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Abolition of regional spatial strategies (RSS)

On 6 July 2010 Communities Minister, Eric Pickles wrote to Chief Planning Officers announcing the revocation of regional strategies (RSS). 29 organisations, led by the RTPI, have written to Eric Pickles in response  to ensure that strategic planning is embedded in any reform of the planning system. The Planning Inspectorate have issued guidance for planning inspectors.

Cala Homes is now seeking a judicial review to reinstate the South East Plan. The developer argues that the Minister acted outside his powers by removing a fundamental part of the plan-led system and breached European law by failing to assess the environmental effects of revoking regional strategies.

On 7th February 2011 the High Court reached a judgement in favour of the Secretary of State meaning that the intended scrapping of Regional Strategies is a 'material consideration' which can be considered by local planning authorities and planning inspectors when making decisions.

On 17th March 2011 the All-party Communities & Local Government Committee published a report arising from its Inquiry into the abolition of the Regional Spatial Strategies. The Committee was critical of the approach adopted because, it said, the abolition "leaves a vacuum at the heart of the English planning system which could have profound social, economic and environmental consequences set to last for many years."

PIPA members have been engaging in a debate around the Minister's controversial decision and its local consequences. 

Cllr Graham Facks-Martinhas commented that I believe Regional Spatial Strategies were very good pieces of work and the demise of Regional Planning is to be greatly deplored; in one form or another it will return. The 2 reasons why top down figures did not work were 1] The Secretary of State did not approve the RSSs that had been completed and 2] That many Local Authorities did not complete their Local Plans or Core Strategies as they should have done - if there was a significant financial penalty to a Local Authority for not completing their LDF to time perhaps more of them would comply. Without doubt what is needed in this country is a very significant addition to land that is zoned for residential development. With the new system it looks as if that will only happen in Local Authorities that wish to grow and that is very unlikely to be enough, even if by chance it is in the right place.

Cllr Roger Gambba-Jonesresponded:
I'm afraid I cannot agree with Cllr Graham Facks-Martin's view that the demise of the RSS process is to be deplored; quite the opposite. His endorsement of the top down approach ignores the shortcomings of the totally inflexible, one size fits all policies that imposed often inappropriate requirements, on the rural areas of England. Two examples are, minimum housing densities, that generally rode roughshod over the existing character of the location, and maximum parking standards that completely ignored the dependence on the private car forced on most of our rural communities by an inadequate and expensive public transport system.
He also seems to suggest that all local planning authorities are capable of producing the complex, detailed and expensive evidence required to produce the LDF in the same timescales. Financial penalties would merely have added to the overall pressure on council budgets and at best, produced documents of a minimum acceptable soundness. Just as with much of the bureaucracy now imposed by Europe, the previous government could not resist gold plating what had the potential to be a positive approach to land use strategic planning. Had they been able to stop at simply setting the benchmark for the quality of the evidence required, as opposed to then going on to also apply their own interpretation of it to each and every city, town, borough and district, I've no doubt the RSS process would of survived the change of government. I'm sure the national planning framework will be something of a rose by any other name, but hopefully with most of the thorns removed.
Yes, there is a need to build more housing in England, especially at the affordable end of the market. However, a top down approach has failed to do the job so far and it is now time to at least offer those of us at the sharp end a chance to deliver what all the previous government's dictates failed to.

Cllr Facks-Martin, by way of further explanation of his earlier comments has added:
The choice seems to be between planning growth or allowing those settlements that want to grow to do so. I suggested at the CIH Conference in Harrogate that we would come back to numbers eventually. I do not believe that we will get enough housing particularly in the areas of greatest demand without them. I continue to maintain as before, the problem is not with top down figures but the dilatoriness with which some Local Authorities addressed their requirement to produce their LDF.
I agree with Roger re densities and parking standards but with respect these are peripheral and there is scope for local discretion. The key question is about housing numbers: are the changes likely to lead to more or less houses being built in areas of high demand where there is local opposition? I live in a town where we want to grow and where we will broadly welcome new development; we also want to see educational provision et al grow as well but there are many areas which resist growth.

Cllr Horace Mitchelljoined the debate: Apropos the comments from Cllrs Roger Gambba-Jones and Graham Facks-Martin, I agree that as it stands the new guidance is likely to reduce the numbers of new dwellings built in some areas, including in my own (Basingstoke & Deane). We are one of the authorities that Graham accuses of 'dilatoriness' in making slow progress with our LDF. One of many reasons for this has been our desire to 'get the policies right this time' having suffered from weaknesses in the last Local Plan process, which, along with national guidance (and in common with so many authorities), led to far too high a proportion of small apartments built in large blocks. But another reason for making haste slowly has been our determination to fully research and understand what is meant by 'the right numbers and types of housing in the right places', which was the basis on which the present (Conservative) administration was elected. The question is very complex and there is probable no entirely 'right' answer, but one thing we do know for absolute certain is that the numbers handed down by the last government were (a) too high and (b) not based in any way at all on any thought as to what might be 'right' for our district, its people and our future.
Taking a wider view, a longer term shortage of attractive housing at attractive prices across the south east may be the only way local communities can address the failure of successive governments to halt let alone reverse the continuing drift of entrepreneurs and therefore more jobs and more people into London and the south east. The 'obvious' (and all too easy) national solution (shifting public sector and quasi public sector jobs to the north and other areas with weak economies) has of course exacerbated the problem, since a local economy that is 50% or more dependent on public funds becomes deeply unattractive to entrepreneurs, despite the seeming increase in local prosperity.

After the publication of the critical report from the All-party Communities & Local Government Committee, Cllr Mike Roberts wrote: "I attended a number of the key presentations to the Select Committee by a wide range of interest groups, bodies and the sector leaders. There was a general view, which the Committee has outlined, that the process adopted by CLG could best be described as "chaotic" but others would call it "shambolic" leading to a complete understating of the implications of its own actions. Hence the Carla Homes repeated challenges on judicial review
This does not reflect on its key officers but political direction. This hiatus has done nothing to support any view that those in charge have any understanding of the consequences of their actions or indeed the outcomes.
Discussions in the Localism Bill have converged over these key areas namely that you cannot have a void in spatial planning at the Regional and sub regional level and even Greg Clark MP is now talking about the need for planning policy to be wider than a town. In my view this is where we've come from but there is refusal to say "sub regional" or "regional".
Meanwhile nothing concrete is delivered.Madness!"

Phil Turner,a volunteer for Planning Aid South and South East planning Aid and a member of the RTPI South East Regional Activities Committee, added

I supported the long campaign of the RTPI to urge governments to focus on regional planning. The coming of regional spatial planning was a breakthrough. Then structure plans were abolished. Now the regional strategies, both spatial and economic, are swept away (subject to Parliamentary procedures and legal challenges, of course). Also due to be disbanded are the Regional Development Agencies and the Government Offices for English Regions. At the end of July the excellent regional planning team that worked for the former Regional Assembly (SEERA), and latterly the South East Partnership Board, under the capable Catriona Riddell, cleared their desks. I miss them, and wish them well in whatever career path they take.

The demise of the Regional Spatial Strategies (RSS) leaves a serious gap in the planning policy machinery. The RTPI and others agree that there is a vacuum see their plea that Localism must not miss the bigger picture on planning. We will need the likes of a Sir James Dyson to create an innovative configuration of the components of planning to take advantage of that vacuum. In stopping the RSS, government intentions to lose the housing targets and to save the expense of quangos have the consequences of casting the wealth of regional policy into the realms of uncertainty strategic infrastructure, regional energy and water sustainability, environmental quality and much more.

Representing RTPI South East as a volunteer, I was involved in SEERA Technical Advisory work on Urban Renaissance and Urban Fringe, also making an input to heritage and rural policies. At many meetings of the Regional Assembly I was impressed with the calibre of the elected members appointed by the local authorities across the region (predominantly Leaders of Councils) and the effective involvement of representatives of social, environmental and economic partners elected (note) by their membership bodies. All were equal members of the Assembly. The partners understood each others roles and respected them. Often the business and environmental representatives supported each other and even spoke eloquently in favour of the others causes a sign of a good partnership. For me this represented a working form of participative democracy. It was decried by sections of the public and most of the media as having a democratic deficit, falling short of the kinds of regional elected democracies elsewhere in Europe, and advocated, rightly, by the RTPI.

As a result of the previous Governments Sub National Review, the so-called Partnership Board, of a selection of local authority Leaders, excluded the others of the SEERA partnership. Now, with a coalition government, we have the promise of some kind of national planning framework for England. As Chris Shepley says, whether that will meet the long -standing call from RTPI and TCPA for a national spatial framework remains to be seen. As I write, much else remains unclear. We await the passage of the Decentralisation and Localism Bill and a white paper on sub-national growth.

Local Enterprise Partnerships are hurriedly being formed. They will be based on labour market areas and may not coincide with the sub-regional areas of the former RSS. GVA Grimley envisages them effectively replacing spatial strategies. Some hope. Will they be so strong on the economics jobs and skills that the environmental, social and cultural aspects of sustainability will be marginalized? What kind of partnership working will be possible?

Cllr Roger Gambba-Jones added:  I am totally committed to seeking to involve the community when it comes to development in our villages. However, translating commitment in to genuine community involvement is a major challenge and requires a lot more than just holding the odd public meeting where people have a chance to shout at you.

My experience to date is, that the most vocal are likely to be those who do not wish to see further development and often for very good and very local reasons. Often the first issue raised is the increase in traffic movements and the probability that the new houses will add further to the speeding that most rural community suffers. This is quickly followed by concerns about the already over subscribed school, the problems of finding and then getting an appointment with a doctor, or dentist. Following up the rear, but never far behind, are the twin issues of flooding and the sewage system.

Looking at my list, you will quickly see that, apart from flooding, practically everything else is controlled by other than local government, especially where it is a two tier authority. Dont get me wrong, Im not saying we should not be seeking to make this idea work. However, what I am saying is, if this is to be a success, the old ways wont work.

The most successful community engagement exercises are those that start early and happen often. Success should not just be measured by whether you pleased all of the people all of time, or even most of the people some of the time. It will be about whether the ordinary folk of the community had a chance to make their opinions known, got answers that actually made sense to them - even if they didnt like those answers - and had some influence, however minor, over what eventually came to pass.

My fear, is that because of ever reducing resources, we will end up with a very shallow form of localism. On one side there will be those that own land, promoting development under the guise of helping to keep our village alive. On the opposite side will be those who want everything to stay exactly as it was when they bought their little piece of England (often called incomers). Meanwhile, trapped in the middle, along with the council, will be the silent majority, who would like to see their offspring continue to live in their community, but know that they havent got a hope in Hades of affording any of the open market housing that is being so actively promoted by others.

This is a great opportunity for elected members to show real leadership, especially those of us who claim to have an interest in and some understanding of the planning system. However, it is not without its risks for those of us who rely on the support of the silent majority come election time.

Cllr Mike Roberts commented: On the 70th anniverary of the Battle of Britain it is now the turn of the many who are being outraged by the few in the Coalition in Parliament. I find it astonishing that all shades of view from policy makers to housebuildrs, from planners to even thsoe who feel that they protect the countryside are feeling a deep concernn about the void in policy that has opened up after the machinations of Eric Pickells over the "aboliton" of Regional Spatial Strategies.

Policy by "nimbeys" is one thing but no policy in any shape or form just opens the flood gates up to all manner of potentail shambles is seeking to deliver any kind of joined of strategy. Abercromibie was right and many others to Litchfield and beyond arguing that it is athe absence of a joined up approach which leads to depressed allocation and little or no response.

When I was closely associated with Hampshire County Council in the past I was forever using the example of Winchester itself as to where where Wintonians children were going to be sleeping in years to come. Which part of the Cathedral graveyard had they reserved for their tents.

Spatial Strategy is not about professionals having a moment but infroming positive responses to real issues such as sewage needs, drainage, water, let alone jobs, housing, transport etc in a future where 70 million people will be needed to be responded to.