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How to replace the duty to cooperate

Strategic planning / iStock-483186066

Scrapping the duty to cooperate is one proposal in Planning for the Future that seems to have almost unanimous support, writes Catriona Riddell, but what are the options for replacing it?

The jury is out on the government’s proposed planning reforms, set out in the white paper Planning for the Future, with some proposals seen as having much more potential than others.  

The one proposal that appears to have almost unanimous support, however, is the abolition of the duty to cooperate which, since 2011, has been the main mechanism for managing strategic planning matters.

The government clearly acknowledges that this has not worked but does not offer an alternative solution, leaving the door open wide for others to do so. A long-time advocate for a better and more integrated approach to strategic planning, the County Councils Network (CCN) took up the challenge and asked me to answer the question; what would an effective approach to strategic planning look like?  

Planning Reforms and the Role of Strategic Planning (pdf) takes as the starting point the ambition set out in the white paper for a simpler, faster and more predictable planning system. But the proposition, set out in this report, also aims to develop an approach that maximises the true potential of strategic planning, acting as the ringmaster to sustainable growth and as the essential pivot between national and local priorities by bringing all the different components together around a long-term place-based vision.

“Experience tells us that strategic planning is best managed where the georgraphy is large enough to be able to implement national priorities effectively but small enough to reflect local context and circumstances”

Crucially, the proposition sets out an integrated approach that does not leave all the heavy lifting to the statutory planning system, which plays an important but not exclusive role in supporting sustainable growth. The approach is built around four connected proposals:

  • New powers placed on all local authorities to support sustainable development. All local authorities, working collectively with strategic partners, would be expected to demonstrate how local areas are supporting key national objectives, especially around housing delivery, facilitating green and inclusive growth, improving overall health and wellbeing, addressing the challenges around climate change and levelling up regional socio-economic disparities. This would also be used as evidence to inform national (and sub-national) funding allocations and to support the government’s proposed new single Sustainable Development Test for local plans.
  • The creation of strategic planning advisory bodies in all areas, comprising of all council leaders, mayors (where relevant), Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs), sub-national transport bodies and leaders from the health and environment sectors. This would be a statutory responsibility and the geography covered would be agreed first by local councils across an area and approved by the secretary of state.
  • These new bodies would produce a strategic integrated framework, setting out the long-term sustainable growth vision for an area and what would be needed to deliver this, including any distribution of growth (and housing) across the area and what infrastructure is needed to support this. The frameworks would not be part of the statutory development plan but would be delivered through the planning system alongside other relevant plans and strategies needed to facilitate sustainable growth.
  • A 10-year delivery plan would be developed alongside the frameworks, setting out investment priorities which should provide a ‘whole is greater than the sum of its parts approach’ by pooling together resources to unlock large-scale infrastructure projects, while enabling more private and public investment due to having a long-term shared vision outlined in each area.

For this to work, strategic planning needs to be managed at the right geographical level with the right partners around the table. There is no perfect solution to strategic planning geography but experience tells us that it is best managed where it is large enough to be able to implement national priorities effectively but small enough to reflect local context and circumstances.  

The new and emerging growth boards being established across many parts of England offer a potential governance model for managing strategic planning, one that would ensure that all key players with a role to play in supporting sustainable growth are working collaboratively around a shared vision for an area and providing the robust place leadership that is needed to address the significant challenges we face.

Growth boards also offer a resilient governance model that could survive future changes to both local government and organisational structures, but also political changes, especially where transformation of a place is being delivered over a long period of time.

The government has one chance to get this right. The proposition set out in this report is not the only potential solution but offers a workable option and a basis for, at the very least, starting the conversation around what a more effective approach to strategic planning looks like.  

The report – Planning Reforms and the Role of Strategic Planning – can be downloaded from the CCN website (pdf).

Catriona Riddell is the director at Catriona Riddell Associates

Read more:

Report: Strategic planning bodies needed if duty to cooperate is scrapped

Image credit | iStock and Catriona Riddell


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