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Return strategic planning to rural areas to ensure all benefit from a growing economy

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To level up the whole country, the government must give county authorities the tools to make a difference, says Peter French.

With a planning white paper forthcoming, it seems that now is the right time to consider how the system could be fundamentally changed to deliver better outcomes for everyone. We all know that the planning system is one of our most powerful tools to shape the places that we live and work, whilst balancing the environmental considerations that are now more important than ever.

Today, the County Councils Network (CCN) releases a new report with one of the headline recommendations – put forward by Grant Thornton – for the government to use the white paper to return strategic planning powers to county councils.

There is a clear logic for this - over the last few years city regions and metropolitan areas have had levels of power given to them, including the ability to create a strategic spatial plan. If the government is serious about achieving its levelling-up agenda, it should consider extending this power to county areas which are often the poor relation in terms of infrastructure and growth-related investment.

Our report finds that economic growth in county areas falling behind the rest of the country. In key metrics such as the number of businesses, workplace productivity, and GVA, county areas lag behind other parts of the country, with the number of businesses in county areas growing by 7.9 per cent between 2015 and 2019 – almost half of the national average of 15.1 per cent. In addition, although counties are seeing high levels of housing growth, they are more unaffordable than other parts of the country. House prices are 10 times higher than annual earnings in counties - higher than the England average of 8.2.

"Setting out a framework for growth across a broader geography would help to align spatial, economic and infrastructure priorities"

Strategic planning at the county level was lost in 2004 when structure plans were replaced by regional spatial strategies at the regional level and core strategies at the local planning authority level. Strengthening the role at the county level could help to close the ‘growth gap’ by allowing the county to build on their strengths and address their weaknesses.

Setting out a framework for growth across a broader geography would help to align spatial, economic and infrastructure priorities, and help to give a coordinated approach to infrastructure funding, including developer contributions, that would deliver infrastructure that has the greatest impact. It would also be an effective way of ensuring that the duty to cooperate is better mobilised and avoid ‘planning by numbers’, running the risk of creating unsustainable communities and putting pressure on existing services.

This is not something we are suggesting that the government forces on authorities – there will be areas that are already working at a strategic level, and it should be up to local areas to decide how formally - or informally - strategic plans should be introduced in their areas. This should also not be viewed as a power-grab – but more of a bridge between national planning policy and local plans.

Grant Thornton and CCN are not the only organisations calling for this. The recent report from the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission recommends that the government investigates a strengthened role for counties in strategic planning whilst the UK2070 Commission’s final report calls for strategic planning to be extended across all of England, including rural counties.

If the government is to truly level up the country – then it needs to give county authorities the tools to make a difference.

Peter French is senior policy officer at County Councils Network (CCN)

Read more:

County councils should manage strategic planning, says report

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