Blog: 1 February 2018A view from over the pond: Same problems, different location?

Robin Shepherd

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Robin Shepherd

Planning Director

Southampton office

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The challenge of strategic planning in the UK ‘Can we do it? Are we allowed to do it?’ is something planners and successive governments have debated at length for nigh on a decade! The National Infrastructure Commission’s report and Industrial Strategy published last year does bring us a step closer, with both effectively calling for a National Plan and a vision for the UK. Many within the planning & development profession still yearn for a cross-boundary, strategic approach if we are to deliver real growth across the UK. How do other nations deal with this? On a recent visit to New York for the American Planning Association’s (APA) annual conference, I was keen to see what I may be able to learn from their approach.

America is clearly a far bigger challenge than the UK, both geographically and administratively, but they also lack a national level view - there is no governance structure to inform cross-boundary working, no government driving cities to join up the dots. Through case studies of Dallas and North Texas, the conference quickly established how little inter-State activity goes on. Scale, travel distances and a lack of connectivity prevents the integration of cities, even if differences in State legislation and operation could be overcome. In addition, land is not a valuable commodity in many areas of the US and as a result, cities sprawl. The need for intensification seems to only gain traction when urban regeneration is required, or the green agenda can grow a voice.  

However, this attitude is changing. Driven by a need for cities to economically “join forces,” as well as the natural disasters that have befallen the US in recent years, many of the States themselves have had to question their resilience and look to inter-State support. The APA has therefore taken it upon themselves to broker collaboration and lead an initiative whose tagline ‘Act locally, think regionally, compete globally’ clearly sets out the mutual economic benefits collaboration could deliver. In other words, rather than waiting for the Government to act, the planning profession has taken the lead.  

Their approach has sought to build cross-boundary understanding, focused around infrastructure; be this for high speed rail or approaches to water usage and storage – which would offer neighbours clear, well-articulated mutual benefits, without which the APA found collaboration impossible. A vocal champion has been a pre-requisite for success, as has ownership from everyone involved in the discussions.

All of this sounds rather familiar and similar to our approach to devolution, with Metro Mayors seen as the voice and infrastructure to deliver economic growth as the mutual benefit.  What this approach illustrates is that considering the "bigger picture" doesn’t have to be counter to localism; in fact it can often help. We can genuinely engage communities in the bigger issues, and if we do they will also understand the implications of more local ones. Scenario planning is another way the APA and many in the US have muted for bringing people on board, and it is something we planners within the UK are still very good at. Perhaps what we are less good at is articulating these scenarios; or even taking this beyond the socio-environmental cost of development vs the economic gain it will generate.

Back in the UK, whilst we might not yet have the heightened pressure of natural disasters to drive the agenda, we can see the very real impact of short term and tunnel-vision decision-making in the absence of a proper understanding of the bigger picture. How will London actually grow and overcome its affordability problems, without a wider framework to effectively plan? How can we realistically provide for 21st century infrastructure needs without understanding where our growth will and should be?

Despite calls from local government, the planning and development industry and even the NIC, much like the US, we lack the commitment from Government to provide a framework for strategic planning. So, in the mean time, the problems of uncoordinated planning and infrastructure delivery get worse. So, do we wait? For how long? Or, as a profession, do we take a leaf out of America’s book, and lead the debate ourselves, creating the platform and framework for the long-lost art of “proper” strategic planning. The US have never done this before - so they don’t know how to.  Yet in the UK, it’s in our blood - we just think we aren’t allowed to!  But, we don’t need to wait for permission. Perhaps, through the RTPI or even as professionals in our own right, we have the responsibility (and knowledge) to plan for the long term; and to plan well. For a profession so often seen as negative and ineffectual, here is our moment; like the great urban planners of old, to show our worth, intellect and value.  

Posted with the following keywords:
Strategic planning, Industrial Strategy, National Infrastructure Commission, American Planning Association