How We Did It: Taking a holistic approach in city plan

Plymouth's planning team has been testing innovative approaches to coordination of strategies across the city. Kay Parris reports.

Spatial coordinators: neighbourhood planning manager Hannah Sloggett, assistant director for strategic planning and infrastructure Paul Barnard, head of development planning Jonathan Bell and (seated) local planning manager Richard Grant
Spatial coordinators: neighbourhood planning manager Hannah Sloggett, assistant director for strategic planning and infrastructure Paul Barnard, head of development planning Jonathan Bell and (seated) local planning manager Richard Grant

Project: The Plymouth Plan

Organisations involved: Plymouth City Council, One Plymouth, Plymouth Health and Wellbeing Board, Plymouth Growth Board, Plymouth Culture Board, Safer Plymouth, Plymouth Children's Partnership, Plymouth Sports Board

The Plymouth Plan has won regional and national acclaim as a single, integrated, 20-year strategic plan to grow and develop the city. It offers a vision and a delivery programme to guide the activities of the city council and its partner organisations and communities.

The predominantly web-based plan incorporates more than 130 separate elements covering every aspect of life in Plymouth - from health and wellbeing to affordable homes, jobs, culture, green spaces and children's services.

The plan, which won the award for strategic planning, sponsored by Pegasus Group, in the Planning Awards 2015, has evolved from two years of stakeholder dialogue and consultation that captured the views of thousands of local people and hundreds of organisations. It has used a two-stage process. Part one, which sets out the overall strategy and underpins detailed area and site policies, received unanimous council approval last September.

The more traditional planning allocations, land designations and other elements that make up part two of the plan are scheduled to be drafted by June. The two parts will then be combined into a single Plymouth Plan for submission by January 2017.

According to city council local planning manager Richard Grant, the plan's holistic, people-centred approach was inspired in part by the localism agenda of the incoming coalition government back in 2010. At the time, Grant explains, the council was reviewing its 2007 core strategy - the first to be adopted by an English city - and local development framework (LDF).

"The message we were getting from the government was that you make decisions at the local level, the most appropriate level. We were thinking how we could advance what we had achieved with our LDF, and the localism agenda was something we thought we could use to push the concept of a spatial plan as far as we could get," he says.

The review process led the council to consider whether its wide-ranging growth objectives, encompassing economic, population and life expectancy aspirations, might better be served by a unified strategy. "There was strong political and senior management alignment to have one holistic, integrated strategy that lets you tell the story once, very simply and very effectively," says assistant director for strategic planning and infrastructure Paul Barnard.

The Plymouth Plan chimes with other moves towards integration, including a health and wellbeing initiative in which service providers pool budgets and activities. Head of development planning Jonathan Bell points to a sense that such steps may be the best way to square the circle of shrinking resources, longer lives and growing demands.

At present, Bell reflects, "the legislative frameworks don't really facilitate this". But he accepts that the city council's new approach involves an element of risk: "We still have to get past the Planning Inspectorate, which will not have considered a plan like this before."

The core team of planners behind the Plymouth Plan has drawn on wide experience of spatial thinking and producing strategic plans. At the same time, it has fostered extensive joint working and relationship building with other departments, facilitated by the council's corporate centre team.

Council-wide budget scrutiny is now structured around each department's response to the plan's provisions. Exercises are ongoing to identify which policies can be best delivered by which service, before individual services take charge of their own delivery programmes.

The plan's coordinators emphasise that collaboration with the council's partnership bodies - in particular the Plymouth Health and Wellbeing Board and the city leaders' board, One Plymouth - has been crucial to the success of the process to date.

Plymouth Council neighbourhood planning manager Hannah Sloggett is behind an innovative series of initiatives to capture public interest and engagement. For example, she deployed a sofa to facilitate conversations with the public at organised events and random locations around the city.

"I wanted to create a comfortable environment where you could have a different kind of conversation," says Sloggett. "It was about reaching people who might not have come and talked to us otherwise."

The Plymouth Plan team believes that its goal of a shared vision helped build cross-party consensus around the plan, which has seen extensive take-up. Grant cites registered social landlord Plymouth Community Homes, which intends to use it as a basis for its own business plan. The Plymouth Plan's growth statistics and aspirations are also being used by Plymouth's joint strategic housing needs assessment.

Bell is confident that the plan's integrated approach and web-based format has saved time and money for all concerned. "This is a hugely more efficient approach to plan-making than anything we've done in the past and it should be the way we do it from here on in," he concludes.

Key Lessons

Don't allow anything to limit the breadth and depth of your vision for the kind of plan you regard as appropriate.

Decide what is going to work for you and then have the determination to achieve this, finding creative solutions when the inevitable obstacles arise.

Spend sufficient time at the outset of the plan-making process in securing political and partner buy-in and engagement.

Be prepared to keep working at this all the way through the process. Always follow up with feedback and nurture relationships.

Listen, build trust and have fun in working with communities to formulate plans and strategies that affect their neighbourhoods.

Promote and develop creative ways to work with and listen to communities, allow officers to innovate and trust communities to make meaningful and useful contributions.

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