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How solving the strategic planning puzzle will close the infrastructure funding gap

Strategic planning / iStock-1264245287

With the planning reforms put on hold, Peter French puts forward the case for strategic planning bodies.

Working in planning policy over the last few years has often felt a little bit like Groundhog Day, with successive governments attempting to reform the system.

However, this latest impasse provides an opportunity for the County Councils Network (CCN) to put forward a solution to some of the biggest challenges in housebuilding and infrastructure delivery - a return of strategic planning.

We have long argued for a more holistic approach, moving away from planning by numbers to better incorporate infrastructure needs and wider placemaking considerations as there remains a question on whether any reform will genuinely solve the age-old issue of infrastructure failing to match new development.

A survey carried out by CCN of its members found that most county authorities said that the pressure on their local infrastructure was ‘excessive’ due to housing development. This is in part due to the infrastructure funding gap they face (how much money is to be received by the council for infrastructure, set against a figure based on projected housing growth). Three quarters said their funding gap was ‘severe’.

The survey clearly articulated that our member councils feel there is disconnect between housing delivery and infrastructure to match it, whilst more broadly there are huge agendas that local authorities need to address across climate change, health integration and the economic recovery.

It is a little bit like a jigsaw piece – connect all the pieces together and you have a coherent plan and vision for growth.

Yet at present the fragmented and complex governance arrangements within the planning system, particularly in ‘two-tier’ county areas, do not lend themselves to best capturing these important agendas and therefore completing the puzzle.

The current approach to growth needs to be simplified, while at the other end of the scale, local leadership must be strengthened.

Since the demise of structure plans in the 2000s, there has been no mechanism (aside from the much-lamented duty to cooperate) to compel local authorities to work together, but arguably this is needed more than ever before.

The CCN’s new report, produced with Catriona Riddell Associates, sets out a bold yet practical way of reintroducing strategic planning: accountable strategic planning bodies.

It recommends these bodies are set up in county areas; made up of senior councillors within that county who would be tasked with setting out a coherent and collaborative vision for their area, including testing locations for housing and economic growth, and matching potential development with the right infrastructure.

Their ‘strategic growth plan’ would provide a framework for planning decisions, but it would not supersede individual councils’ local plans.

Rather, it would act as a tool to influence local plans. By zooming out and providing a larger geographical canvas, we believe local leaders can plan for growth more effectively, ensuring that homes are built in the right places and matched with adequate infrastructure, with a greater ability to finance these infrastructure additions.

We recommend that the chair of these bodies would be a county leader, like in many growth board arrangements, but everyone has an equal vote: mixing strong local leadership with collaboration.

To capture health, economic and climate agendas we suggest these bodies are scrutinised by local civic and business leaders who would advise the main body on whether the shared vision in the strategic growth plan is being delivered.

This arrangement would work very similarly to the London Assembly, which scrutinises the London mayor’s London Plan. If it works well in the capital, there is no reason it cannot be effective in counties.

With a possible planning bill on the horizon, there is a window of opportunity to implement these proposals. In the short-term, they could form part of county devolution deals.

The government’s revised planning reforms may ultimately have some of the answers to the challenges within the system; or they may not. But ministers will be missing a trick if they do not include a mechanism to enable truly strategic planning in their reforms package.

Peter French is senior policy officer for housing and planning at County Councils Network (CCN)

Read more:

CCN report - Counties call for strategic planning to ease excessive housing development

Image credit | iStock | CCN


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