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The Smith Commission: 10 principles for devolving power across and within the UK

12 January 2015

Trudi Elliott

On 19th September, the Prime Minister announced that Lord Smith of Kelvin had agreed to oversee the process to take forward the devolution commitments on further powers for the Scottish Parliament. The Smith Commission states that following the Scottish Referendum vote on 18 September 2014, and the decision for Scotland to remain part of the United Kingdom, there is a willingness shared by all five of Scotland’s main political parties to strengthen the powers of the Scottish Parliament within the UK.

The Institute has been advocating an approach of subsidiarity in its policy work across the UK and Ireland and, for example, is supporting the allocation of powers to county and city regions in England; the transfer of powers on renewables from the UK Parliament to Wales and the move of powers from DOENI to local authorities in Northern Ireland.

While planning powers are devolved to Scotland, there are a number of issues - for example renewables, welfare, taxation and infrastructure – that have an impact on planning that are not fully devolved. Given this, in our submission to Commission, the Institute set out 10 principles that we asked it to adopt in taking forward its work. We felt that these would help planners working to help deliver better places and we emphasised that they should be taken forward within the context of the outcomes based approach that is in place in Scotland.

"[T]hese principles are not only applicable to the devolution of powers to Scotland but also to contribute to the debate on powers for other devolved nations of the UK; from national governments to strategic planning authorities and local government; and from local government to communities."

The principles are:

Subsidiarity – that any new powers are vested in, and exercised, at a level that will be most effective in supporting all parties to deliver better places in Scotland. These levels include UK, Scotland, the city regions, local authorities and communities. Examples of this include welfare (especially the bedroom tax) and capital gains tax which have an impact on planning and the housing market

  • Coordination – that any new powers support and complement the ability to coordinate approaches to planning across the borders within the UK, and consider and support joined up consenting regimes that affect, for example, planning for renewables, marine areas and infrastructure
  • Appropriateness – that any new powers allow Scottish Government and its partners to develop specific approaches to tackle Scotland’s specific needs where this appropriate
  • Resourced – that any new powers are properly resourced to ensure their effective implementation
  • Aligned – that any new powers complement and don’t contradict or ‘get in the way’ of other powers that are devolved
  • Engagement – that any new powers are consulted upon and that Scottish Government works with its delivery partners in assessing how best to make them work
  • Spatial – that any new powers are examined in terms of how they will impact on the different geographies of Scotland so as to promote better integrated approaches. Too often subsequent policy approaches are programme or silo-based
  • Monitored – that the implementation of any new powers are monitored to check on their effectiveness
  • Sustainable – any new powers should be used to support the overarching principles of sustainable development
  • Long term – any new powers should be drafted to ensure that they support Scotland’s longer term plans, ambitions and aspirations. They cannot be focussed on merely providing short term fixes

We are of the view that these principles are not only applicable to the devolution of powers to Scotland but also to contribute to the debate on powers for other devolved nations of the UK; from national governments to strategic planning authorities and local government; and from local government to communities. They comprise a comprehensive and progressive checklist that can bring a rigour that helps shape how the distribution of power can be used to best effect.  

The principles complement and echo much of what said in our Planning Horizons papers that were published throughout 2014. Our paper on Making Better Decisions for Places discusses the need to identify decisions with a primarily national impact and those with a primarily sub-national impact, and put in place appropriate governance arrangements so that decisions can be made and implemented in the most effective way possible. The paper on Thinking Spatially says that we need to develop a new spatial policy which shows how and where various policies – from housing to infrastructure, climate change responses to health and social policy – might interact in terms of their implications for land use, and so encourage greater integration between policies.

The Smith Commission has now reported. Work is still ongoing to agree how the new powers will be devolved and when, whilst there is some discussion about whether further powers should be devolved to Scotland.  We also continue to see the UK Government explore ways of devolving powers to counties and city regions in England. We are hopeful that our 10 principles will be useful in taking these forward. The debate and delivery may not be over, but we are confident that our principles will be durable and continue to be relevant as these progress.

About Trudi Elliott

Trudi Elliott CBE is Chief Executive of the Royal Town Planning Institute. Since joining the Institute in 2011, Trudi has led the RTPI’s work on responding to the challenges of planning reform across the UK, and working with our international sister organisations. 

Trudi sits on the Editorial Group of the Journal of Planning, Theory and Practice, the Policy Council of National Infrastructure Planning Association, the Oxford Joint Planning Law Conference Committee, the DCLG Planning Sounding Board and is a Council Member of the University of Warwick.  Trudi is currently a member of Lord Taylor’s review team reviewing planning guidance.

Trudi has worked in planning related fields for 20 years as Director of the Government Office for the West Midlands, Chief Executive of Bridgnorth District Council, Chief Executive of West Midlands Regional Assembly and the West Midlands Local Government Association. She has also worked as a lawyer in both the public and private sectors.