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Bring back regional planning strategies

Words: Ian Wray
Ian Wray
Ian Wray, Visiting Professor in Planning at the Heseltine Institute, Liverpool University, says England’s planning system lacks strategic direction
Not long ago, every English county had a county planning officer. The county planner was a senior officer, usually part of the council’s management team. He or she – and there were women CPOs, gifted people like Audrey Lees and Mary Riley – had substantial departments. These were professional departments with architects, economists, planners, landscape architects, specialists in historic buildings and nature conservation.
Before John Prescott invented his Regional Spatial Strategies the county councils contributed to co-operative models for English regional planning: in the South-East through SERPLAN, and in the North-West through the North-West Regional Association. The old-style regional planning guidance system worked – and it was cheap.
Before local government reorganisation in 1974 English shire counties were unitary authorities for planning, although they were ‘Swiss cheese’ authorities and contained county boroughs that also had unitary powers. But there was no two-tier system. The two-tier system emerged from flawed implementation of the Radcliffe Maud report (the Royal Commission on Local Government 1966-69), which had recommended single tier or unitary local government for most of England, and a two-tier system for some big metropolitan areas. What we now have is precisely the reverse. It seems doubtful whether this settlement can last.
Three sets of pressures are emerging. First, local government is experiencing an unprecedented financial squeeze. Some big urban authorities are implementing reductions in excess of 50 per cent of their total controllable expenditure. They don’t know if they will have enough money to provide statutory services in a couple of years’ time. It is rumoured that a civil service briefing identifies 100 authorities as on the way to bankruptcy – not just big urban authorities, but small shire districts with little in the way of resources. 
Second, the big urban authorities have seen the light and are moving towards a combined authority model, a trend that started in Greater Manchester but now extends to many urban authorities. They are much exercised by the need to share services, whilst adopting a more strategic outlook.
Third, all the structures for strategic planning, transport and development have gone. The metropolitan counties fell victim to Margaret Thatcher, and the regional tier to Messrs Cameron, Clegg, Cable and Pickles.  
The system we have is without strategic direction. Except in London and beyond the English borders, it depends on financially stretched district councils. If my friends in the private sector, local government and the inspectorate are to be believed, those councils are increasingly short of skilled and experienced staff. So they are prone to refuse a difficult case rather than negotiate, and increasingly use administrators rather than planners to turn over the paperwork. 
So I’ve a suggestion. It goes with the trends. It should deliver increased efficiency and economies of scale. It could recreate a more professional and coherent system and might even make the ‘duty to co-operate’ easier to handle.
It is to go back to the county level (or near to it) in the shires, either formally, or informally, through joint teams. And to create the equivalent of strategic ‘county teams’ in the big cities, initially as joint teams for strategic planning and specialist services like conservation. These would form an institutional platform for democratic city regional governance, probably through city region mayors, in all the big city regions. It would reunite planning with transport planning, essentially practised at the county level by PTEs and county highway authorities, and with the Local Enterprise Partnerships, also operating at county level.
Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe we should drift and muddle through. Or maybe we should heed the wise words of Sir Ernest Rutherford, Nobel Prize winner: “Gentlemen, we have run out of money. It is time to start thinking.”
The RTPI is putting together a paper on strategic planning in that we will examine general principles for planning wider areas and some specific questions relevant to each of the RTPI Nations. We have an open call for evidence until 31 March here.