What to do while waiting for government to sort itself out, by David Marlow

The aftermath of the 2017 General Election increasingly has a "while we were waiting" feel for planners.

Although there is a huge amount of work to do, we really have little certainty about future medium-term spatial changes in the UK, pending resolution of Brexit negotiations and their subsequent implementation.

Similarly, we shall have modest understanding of the character of strategic economic pressures until government defines – in a manner much clearer than hitherto – what they actually think a place-based industrial strategy is and how it can be delivered. And, with a minority government struggling to hold the four UK nations together at all, we cannot afford to hold our breath while waiting for some sort of white smoke from Whitehall.

If we are not going to wait around for government, what summer 2017 agendas should local strategic planners, and our public, business and community partners, progress?

Self-evidently, all local planning authorities (LPAs) need to be seen to be making statutory progress with their local plans. Whilst this may be particularly acute in those areas with no approved post-National Planning Policy Framework plan and at risk of intervention, the overwhelming majority of councils are facing early reviews or other major local plan exercises and updates.

LPAs also need to be strengthening sub-regional strategic frameworks, evidence bases and business processes for plan-making. This is particularly relevant in London and the new mayoral combined authorities (MCA) with strategic planning powers. However, the case can be made almost as strongly in non-metropolitan England.

It is striking how a decade that started with the destruction of regional planning has, in seven years, created a mosaic of overlapping ‘intermediate tiers’ with significant planning dimensions. These amount to 38 Local Growth Deals, 31 City Deals, six mayoral combined authority devolution agreements and one in London, and at least three pan-regional constructs – the Northern Powerhouse, the Midlands Engine and England's Economic Heartland. It is a real test of what has always been a rather light-touch ‘duty to cooperate’ to manage this degree of regional and sub-regional complexity.

Of course, housing numbers and affordability remain at the forefront of planning agendas. These are arguably less influenced by the national hiatus than progress on other investments. Excess demand far outweighs any drops in consumer confidence, and there are a range of national supply and demand measures that can be progressed under Housing White Paper policies and funding programmes.

Housing delivery is extremely demanding, and can be progressed in innovative and novel ways. However, this is, essentially, business as usual: the ‘known knowns’ of England planning.

This "while we were waiting" summer would benefit from a serious look at the ‘known unknown’ – exploring the type of places we want our cities and communities to be in forthcoming decades. Well-founded, creative futures work, scenario and contingency planning will be crucial to reshaping the vision and ambitions of local leaders as they try to navigate through the uncertainty and complexity.

And finally, try to leave a little space for the unexpected. The longer government keeps us waiting, the more certain we can be of a steady stream of ‘unknown unknowns’ that will need to be managed locally through the autumn and beyond.

David Marlow is chief executive of consultancy Third Life Economics 


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