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Evolution of Devolution

14 July 2015

What is happening in the North of England has been described as the evolution of devolution as English regions, particularly those in the North, seek to gather strengths to try and make sense of the Northern Powerhouse.

Bob Wolfe

A personal journey

The current RTPI/IPPR call for A Great North Plan represents a personal journey for me that began last October, when RTPI Yorkshire was discussing which research programmes should be followed up for 2015. Given the futility of banging on about the north-south divide in the UK, we came to the conclusion that the RTPI could do no worse than examine the planning differences that operated “up North” as opposed to those in London and the south-east...

A second thought-provoking opportunity occurred in November 2014 when we were invited to the launch by IPPR North of their annual State of the North report. To some, it highlighted a resurgence over the past decade, of some of the UK’s great cities; Manchester, Leeds, Newcastle and Sheffield. To others, it simply recognised decline brought about through deindustrialisation of the past 40 years.

Shifting focus away from "one size fits all" approach

I began discussing with colleagues what could be done to raise the profile of planning and the RTPI and, in particular, how we could focus attention away from the “one size fits all” approach of the UK system to encompass a more nuanced approach and one that reflected the needs of Northern communities. The idea of a Northern Summit was born.

What surprised me was how quickly others fell behind the idea. Of course, the independence referendum in Scotland certainly helped. It awoke in many how regional and national differences played out within the UK, not always to the benefit of those regions - or nations. It also demonstrated how things might be done differently. Perhaps that is why, when I approached colleagues in the North East and North West, they immediately joined hands with the idea with gusto and enthusiasm. And when we approached the RTPI in London, I’m pleased to say that there was solid support also.

Evidence that the government is listening

That momentum is growing day by day. In preparing for the Summit, which is currently due to take place in early 2016, we have held four roundtable sessions in Sheffield and Leeds. These were rapidly convened after the general election when it became apparent that the government’s idea of a Northern Powerhouse was gaining momentum. And with the Devo Manc deal to devolve a range of powers to Greater Manchester, ratified soon after the election, there was growing evidence that the government was at last listening to the voices of reason emanating from the North. Therefore, when it came, the roundtable call clearly chimed with many, as they were soon rapidly oversubscribed.

Roundtables, like the Summit, are inclusive of business, local authority, civic society and environmental interests. Their aim is to examine the need for A Great North Plan. This concept, pioneered by IPPR in the North West last year, calls for the need for a strategic spatial planning framework for the North of England, akin to that for Scotland. The marrying of the expertise of the RTPI and IPPR North will be crucial to the success of the Northern Summit project.

I have worked on getting major projects embedded into regional and subnational policy over the last 15 years. These included major regional airport development in South Yorkshire and Cornwall (where I was responsible for taking these through the formal planning process in its entirety in advance of implementation) and acting as planning adviser to Yorkshire Forward, the Regional Development Agency. This has led me to believe that, if productivity in the North of England is ever going to match that of the remainder of UK plc, it is essential that major infrastructure projects be clearly identified within regional policy and reflected within a statutory planning framework

Early impressions on a Great North Plan

From Leeds and Sheffield roundtables, here are some of my early impressions:

  • participants have been fully engaged - this is a real process;
  • a clear need for a strategic “plan” is being established; high-level, broad-brush and non-statutory are the early findings;
  • Inclusiveness and ownership in both process and end product, are essential;
  • will it touch the lives of ordinary people - and will it help deliver more housing? and
  • would it have authority to challenge current political orthodoxy?

These are not to be taken as final outcomes, merely initial impressions. We will be reporting in full on all the roundtables at the Northern Summit. These are early days and it really is a question of “watch this space”!

Bob Wolfe

Hon Regional Secretary
RTPI Yorkshire
Chair Northern Summit Project Board
July 2015