How Was It For You? The Strategic Development Plans Review

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John Walls reports on an event held by the RTPI West of Scotland Chapter

In mid June the West of Scotland Chapter had a very enjoyable talk by Kevin Murray followed by a panel discussion on the recent Strategic Development Plans (SDP) Review.

The panelists roped in to broaden the discussion were Fraser Carlin, Head of Planning and Development, Renfrewshire Council; Dorothy McDonald, Assistant Manager, Glasgow and Clyde Valley Strategic Development Plan Authority and Stefano Smith, Technical Director, AMEC Environment and Infrastructure.

I won’t cover the Kevin’s coverage of the Review as its contents can be found in the review document . You canalso read the Scottish Government’s response. Suffice to say the report concluded the system was not broken. There is evidence of some good practice but Kevin stressed there is a need to refresh and reinforce the SDP teams. They are under resourced in staffing and support terms. The situation is aggravated by widespread loss of experienced planning staff through downsizing exercises across the country. The Review is therefore advocating a need to build greater capacity, awareness and effective behaviours in strategic planning through annual training of both political and professional leaders.

Moving onto the panel discussion, the first question which arose is how did Scotland compare with other countries? Kevin was quick to note that the European models were better funded, had more effective mechanisms and a more consensual approach. In particular, local and regional governments enjoyed more autonomy something which had been in decline in the UK over the last 3 to 4 decades.

Dorothy McDonald illustrated this by a cross responsibility issue in respect of delivery on transport matters when responsibilities fall between Transport Scotland and Strathclyde Partnership for Transport. In the days of Strathclyde Regional Council there were usually teeth to deal with most of these cross boundary issues. Under the new regime there was only resources available to deliver the SDP itself! Fraser Carlin added that the SDP wasn’t intended as a delivery mechanism and, therefore, didn’t drive the allocation of funding. He went on to contrast the situation with the City Deals enjoyed in England; eg Manchester where strategic planning and allocation of resources is managed through weekly business meetings and is very much linked to investment in key areas such as infrastructure. This lack of buy in Scotland undermines the value of SDPs.

Stefano Smith offered some comfort observing that the Local Development Plan system in Scotland is well respected in comparison with England. However, where the Scottish planning system falls down is the lack of attention to funding. This, of course, is better handled in England. Ouch!

Nick Wright asked if the situation in Scotland was a leadership issue and who are the leaders? Kevin Murray responded by noting that in Greater Manchester that Manchester City Council’s Chief Executive’s Department ran the City Deal on a cross boundary basis with nine other local authorities. In the case of Gothenburg he observed that there were more players than public ones; eg Volvo and the Chalmer’s University (founded by a Scotsman, of course), are major local employers, who had an interest in their local community and wanted to have an influence on the quality of place in Gothenburg. Something Kevin felt worth replicating in our SDPs.

Fraser Carlin agreed it is the ‘top’ that set the agenda, something which isn’t currently being cracked in the current planning system. It should be recognized that spatial plans articulate the needs of the community. However, to be effective, politicians need to be engaged in the process and influence funding and delivery. Dorothy McDonald thought that leadership could emerge from SDPs. Time will tell.

Interestingly Stefano Smith said there are good examples of good strategic planning in Scotland if you seek them out. He noted that Scottish Enterprise had an excellent Renewables Strategy. What’s important is to have joined up thinking and a long term vision. While I found this of comfort in a way, it did sadden me because the Scottish planning system rigorously separates planning and ‘doing’! Scottish Enterprise has a significant budget and can do its own thing. Moreover, as a government agency, it can influence how other government funds are allocated. This example, in my opinion, is one of the reasons why planning doesn’t get the political attention or support that it should.

Matthew Spurway asked the question what messages should we be seeking to select from the review. The panelists were fairly universal in identifying delivery, management and implementation as key areas for attention. In particular, plans need to be backed up by funding. Kevin Murray added that it is important to build capacity in the planning system including reinventing skills which had been lost through downsizing. Fraser Carlin was keen to see planning integrated with funding packages. Stefano Smith expressed the same sentiments by saying that there is a need for clarity on the infrastructure required to facilitate future developments. It is important to know who does what and when. I, and in my view, most of those at the event didn’t need to be persuaded that a reconnection between planning and implementation is a worthy aspiration.

This was an excellent meeting informing, entertaining and enlightening – well done Kevin Murray, the panelists and the organisers.

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