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Back to the future – A return to regional planning? 

At present it seems that local government and planning is becoming more regional. The government is currently pushing forward with Local Government reorganisations; strengthening the Duty-to Cooperate requirement for local authorities; and we are 12 months into the tenures of the six Metro Mayors elected following devolution of powers to the regions.

When the NPPF and Localism heralded the shift away from regional planning in 2012, many local authorities lost the ability to blame Westminster for imposing central housing targets on local authorities.

With growth targets established at the district level, many local authority politicians struggled to balance the need for growth with local resistance to development. The result has been for most authorities to opt for just enough housing (or sometimes less) required to ensure a sound Plan rather than pursuing a more aspirational growth strategy.

This “just enough” mentality, whilst understandable, has contributed to an unambitious level of housing commitments. The Government clearly recognises this as it moves closer to adopting the new version of the NPPF this summer, along with the standardised methodology for determining Objectively Assessed Housing Need.

Similarly, the “just enough” approach has seen the neighbours of authorities with geographical constraints, such as those with green belts, struggle with the contentious issue of unmet need. The new NPPF seeks to deal with that issue by strengthening the Duty to Cooperate.

However, we have seen in recent years a shift towards local government across regional geographies, rather than just district jurisdictions.

In May 2017 six Metro Mayors were elected in English combined authorities following central government devolution.

Whilst only half of the Metro Mayors have statutory spatial planning powers, all six have significant influence, including bringing forward transport plans and managing infrastructure funds of between £450m and £1.1bn. Even Mayor James Palmer in the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority, who doesn’t formally have statutory planning powers, has published a spatial plan.

As well as devolution to Metro Mayors, former Communities Secretary Sajid Javid (before moving onto the Home Office) progressed Local Government reorganisation, with district councils proposed to be subsumed into unitary authorities. For instance, a single unitary authority for Buckinghamshire is expected to replace the five district and county councils next year and it has been confirmed that the eight districts within Dorset will merge into two separate unitary authorities from 1 April 2019.

A recent study from The Town and Country Planning Association’s (TCPA) New Communities Group (NCG) has also concluded that “a coordinated strategic overview, working across local authority boundaries, is vital to sustainably realise the potential of an area within environmental constraints”. In this spirit, it has been mooted that a regional, coordinated approach to planning is likely to come forward along the Oxford to Cambridge Growth Arc.

So as all hands point towards taking a regional view to planning, with many areas already in effect returning to County-wide planning (through their reorganisation to larger, unitary authorities) and something akin to the post-2004 world of structure plans, what does this mean for growth and local politics?

A regional approach seems a sensible way to ensure coordinated delivery, especially as so many barriers to growth straddle local authority boundaries. It is also likely to greatly improve the delivery of housing growth. Politically, a regional approach gives local councillors the opportunity to again lay the blame for housing targets at the Government’s door.

However, as planning continues to reform habitually, political and local opposition will undoubtedly remain and the imposition of growth targets from above is only likely to increase political consternation at the local level, especially amongst parishes and local communities.