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Towards a Great North Plan - An insider's view of the Northern Summit

01 February 2016 Author: Bob Wolfe

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They came from business, academia, development, local authorities and from civic society too. They also came as individuals, with no axe to grind, no lobbying intent, but they came to work. These were the participants in a quest to seek out a plan for the North, a Great North Plan.

The Northern Summit, initiated by the RTPI a year ago, bought together 150 participants with a range of backgrounds from across the North of England to the Queens Hotel in Leeds two weeks ago in search of a Great North Plan. Participatory, collaborative and engaging throughout the day, the delegates were soon made aware, under the effortless chairing of Mark Easton of BBC News, that they were there to work.

No ordinary conference

This was no ordinary conference. In cabaret style 12 tables of 12 participants each were presented with a series of challenges from the start, including instant interactive voting to establish composition of the audience by sector, origin/destination and aspiration/expectation. This became a popular part of the day throughout. More importantly, participants were asked to look at the challenges posed to economic and spatial planning in the emerging political geography of a devolved northern Britain. A northern Britain, which has been the country’s economic powerhouse for 250 years and which is now seeking new roles, new horizons and new ways of meeting the challenges posed by an ever greater globalised world.

One should not have been surprised at the enthusiasm and engagement of the participants, but somehow we were. During the summer of 2015, more than 240 delegates had attended regional roundtables across the North of England to discuss the efficacy and likelihood of a plan to encompass the North of England. Their ability to engage, participate and generate ideas in the roundtables should have been a clue to the success of the Northern Summit itself.

A learning process

So what did we learn? IPPR North’s Ed Cox took us through the challenges posed by such a Plan; its ambition, scope and inclusivity. He posed its ownership as being by the North for the North and described its purposes as being a visionary document that should provide a prospectus to drive a clear action plan for delivering sustainable development. These are real ambitions – and ones we must seek to achieve.

The RTPI’s Chief Executive, Trudi Elliott pulled no punches in saying that in Europe, in China and elsewhere, a region the size of the North of England would have an economic plan, transport plan and a spatial plan; all working hand in hand to deliver the goods. She regretted, somewhat, that whilst the UK had delivered town and regional planning to the world, that world had now caught up and in many respects, had surpassed us.

With decades of experience and credibility in the revitalisation of northern cities, Lord Heseltine’s keynote address gave a fascinating insight into current and past government approaches to urban policy from Liverpool to Hull and Newcastle to Leeds. And whilst he remained ambivalent towards the concept of an overall plan per se, he hinted at the possible revival of something akin to the Council of The North through the establishment of 12 elected Mayors of Combined Authorities across the North. This could certainly provide a framework or roadmap for the development of a Great North Plan. He said:

“The Northern Powerhouse is about unlocking the potential of great northern towns and cities by better connecting the North’s places and people. But a stronger northern economy does not simply rely on transport alone: it is about joining up all its assets, skills and people. The North has a unique opportunity to shape its destiny with greater investment and leadership.”

Roundtable debates

To give a flavour of the degree of diversity, throughout the day, I facilitated roundtable discussions comprising the Chair of a northern LEP, regional representative of the HBF, Head of Planning from North West England, a former Professor of Geography at the University of Leeds, Strategic Director of a major development and infrastructure provider, a young architect working for Will Alsop, Director of Hitachi Rail and Executive Director, Leeds City Region LEP. Topics debated include: what vision could be cast for a plan for the North; in addition to transport, what would take priority (resilience, flooding, energy and economic growth - alongside a quality of environment - in no particular order of preference); and how might we take a Great North Plan forward. Above all, there came a clear call that the Plan should be high-level, strategic and brief. It needs to have a long-term vision, be developed collaboratively and most essentially be non-statutory.

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Bob Wolfe (left) talking to Janet Askew, RTPI Immediate Past President and Phil Crabtree, chair RTPI Yorkshire 2016 at the Summit

The call for a Great North Plan is not a done deal, as there is plenty of work to do, but there is no doubt that its genus was cast amongst the roundtables of the Northern Summit and their precursors. Through collaboration, there is clear evidence of homebuilders working alongside academics and transport planners. There were architects and developers looking beyond their immediate site horizons. And there were infrastructure providers (rail, road, ports and airports), thinking how the North of England could engage and connect with the wider world more effectively from an economy which, by most calculations, is at least the size of Belgium.

Watch this space

For those wishing to track the progress of this initiative, and find out more, the outcomes from the regional roundtable and Northern Summit will be drawn together by the publication of a joint report from the RTPI and IPPR North. This will lead to a “launch event” later in the year. From there will be discussions on forging a way forward, procurement, production and collaboration. Watch this space!

Bob Wolfe is Honorary Regional Secretary for RTPI Yorkshire and Chair, Northern Summit Project Board.

Bob Wolfe

Bob Wolfe

Honorary Regional Secretary for RTPI Yorkshire