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15/01/2016

A plan for the powerhouse?

A Great North Plan could stave off the risks of a piecemeal approach to the building of a 'Northern Powerhouse', argues Robert Pritchard

Robert Pritchard, EvershedsIn the run-up to publication of November’s Comprehensive Spending Review, devolution deals were announced for city regions in the North, with the finalisation of significant settlements in South Yorkshire, the North East and the Tees Valley.

But progress is by no means uniform across the ‘Northern Powerhouse’. At the time of writing there is a big gap in the coverage of devolution arrangements resulting from the continued difficulties in concluding a deal for the Leeds city region.

All three of the above deals involve the proposed delegation of planning powers, including the possibility of the formulation of city region planning policy. But the clear message from the North East deal in particular is that any bid to revive regional spatial strategies will get short shrift; what is advocated are planning development frameworks.

"Any city regional policy must avoid the top-down approach associated with the discredited regional policy"

It is clear that any city regional policy must avoid the top-down approach associated with the discredited regional policy. But any overarching policy should not be consensual to the point that it becomes anodyne.

The approach to the devolution deals has many parallels with the city challenge process in the 1990s; unsurprising, given the key role of Michael Heseltine in both initiatives.

While the bidding process has undoubtedly improved the quality of the submissions to the Treasury, there is inevitably a risk that what results is a patchwork of disparate arrangements that fails to articulate the role of individual towns and cities and does not provide a coherent policy framework across the Powerhouse area. This is a big problem given the need to present a credible case for investment to foreign investors.

All of this supports the case for a Great North Plan that identifies the contribution each city region can make in an overall narrative. The plan could also help in reconciling cross-boundary issues – and the question of infrastructure and the need to promote connectivity across and beyond the Powerhouse area. But it is essential to avoid an unnecessary layer of planning policy.  The trick will be to produce a ‘policy light’ document that reflects the aspirations of the constituent areas while being visionary about what the North offers foreign investors. The support of the right planning policy is vital to the region’s success.

Robert Pritchard is a principal associate for Eversheds International

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