Written evidence submitted by the Royal Town Planning Institute [POD 010]

The RTPI champions the power of planning in creating prosperous places and vibrant communities. As learned society, we use our expertise and research to bring evidence and thought leadership to shape planning policies and thinking. As a professional body, we have over 25,000 members across all sectors, and are responsible for setting formal standards for planning practice and education.

The success and scope of devolution deals implemented, including the impact on local economies and health economies and the progress of all bids submitted by the September 2015 deadline. 

There has been a tendency for deals to (officially – but see below) circumvent the matter of spatial planning although this is a valuable tool in achieving many of the other purposes of devolution around economic physical health of areas, including environmental and climate goals. This can be due to the reluctance of individual councils to surrender what they consider to be “sovereignty” on planning decisions. It is Government policy to encourage cooperation between councils on spatial planning, however currently the only real sanction in this regard is to make plans fail at examination by the Planning Inspectorate. It would be more effective if there were stronger incentives to cooperate through the deals mechanism, as we have advocated since 2015[1].

Whilst the incentive approach can make a lot of sense, how it has in fact operated it does come with draw backs for the key issues of housing delivery. There have been continual problems with the bespoke approach to spatial planning with different powers given to the Mayors/ Combined Authorities and the lack of integration this has caused.  There is a particular problem where the area is already two tier (e.g. Cambridgeshire) and so counties are responsible for health & wellbeing strategies, strategic infrastructure, flood risk and are usually the leads on climate change and economic work, and then districts are responsible for spatial planning.  Here effectively the combined authority creates a third tier without having removed one of the others. It leads to a very fragmented approach to growth which does not usually reflect ‘place’.  We surveyed some of the difficulties this caused in A Smarter Approach to Infrastructure Planning [2] . One of the findings was the difficulty more general delivery of priorities arising from the desire of the combined authority to demonstrate “quick wins”.

 

Even in areas of unitary government such as the West Midlands there have been disagreements between the local planning authorities and the WM Mayor. This has arisen due to the fact that although the Mayor’s responsibilities explicitly don’t include spatial planning, in practice his activities have impacted considerably on spatial planning e.g. including in a growth deal a timetable for local plan production which is not agreed by the local authorities.

 

We consider it would be helpful if the Government could look at a new system of growth planning which is not necessarily part of the statutory system but can use local plans to help deliver a shared vision/ growth ambition across an area that has devolved powers. However, current growth plans that are being developed as non-statutory strategic planning frameworks don’t really have any teeth.  More funding and more powers attached to these would help – as would more robust governance which could be new combined authorities but could also be a new breed of growth board if combined authority is seen as a step too far.

 

Where there has been agreement to go down the joint statutory plan route as part of the devolution deal (e.g. Oxfordshire and Greater Manchester) this is proving very challenging mainly because the current system doesn’t work for strategic planning. 

 

Finally, if spatial planning is to be deal with effectively through devolution, the Government needs to resource it properly and that is not just the current official local planning authorities but also the counties in 2-tier areas. 

The geographical spread of existing deals, including to non-metropolitan areas and the impact on adjoining areas. 

We consider that the broadest spread of deals would be in the interests of better outcomes in economic, social and environmental terms.  This because achievement of better outcomes requires more integration of policy making across sectors , which is more easily achieved locally than in Whitehall, and because it requires coordination across wider areas than single local authorities. However it would be necessary to disconnect the deals process from governance arrangements such as Mayors which have connections with cities but less applicability to counties.

Further powers that local areas have accumulated over time and powers they should have which they don’t have already, including the specific case for London. 

No comment at this time

The commitment to devolution across Government and capacity in Whitehall to promote and monitor devolution, including the Government’s ability to capture relevant data at the right level – for example, in city region and combined authorities to assess the effectiveness of deals. 

We are currently embarked on a project to assess the prospects and potential for a better process for monitoring the outcomes of the planning systems in the UK and Ireland. We consider that city region data is a great asset in this process; however the issue is not confined to Government’s capability, what would be a great help is a return to collective capture of data at suitable scales by combined authorities themselves.

Governance and accountability: the impact of elected mayors and whether they are necessary to make devolution a success. Public engagement with the devolution process and how scrutiny is working in practice. 

We are aware that in Greater Manchester, for which we have good evidence, the progress of the region wide spatial plan has thrown up challenges. In terms of consultation it has been encouraging that the plan has generated a lot of interest. It is discouraging in that a lot of interest been negative. However the presence of absence of the Mayor does not seem central to this process, other than to say that even with a fairly popular Mayor, it is not easy to overcome local interest.

How access to new sources of income – for example business rate growth – have impacted local areas and how broader devolution of financial powers will affect the success of the policy. 

We are not in a position to assess the issue of business rate growth. However we do consider that broader devolution of financial powers would assist not only the policy of devolution as an end in itself, but, critically, the actual delivery of real outcomes such as secure and affordable homes for all. This is because  especially in areas of high house values, the devolved authority could tax land values in order to prepare land for housing including all the necessary infrastructure. The drive from central government is to have more housing permissions in order to lower house prices. This approach would have a down pressure on housing demand through reducing the incentive to hold onto land, and an upward pressure on housing supply.

The adequacy of existing sources of income and the potential need for more sources of income for local authorities that acquire more powers. Whether further business rate retention would provide additional funding for devolved services. 

We have extensive evidence of the difficulty in raising funds for running spatial planning services in local authorities. Yet in many areas house prices have been (until recently) well outside the ability of many people to afford. This is a strange situation given that the value, and the lack, is both in the same sector, and that you need a strong planning system in order to address housing shortage.

The potential scope of a devolution framework. Whether the current practice of bespoke deals for local areas is working or should some powers be made available to any local authority that chooses to adopt them.

See above regarding the downsides of variable geometry in devolution.

 

May 2020


[1] https://www.rtpi.org.uk/media/1521/strategic-planning-effective-cooperation-across-boundaries-2015.pdf

[2] https://www.rtpi.org.uk/media/1354/a-smarter-approach-to-infrastructure-planning.pdf