The acid test for the North East's new devolved powers

Experts question whether the strategic planning arrangements in new devolution deals will be sufficient to resolve simmering tensions over housing numbers between authorities in the North East.

Newcastle: North East local authority lacks sufficient space to meet its housing need within its own boundary
Newcastle: North East local authority lacks sufficient space to meet its housing need within its own boundary

It is only two and a half years since the final regional spatial strategy was revoked. But now regional planning is back – albeit in more muted form. An announcement of two draft devolution deals for combined authorities in the North East and neighbouring Tees Valley included the promise of new cross-boundary planning frameworks covering each area.

The document outlining the proposed North East arrangements, agreed with the Treasury, said the plan will "create an overarching framework for development in the North East, supporting local development frameworks, and incorporating the duty to cooperate between the constituent local authorities." Crucially, it emphasises the role of the document in delivering housing growth.

The wording of the North East proposal document suggests that ministers are taking great care not to give the impression that the regional spatial strategy regime (RSS) is being restored. It states that the new framework will not be an RSS. But Professor Mark Tewdwr-Jones, chair of town planning at Newcastle University, questions whether the genie might already be out of the bottle. "The broader relationships between housing, infrastructure and environment will have to be broached," he said.

But Tewdwr-Jones believes the document is unlikely to resolve the tensions surrounding housing allocations between the seven constituent councils in the North East Combined Authority area. "Newcastle, for example, already lacks sufficient space to meet its housing need," he said. "It’s a growing city – with the implication that either it deregulates the green belt – or asks neighbouring Northumberland to accommodate housing growth on key transport routes in the urbanised south east of the county," he said.

Neil Milburn, North East development director for housebuilder Barratt Homes, said that the plan must be supported by adequate resources and strong leadership. Housing delivery, he said, has been dogged by "insufficient numbers built in the wrong locations". After regional strategies failed to solve the problem, he said, "each local authority has become more introverted and there has been a lack of strategy and joined-up thinking."

He welcomed the new framework’s aims, but said questions remain as to whether the authorities can work together to formulate a deliverable document that gains housebuilders’ trust.

Harvey Emms, senior director in the Newcastle office of planning consultancy Nathaniel Lichfield and Partners, said that it may not even be within the scope of the framework to solve one of the biggest factors holding back growth in the North East. "Some of the sites allocated by Newcastle and Gateshead on green belt land cannot come forward until the A1 is widened," he said.

Emms raises doubts over the speed at which any agreed plan would be able to boost housing delivery, given that five of the councils have local plans which are either adopted or near submission. He said: "There is a risk that, rather than being a strategic plan, all it will do is add up the numbers already existing in planning documents."

The Tees Valley Combined Authority will be given the power to create "democratically controlled" mayoral development corporations. Stockton-on-Tees Borough Council corporate director for development and neighbourhood services Paul Dobson is leading the "place workstream" associated with the Tees Valley devolution deal. He said the development corporation’s aims will be "informed by underpinning work on a strategic development plan", in turn based on a new land commission’s work which will examine what publicly owned land and other key strategic sites could be vested in the development corporation.

And the extent of the devolved planning powers in the Tees Valley could go further. Dobson said: "A programme of work is being developed to examine the potential barriers to development and the additional planning powers that may support delivery. If a case for additional planning powers is demonstrated, then Tees Valley will work with government on this."

The ghost of the 2004 referendum, rejecting the creation of an elected North East Regional Assembly, looms. Tewdwr-Jones said Durham has announced it will hold a plebiscite on the latest proposals, and that rejection could jeopardize the North East deal. He warned: "If the public feel too detached from decision making, they will not buy in to devolution."

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