After many years, yes, it is happening. The publication of the Arc Spatial Framework policy paper is fantastic news for this hugely important region. However, this principle of such a framework has been established for a while now. The real news in the policy paper is that government is taking a direct and seemingly lead role in the preparation of the Oxford-Cambridge Arc’s Spatial Framework.
Were the Spatial Framework to be a generic document of little consequence for plan making, this may have not been particularly noteworthy. However, what is proposed is a document which will have the same status as national planning policy and will establish strategic policies for guiding where growth should be located and provide an assessment of anticipated future need, though stops short of setting requirements or targets.
One should be forgiven for seeing this as a return to regional planning. The policy paper instead refers to the preparation of this Spatial Framework as a ‘government led approach to strategic planning’. Tomatoes, tomatoes? The policy paper acknowledges that calls for a return to strategic planning are long-standing and growing. The paper credits the NIC’s 2017 report, Partnering for Prosperity, and the more recent CCN report prepared by Catriona Riddell. To secure the reintroduction of strategic planning in any form is a huge achievement.
What precisely the Government’s involvement in preparing the Spatial Framework will mean in practice will emerge as it is produced over the next 24 months or so. Having committed to a timetable, one which is ambitious given the scope of the exercise, MHCLG and its specialist team will need to ensure that this is delivered to avoid any potential embarrassment, particularly as delays to the Spatial Framework could impact on the timely preparation of local plans across the Arc. Certainly, we can be encouraged by the Secretary of State’s intervention in the examination of the South Oxfordshire Local Plan 2035, which helped to secure an accelerated examination and adoption within a seemingly impossible timescale when set by the SoS on 3rd March 2020.
This policy paper should be welcomed by all of those that have an interest in the long-term planning of the Arc. With the Arc having received formal government support through the 2020 Budget, and with a growing library of evidence, prospectuses and strategies endorsing the principles set out in the policy paper, the less patient amongst us may ask, ‘could this have been published earlier?’. Perhaps, but the timing more likely reflects the time taken to secure political support for this type of regional plan approach. Buckinghamshire may have been a casualty of this process, having announced its withdrawal from the Arc Leaders Group in September 2020, though, confusingly, continuing to be identified in the policy paper as part of the Arc.
Having participated in the examinations of Local Plans in Wycombe, Aylesbury Vale (ongoing), Milton Keynes, and across Oxfordshire, given the Arc’s long gestation, all contemplated to some degree the implications of the Arc. Alas, all found in favour of deferring for future plan reviews, on the basis that it would be premature to plan for a higher ‘transformational’ level of growth at that stage. As work on the Spatial Framework is only now getting underway, it is difficult to argue.
Looking ahead, the policy paper states that authorities across the Arc should continue to develop their local plans before the publication (in other words, during the preparation) of the Spatial Framework. Indeed, the preparation of local plans in Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Milton Keynes, Bedfordshire and further east, running alongside (though, for obvious reasons, slightly behind) the preparation of the Spatial Framework would make good sense. This should be possible in Oxfordshire, Milton Keynes and Bedfordshire, with Buckinghamshire seemingly following a couple of years behind. It is also necessary to ensure that there are up-to-date plans adopted by December 2023.
As important as ensuring that the preparation of this next round of local plans keeps pace, and potentially accelerated, is that they begin to plan for the ambitious level of high-quality growth needed to realise the Arc’s full potential. Let's be optimistic that this will happen and without any need for SoS intervention.
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Strategic Planning, Arc (CaMKoX), Spatial Planning, Build Back Better, Levelling Up, Planning Reform