Piecing together the policies jigsaw

Details are slow to emerge on how the localism framework will operate and councils are using various approaches, writes Janice Morphet

Although there is no doubt about the coalition government's commitment to radically reform public policy in a range of areas, locating more specific details of what is proposed is proving to be more difficult.

We have the outlines of what will be operational at each spatial scale - the national infrastructure plan, functional economic areas forming the basis of sub-regions, local, neighbourhood and parish plans that are emerging as a consistent framework across the UK.

The recent publication of the government's departmental delivery plans provides a helpful outline of what is to come.

There is little new in them in terms of detail although indicative timescales are useful. Most policies will be announced by 2012, pushing back implementation to the latter part of the government's expected five-year term.

The overall mantras of localism, decentralisation and fairness are also well established but the details of each policy proposal and how they fit together are more difficult to find.

Statements about new policies are appearing in the press and speeches long before consultation papers are published and this creates difficulty and probably delay for implementation in the future.

The government's response to this is generally to encourage local authorities and organisations to develop local solutions but this is unlikely to occur until more of the policy jigsaw is apparent.

One example of this is housing policy. Although the immediate moves to abolish regional spatial strategies (RSSs) were flagged, the provisions of the new homes bonus have only recently been issued. Subsequent statements have clarified and extended the scheme to include empty homes and announced that the bonus will be retrospective.

The timing of the announcement of the bonus with the DCLG response to the RSS judgement suggests that there may be a flurry of housing applications within the window of change as applicants use a system they know. Local authorities may also be more open to applications as they could attract the homes bonus.

The revised planning system is becoming more transparent as it is gradually revealed. Local plans are to be stronger and are likely to take the place of RSSs in defining need through evidence-based numbers in England. Neighbourhood and parish plans are likely to be the mechanism for delivery.

However, the main issue in these emergent scales is not only their likely responsibilities but how they fit together. How will the practicalities of inter-scale spatial planning policy and delivery be managed?

It appears that in some areas, such as Greater Manchester, new organisational governance will be developed to combine planning, housing, transport, skills and regeneration activities. Meanwhile, in London the boroughs are seeking sub-London units to undertake the same task. These are interesting times and it is certain that one size will not fit all.

Janice Morphet is a director of RMJM Consulting and visiting professor at University College London's Bartlett School of Planning.

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