LEPs may win formal planning role in cities

Council and business-led local enterprise partnerships (LEPs) could be given a formal role in the planning system for the first time by becoming statutory consultees on applications in England's eight largest regional cities outside London, the government has announced.

Last week, deputy prime minister Nick Clegg included the proposal in a menu of powers that could be devolved from central government to England's core cities.

The cities - Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds, Liverpool, Newcastle, Nottingham, Manchester and Sheffield - will now negotiate individual deals with Whitehall to take on combinations of the powers.

A prospectus published by Clegg says that LEPs could be granted statutory consultee status in order to "ensure better strategic planning across cities and their LEP areas".

The document also promises "more planning freedoms for cities, including devolving non-planning consents where cities can reduce impact on business", but contained no further detail on this proposal.

Until now, LEPs have had no formal role in the planning system and the government has refused to prescribe planning roles for the partnerships.

Its local growth white paper, published in November 2010, said that the coalition envisaged LEPs' planning role as including "making representation on the development of national planning policy and ensuring business is involved in the development and consideration of strategic planning applications".

A survey carried out by Planning in February found that, at the time, only two LEPs had firm intentions to lead on strategic economic planning (Planning, 25 February, p6).

A Royal Town Planning Institute spokesman said: "LEPs should have a role in the planning system and the prospect of statutory status will assist in delivering growth and providing a larger than local view of development. But the real step forward would be allowing them to make plans."

He said the mechanism of giving a non-corporate body, such as an LEP, statutory status in the planning system would have to be worked out.

In all, Clegg unveiled a package of 21 funds and powers, which he said would empower cities to make decisions to encourage growth. He said: "Whitehall should not be like an overbearing parent, throwing money at cities but refusing to let them stand on their own two feet."

Other powers that could be devolved include control over transport spending and commissioning. And cities could also be given one consolidated capital pot, rather than multiple funding streams from different departments.

In addition, cash from the Regional Growth Fund could be used to fund reductions in business rates granted by cities.

Lord Heseltine, chairman of the panel advising the coalition on how the Regional Growth Fund should be spent, and a backer of powerful city mayors, hailed the announcement as "transformational".

He told Planning: "Over half a century, the powers of local politicians have been eroded and this announcement recognises that the cities are economic powerhouses."

To win powers, the coalition said that cities must demonstrate "strong, accountable leadership, an ambitious agenda for the economic future of their area, effective decision-making structures and private sector involvement and leadership".

It said that cities that vote in favour next year of having elected mayors would be "well placed" to meet these tests, but did not rule out devolving powers to cities where referendums decided against electing a mayor.

Edward Cooke, executive director of membership body the British Council of Shopping Centres, welcomed the powers, but warned that because mayors' power will be limited to core city areas, they will not be contiguous with those of wider LEP areas.

He said: "There is a danger that the political mechanisms become convoluted. One thing we have to get our heads around is at what level do the different responsibilities sit? With the mayor, the LEP, city councils or central government? That has to be clearly articulated."

But Heseltine said: "I have no doubt that it will be perfectly possible for the mayor to influence and articulate the interests of the wider area."

Andrew Carter, director of policy and research at think-tank Centre for Cities, said that having an elected mayor could help bring "kudos" to LEPs if the political relationship between them is clear. But he warned: "The extent of devolution depends on other departments accepting a loss of some of their responsibilities. In the past, this has not always been easy."

Unlocking Growth in Cities can be viewed via PlanningResource.co.uk/go/referencesection

See Anthony Fyson, p17.

Five new powers the core cities could get

1. A single consolidated capital pot, rather than multiple funding streams from different Whitehall departments

2. Power to fund business rate discounts using cash from the Regional Growth Fund

3. Control over strategic transport decisions through devolved funding

4. Funding powers and control of land currently held by government housing and regeneration body the Homes & Communities Agency

5. More planning freedoms, "including devolving non-planning consents where cities can reduce impact on business"

LEP Timeline

How the government has boosted LEPs' powers

- The coalition agreement announces the intention to replace regional development agencies with a network of LEPs

- LEPs will have to fund their own day-to-day running costs, the government announces

- LEPs are handed a "lead role" in coordinating funding through the coalition's planned £1 billion Regional Growth Fund

- The coalition government launches a £4 million fund aimed at boosting the LEPs' capacity

- Communities secretary Eric Pickles reveals that LEPs will play a lead role in deciding the location and powers of enterprise zones

- The government performs a U-turn and allocates £5 million for LEP start-up costs

- LEPs are given a role in administering new local infrastructure funds intended to restart work on stalled developments

- LEPs covering England's core cities could be allowed to bid to become statutory consultees on planning applications.

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