‘Sub-Region’ Planners Should Banish the Term

Definition of a region – an area with similar characteristics.

Definition of a sub-region, a sub area of a region.

The region can be any geographical characteristic, biological, linguistic, cultural, economic.

The most common used in planning is the functional economic area, and its relatives the travel to work area and housing market area.

When using the term ‘regional planning’ in this blog I sub-consciously referred to this type of region; for example Greater Cambridge, when it transpired that some readers assumed I was referring to the old style government regions which used to have regional assemblies before regional planning ceased to be structured and compulsory.

Planners often use the term ‘sub region’ but its jargon none planners never understand it. This type of functional economic region is where housing, jobs, travel and place intersect; it is the ‘planning region’.

If planning is to shape places rather than simply aggregate sprawl on the edges of tightly bounded existing spaces you have of course to look larger than local to these planning regions.

Lets stop using the term ‘sub region’ its jargon but non specific and non explanatory jargon.

The Government Office Subregions were always top down and arbitrary. A way of carving up the uk for the convenience of Whitehall only and they held little natural affinity for planning purposes, except, rarely, when they corresponded to the commuting areas of larger cities like the West Midlands Conurbation.

Sub-regional planning and organization has advance in strides. Most of local government now is organized on a sub regional basis, either in new large unitaries, such as Buckinghamshire, or combined authorities, or joint plans, or most weakly shared services. This has happened least though in the Green Belt Home Counties.

This has not led though to a palpable rise in the success of the new style of regional planning. A topic covered many times on this blog. West of England, Greater Exeter, Greater Manchester SP etc. etc. is a catelog of failures. Organisation is just one of the three critical success factors for regional planning. The other two are governance and method. Entirely voluntary arrangement based on unanimity cannot work. That has been tried and has failed. But also most ‘regional planning’ has just been aggregation of local level planning and methods – look at the new draft Dorset plan for example, with no Big Planning Big Thinking on strategy.

Another problem is that there is two overlapping types of region. The first is the big city region, Like West Midlands or Greater London, the second is Major Town region, based on a large town, such as Northampton, or a collection of closely related towns such as the Tees Valley or Blackwater Valley. In some cases a town can be part of both, Harlow for example, which now forms part of the Cambridge Travel to work area. Some towns dont form there own large town region, Cheshunt for example which is functionally part of Greater London, whilst some towns fall outside the major influence of large cities, Boston and Holland for example or the towns in Cornwall.

A future successful model of strategic planning must recognise this variable regional geometry. There are to major strategic planning tasks.

  1. For major towns to distribute the strategic growth requirements of their planning regions.
  2. For Major City regions to plan improved connections to their surrounding major towns and to distribute growth that cannot be met within individual local planning authority areas.

For the former we have been grasping at a solution, we are effectively going back to the pre 1947 position of county maps being the statutory plan. A slightly stronger than the Duty to Cooperate statutory duty to plan larger than local, and compulsory joint planning governance structures will get you there, as well as clearer government guidance and procedure on options consultation and selection. For the latter we are nowhere near a solution, and indeed the determination to add 25% to just a few urban areas housing needs when we know that the next round of plan making will see panels approving plans again, as they always have, meeting only 60% or so of cities needs such as London, has just punted the ball into the long grass for another decade. This type of strategic planning can only be and has always been done by the state. The scale of need is such only new major cities can meet it. The government knows this as this is the whole rationale for the Oxford Cambridge Arc. So if the problem and solution is understood by the government why not put it in the planning bill?

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