Shared ambition key at local level, by Catriona Riddell

Planning was front and centre at this year's Conservative Party Conference. Housing minister Kit Malthouse made it clear that the government wants to see local authorities planning jointly at county or regional level.

Unless local authorities have a shared ambition on growth, with infrastructure and other priorities agreed, they will not be able to access government funding, he said.

For those authorities not preparing joint strategic plans or involved in combined authority spatial development strategies (SDS), the new requirement for a statement of common ground (SCG) across strategic areas is therefore going to be important. This was also the conclusion from a recent study I wrote for the County Councils Network (CCN), which explored how counties are engaging in strategic planning post abolition of regional planning. Counties’ involvement varies across the country in two-tier areas. But there are strong collaborations, driven by the need for a proactive approach to infrastructure delivery and therefore funding opportunities.

There is still a reluctance, however, to move to a more formal approach to strategic planning. The spectre of structure plans still seems to loom large. The CCN report concludes that, unless the baggage of previous approaches to strategic planning is left behind, local authorities will not be able to arrange more joint planning over larger areas. The report acknowledges the new requirement for a SCG is a positive step, but concludes that more needs to be done to ensure that long-term spatial priorities are integrated with infrastructure and economic priorities across strategic areas.

The report recommends that, where a joint plan or SDS is not being prepared, local authorities should prepare a strategic infrastructure framework, although the government seems unlikely to introduce a statutory requirement for this. But local authorities will have to take a more robust approach to planning infrastructure investment if they are to develop a more place-based solution to growth, rather than focusing on housing numbers. They will need to maximise all the increasingly rare opportunities to access funding. One approach would be to pool existing funds such as Community Infrastructure Levy revenues. Another would be to access new funds to be levied by authorities and joint planning committees where they have strategic planning powers. A third would be to do their best to compete for government funding streams such as the Housing Infrastructure Fund.

Having a coherent framework for infrastructure investment that demonstrates how shared growth ambitions are going to be delivered must therefore be a key part of the SCG.

SCGs may yet still prove to be just another paper trail to get local planning authorities through the duty to cooperate hoops at examination. But if used effectively, they could be an invaluable mechanism for unlocking additional funding opportunities and delivering good places as part of the plan-making process.

Catriona Riddell is a strategic planning convenor for the Planning Officers Society and a freelance consultant

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