Inspirational policies point to rich future

Pioneering uses of the planning process are a shared feature among many of the schemes in the running for this year's RTPI awards, suggests Anthony Fyson.

With the planning system going through a period of radical change, it is heartening to see the tools of the trade developing in so many different directions in the entries for the 2004 RTPI Planning Awards.

The last attempt to provide a statutory city-wide strategy for London took a decade to produce and was out of date when published. By contrast, the London Plan was produced in only three years, with the support of the mayor's office. It sets out Ken Livingstone's strategic 20-year vision for the capital based on strong economic growth, social inclusion and improved environmental conditions.

Drawing on research from 24 specially commissioned reports and papers, the plan aims to foster sustainable environments, public transport improvements and a compact city that does not need to encroach on the green belt or green spaces. It sets a radical target of 50 per cent affordable housing for developments and envisages implementation through sub-regional development frameworks, supplementary planning guidance and best practice guides.

Annual reports will review progress on implementation.

The national planning framework for Scotland will guide spatial development in the country until 2025, identifying investment priorities for physical development and setting out the executive's priorities for economic development, regeneration and infrastructure. This non-statutory planning perspective identifies trends, drivers of change and challenges for Scotland's future territorial development. It also provides a spatial framework for economic development, transport infrastructure, energy, water and telecommunications.

The document has helped to strengthen links between land use, economic development and transport planning, and has already influenced several other top-level strategy documents. The particular challenge Scotland faces is to develop a strategy reflecting the interests of both the city-regions and the rural areas. A strategic environmental assessment of the framework pioneered updated methods for application at the national spatial planning level. The framework will be revised every four years.

East Ayrshire Council's opencast coal subject plan shows how locally important, sensitive and complex issues can be tackled through partnership working and technical advances. The subject plan lays down policy for coal extraction in a high-quality rural environment and identifies criteria for the operation, restoration, aftercare and afteruse of opencast sites.

The aim is to enhance the physical environment for community benefit by protecting sensitive areas, discouraging poor operational practices and encouraging coal transport by rail. In-house geographic information systems were used to locate areas of conflict between coal resources and sensitive environments. The plan has been a potent tool in assessing opencast development proposals and has stimulated liaison groups and a trust fund to channel developer donations.

Local innovation also characterises the Market and Coastal Towns Initiative, a ground-breaking regeneration package for such towns and their surrounding parishes across the South West. The initiative trusts local communities to set development strategies for their areas using professional help and finance. Backed by a small initial grant, remedies for decline ranged from establishing development trusts to local transport initiatives.

Fifty towns are participating and 15 plans have been published. So far £2.4 million has been spent on building community competence and ten times that on project investment. Some communities have seen a genuine change in the level of public involvement, with participants encouraged to look 20 or 30 years in advance.

Achieving regeneration through conservation is at the heart of the Denbigh Townscape Heritage Initiative. Based in a north Wales market town packed with historic buildings, the scheme seeks to protect a fragile resource threatened by long-term decline, decay and vandalism. When it was launched in 1998, job losses had become critical and piecemeal programmes to alleviate the situation were no more than a holding action.

A co-ordinated framework has emerged with Heritage Lottery Fund support.

Key community stakeholder groups have formed the Denbigh Partnership to oversee the project. So far, 78 jobs have been created, 86 have been safeguarded and a number of training days have been held. The key outcome has been raised awareness of the economic and cultural value of a remarkable built heritage.

A special planning regime was created to enable the first section of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link (CTRL) to open in September 2003 on time and budget. The first main line railway to be built in Britain for more than a century, the CTRL crosses numerous environmentally sensitive areas along its route in Kent and high-quality mitigation was required. Planners played a key role in linking the project with affected communities and other interested parties and as lead respondents for the local authorities.

The creation of a planning forum for authorities along the route and other main parties was crucial in generating a spirit of co-operation and trust. The 19 authorities agreed consistent approaches and design treatments, tackled common problems, produced briefing papers and organised training for officers and councillors.

Finally, North Wiltshire District Council's entry shows how a failing planning service can be saved by inspired management, a radical culture change and a team approach. From eighth slowest out of 293 councils three years ago, North Wiltshire is now in the top ten per cent on some measures.

Staff morale has improved, can-do attitudes have replaced negativity and customer feedback has been transformed from critical to appreciative.

The planning service's improvement was recognised by the ODPM, which this year awarded the team the highest-ever planning delivery grant for a shire district. Key to the transformation was establishing a planning management team and a working group of elected members, which together set goals for the service. A three-year business plan and a customer charter followed, building on a culture of open communication and involvement, flexible working and learning from experience.

- The RTPI Planning Awards are sponsored by the Countryside Agency, the Crown Estate, English Partnerships, Kings Chambers, Macdonald & Company, the Planning Officers Society and pps TerraQuest.

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