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England needs a national plan like Wales

Jonathan Manns

A national spatial plan would be a step to closing the gap between national and local objectives.

We need to start seeing planners more as guardians; equipped to recognise the competing demands on space and balance these appropriately at each level, on behalf of others where appropriate. We need a profession that deals with city and regional processes as much as development control.
Sounds hardly ground-breaking, but the appropriateness of a decision varies significantly between different spatial levels and this is not embodied in the way the system now operates. As letters pour into local authorities, seeking both more homes and less development, planners face seemingly irreconcilable demands. These often stop development but win few friends among the public or private sector planners. 
Yet little political posturing surrounds the adoption of new Local Plans or Site Allocations documents by comparison to when applications are brought forward. Likewise, despite a duty to co-operate, claims that other areas should accommodate more housing abound between authorities despite adopted plans. What’s missing is the “larger-than-local” vision.
This isn’t a call for top-down Stalinist planning, but a national spatial plan would be a step to closing the gap between national and local objectives. We do this in other areas of planning already, with mechanisms to support regeneration and renewal, yet the planning system does not operate independently from any other public policy decisions either. Competition between functional areas, as opposed to co-ordination, is just counter-productive. 
A national plan is the only logical means to direct key growth issues in a “post-regional” age. In Wales, national spatial policy does not emerge from loosely written guidance but is shown diagrammatically. And whereas English infrastructural decisions come forward independently from government departments, Welsh ministers keep a firm hand on the tiller assisted by a dedicated and centralised team who focus on policy integration. It would not conflict with the aspirations of localism to the extent that government, as with HS2, Hinkley C and the “super-connected” cities, is making key investment and infrastructure decisions. 
We must make decisions with consistency, moving away from planning by appeal. This means taking decisions in context of the funding and investment available, with an awareness of sectoral issues that might conflict spatially – and crucially, making robust decisions on behalf of the wider public. A national spatial plan would provide a suitable position from which to do this.
Jonathan Manns is associate director of planning at Colliers International



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