City regions - the return of strategic planning
The development plan is a fundamental plank of the planning system, setting out the policies against which planning applications are assessed. However, the structure of the development plan is a product of politics, with which few governments can resist the temptation to meddle. The Coalition Government saw off Labour's regional spatial strategies (except in London) and brought in a new tier of neighbourhood planning. The current Conservative administration's devolution agenda also looks set to make its mark on the plan led system.
Proposals for the devolution of powers to city regions followed hard on the heels of the Scottish 'no' vote. At a time of public spending cuts, the government sees the opportunity for cost efficiencies to be achieved through the creation of combined authorities. For the city regions, devolution offers the chance for them to take control over economic development through responsibility for taxes and transfer of budgets - and new planning powers.
Creation of city regions
The Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Act 2009 and Cities and Local Government Devolution Act 2016 allow bespoke deals for the creation of combined authorities. Each authority involved must consent to the proposal - this is not a return to mandatory regional planning. Powers will be transferred to the combined authority by order of the Secretary of State. Alternatively, the authorities involved may agree to share existing functions.
Whilst combined authorities need not have a mayor, there is no doubt that this is the preferred way forward for government. Indeed, George Osborne commented: "I will not impose this model on anyone, but nor will I settle for less." To date, only Cornwall has been awarded a devolution deal without a directly-elected mayor.
New spatial strategies
Many devolution deals, including for Greater Manchester, Sheffield, the North-East and Liverpool, require the creation of a new statutory spatial strategy. As a formal part of the development plan, the plans of the member authorities (and strategic policies in the neighbourhood plans underneath those) must comply with the city region plan. Planning applications should be determined in accordance with their policies, unless material considerations dictate otherwise.
In London, the power to create a spatial development strategy (the London Plan) to guide Borough local plans has given planning a degree of stability. Similarly, it is to be hoped that city region plans will give the opportunity for combined authorities to drive forward strategic proposals for housing, employment and infrastructure development and accordingly for developers to plan with more certainty.
Other deals require a non-statutory strategic plan to be prepared. In practice, this may be drawn from individual local plans already in place, sitting alongside strategic economic plans. It is difficult to see how plans prepared in this context will provide true strategic direction across local authority boundaries and bridge political divides.
There is often a tension between the desire to devolve greater power to local people and to facilitate higher levels of development, particularly in times of a housing crisis. With that in mind, it will be very interesting to see how these sometimes competing objectives will be met within a plan-led system where the promotion of land for development could be influenced by a neighbourhood plan, borough or district plan and strategic plan - as well as national Government policy.
Extent of mayoral powers
The powers being devolved to city regions fall some way short of those exercised by the London mayor, whose powers are substantial. However, the London mayor's powers have evolved considerably over the years. Likewise, as the devolution deals bed down, mayors and combined authorities around the country may lobby for and be awarded further powers.
Whilst details vary, most devolution deals provide the opportunity for the combined authority membership to overrule the mayor on the strategic plan. For example, the Single Statutory City Region Framework in Liverpool and the spatial framework in Sheffield require the unanimous support of the members of the constituent councils.
In London, the mayor also has the power to direct refusal or, importantly, to call in certain types of application for his own determination. The use of those powers depends on the priorities of the individual mayor. By way of example, Boris Johnson has used his call in power relatively sparingly, calling in 17 applications over 8 years, none of which have as yet been refused.
For the devolution deals, call in powers are being negotiated on a case by case basis. By way of example, the mayors in Liverpool and Sheffield will be consulted on and/or have the power to call in planning applications of strategic importance to the city region. However, in Liverpool that is subject to the consent of the relevant combined authority member.
The Orders required to implement the devolution deals are expected later this year. The implications of the devolution deals being done vary across the country and will be felt over different timescales. As a result, landowners and developers active within the city regions are advised to keep abreast of developments as they unfold.
In the meantime, the preparation of strategic plans are, in some places, having unexpected consequences. Some local authorities faced with an emerging statutory plan are deciding not to pursue their own local plans, leaving short term uncertainty over how development proposals will be co-ordinated and assessed.
Alongside strategic planning powers, tools offered to city region deals include the ability to introduce the community infrastructure levy, Land Commissions to aid the development of public sector land, Mayoral Development Corporations to drive regeneration and compulsory purchase powers. With momentum building, many will be asking whether sufficient funds will be made available to truly capitalise on newly devolved powers. It is too early to tell.
This article has appeared in Estates Gazette
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