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The paths to working across boundaries

Words: Laura Edgar

Collaboration, strong leadership and democratic accountability are key to strategic planning, according to a new RTPI report.

Strategic Planning: Effective Cooperation for Planning Across Boundaries puts the case for effective strategic planning based on six general principles (see table).

The paper is based on roundtables held throughout the UK and Ireland, as well as case studies that draw lessons from good practice as far afield as Queensland in Australia.

Broadly, the report argues that top-down strategic spatial planning tends to be less successful than locally designed and enacted approaches that emphasise collaboration. The report found that: “cooperation between local authorities brings major benefits to all of the councils in a given area”.

General principles for strategic planning (from the report)
* Have focus – being efficient in the use of resources and clear about its purpose;
* Be genuinely strategic – dealing only with matters which require resolution across boundaries;
* Be spatial – i.e. it should make choices between places, not establish general criteria for later
* Be collaborative – meaning that partners work together to see how they can deliver each other’s agendas;
* Have strong leadership – so that negotiations between places are productive and not protracted; and
* Be accountable to local electorates.

This was key to how the Communauté Urbaine of Lille-Metropole – made up of several large local authorities – dealt with the decline of the region’s textile industry in the 1970s. The Communauté made Lille city the centre of the solution and created a transport network that linked the wider communities with jobs created in the city. The wider region has now developed jobs over seven centres.

Moreover, the report says, for the coordinated management of housing markets, energy supplies, jobs and transport networks to be successful, cooperation needs to extend beyond strategic planning area boundaries. In this case the RTPI references the Northern initiative under the 1997-2010 Labour government, which focused on improving connectivity between cities in the North.

Finding local authorities and partnerships that want to work together “has advantages when political choices have to be made,” says the report.

For example, Cambridge local planning authorities have formed a Joint Strategic Planning Unit (JSPU) to consider collectively each authority’s concerns. The JSPU works with the local authorities and all relevant bodies to ensure that regional spatial planning is coherent, with the report finding that: “There are strong advantages to undertaking strategic economic, transport and housing planning in a coordinated manner.”

Alternatively, Strategic Planning found that Greater Birmingham and Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership consists of councils that are happy to collaborate. As strategic planning will involve trade-offs, having political relationships that can be built upon is helpful.

If councils and other bodies are to cooperate and work together successfully, the report says, strong leadership skills will be required, “both politically and professionally”. Strategic planning must also take into account the needs and voices of businesses, it argues.

The report concludes with recommendations for fresh approaches to strategic planning in each of the UK’s four nations, plus the Republic of Ireland. These include, for example, the creation of a “clear planning hierarchy” within Wales.

Report author and RTPI head of policy Richard Blyth told The Planner that without strategic planning, “problems will arise, with housing, labour and transport out of sync.

“You can have the houses, but how are you going to provide transport links? Th is may happen over one or more boundaries so councils need to work together for it to work.

“A large enough housing supply is not being put forward. Councils need to communicate on where these should go.”