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If the UK plans to level up it needs to fix planning

Who knows what the UK government has found to fill 400 pages about the oft-name-checked but rarely defined policy of Levelling Up?

The billing for the white paper, expected on Wednesday, has been mixed. We’ve been promised Tolstoy and the Medicis, as part of an essay by former Bank of England economist Andy Haldane. Metro mayors look set to feature in a section entitled “Systems”. Plans to tackle obesity are reportedly in. Perhaps hanging baskets, the low-cost, quick fix of every aspiring place-maker, will put in an appearance?

But here is a suggestion of something that should be covered: planning.

Now granted, a discussion of the UK’s capacity when it comes to planning probably wouldn’t help sex up a report that is already (allegedly) struggling to capture the imagination. But planning is pretty fundamental to the process of economic development and regeneration. And the current rules aren’t really up to the job in many ways.

Planning tells the story of a couple of bigger themes too. The first is the gutting of local authority budgets since 2010: as local government sought to protect activities like social care, areas with fewer statutory responsibilities bore the brunt of cuts, with planning and development among the hardest hit. Local authority spending on planning fell by a third in the decade from 2009-10 in absolute terms, according to the Royal Town Planning Institute, and dropped as a share of local authority budgets.

The need to keep the show on the road meant resources shifted towards day-to-day development work and away from longer-term strategic thinking and policy, aka the bit that is important for Levelling Up. Total spending on planning policy including development fees, which are more substantial for wealthier, busier areas, has halved. On average, local authorities spend £5.50 per resident per year on planning policy. In north- west England, the West Midlands and Yorkshire it is only about £3.

The loss of skills and capacity is broadly acknowledged, not just by local government enthusiasts but also by the business community whose investment is sought in large-scale projects. The British Property Federation would like a system of town centre investment zones, or areas with tax incentives and other strategies to speed up regeneration. But they acknowledge that this would require access to a central planning resource, in terms of funding and skills.

This gets to another problem, which is the hollowing out of strategic planning capacity between local authorities and Westminster since the abolition of the regional development agencies in 2010. The RDAs weren’t perfect. But they at least thought about how economies and development should work in a way not limited by random, inconsistent administrative boundaries. Their statutory standing meant getting different bodies working together wasn’t reliant on the much derided “duty to co-operate”, a requirement for co-ordination between public bodies on strategic matters.

The abolition of RDAs left a huge vacuum, according to Matt Griffith, director of policy at the Business West chamber of commerce, which the UK is still struggling to fill: “At present, the big economic challenges for large swaths of the country are effectively being left in the hands of ward councillors — often parochial neighbourhood champions with neither the incentives, skills or mandate to think beyond their own backyard.” 

What’s taken the RDAs’ place, if anything, is a hodgepodge, where even the handful of combined authority metro mayors have varying, ad hoc powers depending on what was negotiated between the various political interests in their particular area.

Rolling out that model in a more co-ordinated, comprehensive way, with powers to draw up strategic plans, call in applications, establish development corporations or issue compulsory purchase orders is one possibility — but one that could encounter opposition locally and from some constituency MPs.

As is often the case, then, the issues with planning come down largely to money and power. Which are also what will really matter in the government’s 400 pages.


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