-down regional strategies from the New Labour era. Something strongly denied by the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, Sajid Javid (the current Home Secretary) in a parliamentary speech where he called these numbers a starting point for Local Authorities when preparing their local plans but the rest remained a decision for local authorities and local communities. (Javid 2017). The future will tell whether it will work like that in practice.
Duty to Cooperate
The Duty to Cooperate (DtC) requires cooperation between local planning authorities and other public bodies regarding strategic matters with cooperation being defined as a constructive, active and ongoing engagement (Cullingworth 2015, p106). The system was introduced in the Localism Act 2011 as a tool to promote cooperation and fill the gap left by the abolition of Regional Strategic Strategies and the structure plans that went before them. The DtC was strengthened in the Housing White Paper 2017 by introducing Statements of Common Ground. Interestingly, following on from the revised NPPF, the MHCLG has recently withdrawn existing guidance on the DtC published in 2014 and replaced it with general guidance on plan-making. Although at first sight, there have been no major changes to the existing system.
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The DtC has forced closer cooperation and partnership between adjacent local authorities as the Planning Inspectorate has questioned a number of proposed local plans on the grounds of unclear cooperation between authorities (Allmendinger, Haughton & Shepherd 2015, p42). This is at the same time one of its greatest weaknesses. Once a plan has been examined there is no monitoring of the DtC and it is up to the parties involved to make it work. Where there is no will to address strategic issues properly, the DtC seems a very inadequate basis to ensure proper cooperation on a strategic level. (Boddy & Hickman 2013, p759). The Royal Town Planners Institute (RTPI) calls it a negative system to prevent non-strategic planning which lacks a positive element to ensure effective strategic planning. This might work well in some places, but it isn’t enough considering the importance of strategic issues such as transport, housing and the environment (RTPI 2015, p23).
This general negative feeling towards the system is reflected in planning literature. From light scepticism saying it may help stimulate cooperation but will work only sporadically (Baker & Wong 2013, p95) to calling it a poor substitute for effective regional planning as it creates a patchwork of plans with different combinations of public and private bodies involved (Haughton, Allmendinger & Oosterlynck 2013, p230). In het report for the County Councils Network, Catriona Riddell goes as far as saying that ‘it is widely recognised that the Duty to Cooperate has largely failed to deliver effective strategic planning and has been a major blockage on local plan preparation (Riddell 2018, p4).
Although Local Enterprise Partnerships are not subject to the DtC, local planning authorities must have regard to their activities when they are preparing their local plans. But RTPI research into strategic planning around England suggests ‘strikingly few places’ where the link between jobs and homes has been made (RTPI 2015, p23). It seems that also here, the DtC does not deliver on its objectives.
In the last part of this essay I will look at two real life cases a local authority encountered involving the DtC. The first case concerns a cross border site that was put forward by a developer as a strategic housing site during the preparation of the Local Plan. As the location of the site wasn’t ideal and most of the housing provision would fall in the neighbouring authority, the Council didn’t want to proceed with this site. The neighbouring unitary authority (in a different county) wasn’t keen either and agreed to a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) under the Duty to Cooperate. This provided a major help in the examination and showed that a joined position is stronger and more credible. In the second case, the Environment agency objected to several allocation sites in the Local Plan based on flooding issue, even though only very minor parts of the site where flood zones. A Statement of Common Ground helped sort out the situation and no issues were raised regarding flooding during the Local Plan examination.
In both cases the DtC seemingly provided a relatively easy solution to the issue. With regional strategies or structure plans it would have been the larger strategic authority that took to lead when it came to cross border planning. Now neighbouring authorities are talking directly to statutory bodies and each other regardless of statutory borders, so the DtC has therefore improved communications of authorities in general. However, it must be noted that in the cases mentioned above, and several other examples provided by the author’s colleagues, the DtC is being use reactively; a problem occurred and the parties involved used it as a tool to guide them to a resolution. Such a reactive tool can hardly be described as planning, let alone strategic planning. A solution could be to create plans covering larger areas following statutory boundaries like the structure plans did, but it seems very unlikely the current government would go down that route as this would look like turning back time. The RTPI suggests the creation of ‘collaborative governance structures’ to ensure ‘proactive engagement by all stakeholders’ (RTPI 2015, p21). With collaboration meaning working together to deliver each other’s agendas, as opposed to cooperation, where participation is limited to reactive problem solving.
There have been major and almost continuous changes to the planning system in the past 20 years with often competing objectives depending on the political colour in charge. From New Labour’s top down system focusing on regions and the Localism agenda of the Coalition and Conservative governments to the current all overriding focus on housing delivery. Each approach has come with its own benefits and failures and it seems highly likely we’ll see more changes in the future. To quote the interim report of the Raynsford review: ‘… a planning system which has been subject to a bewildering scale of change. There is no sign of an end point to these changes, which are not always well understood by the wider public. (TCPA 2018, p55) This endless change has also heavily influence the way planning authorities and stakeholders have worked and communicated on a strategic level. Currently we have the Duty to Cooperate which, as the examples in this essay show, is not a bad tool in itself. But when it comes to being an effective mechanism for strategic planning, it falls short.
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