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Policymaking doesn’t need to be an ‘act of faith’

14 November 2013

Michael Harris

We were especially pleased this week that BBC News (including the Today Programme) and many other news outlets covered Lord Heseltine’s RTPI Nathaniel Lichfield Annual Lecture, including his views on the HS2 project. 

Lord Heseltine warned that future generations would judge those in power today harshly if they failed to deliver the new north-south line, and called for the project to be “accelerated.” This comes against the backdrop of MPs (and others) questioning some of the cost-benefit analyses carried out so far for the project. Instead, Lord Heseltine likened the project to an “act of faith”, and drew comparisons with his period in charge of regeneration under Margaret Thatcher, arguing that: “All over the world governments are making decisions about a future which they cannot predict but in which they believe.”

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This is obviously true in the sense that, to quote the incomparable Yogi Berra: “It's tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” Many planning and infrastructure decisions are long-term ‘bets’, and the longer-term they are, the more that uncertainty necessarily has to be acknowledged. 

But, as Lord Heseltine would (hopefully) also agree, this uncertainty doesn’t mean that evidence can be swept aside; rather, we need to use the best available evidence to make the best available estimations of the impact of our decisions - and to do this in the widest possible manner (which is to say, by trying to anticipate the wider economic, social and environmental impacts of our decisions).

It's true that big visions can't be reduced to narrow estimations of value. But as Lord Heseltine suggested, often these wider benefits - not all of which can be foreseen or predicted - are crucial to a long-term appreciation of the outcomes that can flow from visionary investments. In this sense, there's no reason why both vision and evidence - the latter used as a guide rather than a limitation - can't co-exist.

Further, as a notably pro-European politician, Lord Heseltine might also not be averse to some of this evidence coming from outside the UK. This country might be an island, but there’s no reason why we can’t do more to learn from practices and policies beyond our shores.

During this ESPON Week 2013, we’ve been highlighting the findings from European spatial research projects (or in the language of these EU-supported programmes, research into ‘territorial development and cohesion’). Another strong point in Lord Heseltine's speech (and a long-standing view, including in his 'No Stone Unturned' report) was the need a much more place-based approach to growth and economic development rather than the siloed-by-function approach that is more typical in government policymaking and funding. And this is where the findings from European spatial research have a particular resonance.

As Cliff Hague explained on this blog yesterday, the former top-down, one-size-fits-all approach apparent in European funding programmes is giving way (due in part to research and evaluation findings) to a better recognition that place - not just place-making but place-management based on local strengths and opportunities - is critical to making the most from such investments and to promoting wealth creation generally.

Based on his remarks, Lord Heseltine would surely agree that there has sometimes been an over-focus on the 'cohesion' (equity) part of the equation at the expense of the 'development' bit. And while it might well be true that, as Lord Heseltine warned this week, future generations would judge those in power today harshly if they failed to deliver ‘big vision’ projects such as HS2, it’s also probably true that future generations will condemn policymakers who make decisions as if in an evidence-free zone – especially when those decisions have long-term consequences (and costs).

ESPON is a gateway to a wealth of pan-European research and evidence that could help to inform (but not dictate) such development and investment decisions - from the economic future of towns and cities and how planners and policymakers need to respond to changing demographics, to indicators and benchmarking tools for policymakers and practitioners, the value of co-operation across territories, and even maritime spatial planning (we are after all an island nation).

And watch out tomorrow for an introduction to one tool - drawn from ESPON research - that can help local policymakers to determine what are the strengths and opportunities of their areas, something that is obviously crucial to the renaissance in local decision-making and entrepreneurship that Lord Heseltine wishes to see realised. 

Research, then, should not be seen as the enemy of the kind of vision set of by Lord Heseltine this week, but rather as an ally. And as Yogi Berra also said, “You can observe a lot by watching.”

About Michael Harris

Dr Michael Harris is Deputy Head of Policy and Research at the Royal Town Planning Institute, where he leads on the RTPI’s research activities. Previously he was a senior associate at the new economics foundation (nef) think tank, and Director of Public and Social Innovation at Nesta (the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts). He has also worked in local government and academia. Michael has an on-going interest in localism, health and wellbeing, and community engagement.