Why England needs a spatial plan and what we can learn from the devolved nations - RSA

Why England needs a spatial plan and what we can learn from the devolved nations


  • Public Services & Communities
  • Communities
  • Devolution
  • Localism

In a series of ‘prototypes’ released last week, the RSA has called for a different planning approach in England.

The One Powerhouse Consortium – led by the RSA – is arguing that an English ‘spatial plan’ made up of plans for four ‘mega-regions’ could help us to address regional imbalances in England and shore up the economy against future challenges. And that there is much to be learned from the devolved nations about how to go about it.

What is spatial planning?

At its most basic, spatial planning is the ‘where’ of decisions. A spatial plan maps out all the assets contained within a given area – the towns, cities, houses, schools, universities, roads, rails, airports, offices, factories, hospitals, energy sources, leisure activities – and decides how best to arrange and develop them to achieve stated goals.

The Welsh Government, in its 2004 plan, defined spatial planning as “the consideration of what can and should happen where”.

But there is something more aspirational about spatial planning, not quite captured in these simple definitions. Compared to traditional planning models, spatial planning is more flexible.

The UK government itself has previously defined spatial planning as something that:

“goes beyond traditional land use planning to bring together and integrate policies for the development and use of land with other policies and programmes” – such as sustainability, transport, economy and culture – “which influence the nature of places and how they function.”

Why doesn’t England have regional planning?

That was in 2005, when spatial planning was more firmly on the UK policy agenda. In the years following devolution, spatial planning had been embraced in the devolved nations. It helped the new units to express their cohesiveness and their distinctiveness and to coordinate their different policy programmes in service of common aims.

England followed suit with the creation of Regional Spatial Strategies in 2004. This helped to bridge the gap between local planning policy and national objectives, in many cases allowing for more effective development and infrastructure decisions.

But by the time these benefits were coming to fruition, the door was already closing on adventurous planning practice in England. After 2008, planning was widely blamed for harming the post-crash economic recovery, some regional spatial strategies were mired in debates about housing numbers, and in 2010, the new coalition government abolished regional strategies as part of its move towards localism in planning.

The gulf in English planning

Since 2010, the gulf in English planning has yet to be filled, leaving a patchwork and uncoordinated system of local planning at various scales.

The all-party Commons Communities and Local Government Committee warned that:

"The intended abolition of regional spatial planning strategies leaves a vacuum at the heart of the English planning system which could have profound social, economic and environmental consequences set to last for many years.”

Since then, the government has been extolling the virtues of ‘spatially-blind’ planning: making its investment decisions according to the current performance of industries and initiatives and deliberately ignoring place - while simultaneously bemoaning the stubbornness of regional inequality.

Perhaps the one place in England that does have a comprehensive spatial plan is London – unsurprisingly, this has supported it to become uniquely coordinated and productive.

Lessons from the success of spatial planning in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland

To varying degrees, spatial planning in the devolved nations has helped policy coordination, strategic thinking and balanced development. It’s also acted as an incubator for ambitious placemaking and stakeholder participation.

There are several important lessons that can be extracted from these experiences:

Flexible spatial plans promote integration

Coordination and integration are almost universally understood to contribute to effective policymaking, but achieving them can be difficult – not least because the terms are vague.

In the devolved nations, spatial planning has promoted three different types of integration:

1. Horizontal integration: the coordination and reconciliation of different policy objectives and government interventions.

Spatial planning incorporates social and environmental matters in a way that standard land use planning does not.

The National Planning Framework (Scotland’s Spatial plan) helped to reconcile economic, social, environmental and infrastructural objectives in service of the SNP’s stated goals of balanced prosperity and sustainable development. The National Planning Policy Framework for England, meanwhile, was devoid of such progressive themes.

In Northern Ireland, the spatial plan (The Regional Development Strategy) primed the ground for the formal sustainable development strategy which only emerged several years later.

That planning can play such a role in the devolved nations suggests that – when done properly – it can contribute to more efficient and just outcomes across the UK. The need for coordination in England is clear.

To take one example, the projections that are currently driving the major ‘Cambridge-Milton Keynes-Oxford corridor’ development are not informing the housing decisions in the same area – a fragmented process which risks undermining the initiative.

2. Vertical integration: the coordination of activity between local and regional development around a future vision.

Evidence from Scotland shows that there has been a translation of objectives from the European level right down to the level of local regeneration projects.

While regional, national and transnational plans set a broad direction of travel, ideas about place can also bubble up. Now that the European level of governance is due to be stripped away and given that devolution is deepening, there is a need to strengthen and refresh mechanisms for coordination between different tiers of governance.

3. Cooperation: working together can create the context within which laws pushing for integration can work in practice.

Focusing on planning in its broadest sense, spatial plans can support dialogue and negotiation between various actors. In turn this can establish the administrative routines and working relationships that enable effective integration and action on the ground.

In Scotland and Wales this has helped to establish a ‘power to act’ which contrasts the ’power over’ role that is traditionally associated with planning in the UK. By establishing this soft infrastructure, the need for centralised and regulatory decision making has, in certain cases, diminished in Scotland and Wales.

Plans need to be for place that are the right size

Given that England is home to roughly ten times more people than Scotland, a regional approach will better replicate in England the benefits of spatial planning in the devolved nations. Academic evidence corroborates this.

Unfortunately, the regional tier of English planning has fallen away leaving nothing between national government and a scattered set of combined authorities. Though many of these bodies are making positive steps, the challenges we currently face - such as climate change and those relating to the so-called ‘fourth industrial revolution’ - call for the pooling of risk, resources and power at a higher scale.

There is an unavoidable trade-off between flexibility and political support

In all three devolved nations, the spatial plans have been criticised for lacking detail and clout.

However, as outlined above, some of the primary benefits of this approach to planning rely on a high-level, flexible approach. If a spatial plan is too specific, it is unlikely to convene cross-sectoral discussion and promote policy integration.

Statutory plans are often derailed by minor issues. The greater statutory influence of the upcoming Welsh spatial plan looks like it will come at the expense of the previous plan’s strategic spirit. But, to maintain political support plans do need on-the-ground purchase. This will require difficult decisions about what should be prioritised in the short term.

Plans must be developed with local communities

But these difficult decisions should be based on ongoing dialogue with local communities and stakeholders from various sectors.

The creation of the devolved nations’ spatial plans was highly participatory, which largely explains their positive reception within the country and in international planning communities.

Planners should not solely rely on technical data and instead should expand their pool of evidence to include the lived experiences of residents. Ongoing consultation should form part of a strong evidence base that supports regular updates, helping a plan to accommodate changing circumstances and new expressions of place.

Only through open-minded engagement can planners accurately identify the distinctive needs and contributions of different communities and gain a deeper understanding of local places and the relationships within and between them.

One Powerhouse

The One Powerhouse consortium is calling for a bottom-up system of planning based on detailed local plans (most obviously the emerging Local Industrial Strategies being developed by Local Enterprise Partnerships), coherent regional strategies, and a light-touch national framework.

When done properly, spatial planning can drive progressive change and challenge harmful biases in policymaking. The rest of the UK can show England the way.

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