Craig McLaren discusses the Scottish Parliament report on City Region Deals
The Scottish Parliament’s Local Government and Communities Committee has published a report on its inquiry into city region deals in Scotland. The report highlights the need for more engagement with local communities and businesses; the need to address “confused and cluttered” priorities; and the need to ensure that places not covered by city region deals do not miss out on investments. We all want Scotland’s city region deals to be successful in bringing sustainable, long-term and transformational change and so the scrutiny provided by the committee is useful.
If city region deals are to provide this transformational change for our communities they need to be part of a strategy that integrates approaches to economic, social and environmental issues. They need to recognise how a range of investments across the region can complement one another and bring mutual benefit. And they need to look beyond the immediate to ensure that investments bring sustainable and lasting benefits in the longer term. They cannot be a list of individual projects and initiatives sitting in isolation. Given this, it is interesting that the committee said that the process for selecting projects is too opaque, with not enough information published to explain why certain projects were chosen or otherwise. It recommends a more transparent pan-Scotland system for evaluation of projects and that they are subject to a comprehensive equality impact assessment and a sustainability audit.
The Committee also said that there is a danger that the “often confused and cluttered policy landscape at local government, Scottish and UK levels runs the risk of reducing the impact that can be achieved from the deals”. It mentions concerns expressed on the need for more clarity about the respective roles and relationships between city region deals and the other mechanisms for economic growth, and greater consistency with the National Planning Framework, Scottish planning policy and local development plans.
There may be an opportunity to improve this through the new planning bill which is currently being scrutinised by the Parliament given that it proposes to change how city region planning is organised. We need to make sure that new any new arrangements provide for more effective integration between approaches aimed at planning, stimulating economic growth and providing infrastructure at the city region level. Robust arrangements for strategic/ city region planning will be critical to this and, I would argue, require new regional spatial strategies to be drawn up to act as a locus for a cross-government approach. This should include integrating regional action such as city region deals, Regional Transport Partnerships and decisions on infrastructure investments. However, this will require changes to the Bill so that it makes provisions for a statutory duty for local authorities to cooperate and for new regional planning partnerships to prepare a high level Regional Spatial Strategy.
It is also imperative that any arrangements are better connected to Community Plans and Local Outcome Improvement Plans. At present Community Plans are not always articulated spatially. There is scope for joining up the development process for each of these plans to ensure that priorities, decision on investment and to better connect consultation. There are also opportunities for better integration in engaging with stakeholders and communities and on monitoring and research.
In discussing the national approach to city region deals the Committee’s report only briefly mentions the National Planning Framework (NPF), though it quotes evidence that says that it “has had a coach and horses ridden through it by the city deals”. The NPF sets out a long-term vision for the development of Scotland and is often described by Ministers as the spatial expression of the Scottish Government’s Economic Strategy. The aspirations of the NPF are very similar to those that Scottish Government set out for City Region Deals. However, there appears to be no formal connection between city region deals and the NPF, and the majority of city region deal proposal documents do not reference the NPF. To achieve truly transformational changes in city regions a planned approach that considers the issues in the whole, rather than sectorally, is required. Surely there must be an enhanced role for the NPF – and planning in general – in setting the context for the future development and implementation of city region deals?
This article first appeared in New Start magazine on 15 January 2018