UK devolving more responsibility to local governments but with less money? The 'duty to cooperate'
The UK government is abolishing the Regional Spatial Strategies that govern planning across the country, and giving much greater power to local governments to plan their own spatial development. But with many cross-regional issues remaining and fewer funds in the coffers, will they be able to fulfil their new roles?
Since 2004, the UK Planning System has followed a three-tier system defined by National Planning Policy and Guidance, Regional Spatial Strategies and Local Plans. However, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has argued that this hierarchical system ruled by 'top-down planning diktats' imposed unrealistic housing and other targets upon Local Authorities that were leading to greater development pressure on the UK's valuable natural ecological resource, the Green Belt lands that gird fourteen urban regions around the country. In addition, the Secretary argued that decision-making on strategic spatial issues was undertaken by unelected Regional Development Agencies as opposed to Local Authorities, which he considered to be better placed to understand the needs of their communities.
Consequently, the Government initiated an overhaul of the UK Planning System with the 2011 Localism Act in response to their view that the UK Planning System was a 'drag anchor to growth' and regional-level officials were operating as 'enemies of enterprise'. Rather than leave the decision-making process to unelected technocrats, the decision was made to transform the UK Planning System into a bottom-up process, whereby Local Authorities would be charged with the responsibility for making decisions on strategic spatial planning issues.
However without a national spatial plan or regional spatial plans and only local plans to inform decisions and provide the strategic spatial focus, how can we be sure that funding will be appropriately directed to ensure balanced and sustainable development across the UK?
As a result, the Government's 'Localism Agenda' is currently in the process of creating a new approach to UK spatial planning. With the revocation of Regional Spatial Strategies, spatial planning powers are effectively being devolved to the local level. Local Authorities are still required to make their decisions based on 'sound' evidence, but are now faced with tackling controversial supra-local issues, such as allocating land for new housing and dealing with wider challenges, such as renewable energy, waste and minerals.
Contrary to this new 'local approach', the Government is also generating mixed messages by supporting new regional funding instruments, including the Regional Growth Fund that will allocate £1.4 billion over the next 3 years to provide support for projects that offer significant potential for long term economic growth. However without a national spatial plan or regional spatial plans and only local plans to inform decisions and provide the strategic spatial focus, how can we be sure that funding will be appropriately directed to ensure balanced and sustainable development across the UK?
Duty to Cooperate
The Government anticipates that the initial criticisms of its 'Localism Agenda' can be rectified through the 'Duty to Cooperate', a requirement intended to provide a strengthened basis for cross-boundary working on strategic issues between neighbouring Local Authorities. Although many Local Authorities already collaborate together in developing their planning policies, this move marks a significant shift and establishes a clear legal obligation to address issues of mutual importance, such as the allocation of land for new housing, waste and recycling facilities and renewable energy sources.
However, with Local Authorities facing significant future cuts in spending and staff resources, along with new responsibilities in supporting the sub-local tier of neighbourhood planning and the lack of current guidance relating to the practical implementation of the 'Duty to Cooperate', it may be some time before Local Authorities can fully take on this regional level function and work in seamless collaboration with neighbouring authorities.
That said, the 'duty' may genuinely present a good opportunity to improve partnership working between Local Authorities on cross-boundary issues by providing a more flexible and democratic approach than the Regional Development Agencies. Many Local Authorities already have similar voluntary collaborative partnership arrangements in place to deal with local policy considerations, such as the Central Lincolnshire Joint Strategic Planning Committee.
However, voluntary collaboration between Local Authorities can be fragile, particularly where the need for collaborative working is at its most intense in areas of high development pressure. After all, the planning process is shaped through democratic processes of political, individual and organisational involvement. Consequently, those with an interest in one local area may develop an approach to development which differs from those nearby. This inevitably causes tensions, but these are acknowledged clearly through the 'Duty to Cooperate' which is intended to facilitate more effective working relations on issues of cross-boundary importance.
The question remains whether Local Authorities are equipped enough to tackle complex and controversial regional-level spatial planning issues. In these challenging economic times, resources are diminishing and Local Authorities are under growing pressure to resolve a widening range of issues at numerous spatial scales, from the sub-local to the regional level. It is clear that Local Authorities may be over-stretched in their capacity to collaborate with each other to resolve regional-level spatial issues, such as securing new housing, employment land, infrastructure, energy and waste facilities to meet the growing needs of communities within and beyond local boundaries. Such spatial issues need holistic consideration and therefore may not be fully addressed at this localised level, which could severely hinder future economic growth and tangible sustainable development on the ground.