RTPI NEWS: Implementing spatial planning: focus of final council meeting

Meeting for the last time, the council looked forward to the implementation of spatial planning, reports Paul Harris.

The council was fortunate to have two thoroughly absorbing presentations covering two different approaches to strategic planning. Director of sustainable communities at the ODPM Andrew Wells provided an insight into the sustainable communities plan and the Welsh Assembly's head of environmental impact assessment and development plans Lesley Punter talked about the Wales spatial plan.

Sustainable communities

The sustainable communities unit had only been in existence since March 2003. In a very short time it had moved to prepare a major statement on the Thames Gateway and other growth areas and had approved the first pathfinder scheme at Manchester-Salford. It is adopting as its target a better balance between housing land availability and demand for housing in the English regions, while protecting valuable countryside. The unit aims to provide sustainable housing solutions through specific measures in the service delivery agreement.

The imbalance was demonstrated from the excess of housing demand over supply in the south to the low-demand situation in much of the north, and the consequences of high house prices on one hand and abandonment of housing on the other. Tackling the problems in the south requires a new approach to prioritisation and a concentrated commitment to achieving higher dwelling totals. Tackling low demand in the north involves developing schemes based on housing market grant in selected areas. In both situations the importance of design, quality and liveability and the need to involve the community is recognised in the new development solutions that emerge.

Wales spatial plan

Based on a vision of a dynamic, prosperous and inclusive Wales, the Wales spatial plan has evolved from an idea to a reality in an organic way.

Developed at a national policy level, there is a strong sense of identity and a strong mandate through a willingness to involve stakeholders. The plan has received a major cabinet commitment and benefits from a core planning team which has carried the work forward. Based on four objectives and two themes that are used throughout the document, the plan sets a series of challenges that have to be met. From a national spatial perspective, eight local perspectives emerge, and Cardigan Bay was used as an example of the process in action.

The plan emphasises integration and collaboration in seeking sustainable solutions. There is an extended period of consultation going on, with a series of externally facilitated national and area events, culminating in a national seminar in January 2004. Opened to discussion, the lack of a UK spatial plan quickly emerged as a potential obstacle to national planning policy. Jed Griffiths referred to those marginalised by a sustainable communities policy which dealt with specific areas.

Jim Claydon thought the two presentations were in fascinating juxtaposition, with the target-driven approach to sustainable communities opposed to the consensual alternative of the Wales spatial plan. He felt the communities' plan was better described as a national policy rather than a spatial strategy.

It had to tackle a lot of tricky issues, from the hard choices of where to locate development in the south, to the conceptually more difficult re-use of housing in the pathfinder areas.

Tony Hall questioned the delivery of infrastructure in sustainable communities, citing developers' unwillingness to provide this in many cases. Kevin Murray observed that the Wales spatial plan did not go for the "wicked issues" in the same way as the communities' plan but benefited from a longer gestation period. Whereas the debate in England was polarised, concentrating on urban problems, in Wales a more comprehensive approach was being adopted. Andy Farrell asked how England and Wales might deal with cross-border spatial planning issues in the current context.

Responding to these and other issues, Andrew Wells agreed that difficulties remained but there were also pressures for action. Sustainable communities approaches were not prejudicing the brownfield targets but plans were needed to ensure delivery of the work. The north genuinely did not face the same set of problems as the south. Resources reflected that, and there was still a lot of money going to the north. There were significant challenges to delivery but a political will to overcome them.

Lesley Punter saw it as advantageous that the Wales spatial plan had both more time and a requirement to be consensual. It was important to bring people together and yet, if the planned area meetings did not address the "wicked issues", then they will have failed. Ministerial involvement at the committee level ensured an integrated approach.

The president, Vincent Goodstadt, thanked both speakers for their presentations and for being honest about the difficulties faced in implementing their plans. There were more discussions to be had and with the new format of the general assembly, the institute would seek to harness progressive thinking and lead, as well as contribute, to the debates.

At this last meeting of the council, the president referred back to the first meeting which was held in December 1913, almost 90 years earlier.

It unanimously elected some famous names to honorary positions. Thomas Adams as president, Raymond Unwin as vice-president, Professor Patrick Geddes as honorary librarian and George Pepler as honorary secretary and treasurer. As we move forward into a new era, he reflected, we "stand on the shoulders of giants".

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