Oxford-Cambridge Arc: Are we witnessing the rebirth of regional planning?

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As the government commits to developing a Spatial Framework plan across the Oxford-Cambridge Arc, Nick Stafford, GB operations director at Tetra Tech Planning, explores the implications of this for the UK’s planning industry

Are we seeing a return to regional planning? A Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) policy paper suggested a move in that direction on 18 February when it shared long-awaited details surrounding the government’s Spatial Framework for the Oxford-Cambridge Arc.

The framework could deliver significant regional growth and investment – it was five years ago when it was first suggested that the Arc could deliver a million new homes by 2050. Finally presenting a potential Framework to achieve that growth, the MHCLG publication promises more coordinated and strategic top-down planning, focusing on the natural environment and climate change, connectivity and infrastructure, and the availability of homes in high-demand areas.

This apparent commitment to growth, as set out in the paper, raises interesting wider questions about the most effective way to implement such significant plans for investment and delivery. The most obvious one is, do we need Government intervention? It may well be the most effective way to ensure delivery, but haven’t we been here before?

Historic approaches to spatial strategies

It has been 11 years since the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition Government announced the revocation of the Regional Spatial Strategies (RSS). Originally introduced just six years prior in 2004, the RSS broadly shared the same key objectives that now guide the Arc as stated above, including producing a regional transport strategy, outlining key priorities for investment and environmental protection, and specifying housing figures for district and unitary authorities.

As RSS departed, in came the Localism Act, which obliged local planning authorities and other relevant bodies to work together on planning issues and delivering development.

Specifically, the Localism Act imposed on Local Planning Authorities (LPAs) a ‘duty to cooperate’ – a mechanism to ensure LPAs engaged with their neighbours, particularly in the preparation of Local Plans and setting out appropriate levels of development. The sentiment around this was quite clear, with former Local Government secretary, Eric Pickles stating at the time that, “planning and housebuilding works best when it is locally led and people have more control in shaping and deciding on development in the places they live”.

Practitioners across the sector will have their own experiences as to how effective this was, but it’s fair to say history now shows that overall – despite excellent examples of pragmatic LPAs – housing delivery frequently fell short of their targets.

The return of the regional focus

Fast-forward to 2021, the duty to cooperate has been withdrawn and the MHCLG paper makes it clear the Arc’s 23 LPAs “cannot continue to plan separately” and that “planning at the local level for homes, business space, infrastructure and the environment is not integrated, and is unable to take an Arc-wide view.” Indeed, it highlights that a number of locations potentially important for delivering development in the Arc don’t neatly fit into administrative parameters.

This brings us back to the Spatial Framework, an apparent return to strategic, or regional planning that could rectify the problem of holistic integration. The indication of Government intervention is important, as is the potential weight of the Spatial Framework on implementation. Although regional, the Framework would have the status of national planning and transport policy, sitting alongside the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). This is important as is it means that all Local Plans within the Arc will need to conform with the Spatial Framework, including its specific requirement that housing needs are met in full. This represents a refreshed top-down approach to ensure regional growth objectives are met.

And it could just work. This is not an attack on LPAs or the importance of locally sensitive issues. Many LPAs do good work in delivering the required amount of development in a balanced and sustainable way. But conversely, many don’t. The MHCLG paper advocates the introduction of a new Arc Growth Body to provide regional leadership and steer implementation in a way that achieves growth in a sensitive manner. Indeed, collaboration and engagement are at the heart of the Framework’s roadmap.

There is strong justification for getting this right. Given Tetra Tech Planning’s presence in central Milton Keynes, we are staunch advocates of the city’s role in supporting growth at the heart of the region. The MHCLG paper itself confirms it to be the fastest growing city in the country. The ‘UK Powerhouse Report’, produced by the Centre for Economics & Business Research and Irwin Mitchell, has also suggested the city will experience the fastest post-Covid recovery in Britain. There is clearly a real opportunity, with the innovative areas of greater Cambridge and Oxford at each end of the Arc, and with Milton Keynes at its heart. To deliver, it means taking a strategic approach, rather than the previous reliance on Local Authorities to work together.

A new frontier?

However, the real question is this: if the government wants to play a supporting role in bringing a strategic approach to facilitate development, why only at the Arc? Surely, the same can be said for any region identified for growth in England, large or small, whether given a catchy moniker or not.

Initial consultation for the Spatial Framework is expected in Spring 2021, with a draft Spatial Framework to be consulted on a year later that could see publication and implementation soon after Autumn 2022 consultation on the final draft. All eyes will be on the Arc. If these ambitious timescales can be achieved, and an effective Spatial Framework can be implemented to deliver such significant and important investment, transport and other infrastructure, such as housing and jobs, then why shouldn’t this be a blueprint for future plans of regional importance?

 

Nick Staffordspatial framework

GB operations director

Tetra Tech Planning

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