Halman on ... the difficulty in realigning the north of England

After New Labour's third way comes The Northern Way, a concept initiated by deputy prime minister John Prescott in February 2004 and recently the subject of a report by the three regional development authorities whose territories it covers. The task is as clear as it is huge: to find ways of closing the £29 billion gap between the output of the north and the rest of the UK.

Under the leadership of Sir Graham Hall, the group set up to prepare the strategy document has now aired its first thoughts. Published shortly before the North East's resounding rejection of regional government and Prescott's announcement of the indefinite postponement of plans for similar referenda elsewhere, it presents an interesting vignette on how to drive forward such ambitious plans in a joined-up way.

The concept is of eight city-regions working together with the common goal of faster economic growth. But to many there is greater synergy between the central belt of six cities from Liverpool in the west to Hull in the east than exists between this group and the northernmost Tyne and Wear and Tees Valley areas. Is the northern region just too big and disparate to manage?

The Northern Way wants each region's regional spatial strategy (RSS) to be a core means of its implementation, reflecting its key principles and targeting growth in specific locations. For the foreseeable future RSSs will continue to be prepared by unelected and democratically deficient regional chambers. These regional planning bodies therefore have a new and vitally important challenge to develop policies that will give spatial expression to the growth-oriented strategy set out in The Northern Way and to identify specific growth nodes that will help deliver it.

The report is big on ideas and targets but less clear on answers to the very evident problems that the northern regions face. The government has yet to respond to the initial recommendations and principles it lays out.

The next task is to start developing practical strategies that will lead to change. But planning for that change must be central to emerging RSSs, in ways that do not dilute the ambitions that the strategies uphold.

This will involve regional planning bodies adopting a truly regional role; aspirational, enabling and positive towards the development that supports economic growth. The key question is whether they are up to this task given their lack of political accountability and direction and the central government intervention that has been a characteristic of the recent past.

Gary Halman is a partner at commercial planning adviser HOW and immediate past chairman of the planning and development faculty at the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors. The views expressed are entirely his own.

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