Abolition of Regional Spatial Strategies: a planning vacuum? - Communities and Local Government Committee Contents

2  What are Regional Spatial Strategies?

Definition of Regional Spatial Strategies (RSSs)

4. Regional Spatial Strategies were introduced in place of county-level structure plans in the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004. National Planning Policy Guidance (PPG) was replaced by Planning Policy Statements (PPS), and local plans were replaced by Local Development Frameworks (LDFs)—a collection of local development documents, written by each District Council and having regard to the RSS in their particular region. Each RSS became the strategic level plan for a region in England—a statutory, legal document—charged with informing every Local Development Framework (LDF) within that region.

5. Paragraph 1.3 of Planning Policy Statement 11 describes the wide range of planning topics that RSSs should cover:

The following matters should be taken into account: identification of the scale and distribution of provision for new housing; priorities for the environment, such as countryside and biodiversity protection; and transport, infrastructure, economic development, agriculture, minerals extraction and waste treatment and disposal.[3]

6. Written evidence from the Department of Communities and Local Government (DCLG) summarised the reasoning behind the creation of RSSs in 2004:

The rationale for a regional planning tier was the need to coordinate some planning issues, such as infrastructure and strategic growth, above district and county level and to set targets for growth including housing delivery. Regional Strategy housing targets were seen as the means of delivering the previous administration's national target of 240,000 net additional dwellings per year by 2016 leading to 2 million new homes by 2016 and a further 1 million by 2020.[4]

The purpose of RSSs was succinctly summarised in written evidence by Denton Wilde Sapte:

The RSSs were intended to provide a framework for private investment and public sector planning. RSS policies provided an evidence-driven, strategic focus for spatial planning decisions. The need for a regional tier of policy arose as a result of the difficulties experienced by local planning authorities in both dealing with strategic applications and putting in place a coherent planning framework to deliver major urban extensions. The RSS system was welcomed, initially, by both the development industry and third sector agencies with interests in conservation, sustainability and social justice.[5]

RSSs bridged the gap between local planning issues determined by local planning policies and nationally-determined policy aspirations, such as housing or renewable energy. As West Coast Energy wrote, "every region had to play its part in reaching targets which were set."[6]

Views of regional spatial strategies

7. Our written and oral evidence was mixed on the benefits of regional spatial strategies. Although there has been public opposition to regional planning encapsulated in RSSs, there has also been support for its comprehensive, strategic view of planning across the different regions.


8. Both the process of creating RSSs and their outcomes have been criticised. Cristina Howick, from planning consultancy Roger Tym & Partners, described them as "impossibly complicated and expensive to do".[7] However, the main objections to them have come from those concerned with protecting the green belt and locally cherished land from housing development. Chris Skidmore MP, for example, wrote that "[i]t is only due to the imposition of 32,800 homes in the local area under the south-west RSS that the green belt has come under threat from being bulldozed".[8] Ron Morton, from the Shortwood Green Belt Campaign, told us that there was no RSS in the South-West because "35,000 people objected to the South-West RSS, so there must be something wrong with it for that level of people to object".[9] He criticised the gap between the proposals in RSSs and the views of local communities:

We are the people to whom things are done by planners. We don't have an input to the whole process. For example, my hamlet, which is 80 houses, is part of the parish of Pucklechurch. Pucklechurch has produced an excellent parish plan, which said there should be no building on the green belt land between Pucklechurch and the urban sprawl of Bristol, although there should be building within the village itself, because it recognises the need for families there to keep the school going, to keep the shops going—all those things. We need growth, but not this encroachment onto the green belt. So, what does the RSS produce? Building on the green belt. What did the planners in South Gloucestershire Council want to pursue? Building on the green belt.[10]

The Theatres Trust wrote that RSSs were "ineffective and inadequate" in providing cultural provision in the regions and that "the Theatres Trust has had far more success in advocating the protection and promotion of cultural facilities at a local level with individual local planning authorities in consultation with their local theatres and theatre groups".[11]

9. Opposition to RSSs in practice and in principle was summarised in general terms by DCLG's written evidence, which concluded:

It is clear from this level of opposition that Regional Strategies did not reflect local community aspirations. But the opposition generated has also meant that Regional Strategies were badly delayed and expensive to produce. The delay and uncertainty meant that they failed to provide a clear basis for planning and investment decisions.[12]

When he gave evidence, the Secretary of State described his view of RSSs: "I think the Spatial Strategies were mean in spirit and there was an assumption that things would always go wrong".[13] He also argued that they were ineffective, at least as far as housing was concerned, saying "We want to see more houses built. We do not think that the Regional Spatial Strategies delivered them, because it really was about ticking a box and going for an ambitious target and it did not really matter. There were no consequences for not doing that other than that your target increased".[14]


10. Other evidence points out that the RSS process, though flawed in many respects, did provide a means of involving a wide cross-section of interests in drawing up a planning strategy that dealt with issues covering different local authorities. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) wrote that there was much to praise in RSSs and they "were the product of close co-operation between local authorities and other interested parties".[15] This point was also made by the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI), which described how local authorities themselves wanted policies included in RSSs that would benefit their local areas, policies that involved, for example, renewable energy, sub-regional sport and recreation, biodiversity and regional parks.[16]

11. Evidence from researchers Graham Pearce and Sarah Ayres highlighted RSSs' contribution to the consistency of planning across the country given the slow emergence of Local Development Frameworks.[17] John Baker, from Baker Associates, told us about the positive aspects of RSSs, specifically the focus on decisions about unpopular planning issues:

I think people would see a lot of good things in regional planning. Fundamentally, they meant making decisions where there was an unwillingness to make decisions, particularly about unpopular things. The very good thing about them was that they established strategies and dealt with the relationship between settlements and places, but the fundamental opposition has been because they deal with housing numbers [...][18]

Cristina Howick, from planning consultants Roger Tym & Partners, argued that even the housing targets were not simply imposed at regional level, but "were subject to an enormous amount of back-and-forth negotiation. They were not just a top-down set of numbers."[19]

12. Providing a sound, solid evidence basis for planning decisions was identified as one of the strengths of RSSs. Brenda Pollack, from the South East Forum for Sustainability (SEFS), held out a copy of the South East RSS and spoke impassionedly about the document and the process:

This is the South-East Plan—10 years of work has gone into that. I don't know about the officers from the Regional Assembly when they heard it was being abolished, but I nearly wept, although I was just on the periphery of influencing some of the sustainable development policies in there, some of the renewable energy, the technical work that went into not just the housing figures but the capacity of the region for renewables, and where waste was going to go. All that evidence was fed into this final document, and I think that some of the stuff that's gone now—that's completely a void—needs to be brought back and seriously considered by the Government, rather than wasting resources trying to develop them through Local Enterprise Partnerships or whoever in the different variations of bodies, where there might be gaps in between them. All that good evidence is still there. It may be that it needs updating, but it shouldn't go to waste.[20]


13. Our evidence was mixed on the benefits of Regional Spatial Strategies. There has been public opposition to regional planning encapsulated in RSSs, particularly arising from the length and complexity of their preparation, the difficulty of influencing their outcomes and the housing targets they contained. There has also been support for their comprehensive, strategic view of planning across the different regions. Such a strategic view of planning often involved necessary developments that were unpopular at a local level, such as waste disposal, mineral working, accommodation for Gypsies and Travellers, and energy projects. There has also been considerable agreement within regions to secure a positive strategic approach to natural environment issues, such as wildlife protection. The Government must ensure that the beneficial and positive aspects of RSSs, in particular for integrating infrastructure, economic development, housing, data collection and environment protection, are not swept away, but are retained in any new planning framework.

3   http://www.communities.gov.uk/documents/planningandbuilding/pdf/147399.pdf Back

4   Ev 149 Back

5   ARSS 100, Denton Wilde Sapte, para 1.1 Back

6   ARSS 121, West Country Energy, para 3.4 Back

7   Q 1 Back

8   ARSS 84, Chris Skidmore MP, Kingswood, para 3 Back

9   Q 112 Back

10   Q 112 Back

11   ARSS 130, The Theatres Trust, para 6 Back

12   Ev 149 Back

13   Q 286 Back

14   Q 276 Back

15   ARSS 122, RSPB, para 2 Back

16   Ev 88 Back

17   ARSS 60, Aston and Bristol University, para 2.1 Back

18   Q 2 Back

19   Q 5 Back

20   Q 144 Back

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Prepared 17 March 2011