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Richard Blyth: Levelling up through local collaboration

Richard Blyth FRTPI is the RTPI’s Head of Policy, Practice and Research. This is the latest in a series of weekly blog posts from Richard on the RTPI’s key asks of the government concerning its proposals for reform of the planning system.

All in a name

When we were in the EU, there was a phrase going round which always used to confuse me. This was “territorial cohesion”. To me this seemed to mean something like “stopping continental drift”, which I think would be an overreach even for the powerful European Commission. (It was probably one of those translations from the French which we called “faux amis” at school. After all aménagement du territoire is “planning” in French.)

What it really meant was “making sure each bit of the EU is prosperous”. Sounds familiar?  Well yes! It is (partly) what the current UK Government means by Levelling up. Or in earlier British parlance, “regional policy” (which I admit doesn’t exactly set any fires going in the belly).

The present UK Government is now exploring policies on public investment intended to ensure that each bit of England gets a fair share. There have been debates about the cancellation of the east wing of HS2, which there is not room here to unpick, but having substantial investment in the North of England at all is quite a departure from the position in 2000-2020 – even if there is a debate about whether it is enough.

But it is not only big-ticket items which would “level up”. The real proof of the pudding is in mainstream programmes. In 2012 the RTPI published research which showed that there were 95 government programmes which included a spatial dimension (often subconsciously) and which impinged on different places. Perhaps the most noticeable issue was the policy of DEFRA on water supply and flooding which seemed (and still seems) to be contradicted by CLG policy on housing location. Some of the Eastern/East Anglian parts of the country CLG was (and still is) keenest to build on had (and still have) the worst water shortages and the greatest risk of sea and river flooding.

Here there and everywhere

But the issue is not only a national one. In recent months there has been a little bit of “levelling upmanship”. You know the kind of thing: “You think you’ve got problems, well our borough is the most deprived in England” etc. This is because within-region disparity is a strong problem, especially where a region or city region is fairly large, containing many contrasts. But it also applies in the less obvious case of rural poverty. So shifting investment around the country is important but not the whole picture.

Planning at a local level can potentially play a role in local levelling up. However this does depend on empowerment. Areas’ ability to tax high property values in order to, for example, finance social housing are strongly curtailed by central government. It is important that planning does not become a vehicle for increasing social disparities by for example limiting access to housing which is affordable to buy or rent.

Today we publish a short report on Green Growth Boards. These are non-statutory boards of local government members and directors covering the range of related issues which need to be addressed to ensure better outcomes in communities.

Green Growth Boards would:

  • Help join the dots from the outset between environmental, transport, housing, water, energy, resource and health plans.
  • Help identify the best locations for development (Growth and Renewal areas) and protection, and to facilitate the timely implementation of supporting infrastructure.
  • Ensure plans that meet agreed criteria be available to view as layers alongside environmental and social mapping on the shared geo-spatial platform.

Not the economy, stupid

The Brexit referendum and all that followed it has shown that appeals to economic growth on their own only have so much appeal. What people value in their communities, and what people are angry at losing can be more symbolic matters connected to the quality of life and how people feel about places.

Even economist-advocates of a space-blind approach to decision making have more recently come to recognize there is a role for cities and towns in making places appealing and healthy through investment in high streets, public transport, and the amount and quality of parks and public squares. Simply having a price mechanism doesn’t achieve this. Having good urban planning can.


Worth watching

Yesterday the RTPI was honoured to host the 2021 Nathaniel Lichfield lecture on Levelling up and the role of land markets planning and finance. This was delivered by Professor Philip McCann of the University of Sheffield, author of the 570-page book The UK Regional-National Economic Problem: Geography, Globalisation and Governance , the most detailed and comprehensive analysis of the UK regional problems ever undertaken in a single volume.

The lecture will be available next week free to view on the RTPI YouTube channel.


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