Consultants eye growth plans work

Planning consultants expect to play a key role in preparing the new strategic growth plans for public-private local enterprise partnerships (LEPs), announced last week by Chancellor George Osborne.

Strategic role: Osborne, pictured in Hartlepool, will ask LEPs to prepare 'local growth' plans
Strategic role: Osborne, pictured in Hartlepool, will ask LEPs to prepare 'local growth' plans

In his Autumn Statement, Osborne said the government would ask business-led LEPs to prepare "local growth" plans, a key recommendation in last month's economic growth report by Lord Heseltine. The Treasury said England's 39 LEPs will be able to apply for up to £250,000 of extra funding per year to develop and deliver a strategic growth plan (SGP) for their area. A spokeswoman for the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) told Planning the SGPs could include plans for infrastructure, housing and transport.

Heseltine's report said LEPs should employ private planning consultants to help them draw up their strategic plans to avoid dependence on "the already stretched planning departments of the local authorities".

The business department said further details about the plans would be revealed in the spring when ministers formally respond to the Heseltine Review.

Osborne also announced plans to create a single funding pot, including cash for local transport, housing, skills, and welfare-to-work policies, for LEPs to bid into from April 2015.

The BIS spokeswoman said the funding from this pot would reflect the quality of SGPs plus local need.

Five consultants told Planning they saw the plans as opportunities for private sector expertise. They added that they expect local authorities' local plans to comply with the growth strategies of their LEP, although they do not expect the latter, unlike the former, to have a statutory basis.

Simon Prescott, a partner in consultancy Barton Willmore's Bristol office, said he envisaged an SGP to be an "aspirational, economic-led vision for the area" that would "inform" a council's local plan. His colleague, Barton Willmore's senior partner Ian Tant, said they "could help local authorities understand the true impact of their land use plans and how they can deliver new jobs and economic growth".

David Tuck, managing partner at economic development consultancy Genecon, said SGPs should be "a pretty broadly-based strategic statement of direction that filters down to a set of clear priorities". He said LEPs should focus on five or six priorities, which could include the targeting of employment sectors, business sites to be developed or key infrastructure investments.

Tuck and Craig Alsbury, a planning director at property firm GVA, said they did not think SGPs would be like the soon-to-be abolished regional spatial plans. Alsbury, said: "What we are talking about is detailed documents that will, in essence, be either economic development plans or delivery plans that identify the strengths or weaknesses of the LEP areas and how these need to be tackled."

Cristina Howick, a partner at Roger Tym & Partners, said SGPs would make a positive impact on spatial planning for strategic infrastructure.

She and Alsbury said they would have to be aligned with local authorities' local plans, although the latter would take precedence when it came to determining planning applications. Prescott agreed that local plans would have primacy in law, but said they should not be adopted where they conflict with the LEP's objectives in the SGP.

He said planning consultants were ideally placed to help with SGP preparation because of their private sector expertise, combined with an understanding and experience of working with the public sector.

Planning Officers' Society strategic planning convenor Catriona Riddell, said the organisation welcomes the move, but expressed concerns about the issue of accountability.

She said LEPs would have to work with local authorities on their SGPs, and to make sure they are joined up with local plans so "planning and investment priorities are aligned".

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