The system needs proactive changes, not a structural overhaul, by Catriona Riddell

By the time you read this, we will have a new government. We need stability to get on with the job of making good places, and a wholesale review of the system is the last thing that is required. But there are things that government can do to deliver better outcomes.

We need to take a more rounded, placebased approach to how we plan for the future, focusing on the significant challenges around climate change, housing need, improving overall health and wellbeing, and supporting a resilient economy. So, what can the new government do?

We will need a system that allows plans to be more responsive, reflecting the uncertainty that affects how the vision is delivered over time. An increasing number of new joint plans and strategic frameworks are emerging which attempt to do this, but the examination process through which they are ultimately tested was developed around a national planning policy framework (NPPF) that neither recognised strategic planning or the need to look beyond a five to ten-year period.

The current rule book for testing plans is too rigid, focused on the short term and based on process. The government needs to rethink the purpose of examinations, focusing on a higher level testing process to ensure that the plan’s strategy and policies are aimed at delivering the outcomes anticipated by the vision over the plan period.

The greatest amount of activity currently is the increasing number of strategic, place-based collaborations around growth. The government needs to capture the momentum around this and make it easier for partnerships that do not have a defined statutory role to make decisions that have traction on the policy and investment priorities of all partners. One immediate action to support this would be ensuring that placebased narratives that are not embedded in a statutory plan are given significant weight in local planning and in any funding decisions.

Recent government funding decisions have clearly reflected the need to base decisions on what the more rounded outcomes will be for a place. The increased weighting given to this has not, however, been as explicit as it could be. An increasing number of strategic collaborations have recognised the value of having a clear story around what their collective vision is for a place. A more proactive and supportive approach from government, for example, making these a requirement of any funding bids, would encourage all stakeholders to collaborate in a meaningful way.

A key issue for many strategic planning collaborations is the fact that place-shaping funding is owned by the individual authorities and organisations, both in terms of internal resources and funding streams. Bringing these facets together in the decision-making process is essential, but so is the need to have a more integrated approach to funding.

The new government should therefore think about how it can support place-based funding more generally, rather than having separate pots, and make it easier for strategic collaborations that don’t have a statutory status to directly access and manage these shared resources. There are many changes that a new government could introduce, all of which could impact on the operation of the planning system without the need for a wholescale review. Structural and legislative changes are not always the answer. 

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

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