Where is the strategic planning fuel for the Midlands Engine (and Northern Powerhouse), by David Marlow

One of the signature moments at the launch of the 'Midlands Engine' prospectus for growth on Friday December 4th came when the leader of Derbyshire County Council challenged the secretary of state for business innovation and skills (BIS) - Sajid Javid. "Does government want the Midlands Engine to be Formula One or will it end up as 'Wacky Races'?"

The planning sector might ask the same question about the 'engines', 'powerhouses', Combined Authorities and (Metro-) Mayoralities currently under development.

The Midlands Engine prospectus is rich with ambition and eye-catching targets - £34bn additional GVA by 2030; a further 300,000 jobs by 2020. It has identified five key themes for pan-regional collaboration - global promotion, strategic transport investment, innovation, business finance, and skills. These themes have an eleven point short-term action plan, and a senior leadership team to hold key partners to account for their delivery.

What is missing, however, is any mention of the strategic planning underpinnings for 'firing up' the engine. In the absence of such underpinnings, in default, the 'engine' status quo comprises 69 local planning authorities with a huge array of joint arrangements and duties to cooperate; 10 local enterprise partnerships; and eight devolution deal proposals (of which the West Midlands Combined Authority is currently 'agreed' with government).

In many respects, similar challenges are facing the Northern Powerhouse, although in this respect, at least, the density of spatial planning commitments in devolution agreements is more extensive.

The agreements for Greater Manchester, Sheffield City Region, North East and Liverpool City Region each envisage mayoral strategic planning powers for creating a spatial framework for their areas. This critical mass of strategic planning may provide credible anchors for spatial cohesion in the North, albeit there needs to be considerable 'read-across' between them, and with respective neighbours.

Interestingly, both Tees Valley and West Midlands agreements do not commit to this spatial planning approach. The North East agreement commits to a framework, makes it explicit that this is 'NOT a regional spatial strategy', but fails to say what it is. A number of aspirant combined authority proposals also suggest strategic planning as 'in scope' of their devolution ambitions. Again, the picture is of a patchwork of arrangements with lack of clarity and consistency as to their motivation, form and influence.

It pains a committed, life-long decentralist to advocate more prescriptive guidance from the National Infrastructure Commission and the government intention to update the National Infrastructure Plan. But, in the absence of local leadership teams championing collective bottom-up solutions, this may represent the most sensible way forward (at least in the short run).

As an earlier column suggested, local leadership teams need to be engaging proactively and assiduously with the new Commission, and urging a strong sub-national modus operandi for at least part of their national remit.

Let's recognise and celebrate the distinctive collaborations that make up a sophisticated formula one engine - rather than trying to get on the podium of wacky races!


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