Tanner on ... how the Wales Spatial Plan is taking shape

The Wales Spatial Plan (WSP) has now been approved in its final form by the National Assembly. So what have we got?

Well, it's a vast improvement on the consultative draft and now reads much more like a real plan. The sub-division of the country has been simplified into six distinct areas, each with a meaningful vision and a plan of action. A view on the differing roles of towns and cities within some of the areas is beginning to emerge.

The WSP themes have also been simplified compared with the consultative draft. Significantly, the economic one has been changed from "increasing and spreading prosperity" to "promoting a sustainable economy". But the spatial vision map is one of the main disappointments. The first question it prompts is: "Where is Wales?" The country's borders and coastline are lost in a collection of coloured balloons inflated to stretch 20 miles out to sea and across the border. The second question is: "Which towns are those key centres meant to represent?" Key centres are plotted on the map but not identified. It takes expert detective work, for example, to determine whether Cwmbran or Pontypool is the key centre in Torfaen.

Almost half of the WSP is given over to developing the six main themes with long lists of objectives and actions, few of which are spatially focused. An exception is the sustainable accessibility chapter. This contains the keys to the spatial philosophy of the whole plan - planning regions around their transport networks, compact urban settlements and a clear hierarchy of urban facilities. It gives me great satisfaction to see at last an objective promoting "polycentric development based on sustainable means of travel".

The plan's main spatial objectives and proposals are set out in the six area chapters, and it is the contents of these that will no doubt be quoted at appeals and examinations. It will be interesting to see how they stand up to rigorous questioning at these events. But implementation of the plan will also hinge on successful establishment of collaborative arrangements to produce an area spatial strategy for each part of Wales, thereby providing a context for development plans and major public investment programmes.

The WSP is committed to establishing such arrangements in 2005 and expects strategies to be drawn up in time for them to be monitored the following year, before the WSP itself is "refreshed" in 2007. The revised plan is not yet perfect. But it will be a source of envy across the border as we smugly reflect on the fact that it has the commitment of the government of a directly elected assembly behind it.

- Roger Tanner is strategic planning and urban renewal manager for Caerphilly County Borough Council. The views expressed are his own.

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