General assembly debates way forward with localism

Members questioned the DCLG's chief planner on the future for spatial planning, reports Matt Thomson.

Meeting last month at Woburn House, London, the RTPI's general assembly had a packed agenda. Board of trustees chairman Richard Summers first summarised recent activity and took questions from the floor. These focused on the need to tighten belts while the impacts of downturn were felt, the success of the campaign for "larger than local" planning and activities during party conference season.

In a new initiative, assembly members were invited to speak from a soap box to air matters of concern. Issues ranged from frustration with revocation of regional spatial strategies to a plug for the RTPI internships, voluntary experience and shadowing opportunities register.

But the main business of the day was the discussion of the localism agenda and the response of spatial planning to this new regime. DCLG chief planner Steve Quartermain gave a robust presentation, although he was unable to reveal detail from the forthcoming localism bill.

He reaffirmed ministers' belief that decisions should be taken as closely as possible to the people they affect.

The new agenda would introduce collaborative neighbourhood planning, reduce red tape and promote an upswing in construction through a presumption in favour of sustainable development and a framework of incentives, he added.

He then focused on the idea of a national planning policy framework, which would simplify and consolidate the existing 7,000 pages of policy and guidance.

He noted that the government recognised the need for strategic co-ordination on cross-boundary issues and talked of a duty to co-operate to allow strategic planning in the absence of a regional tier.

He stressed that the government considers that resources are currently focused too much on development control. There should be a shift to concentrating on plan-making and pre-application to create a less adversarial approach, with a key role for elected members.

Members challenged Quartermain on how a neighbourhood would be defined, what would happen if councils failed to co-operate and whether the incentives system would work.

The answers were that the detail would be in the bill but also recognised the opportunities for planners in delivering the agenda, highlighting the profession's unique combination of spatial, mediation and engagement skills.

In the afternoon, members from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland shared their experiences of localism, before the assembly broke into groups to discuss a draft communique from the RTPI which is now being finalised.

Matt Thomson is RTPI head of policy and practice.

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