The One Powerhouse Consortium believes adopting and implementing a broad notion of spatial planning is critical to the future of the UK economy. For some, the discipline of planning involves a limited set of narrow statutory functions regulating the use and development of land.
Increasingly, however, planning is conceived more holistically, as a creative process of envisioning and delivering places and regions fit for the future. This broader conception often goes by the name of spatial planning.
Why Spacial Planning
At its most basic, spatial planning is the ‘where’ of decisions. A spatial plan is the visual illustration of the potential future of an area. It maps out all the assets within a given area – the towns, cities, houses, schools, universities, roads, rails, airports, offices, factories, hospitals, energy sources, leisure activities, environmental and biodiversity assets – and, using the available evidence, suggests how best to arrange and develop them to achieve stated policy goals. Spatial planning is the practice of producing these maps and the associated coordination of different activities and decisions that influence spatial organisation.
In its 2004 plan, the Welsh Government defined spatial planning simply as the “consideration of what can and should happen where”.
Spatial planning tends to be multi-agency, long-term and strategic. It encompasses wide-ranging economic, political and environmental functions and incorporates projections for the future, aiming to proactively shape change and improve investor confidence. In many parts of the world the discipline of planning spans the spatial elements of multiple different policy streams.
The UK government itself has previously defined spatial planning as something that “goes beyond traditional land use planning to bring together and integrate policies for the development and use of land with other policies and programmes” – such as environment, transport, economy and culture – “which influence the nature of places and how they function”.
Regional spatial planning of major infrastructure, promoting economic regeneration and development and securing the future of the environment requires effort, but has been very successful in other countries.
Notably in Germany with the Rhine/Ruhr, in The Netherlands with the Randstad and in The New York Metropolitan area through the Regional Plan Association.
These regions have been extraordinarily successful in connecting their key cities, promoting economic growth and employment, while still managing the vital issues of quality of life and the environment.
The Randstad, or ‘ring city’, is the name given to the horseshoe-shaped urban conurbation consisting of the four largest Dutch cities (Amsterdam, Rotterdam, The Hague and Utrecht) and several interconnected secondary cities.
The term Randstad was supposedly coined by the founder of KLM airlines as he looked down at the area from the window of a plane in 1938, but it was formalised as a spatial concept in a government report in 1958 and has been integral part of Dutch planning ever since, in which time it has set a compelling precedent for large polycentric regions around the world.
Strategic planning has supported the emergence of an interconnected urban network in the Randstad that can arguably compensate for the lack of a single Dutch world city. The Randstad’s rail system “almost functions as a metro-system” and transport-oriented development principles have underpinned dense urban development, while ensuring the maintenance of green belts, bodies of water and agricultural land in the country’s ‘Green Heart’. The Randstad region demonstrates the importance of transport to the prosperity of polycentric regions – something Transport for the North has taken on board.
Despite there being no exclusive tier of governance in the Randstad, there are several platforms for coordination through which authorities and developers can coalesce around strategic regional visions. This has helped to connect a set of specialised cities so that together they can constitute a diversified and successful regional economy.
The Regional Plan Association (RPA) emerged in the wake of the landmark Regional Plan of New York and Its Environs which was published in 1929. The association was unprecedented at the time; a body of business, professional and civic leaders from greater New York seeking to develop a long- term vision spanning administrative boundaries, political cycles and policy domains.
This ambitious regional plan was the first of four by the RPA, the most recent of which was published in 2017. Empirically-based and underpinned by high quality evidence, the plans have consistently demonstrated the positive economic contribution of strategic
planning and corralled strong partnerships at this scale. They have shown how effective non-statutory plans can be when underpinned by strong evidence, relationships and ambition: reflecting the credibility of the plans, most of the RPA’s recommendations over
the years have been adopted.
New York, like London, depends on interaction and exchange with surrounding cities. By highlighting cross- regional opportunities that bridge New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, the RPA plans have helped to alleviate some of the typical issues associated with monocentric regions – high levels of inequality, pockets of deprivation, overstretched infrastructure – while also exposing the simplicity of this characterisation in the context of the New York Metropolitan Region.
Alongside economic growth, the regional visions have consistently highlighted the problems of economic inequality and racial segregation and the importance of wellbeing and sustainability. The most recent plan centres on four ‘action areas’: transportation, climate change, affordability and the region’s insufficient governance capacities.
In recent years, the RPA has been researching the replicability of their current model, having identified 10 other functional megaregions across the United States.
Over the past few decades, driven by the dual pressures of globalisation and parochialism, German spatial planning has been subject to comprehensive reform and a new strategic paradigm has taken shape centred on metropolitan regions as ‘communities of responsibility’.
Following reunification, the German planning process aimed to rebalance the country through inter-regional resource transfers and focused infrastructure investment in less developed regions. This was in many ways a very successfully project, but at the turn of the century certain structural realities continued to constrain the German economy: comparatively low growth rates, rising unemployment and declining export competitiveness.
To reverse these trends, metropolitan regions with unrealised potential for productivity and innovation were prioritised as growth poles. In an age of economic globalisation, metropolitan regions were considered more competitive than any single city in Germany and it was thought that cultivating partnerships and creating capacity at this scale would help to transcend the parochial disputes that had previously derailed many planning initiatives in the German Länder, where statutory powers still lie.
In 2006, after a period of preparatory work, the Ministerial Conference on Spatial Planning published the new Concepts and Strategies for Spatial Development in Germany (since updated) which highlighted the economic potential of metropolitan regions distributed across Germany’s polycentric territory. These metropolitan regions coexist with the statutory Länder and coalesce under a light-touch national framework. They do not constitute additional administrative units but are rather platforms for regional cooperation. The precise nature of this cooperation varies in the different regions, but there have been consistently high levels of coordination and collaboration in the last two decades.
During the same period, Germany has become Europe’s best-performing economy. Although the emphasis on growth, innovation and competitiveness in metropolitan regions was highly controversial, the strong performance of the regional growth poles has continued to finance large-scale transfers within and between regions. The overall result is plain to see in UK2070 research. While the UK has fragmented economically, Germany has pulled itself together with great success.
Since the turn of the millennium spatial planning has been best embraced in the devolved nations. It has helped the newly devolved nations to express their cohesiveness and their distinctiveness and to coordinate their different policy programmes in service of common aims.
Alongside this, in the 2000s the New Labour government oversaw the creation of 9 regional development agencies in England tasked with developing Regional Spatial Strategies (RSS) in 2004. These ostensibly bridged the gap between local planning policy and national objectives, in many cases allowing for more effective development and infrastructure decisions. But after 2008 planning was widely blamed for harming the post-crash recovery and some strategies were mired in debates about housing numbers. In 2010, the new coalition government abolished the regional strategies as part of its move towards localism in planning.
Since 2010, there has been little or no spatial planning at the regional scale, leaving a patchwork and uncoordinated system of local planning at various scales. At the time, the all-party Commons Communities and Local Government Committee warned that “the intended abolition of regional spatial planning strategies leaves a vacuum at the heart of the English planning system which could have profound social, economic and environmental consequences set to last for many years”.
Since then, the government has extolled the virtues of ‘spatially-blind’ planning, making its investment decisions according to the current performance of industries and sectors and deliberately ignoring place – while simultaneously bemoaning the stubbornness of spatial inequality and the poor productivity of large parts of the country. In 2012, a University of Manchester study for the Royal Town Planning Institute showed that only 39 percent of UK government policy documents had an explicit spatial dimension, despite having manifest spatial repercussions.
Perhaps the one place in England that does have a comprehensive spatial plan is London – unsurprisingly, this has supported it to become uniquely coordinated and productive. Elsewhere, there is insufficient focus on how policies and interventions interact and sometimes contradict in a given place. Restrictive land use planning at the local level remains the norm across much of the country, preventing the development of strategic responses to many future challenges.