The story of strategic planning since the 2004 Act has been in large part an innovation of new styles of plan facing the harsh reality of contact with the Planning Inspectorate.
Now the results of the NEGC and West of England examinations into new style joint strategic plans offers an opportunity reflection similar to that following the unsoundness fining of the first core strategy for Stafford.
Although strategic planning has seen an inevitable revival the reason why it has not been welcomed with open arms is that in England we have never got the structure or geographical level of strategic planning right. Numerous messing around with local government structures always short of a comprehensive form has led to a messy combination of strategic plan structures covering districts, unitaries, counties and combined authorities. Though we have moved beyond the weak duty to cooperate to an effective duty to plan strategically there is still no consensus on what the new style strategic plans should look like or do.
When some of the first of the large new unitaries were created such as Cornwall and Wiltshire they adopted a core strategy approach with allocations plans coming along later. The problem was this first generation of plans was highly variable in quality in terms of settlement structure and policy (stop gap solutions) and leading to a delay of 5-7 years between core strategy adoption and allocations adoptions.
Far from advancing on from the problems of Structure Plans/Local Plans they repeated them.
The concept of strategic plans created on a broad brush scale with broad locations on a key diagram on a non map base came from the PAG report in the 60s. It was the model for the structure plan. Structures plans were slow to produce and the transition to allocations not much quicker.
After the 2004 act it became clear that core strategies were not getting the job done in terms of bringing strategic sites forward. Even before the NPPF came out the ministry made it clear that strategic sites could be allocated in strategic plans.
The trade off that strategic plans face is between simpler plans more quickly produced at a high level and plans that give certainty on allocation of land. The latter requires lines on maps. Lines that define policy such as Green Belt and allocate land.
The concept of the spatial development strategic was explicitly PAG based, not being on a map base and not able to define policy areas or allocate site according to current law. Though footnote 15 on page 9 hints that the law would be changed (following the GMSF issues). So even if an SDS is agreed you cant break ground on strategic sites until an allocation plans comes along to implement the Green Belt changes in the SDS and draw lines on a map.
The problems of the West of England solution to the trade off between simplicity and certainty is to return to a pure PAG approach of ‘broad locations’ likely to spread fear across whole counties as to where these might be and without the opportunity to pursue landscape led and design led solutions to mitigation, natural capital and infrastructure. It is a discredited 60s style of planning that wont work. Broad locations dont exist on a higher plane from the geography of roads, rail lines and topography they create places.
There are solutions to the simplicity/certainty trade off and we perhaps see them best in the new Cheshire unitaries. Where we have as a first stage strategic plans defining strategic growth locations and refining the Green Belt, allocations of numbers to broad locations of small towns, villages, clusters of villages. And then followed swiftly by allocations plans to define smaller scale sites. Note they are unitaries of an appropriate functional regional scale.
The lesson to be learned, If you are a small scale authority outside joint arrangement just produce a single simple local plan. If you are a large unitary outside joint arrangement do the Cheshire two stage approach.
If you are a large joint planning area then do the two stage approach – allocating strategic sites in the joint plan, and make your governance arrangements as unitary like as possible. If you dont all of the evidence so far suggests crude political disagreements will either unacceptably delay the plan or lead to it failing at examination for not having strategy options distorted by raw local political interference, of the Not in My Term of Office variety.