Halman on ... the opportunities afforded through regional strategy

Draft regional spatial strategy (RSS) for the North West has just been published and sets the ball rolling for a process that expects to see an approved version by 2007.

It represents an important step for the North West, being the first opportunity to put regional policy in place that is explicitly intended to form part of the statutory development plan rather than a wholly unexpected and accidental insertion, as occurred with RPG13.

As a first draft offered for comment, much of the document reads well.

The vision for a region that by 2021 will have reduced the economic disparities with other parts of the UK as well as in the North West itself, by sustainable means designed to secure high-quality development, is unarguably a laudable set of objectives. At more than 90 pages, however, it is already a lengthy read and every opportunity should be taken to edit and aim for brevity rather than allowing it grow larger in response to consultation.

The draft RSS marks the final retirement of the county planning structure in the North West. There are no references to the counties, but instead a series of areas are created for planning purposes. Here lies a major problem with engaging local communities. At best regional planning is seen as distant and not something for communities and local organisations.

At worst it is an irrelevance and something that delays the preparation of local development plans specific to local communities. These show land uses and neighbourhoods and promote policies for which local councillors can be held accountable.

By contrast, the RSS will now have to find ways to engage people who live in Pennine Manchester, Greater Preston and Mid Mersey, but do not realise that they actually do, to take an interest in key strategic policies that to a large degree will prescribe the way that their elected councils can craft policies at a local level.

Nowhere is this more important than in the housing market. Translation of the annual housing requirements into hard allocations will fall to individual councils or groups of councils to ensure a continuing supply on the ground at latest RSS rates. The draft RSS promotes markedly higher rates of development in many locations compared to those of the current version, which is a welcome step. But avoiding difficulties down the line when local communities and councillors are presented with the consequences of regional policy that they have not fully understood or focused on will be a big challenge for the assembly.

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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