Blog: 10 February 2021We need spatial planning to successfully level up the country

Simon Prescott

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Simon Prescott

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Bristol office

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It’s fair to say that the government’s levelling-up agenda for England has yet to get started. Admittedly, the COVID-19 pandemic has been a legitimate distraction, but it’s also served as an urgent reminder why we need to see these bold promises reflected in actions, and clear results.

The issue isn’t a lack of willpower or even a lack of funding. It is the lack of a coherent plan – one that can chart the course to a more prosperous and geographically balanced England. The One Powerhouse Consortium aims to provide such a road map.  In partnership with the Royal Society of the Arts, the Consortium set out four draft regional blueprints that demonstrate what could be achieved if the government put its weight behind a proper programme of spatial planning. 

New regionalism

It might seem like the country is already awash with plans at a local or sector level. But what we need to be focusing on is a ‘new regionalism’. Projects such as the Oxford Cambridge Arc are pioneering this approach, and it’s part of a growing global trend to look at planning for clusters of cities, towns and rural areas rather than taking them individually. 

The One Powerhouse programme looks at four ‘megaregions’: the North of England, the Midlands, the South East and the South West.  Each report gives a framework for assessing what is needed to level up a megaregion, and therefore how the available money should be best used. Not just levelling up North versus South, or East versus West, but village by village, town by town and city by city – ensuring everyone in the country benefits.

This type of holistic strategy is capable of dealing with problems that cannot be managed by one local area alone – such as flooding planning or wider infrastructure connectivity. This means it can bring benefits usually unachievable through sporadic and localised investment. Levelling up and tackling regional inequality requires this broader-minded, longer-term approach. Poor economic productivity, stark differences in educational attainment and health region to region, a fragmented system of transport infrastructure – these  issues are too complex to be dealt with any other way.

Communities and collaboration

But this is not a grand, top-down paternalist doctrine. Targeting this investment cannot be done from the halls of Westminster alone – nor even from the planning desk of district councils.  Collaboration with communities is central to success. The megaregion framework puts a wide-angle lens onto regional problems, but essential to this process is bringing people together and encouraging collaboration from the bottom up. This helps us get to the core of what each area and each community needs to succeed and flourish – then we can guide this targeted investment while being mindful of the larger challenges, the longer-term and the wider geographic picture. 

In essence, the importance of strong spatial planning is that it not only stimulates investment – but that it does so while contributing to a larger, longer-term vision. A vision that goes beyond the boundaries of local planning areas and individual business cases and focuses on the benefits to all. In particular, this provides an opportunity for plans at scale to spur investment in rural regions that might often be overlooked and underdeveloped – because they are seen to be part of a larger picture. 

We are already seeing moves towards spatial planning in the other nations of the UK, and in our Capital – Scotland and London were the first UK ‘megaregions’ in a sense. The preparations for Scotland’s latest National Planning Framework will chart the nation’s course right through to 2050 – seeking to combat the shift to net zero among other challenges. 

For the English regions, our aim with One Powerhouse is to work alongside both national and local government to guarantee that the right decisions and best investments are being made for every region, every time. If the government and the National Infrastructure Commission are serious about tackling regional inequality, they must first embrace spatial planning.  

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One Powerhouse, Levelling Up, Standard Method, Planning Reform #LetsFindAWay Build Back Better, Spatial Planning