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Possibilities for filling the strategic planning void: Local Enterprise Partnerships and alternative strategic mechanisms

13 March 2014

Lee Pugalis and Alan Townsend

Planning, especially strategic forms of planning, is widely considered to play an important role in achieving economic growth and sustainable development outcomes. However, in England there has been a retreat from strategic planning at the regional level – which prior to 2010 was seeking to integrate land-use planning and economic planning – towards a localist philosophy, which the UK Government intends will improve planning outcomes. Following the revocation of Regional Spatial Strategies, England is without a recognised strategic planning framework. Subsequently, for some commentators, a ‘strategic void’ has emerged, which left unfilled could result in less growth and more unsustainable development than would otherwise be the case.

A key element of the Government’s dual goal of stimulating growth and rebalancing the economy is evident in the 39 Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs). These public-private strategic governance bodies are intended to encourage enterprise and deliver economic prosperity. Ministers are keen to ensure that the planning system should better support growth, and calls for ‘business friendly’ forms of planning remain in the ascendency. Against this background, the Government has outlined several planning roles that LEPs could perform, and is in process of requiring Strategic Economic Plans from each partnership as part of a process of negotiating ‘Growth Deals’. Yet these business-led bodies lack a statutory basis and clear democratic credentials. LEPs’ relationship to the planning system is not without controversy.

Based on the view that some decisions are best made at a larger-than-local level, the fundamental question remains: how to effectively undertake strategic planning to support economic growth objectives as well as sustainable development principles?

Based on the view that some decisions are best made at a larger-than-local level, the fundamental question remains: how to effectively undertake strategic planning to support economic growth objectives as well as sustainable development principles? In a recent issue of The Planner, Ian Wray argues that planning in England should revert to the "county level (or near to it)". A close alternative would be if the areas of LEPs could in future be related positively to areas of strategic planning.  As the roles, remit and governance of LEPs continue to evolve, the central aim of our RTPI-sponsored research project is to examine the planning roles and potential of LEPs as a strategic mechanism for enabling economic growth and sustainable development, as well as exploring the potential of alternative strategic mechanisms, such as the Duty to Cooperate.

Our interim report concludes that LEPs clearly have an important strategic role in supporting investment confidence and championing economic growth, especially through their spatial priorities, support programmes and other initiatives, but their role in the planning system and what academics often call ‘softer’ forms of planning remains unclear as they lack clearly defined planning roles. This is further complicated by a situation where the precise role of LEPs is subject to local discretion.

LEPs have the potential to engage in some planning matters, just as they have the potential to engage in numerous other policy domains, such as transport, tourism, economic development and business support, and housing. LEPs, as of early 2014, have a considerably greater role in driving the local growth agenda than that originally set out in 2010: new responsibilities include the development of EU Structural and Investment Fund Strategies and the production of Strategic Economic Plans.

Some constituent local authority leaders are represented on LEP boards, but councillors are not democratically elected to serve at a larger-than-local geography. Adding further complexity (as well as enhanced flexibility), some LEPs have overlapping territories. Whilst the National Planning Policy Framework places a duty on local planning authorities to take account of the views of LEPs, a key issue for LEPs is that they possess no statutory basis for directly making decisions in the formal planning system, and appear to be working on a rather short-term time-frame. Yet, since the approval of LEPs began in late 2010, some (if not all LEPs) have begun to influence planning decisions and processes in a number of different ways, in providing:

  • A business perspective/voice – intended to inform and shape policies, decisions and funding.
  • Lobbying – intended to influence policies, decisions and funding (as for major central government transport projects).
  • Spatial visioning and ‘soft forms’ of spatial frameworks – intended to provide the strategic context for statutory local plans, to align strategic economic priorities and guide infrastructure delivery.
  • Information, intelligence and evidence-sharing – intended to inform and shape policies, decisions and funding.
  • Multi-area planning accords – intended to make the planning process more ‘business-friendly’ and speed-up the application process.
  • A coordination role – intended to reach broad consensus over larger-than-local priorities, bring together different interests in the development process.

The potential for strategic planning is greater to the extent that some local authorities are preparing joint local plans across geographies that align with or are similar to those of LEPs. There are some firm precedents for a successful approach to strategic planning where political conditions are propitious and the need clearly exists. An example prior to the fairly short-lived example of Regional Assemblies was that of SERPLAN, the London and South East Regional Planning Conference. Alternative strategic mechanisms include the Duty to Cooperate, Joint Committee arrangements, Combined Authorities and strategic planning accords or charters. Each alternative mechanism offers potential and particular advantages, but each is also beset with their own limitations:

  • The Duty to Cooperate seeks to ensure that local planning authorities’ local plans consider issues that can only be addressed effectively by working with other local planning authorities beyond their own administrative boundaries. A key strength of the Duty is that it prompts action by the local planning authority itself, while also being capable of sanction by Planning Inspectors. Yet this duty does not apply to LEPs and it is not a ‘Duty to Agree’.
  • Joint Committees enable plan-making and (potentially) development management functions in two or more authorities. Their main shortcoming is that elements of joint plans are not necessarily passed by planning machinery in the shape of the constituent separate planning committees, appeals and judicial reviews.
  • A Combined Authority is a corporate body with legal personality and powers in its own right, providing a stable mechanism for long term strategic collaboration between relevant local councils as well as with other partners. Due to its statutory nature, it is not some form of collaborative venture that should be entered into lightly; it may only emerge from many years of successful multi-authority collaboration.
  • A Strategic Planning Charter/Accord aligns with the principles underpinning the formation of LEPs in that it provides loose and flexible agreements that may help to establish shared principles and develop strategic priorities; however their primary weakness is that they have no legal or legislative basis.

At this stage of the research project, the findings indicate that the narratives of ‘regionalism’ and ‘localism’ may have altered the scale of policy organisation, but have done little to address the question of how to conduct strategic planning in a democratically accountable and business-friendly manner in England. LEPs have played a significant role as consultees, champions and delivery arms for the Government’s growth agenda; however, there are distinct inherent problems from the present governance composition of LEPs, with issues around how accountable they are. The planning functions dispensed by LEPs are unlikely in any case to be uniform and could be marginalised by some LEPs if they opt to concentrate on a narrow economic growth agenda. This caution points towards the limitations of LEPs under their present voluntary and non-elected constitution for a statutory planning role, but highlights that they may and could perform some important soft forms of planning, perhaps in conjunction with alternative strategic mechanisms.

About Lee Pugalis and Alan Townsend

Dr Lee Pugalis is Reader in Entrepreneurship at Northumbria University. Lee is an entrepreneurial urbanist. His research interests include regional development, enterprising places and entrepreneurial governance. These are informed by an action packed career spanning local, regional and national government, academia and consultancy. Lee has over 100 publications to his name, is the editor of four journals and is a member of 15 international editorial boards.

Professor Alan Townsend is Professor in the Department of Geography at Durham University. Alan retired as the Director of the International Centre for Regional & Development Studies at Durham in 2005, and continued as Emeritus Professor. Alan has a long career as a Lecturer in Economic Geography and previous spells in Government Regional Offices and Planning Consultancy. He has been involved with the National Online Manpower Information System, Durham University for more than 30 years, and has written extensively on labour market matters and unemployment in academic journals including the Northern Economic Review and in five single or jointly written books.