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Sue Bridge: The Great Debates 2023

The value of our General Assembly is that it brings together knowledge, expertise and insights from across the membership. That’s why I am keen to harness all that talent and ability through a series of  discussions on the major issues that we - as a profession - face.

The most recent  GA meeting on March 22, in Birmingham, was our first opportunity to pilot this approach.  

The first in my “Great Debate” series was: Strategic Planning – The Road Ahead.

The focus was to look at how local authorities can cooperate across boundaries. These linkages could include setting long term goals for sustainable development of urban areas, joining up land uses and different consent regimes, issues about capacity (across the profession) to deliver cross-boundary working and localised politics, community engagement and impacts.

So, no small task, just a narrow focus on one of the widest-ranging topics in planning.

This was designed to look at potential solutions and a positive way forward, not to discuss the problems.

The panel for the event included policy officer Harry Steele on the RTPI’s Planning Agencies report, which was published last year. We also heard from David Bainbridge MRTPI with Savills on some of the strategic initiatives in England, and Roisin Willmott RTPI Director for Wales.

Harry told us that Planning Agencies could operate as a vehicle for greater strategic cooperation. He highlighted that this was about approaching the problems Local Authorities face in a different way.

The planning agencies approach brings together a variety of local authorities which can pool resources and is a mechanism for cooperating across boundaries. While it doesn’t represent strategic planning as one would traditionally think of it but is one approach to voluntary cross boundary working. 

David Bainbridge recognised that the current Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill (LURB) nudged toward strategic planning with National Development Management Plans. However, he highlighted the key to this would be the way that the guidance coming through the NPPF and other consultations takes effect. He was keen to point out that we are still very much in a period of uncertainty. The lost opportunity here is that strategic planning is more than just housing - it’s about the bigger issues, infrastructure, Biodiversity Net Gain, climate change and the digital economy.

The LURB in effect proposes to amend the 2011 Localism Act, which brought in the statutory duty to cooperate. The LURB proposes to replace the statutory duty to cooperate with a flexible alignment test. This could resonate with the planning agency approach.

This raises the key question over the political will across local authorities to cooperate and have the long term vision to be truly strategic.

Roisin Willmott gave us the view from Wales, where in 1996 local government reorganisation commenced. This resulted in 22 unitary authorities. Ever since then the debate about reorganisation has continued. Many of the areas were far too small for the powers they held and that has fuelled the discussion around strategic planning. She also outlined the political and regional difficulties that produced significant obstacles to the delivery of the Wales Spatial Plan. Once again territorialism and politics raised its head again.

What came across loud and clear was that many local authorities were missing the strong guiding voice of an experienced and respected Chief Planning Officer, who could have the difficult conversations with political leadership and highlight the need for long term strategic approaches. The panel discussion was followed by a lively roundtable session where GA members discussed key issues, including where strategic planning is being delivered well.

This is just a short update on what our panel members had to share with the GA but there will be a fuller report pulled together at the end of my presidential year including this and the other debate subjects we wrestle with during 2023.

Before I sign off, it is worth saying that RTPI elections will be beginning soon, so if you are interested in standing for election to the GA or other positions then keep an eye out for the communications around that.

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