Labour’s recent announcement of its intention to devolve decision making on transport, housing, and economic issues to the regional or local level fleshes out some of the ideas in the RTPI’s Planning Horizons paper ‘Making Better Decisions for Places’.
Planning Horizons makes the case not for devolution in general but for making the right decisions at the right levels. The challenges facing government post election do not call for a single centralised or decentralised model of governance. The crucial thing for policymakers it to grasp the importance of the right decisions being made at the right levels, and how the various levels and functions need to link together.
If local leaders were more empowered, and policy and decisions were made with a closer attention to how places differ, the pace of delivery would likely be quicker. Conversely, in a more decentralised system the central authority’s ability to act on the basis of the national interest and to reduce national spatial disparities, as well as to ensure consistent standards of service provision, might be jeopardised. It is therefore crucial to identify decisions with a primarily national impact and those with a primarily subnational impact, and put in place appropriate governance arrangements so that these decisions can be made and implemented in the most effective way possible.
Planning Horizons also argues that in order to address major challenges it is essential to align policy objectives and allow decisions to be made on the basis of places where policies interact, rather than on the basis of individual policy objectives. From the perspective of spatial planning, a governance structure with a place as its unit of focus presents a good way of re-connecting policy areas that have become increasingly separated. This means treating a place as the unit of policy focus, and having an ongoing dialogue between those involved policy functions that are fundamentally related such as housing, transport, and employment.
With this in mind it is interesting to consider the governance implications of Labour’s proposals.
Presently, many of the bodies which shape and deliver transport infrastructure do not plan on the same basis as other related sectors such as housing and employment, and are subject to a range of different drivers and planning frameworks. Further, where transport decisions are taken is having an adverse impact on the delivery of projects. For example, development of the West Coast mainline has been hampered by decisions on this project being made by central government. The slow pace of delivery is also proving harmful to regional economies.
Labour say they want an affordable transport system that works for passengers, with decisions on services taken far closer to those who use them. In order to achieve this they will devolve decisions on transport to local authorities working together to ensure integrated networks across city and county regions. Authorities will be given control of budgets over road investment and powers to decide what bus services they want.
This makes sense. On the face of it a city such as Cambridge is better placed to make decisions on the transport infrastructure arrangements that would suit it than the London based department for transport. Furthermore if effective use is to be made of local knowledge it stands to reason that the resource to put these decisions into practice should be devolved to the local level.
For some commentators the housing issue continues to suffer from ‘governance failure’ due to the absence of a governance structure for regional planning in England. In response to this, Labour proposes to empower local authorities to take control of housing issues at the local or regional level.
Labour propose to build more affordable homes by prioritising capital investment in housing, and to give local authorities powers to ensure that local first time buyers people are able to take advantage of new homes that are built in their area. They will also hand local communities new powers to get homes built where they want them, and give councils greater powers to reduce the number of empty homes.
It stands to reason that local authorities have control over housing policy for their areas, not least because national trends don’t always pertain locally. Cities and city regions need to consider their own specific situation carefully in light of issues such as demographic trends and decide what it means for their area in terms of growth and development, housing, services and environmental impact. Research commissioned by the RTPI suggests that in England, planning based on census data could lead to an under-provision of housing due to the influence on the 2011 census of a number of exceptional factors. Therefore ‘lower’ levels of governance need the resources and skills to obtain an accurate picture of demographic trends at the sub-national level and to plan accordingly.
Given that Labour pledge to get at least 200,000 homes built a year by 2020, at this stage the details of how this would happen are pending. Local communities having a say in where homes are built is right and proper, but there is still work to be in terms of explaining how these new homes will be delivered.
Planning Horizons argues that for any model of governance to be effective, it is vital to ensure that institutions at all levels have the resources, skills, experience, and culture to make and implement decisions.
Labour proposes to put power in the hands of local communities - empowering people to take more of their own decisions alongside greater responsibility for delivering in their local area, giving them freedom to address local priorities more efficiently and effectively. They will also devolve billions in funding and business rates to England’s city and county regions, along with new powers including for regional transport, putting cities and city regions in charge of their economies.
Overall there is a lot of compatibility between Labour’s proposals and the ideas in Planning Horizons. It will be interesting to see further details emerge as 2015 unfolds.
Joe Kilroy is the policy officer at the RTPI and author of Making Better Decisions for Places