A blog about planning, planning law and planning policy


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Who should take the strategic decisions?

I chaired the White Paper Conference Company’s planning conference on Wednesday when we were privileged to hear from a number of high profile and experienced speakers, including Steve Quartermain, Chief Planner at DCLG.  But perhaps the issue with the greatest challenge was revealed in the last paper, from Catriona Riddell.  The question she had been asked to address might have seemed dull: “How is the Duty to Cooperate being applied in practice? Is it leading to joined up plans across neighbouring local authorities?”  But her answer was far from tedious.  “No” she said. It is not.  She might have been justified in leaving the lectern at that point but she went on to expand on the problem.

The Duty to Cooperate is there of course to try to fill the gap caused by the removal of regional strategies.  In a nutshell, she suggested that it is wrong to ask local authorities, whose geographical areas are small, to take what are strategic planning decisions, crossing boundaries, and which may require one authority to make sacrifices for the greater good.  Catriona is well qualified to speak on the issue having been Director of Planning at the South East England Regional Assembly and Head of Spatial Planning at Surrey County Council.

She specifically identified three authorities which had withdrawn their plans after the Inspector had found that there had been failures to cooperate with neighbouring authorities, leading to inadequate evidence on the housing market. A total of eight plans have been withdrawn, five examinations suspended and others (she instanced Stevenage) not moving forward.

So if the Duty to Cooperate is not working, where will we do strategic planning between the national level (the NPPF)and the local?  Where will we integrate wider economic issues?  We do of course have the Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) which bring neighbouring authorities together.  The new Growth Deals will make funds available to LEPs and in return they are expected to support the Growth Agenda, which will of course involve exercising planning powers.  But the LEPs do not have any planning powers; rather, those powers are at local level.  So we are back to the local authority constituents of LEPs facing these issues. But Catriona Riddell pointed out that the LEP board members are heavily drawn from a business background.  The first LEP board to come up on my Google search is chaired by the director of a major local employer (a player on the international stage), has a deputy chair from an international bank, and has five other members from commerce, three councillors and two academics.  I do not in any way decry their capabilities nor enthusiasm and public spirit, but Catriona Riddell is surely right when she observes that they may prefer to focus on skills and enterprise rather than the politics of planning.

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