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Planning for the North must engage people

19 September 2018 Author: Sarah Longlands

It was Max Lock, during the 1946 development of the first Plan for Middlesbrough, who described planning as a “combination of exact science and intuitive art in that its method is based on equal ingredients both of accurate measurement and of human understanding, and because it deals with the most vital commerce of all, human beings and their welfare”.

Planning is not just a dry technical exercise but needs to engage with wider questions about the human experience of place.... As the vote on Brexit demonstrated, a failure to engage can have profound consequences. 

In 2016, IPPR North, working with the RTPI, published our ‘Blueprint for a Great North Plan’ which set out the foundations for a collaborative approach to thinking about the future of the North.

Reconciling the technical with the human

Lock’s summary of planning’s challenge of reconciling the technical with the human speaks to the challenges that we must consider when developing a framework for the north’s spatial direction of travel. In particular, it is also important to think about how a regional perspective can help add value to what is already taking place locally and subregionally.

The Blueprint for a Great North Plan began this process by identifying a number of priorities which seemed to lend themselves to greater cross-north co-operation including on energy, transport, inward investment, natural assets and people and place.

It also identified a number of key principles for the Plan, arguing that it should be high level, strategic and brief but neither statutory nor bland. Its focus would need to be ambitious, and long-term but supported by clear actions in the shorter term. Moreover, it would need to encourage collaboration, and it would need to be inclusive, speaking to all places across the North whilst also being asymmetrical in its treatment of places and themes.

Context for the North fast changing

Two years on, and whilst leaders have not yet developed a Great North Plan, the context for the North has changed considerably.

There has been a welcome step change in cross northern co-operation with the establishment of the NP11 in June and the first meeting of the Convention of the North this month. Devolution has helped to steer this process but so too has the prospect of Brexit and the feeling that it’s time for the North to pull together to build a sense of shared ownership over its future identity, to make its own future.

Given these developments, the time feels right to revisit the original Blueprint for a Great North Plan. Much work has already taken place to develop the thinking around the identified themes including IPPR North’s work on Natural Assets and Transport for the North’s consultation on the Strategic Transport Plan.

The RTPI have also launched a new project to support the Great North Plan, by developing a vision and set of shared ambitions for people and places across the region.

Broadening the debate beyond policy makers and politicians

The challenge going forward for the Great North Plan Steering group will be to integrate these different strands of activity and in doing so, support the work of the NP11 and the Convention of the North.

At IPPR North, we are also interested in how the Great North Plan can help to re-energise the devolution debate in the North of England, particularly to help those areas that are as yet uncovered by any devolution deal. 

The Blueprint for a Great North Plan was always intended as an opportunity to broaden the debate about the North’s future beyond that of policy makers and politicians. As Max Lock identified, planning is not just a dry technical exercise but needs to engage with wider questions about the human experience of place. This is true for any form of policy making which is so often done by thinking about people in the abstract sense of the word. But as the vote on Brexit demonstrated, a failure to engage can have profound consequences. 

Guest blogs may not represent the views of the RTPI.

Editor's notes: The RTPI has started a project called “Ambitions for the North of England: People and Place” to promote co-operation beyond traditional boundaries and a joined-up approach that would help Northern towns, cities and rural areas develop sustainably, and ensure that prosperity is shared as widely as possible. 

Sarah Longlands

Sarah Longlands

Sarah Longlands is Director of IPPR North.