Cooperation among places should become the key element of planning, governance and investment practices under future policies at European, national, regional and local scales. This is the message from a new document from the European Union’s European Spatial Planning Observation Network (ESPON) programme.
While the UK has distanced itself from ESPON since before the Brexit referendum, findings from ESPON research into regional development are worth consideration at a time when regional divides have reached levels that undermine political stability, and the idea that places have been "left behind" has become widely acknowledged.
At the national scale, ESPON says that "promoting cooperation among places requires the establishment of an overarching policy framework and guidance to enhance the involvement of regional and local authorities in cooperative governance and planning initiatives at various geographical scales." Such a framework remains tacit at best in England. The government-backed Northern Powerhouse concept falls short of being an "overarching framework", and is not national in scale. City deals between UK central and local government meet some other ESPON recommendations, notably incentivising cooperation amongst local councils, but do not meet its criterion that funds should be conditional on regional and local authorities implementing governance and planning approaches towards polycentric development.
Regional and local governments are advised by the document to build on existing cooperation in fields such as transport or waste management, as well as understand the spatial dynamics of their territory. Such research into environmental and socio-economic flows across administrative boundaries involves skills that have been dispensed with in UK local government: even Scotland’s city region-scale plans are produced by skeleton teams – and the Scottish Government is seeking to downgrade them further in its Planning Bill. Thus a further ESPON recommendation has relevance to the UK. It is to start bottom-up from small scale cooperation, and also to move from existing fields of co-operation to new ones, e.g. from transport to action on biodiversity.
Flexibility and political commitment are also highlighted as desirable. The need for early identification of shared benefits is also emphasised. Furthermore, "a process to involve a broad range of actors is crucial to develop joint strategic and spatial planning approaches and to prevent resistance and conflicts" observes the report.
The negation of the idea of regional-scale planning within a national spatial framework has done self-inflicted damage to cohesion within the UK. In a week when the Labour Party conference has had the media talking about a revival of social democratic policy-making, I flipped through a pamphlet "Planning the Regions" that the party published in 1966 (priced at six pence on the front and three pence on the back page!). It described "local authority planning control" as "too narrowly defined to be used as an economic weapon". It criticised "’accommodation’ planning unrelated to any national strategy" that "worked on the assumption that the drift of population from the North would continue". Highlighting weaknesses that needed to be resolved, it pointed to the lack of a planning mechanism in each region,; lack of policy co-ordination across government departments; and the gap between "physical" and "industrial" planning. Of course that was over 50 years ago.
Cliff Hague OBE is a freelance consultant and researcher. He was formerly contracted to the UK ESPON Contact Point, first with Heriot-Watt University (2002-4) then with the RTPI (2008-14).