Collaboration needed to fill the strategic planning void

A new report has urged for stronger collaboration between councils, health bodies and business to fill the strategic planning void if the duty to co-operate is axed.

Commissioned by the County Councils Network, the report argues that closer collaboration between all leading parties in setting out long-term visions for their areas would reinvigorate strategic planning across the country, moving away from ‘planning by numbers’ to encompass infrastructure, local economies, and health: crucial as areas start to devise both short-term and long-term recovery efforts in the wake of coronavirus.

Its publication comes at a time when government is proposing substantive planning reforms, including the removal of the duty to co-operate, which encourages district councils and county councils – plus neighbouring authorities – to work together on Local Plans.

Council leaders argue that by removing this, there will be no mechanism to compel or encourage those local authorities to work together on planning and infrastructure in their areas.

The County Councils Network said it had long advocated for a stronger approach to strategic planning in order to achieve better place-making outcomes and would consider the recommendations as part of the network’s response to the Planning for the Future White Paper and will work with its members and stakeholders to explore the merits of these proposals in further detail.

One of the report’s recommendations is for the creation of strategic planning advisory bodies in all areas, comprising of all council leaders, mayors (where relevant), Local Enterprise Partnerships, Sub-national Transport Bodies and leaders from the health and environment sectors. This would be a statutory responsibility and their geography covered would be agreed first by local councils across an area and approved by the Housing Secretary for the government.

Furthermore, these ‘advisory bodies’ would produce a ‘strategic integrated framework’ – setting out what infrastructure is needed to accompany development in each area, identifying what areas need to be connected to improve growth and create new jobs, alongside addressing climate change issues. These frameworks would then provide a basis for individual councils’ Local Plans.

With councils facing huge shortfalls in infrastructure funding set against projected housing development, a ten-year delivery plan should be produced alongside the framework on how to unlock infrastructure funds: this could be a ‘whole is greater than the sum of its parts approach’ by pooling together councils’ resources to unlock large-scale infrastructure projects, whilst enabling more private and public investment due to having a long-term shared vision outlined in each area.

David Williams, chairman of the County Councils Network, said: “With the government planning to scrap the duty co-operate, and coronavirus forcing us to think about the recovery and future for our local economies, there has never been a better time to consider a reinvigorated strategic spatial planning system and this report provides much food for thought. We will take these recommendations on board as we respond to the government’s planning proposals but what is clear that if we want to move to an ‘infrastructure first’ approach to housing, then we need the means to bring all key local stakeholders round the table.”

Catriona Riddell, director of Catriona Riddell Associates, said: “Strategic planning is about more than just sorting out housing numbers or delivering cross-boundary infrastructure. If it is do an effective job, it needs to provide a mechanism for integrating all the different components that support ‘good’ growth and a clear framework for investment in places.

“The proposals in this report would fill a large void in the current planning system and in the government’s proposed planning reforms, offering an integrated solution to supporting sustainable development across England. But it will only work if there is stronger collaboration between the different tiers of government, across the different functions of government and between the public and private sectors.”