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News report: Spatial planning needed if government is to achieve levelling-up agenda

Words: Laura Edgar
The UK / Shutterstock_791557117-2

The government has been advised to ‘distinguish new approaches to regional spatial planning and collaborative leadership from the tired and often disrespected work of local planning’.

A One Powerhouse Framework for National Convergence and Prosperity: A Vision for Britain. Planned, states that the government must support “highly contemporary approaches” to spatial planning and recognise its importance to its current work on industrial strategy, infrastructure planning and local economic development.

The report and accompanying blueprints for England’s regions were put together by the One Powerhouse Consortium and the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts Manufactures and Commerce (RSA), with help from AECOM, Barton Willmore and Atkins.

The consortium, which is supported by the Sir Hugh and Lady Sykes Charitable Trust and chaired by Sir Hugh Sykes, believes that a “substantial” part of the regional inequality problem can be solved, not just by money, but by spatial planning.

A Vision for Britain states that spatial planning would enable the government to make better economic decisions as well as give it ability to prioritise where and what type of investment is needed in each region. Spatial plans focus on political will to build strong communities, but the report insists that this is not a suggestion to return to statutory regional spatial strategies.

“By building from the bottom up using detailed local plans, which sit alongside a series of coherent regional plans, all under a light-touch national framework, significant progress can be made to narrow those inequalities,” explains the report.

The report compares the UK with Germany’s reunification, finding that just under half of the UK lives in regions with a “comparable productivity to the poorer parts of the former East Germany”. Since reunification in 1990, the report acknowledges, Germany “has pulled itself together” through investment underpinned by spatial planning. Across this period, “the UK has fragmented”, with the North-South divide cited as an example.

“By building from the bottom up using detailed local plans... significant progress can be made to narrow those inequalities”

Under the New Labour government, nine regional assemblies developed regional spatial strategies in 2004 and spatial planning has been used in the devolved nations (Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) since 2000, such as Scotland’s National Planning Framework (NPF). When the coalition government came into power in 2010, regional strategies were abolished as it focused on localism “leaving a patchwork and uncoordinated system of local planning at various scales”. London, however, does have a spatial plan and “unsurprisingly, this has supported it to become uniquely coordinated and productive”, says the report.

For the report authors, spatial planning in the devolved regions and across Europe – the report considers the Randstad in the Netherlands and German metropolitan regions – has helped policy coordination and strategic decision-making.

The consortium contends that the four regional blueprints of the English megaregions “could be drawn together with the three spatial plans of the devolved nations to form a set of complementary spatial plans”. A Vision for Britain acts as an overarching document to bring them together, says the consortium.

In addition to the adoption of the principles and processes of regional spatial planning, recommendations in A Vision for Britain include:

  • making the move to mega regions: The idea of English regions should be reintroduced by the government but this time it must build from the bottom up;
  • putting in place a regional investment pipeline and fiscal framework for change; and
  • creating institutional capacity and accountability.

Simon Prescott, partner at Barton Willmore, says “the One Powerhouse project demonstrates exactly what can be achieved if we are able to bring forward a proper programme of spatial planning”.   

“The way to tackle regional inequality does not lie just in increasing funding, but targeted investment and collaboration with communities – in other words: proper spatial planning. Levelling up is about connecting people and encouraging collaboration from the bottom up rather than imposing strategies from above. We need carefully thought-out local and regional plans tied together by a guiding national framework that looks at the longer-term and at the larger geographic picture.

“With this in mind, One Powerhouse is pioneering a ‘new regionalism’ – charting comprehensive spatial planning blueprints for four mega regions: the North of England, the Midlands, the South East, and the South West.  This type of holistic strategy that looks at larger regions in the longer term will bring wider benefits that would be unachievable through sporadic investment. Our plans are able to look more broadly at how to achieve progress for the environment, for the economy, for connectivity, and even for regional culture. But this work is just beginning, and charts a course that must now be followed. We’ll strive to work alongside national and local government to ensure that the right decisions are being made for every region, every time.”

The megaregions

The consortium, the RSA and AECOM, Barton Willmore and Atkins worked together to draft regional spatial blueprints for the north of England, the Midlands, the South East and the South West. These would, the consortium suggests, sit alongside existing spatial plans for the devolved nations and “demonstrate the potential of regional planning in action”. They seek to provide a framework for villages, towns and cities to find their place in the wider economy, as well as set out a rationale for housing development, major infrastructure investment and environmental assets.

Top priorities for the North include:

  • Delivering housing investment to support transformational growth.
  • Investing in strategic development corridors through on-going pan-Northern collaboration.
  • Developing a spatial management plan for the North’s natural capital assets.

Top priorities for the Midlands include:

  • Strengthening key investment corridors and identifying new inclusive growth corridors.
  • Undertaking a strategic green belt review.
  • Implementing a mixed strategy for housing growth.

Top priorities for the South West:

  • Preparing a digital infrastructure plan for the whole South West region.
  • Prioritising infrastructure-led housing and employment development in towns with hidden strategic potential, for example, Weston-super-Mare, Cheltenham-Gloucester, Plymouth, Tiverton and Taunton.
  • Developing a South-West Coastal Strategy that strategically blends natural, heritage, recreational, maritime, sustainable energy and tourist assets to enable diverse coastal communities to maximise their assets and opportunities.

Top priorities for the South East:

  • Investing in new urban integrated transport systems that deliver reliable and frequent public transport within the major towns and cities of the megaregion to reduce dependence on car travel.
  • Tackling the housing crisis through transit-oriented intensification of existing urban areas and development of well-connected inclusive new settlements at scale, aligned with employment growth clusters and urban transit systems.
  • Adapt and mitigate impacts of climate change by creating strategic areas for biodiversity and environmental net gain to go hand in hand with designation of new settlements and infrastructure.

A Vision for Britain. Planned. can be found here on the One Powerhouse Consortium website.

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