Smart growth driver

South East England Regional Assembly head of policy Nick Woolfenden intends to maintain the region's growth and improve social inclusion, Susanna Gillman finds.

The South East is typically perceived as a prosperous region, making a large and vital contribution to the UK economy. But there is a range of policy issues that must be tackled if it is to maintain growth, says South East England Regional Assembly (SEERA) head of policy Nick Woolfenden.

He is just five weeks into his role but Woolfenden is keen to drive forward the agenda on health and social inclusion to make sure that the region is sustainable. "It is about smart growth, that is, having a low impact but making the most of the assets that we have got," he explains.

"We cannot take things for granted. The South East has a very strong economy along with London. So there is a significant need for investment to ensure that we continue to be successful but that we move forward sustainably."

The policy role, which covers scrutiny, health, social inclusion and European issues, requires someone who can take a broad perspective. Woolfenden feels that his experience as a planner has equipped him for this wide-ranging task.

Having worked as a regional planner at the assembly for the past three years he is very familiar with SEERA's mechanisms and what it is trying to achieve through the South East Plan. But his earlier career has given him experience in local community engagement and also economic development at a county level.

After his degree in land management Woolfenden initially thought he might go into forestry. But then he began voluntary sector work at the Sussex Rural Community Council, now Action for Rural Sussex. He worked alongside planners on community involvement and policy, which inspired him to do a postgraduate planning course. "I saw the way planners were influencing and making things happen at a very local level," he recalls.

Moving into economic development roles at East and West Sussex County Councils while training as a planner on a part-time basis gave him an appreciation of a wider range of issues. "There is a place in planning for people who want to focus on one or two issues and really make a career of that," he allows.

"But there is also a role for people who want to tackle a broader range of issues and you need both kinds. From my perspective, there is a real alignment between economic development and planning. What I really enjoy is seeing the bigger picture but being able to move certain agendas forward."

His role certainly gives him the opportunity to do that. At a scrutiny level, the assembly is charged with examining the South East England Development Agency (SEEDA). The fact that the organisations share the same building encourages interaction and Woolfenden says that they have worked closely on the South East Plan and regional economic strategy.

"SEEDA recognises the formal role we have on scrutiny. It is a useful tool for endorsing things that are working well and for accountability where things can work better. We hope to develop that further over the next year," he explains.

But it is on health and social inclusion that Woolfenden hopes to make most impact. "It is one area that I personally want to look at taking forward. The assembly has a significant voice at regional level but social inclusion has to be dealt with at the grass roots. It is important to make sure that we are weaving the strategic and local together to deliver on the ground."

Woolfenden believes that the South East Plan, which began its independent examination last week, sets out some focused actions in this area. "The plan has at its heart a vision of a healthy region and quality of life. There are many areas that need investment, ranging from transport to affordable housing, but the plan is also about looking at how design can contribute to healthy communities and having the right facilities in the right place."

Despite the region's reputation for wealth there are still pockets of deprivation that need attention, he argues. "The region is seen as uniformly prosperous. But this is not the case," he points out. "The South East has areas that are facing significant issues, although there is an opportunity to turn things around. What it requires is concerted action."

He adds that "the sub-regions identified in the plan, such as south Hampshire, the Sussex coast and east Kent and Ashford, all have regeneration and social inclusion as a core part of their strategies".

The examination of the South East Plan, which has been three years in development, is a milestone for the assembly. "It is an exciting time," says Woolfenden, who was involved in the plan's preparation in his previous role at SEERA. "We will be making the case for this as the right policy framework for the region. It has been developed with our members and a wide range of stakeholders, two-thirds of whom are local authorities and a third regional economic and social partners."

There has been a long-running debate about the level of house building in the plan and this is set to continue throughout the course of the inquiry.

Some stakeholders argue that there should be higher levels of growth in the region. Woolfenden insists that the plan has been prepared through dialogue with the assembly's partners and the public. The members feel that the figure of 28,900 homes per year is right and deliverable.

The policies in the regional spatial strategy will define how the South East grows over the next 20 to 30 years and are key to supporting the wider objectives that Woolfenden aims to achieve. The assembly's lobbying of government will play a key part in securing funding for infrastructure to support growth. SEERA has just taken on the two-year chairmanship of the English Regions Network and Woolfenden says this is a good mechanism for lobbying at a national level and demonstrating the impact of regional assemblies.

He is looking forward to being part of the management team at the assembly and working with a wide range of stakeholders in his role. "This is very much a stakeholder relations post," he notes. But he still sees himself as a planner. "My title does not say planner now. But I am a planner, along with a wide range of other things," he maintains.

"In a broader policy role, planning is a profession that does not operate in isolation but moves forward on several fronts, connecting with people on the ground and local and national government. It offers a real drive to make a difference and that makes it exciting," he concludes.


Age: 31.

Family: Girlfriend.

Education: BSc in land management, University of Reading, 1994-97; MSc in town and country planning, University of Reading, 1999-2001.

Career: Research assistant and project officer, Sussex Rural Community Council, 1997-99; economic development officer and planning research officer, East Sussex County Council, 1999-2002; rural partnership and business support officer, West Sussex County Council, 2002-03; regional planner, 2003-06, then head of policy, 2006 to date, South East England Regional Assembly.

Interests: Drumming in two bands, listening to music, fives, flying kites and walking by the sea.

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