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Seeing a wider picture
Planning – 8 January 2010

Conservative leaders promise councils more autonomy on key planning decisions but history shows that a workable strategy is more than the sum of its parts, says Mark Smulian

Will it be back to the future for regional planning if the Conservatives win the general election? The party has vowed to tear up the regional machinery created by Labour and allow local authorities to take their own decisions on how many homes they allow to be built.

It remains unclear how such a system would cope with infrastructure of regional significance or with the distribution of homes across a wider area. In a recent speech to the British Property Federation shadow planning minister Bob Neill said: "Will there be something between the national and local levels? I believe that there will. Local authorities will have to co-operate to ensure that their plans fit together." He suggested that the emerging city-regions might be a basis for this.

Should a Tory administration, and indeed planners, look at previous arrangements for an example of how a system of voluntary joint working might look?

Regional planning was once run largely as Neill suggests. Each region had a mechanism through which councils deliberated together to decide how much new development should be sited in each area. They varied considerably in their effectiveness.

Then, as now, it was the South East that saw the hardest fought battles over levels of building. This region saw the fullest development of a mechanism to allow its constituent councils an effective way to settle housing numbers and their distribution. But it is a safe bet that the London and South East Regional Planning Conference (Serplan) has been rarely mentioned since it was dissolved and replaced by the South East England Regional Assembly in 2001.

The assembly fell in turn to last year's reorganisation of regional government, in which the strategic planning function was entrusted to the joint oversight of regional development agencies and council leaders' boards. If the Conservatives take power and do what they say they will, Serplan's ghost may be about to rise and stalk the planning profession.

Its final constitution, issued in 1998, provided for membership from councils not only in the Government Office for the South East region as now defined but stretching into Bedfordshire, Essex, Hertfordshire and crucially, Greater London. One notable strength was that it covered virtually all the London travel-to-work area. Since the capital secured its own regional government in 2000, mechanisms for unified planning between the capital and the surrounding shires have receded.

Working as a collective rather than an executive body, Serplan's main function was to put the development distribution that councils had managed to agree among themselves to government. Ministers would then accept or revise it as regional planning guidance. "In some ways Serplan worked very well, although it was certainly not a golden age of planning because it had a working culture that made it difficult to get things done," remembers RTPI policy consultant Kelvin MacDonald, who served as director of the former National Housing and Town Planning Council in the mid 1990s.

"It was local authorities coming together to do regional planning. It was not quite voluntary, because they realised they had to do it or else the government would. The lesson for the Tories is that sooner or later housing numbers will have to be decided and they will need councils to come together somehow. Serplan was less top-down than what we have now. But you do need a regional spatial strategy because the old system simply gave a total of new homes to allocate."

MacDonald warns that reinstating similar machinery now would be complicated by the emergence of city-regions and multi-area agreements (MAAs) as vehicles through which local authorities work together. "MAAs and city-regions are not that different from Tory plans. But if we do go back to something like Serplan, we will need some sub-regional mechanism. If it were all based on towns, you have to wonder what would happen to some of the deep rural areas."

In the early 1980s, RTPI policy and practice committee chairman Richard Summers was seconded by Hertfordshire County Council to work at Serplan on the review of the South East Plan. "For housing, Serplan prepared forecasts and translated them into housing totals on what was a predict-and-provide model. There were then political negotiations over where the homes to be built would go," he says. "There are always arguments over housing. In those days it was mainly because of the green belt. Local authorities allocated the totals between themselves," Summers explains. This relative freedom may have been the system's downfall. He thinks that Serplan was replaced by the regional assembly system because "government felt a greater desire to pursue housing growth and found itself frustrated by a bottom-up process that it could not easily influence".

Conservative shadow housing minister Grant Shapps has argued that giving councils power to retain additional council tax arising from newly built homes will be sufficient inducement for them to encourage development. Against that could be the tendency for Conservative councillors to listen to voters who resent new building close to their homes.

This issue bedevilled planning for housing at Serplan and saw a group of Tory MPs in southern seats form Sane Planning to fight their own government on this issue. The party's current approach may mean that the total number of homes needed in a region can only be delivered by chance as the sum total of local decisions, rather than in a strategically planned fashion. "The relationship between housing, regeneration, employment growth, transport and commuting could be lost in that model," Summers warns.

Some foresee a revival of county structure plans, which governed development under the old system. However, the subsequent emergence of city-region partnerships and MAAs makes drawing suitable boundaries more complicated. "Things will not simply go back to what they were," Summers argues. "Since the 1980s we have had 20 years of experience of urban regeneration, economic development and the regional development agencies, which we did not have in the Serplan era."

One Serplan political veteran has very mixed views on its effectiveness. Baroness Hamwee was a Liberal Democrat councillor in Richmond-upon-Thames, which appointed her to Serplan in the mid 1980s. In her view, a body that can look at sub-regional and regional planning issues is needed. But she fears that the Tories' idea of voluntary joint working would produce a talking shop, "which is inevitable when you have a body with no executive powers".

"I don't think Serplan worked very well. I was amazed by the cosy culture and they were amazed when I said something should be put to the vote," Hamwee remembers. "I recall that we always had the 'Berkshire problem', in which one area would say it did not want more homes and everyone else would argue about it without seeming to realise that if somewhere had fewer new homes than average somewhere else would have more."

Roger Humber has spent decades locked in combat with planning bodies as director of the House Builders Federation in the 1980s and 1990s and now as strategic policy adviser to the House Builders Association, which represents smaller firms. Whatever system is used to settle housing numbers, he has little confidence that councillors under pressure from voters will be any more willing to accommodate new homes than were their predecessors in Serplan.

Humber agrees with Shapps that the current regional mechanism has not produced high housing output. But he says it is hard to distinguish the impact from slow production of core strategies or the effects of recession. "What Shapps suggests won't do anything to solve the problem that Conservative councillors in areas of higher demand don't want to deliver higher house building figures," he says. "If they are now to have the option to look at the regional spatial strategy figures again, I doubt that they will increase them."

He thinks that the option of resurrecting the county structure plan system would be more likely to bring about inter-council co-operation than leaving it entirely to districts. In the 1980s, he points out, "the government had a back-of-the-envelope idea of how many homes should be built and it had power to intervene to chivvy councils to get up to that figure". He adds: "Serplan did eventually get its own staff to do projections of housing need and they were taken seriously. But it was only a guide."

Humber has been warning senior Conservative figures that if they rely on local decisions they will end up being blamed for a failure to provide enough homes to meet demand. "This is not really to do with housing and planning at all. It is part of a wider political drive by the Conservatives on localism that planning has got caught up in," he says. "When you talk to them they say it's just democracy and they cannot do anything about that."

If local authorities decide that the proposed inducements to build are insufficient in the face of nimby-minded voters, Shapps may find himself back where his Labour predecessors were ten years ago - contemplating the perceived failings of a voluntary system to deliver enough homes to avoid the government being blamed for a housing shortage.