As the initial consultation on Scotland’s fourth National Planning Framework (NPF4) draws to a close, the Welsh Government is preparing to publish the final version of the National Development Framework for Wales, Future Wales: the National Plan 2040. Some of the issues raised during the Senedd’s final scrutiny of Future Wales are also of relevance for NPF4. This blog compares approaches being taken by the two devolved administrations to highlight some strategic planning challenges.
Along with taking forward the pressing Climate Change agenda, one of the major challenges in both countries will be economic and social recovery from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. While the Scottish Government’s post-COVID Economic Recovery Implementation Plan reflects the neoliberal narrative set out in the Higgins Report, Towards a Robust, Resilient Wellbeing Economy for Scotland, Scottish Ministers do appear to recognise some role for strategic planning in recovery. The Implementation Plan indicates that NPF4 will be brought to Parliament in September. It also states that the Regional Land Use Partnerships should have a role in regional economic development as well as meeting climate change goals. In his foreword to the Position Statement on NPF4 published in November, Planning Minister Kevin Stewart states that the experience of the pandemic has highlighted the importance of a good local environment, with good access to open space and amenities, but post-pandemic recovery is not developed as a theme in that document.
In a report Go Big – Go Local published in October, the UK2070 Commission warned that the pandemic may exacerbate regional inequalities and have disproportionate impacts on the elderly and opportunities for young people. It recommended that strategies for recovery should place emphasis on investment in infrastructure with a view to building resilience and strengthening connectivity.
During committee scrutiny of the draft Future Wales in the Autumn of last year, the Welsh Minister for Housing and Local Government, Julie James, argued that the strategy it set out is sufficiently robust and flexible to respond to the societal changes arising from the pandemic and that experience over the past year had validated its focus on climate change, place-making and resilience. However, the Senedd’s Climate Change, Environment and Rural Affairs Committee has pressed for more. Drawing on the work of the UK2070 Commission, it has called for Future Wales to include a clear statement reflecting the lessons learned from COVID-19 and explaining how the framework will help to further post-COVID recovery. It has pressed for explicit recognition of the potential contributions of investment in infrastructure, housing, connectivity, heat networks and natural capital, and increasing capacity in the foundation economy. There may well be similar calls in Scotland.
The Regional Dimension of Recovery
While the Higgins report played down the role of the public sector, particularly local authorities, in recovery, some of its recommendations were very much in tune with the thinking of the UK2070 Commission. It called for an investment-led recovery. It recognised the need to address regional disparities in Scotland and advocated a regionally focused model of economic development.
Future Wales has a strong regional dimension. The Welsh Government will rely on strategic development plans for North, Mid, South-East and South-West Wales to take forward key aspects of policy development and implementation. How enthusiastic the Scottish Government will be about a strong regional dimension to recovery strategy remains to be seen. It has blown hot and cold over regions over the past decade. In 2014 it reaffirmed its commitment to strategic development plans at the regional level, yet the planning review initiated by Alex Neil in 2015 led to a proposal to end regional agency and centralise strategic planning in the National Planning Framework. As a result of opposition in the Scottish Parliament, the Scottish Government was obliged to accord a role to Regional Land Use Partnerships. The Position Statement for NPF4 states that “Our strategy will be informed by emerging regional scale spatial and economic strategies.”
The Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Stephen Barclay, announced in January that the UK Shared Prosperity Fund is to be disbursed from London. This creates a real danger that Scottish discretion on spatial priorities will be significantly curtailed. The Scottish Government may count itself fortunate that its attempt to abolish regional strategic planning failed. Without it, its flank might have been even more exposed to UK Government interventions than it is. It will be important for the Scottish Government to build strong relationships with local authorities and work closely with regional partnerships on spatial strategies.
Barclay’s announcement makes it even more important to be clear about the relationship between strategic spatial planning and growth deals. They reflect different ideological perspectives, and there is potential for them to pull in different directions. The Position Statement on NPF4 states only that regional spatial and economic strategies “will align with city and regional growth deals.” There is no indication that growth deals should reflect spatial strategies. In Wales, the Senedd’s Climate Change, Environment and Rural Affairs Committee has recommended to the Welsh Government that “Future Wales should explicitly state the need for a reciprocal and iterative relationship between strategic development plans and growth deals over time.” Stakeholders should insist on the same relationship between spatial strategies and growth deals in Scotland.
Place-Making and Housing Delivery
There is contrast between the Welsh and Scottish Governments in their approach to place-making and housing delivery. Future Wales accords the public sector the lead role in urban development, regeneration and the delivery of affordable housing, though the Welsh Government remains coy about specific delivery mechanisms. In the NPF4 Position Statement, the public sector and local authorities barely get a mention. The Scottish Government appears to prefer a developer-led model, with the role of planning authorities being merely to provide developers with “a steady pipeline of land.” While there is a lot of aspirational rhetoric about place-making in the Position Statement, the Scottish Government shows little inclination to empower the public sector to take the necessary lead. Better places and 20-minute neighbourhoods are public policy objectives, but we are given no hint as to the mechanisms which will be used to deliver them. There is no reference, for example, to the work the Scottish Land Commission has been doing on land value capture and sharing for several years now.
Finally, it is interesting that the repopulation of rural areas has re-emerged as an objective of spatial planning in Scotland and Wales, something we have not really seen since the strategic plans for post-Depression and post-War recovery in the middle of the last century. In autumn 2018, Community Land Scotland successfully promoted an amendment to the Planning (Scotland) Bill which requires the NPF to consider the potential for rural resettlement. The NPF Position Statement says that rural repopulation will be a key theme for emerging regional spatial strategies for the South of Scotland, Argyll and Bute, Western Isles, Orkney and the Highlands. The Welsh Senedd’s Climate Change, Environment and Rural Affairs Committee has called for Future Wales to include further locational guidance on addressing rural depopulation. It has also pressed for the Welsh framework to recognise opportunities for people to live and work sustainably outside towns and cities.
This article was originally published as a blog for Built Environment Forum Scotland (BEFS) in February 2021.