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We need spatial planning to successfully level up the country

Collaboration and shared vision are the keys to addressing regional inequality, says Simon Prescott.

It’s fair to say that the government’s levelling-up agenda in England has yet to get started. The Covid-19 pandemic has been a legitimate distraction, but has served as an urgent reminder why we need to see bold promises reflected in actions and clear results.

The issue isn’t a lack of will or funds, but the lack of a coherent plan. The One Powerhouse Consortium aims to provide a road map. In partnership with the Royal Society of the Arts, the body sets out four draft regional blueprints that show what could be achieved if the government backed a proper programme of spatial planning.  

What we need to be focusing on is a ‘new regionalism’, part of a growing global trend to look at planning for clusters of cities, towns and rural areas rather than taking them individually. The programme looks at four ‘megaregions’: the North of England, the Midlands, the South East and the South West. Each report gives a framework for assessing what is needed to level up a megaregion, and how the money should be best used.

“What we need to be focusing on is a ‘new regionalism’”

This type of holistic strategy could solve problems that cannot be managed by one local area alone or through sporadic investment – such as flooding planning or wider infrastructure connectivity. Levelling up and tackling regional inequality requires this broader-minded, longer-term approach. Poor economic productivity, stark differences in educational attainment and health region to region, a fragmented system of transport infrastructure – these issues are too complex to be dealt with any other way.

But this is not a grand, top-down paternalist doctrine. Collaboration with communities is central to success. The megaregion framework puts a wide-angle lens on regional problems, but essential to this process is bringing people together and encouraging collaboration from the bottom up, spurring investment in often overlooked rural regions. The importance of strong spatial planning is that it stimulates targeted investment in communities while contributing to a larger, longer-term vision that goes beyond the boundaries of local planning areas.

We are seeing moves towards spatial planning in the other nations of the UK, and in our capital – Scotland and London were the first UK ‘megaregions’. For the English regions, our aim with One Powerhouse is to work alongside national and local governments to guarantee that the right decisions and best investments are being made for every region, every time. 

Simon Prescott is senior planning partner at Barton Willmore

Image credit | Shutterstock


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