Devolved governance – what role for planning?

Last week the RTPI sent us a copy of a collection of papers it had just published, based on a symposium held at UCL in April 2015, on the topic “Critical Perspectives on Devolved Models of Governance”.

The issues covered, devolution, decentralisation, localism, are highly topical and a glance down the list of contributors – all well-known academics and thinkers – convinced me that the collection was worth a close read during my morning and evening commutes. So, a few train journeys later, here’s what I learned from each paper.

‘Critical perspectives on devolved governance – lessons from housing policy in England’

Miguel Coelho, from the Institute for Government, argues that any arrangements for devolved governance need to address housing supply constraints created by failures in the governance of land and construction property rights in England, which tend to favour the interests of current homeowners.

His analysis of the housing supply problem identifies three issues:

  • planning decisions made at local level may not allow for the full range of interests affected, especially in the absence of effective city/regional planning coordination
  • local communities’ attitudes to housebuilding in their area are sensitive to temporary disruption and house price impacts
  • a highly centralised fiscal system gives little power to councils to allow them to avoid/compensate for these problems and facilitate development.

This leads Coelho to the conclusion that proper governance of land and construction is not just about decentralising planning decisions to local level. All interests should be taken into account, not just current local homeowners, so some form of supra-local planning coordination is needed.

‘Assessing the impact of decentralisation’

Professor John Tomaney, from Bartlett School of Planning UCL, considers the benefits of decentralisation, based on a study of international experience.

He suggests that the UK government “has embarked on a radical policy of decentralisation in England, which it calls ‘localism’.” This particular form of decentralisation, different from the kinds tried in other countries, makes it difficult to assess the effects. However, in general Tomaney gives a positive message that high degrees of decentralisation are associated with higher levels of subjective well-being. Interestingly the suggestion seems to be that fiscal decentralisation seems to be more relevant, in this regard, than political decentralisation.

‘Planning, place governance and the challenges of devolution’

Patsy Healey, Emeritus Professor at Newcastle University, emphasises the importance of place and argues that decentralisation needs to connect to what people care about and encourage broadly-based public debate about these concerns.

She argues that over-centralisation represses the capacity for innovation in the planning field and undermines its ability to create and sustain place-focused development strategies.  However she warns that we can’t be naïve about the benefits of localism – decentralisation should not just be handing tasks down to lower levels of government. Wider levels of government are needed to provide oversight and promote strategies and values which affect people’s attachments at a broader scale.

Healey’s hope is for the slow replacement of top-down governance, dominated by experts, with “multiple, non-hierarchical overlapping but interacting forms of ‘network governance’.”

‘Making strategic planning work’

Nicholas Falk, of the Urbed consultancy, stresses that planning is not a science through which problems can be resolved by bringing enough data together. Political choices have to be made, requiring leadership at local, as well as regional and national levels.

Like Tomaney, he looks overseas for lessons, particularly France. He proposes an ‘ABC’ of the requirements for placemaking leadership: Ambition to create better places; Brokerage to put deals together and win support for change; and Continuity, giving enough time to turn vision into reality.

He argues that we need to mobilise private investment behind housebuilding and local infrastructure rather than sustaining inflated house prices. He also makes the point that current regional boundaries are no longer appropriate and that instead we need to empower both city regions and dynamic counties.

The contribution of planning to England’s devolutionary journey

Janice Morphet, Visting Professor at the Bartlett School of Planning, looks at devolution as a process not an event.

She suggests that planning can contribute to devolution in the following ways: 1) it can capture the vision for the whole place; 2) it can set this vision in the context of the nation and its surrounding neighbours. Of course this has to be undertaken with partners and stakeholders in the wider governance framework, but decisions have to be taken by the ‘government of the place’ – which she suggests is likely to be through a combined authority.

Morphet concludes that planning has a major contribution to make, through its map making, visioning and prioritisation in order to develop ‘city and sub-regional hearts’.

‘Place-based leadership and social innovation’

Professor Robin Hambleton, of the University of the West of England, looks at the role leadership has to play in fostering social innovation.

He criticises the over-centralisation of government in Britain and calls devolution deals for selected parts of the country (such as city regions or combined authorities) a ‘devolution deception’ as they are expected to be “mere servants of Whitehall”.

Hambleton sets out three pointers to renewing local democracy:

1) recognise that the current over-centralised system holds back the innovative capacity of the people and set up a constitutional convention to create a new local/central settlement;

2) learn from abroad, where local authorities often have far more political power and responsibility for local taxation, allowing local leaders to respond to local challenges;

3) people living in particular localities need to have much more say in what happens to quality of life in their area, though with limits to tackle issues of self-interest and exclusion.

‘Collaborative innovation: the argument’

Finally Professor Jacob Torfing, of Roskilde University, Denmark, argues for the bringing together of public and private actors in processes of collaborative innovation.

He points out that the idea of co-creation of innovative solutions to policy issues is of growing interest, but argues that a new form of public leadership is needed for it to happen.

Interestingly, Torfing warns that we need to recognise that there is no guarantee that innovation leads to improvement, so the definition of innovation should not include reference to successful outcomes. Drawing on the research literature he points out that of the three types of strategies for developing public policy innovation – authoritative, competitive and collaborative – collaborative is the best for creative problem solving.

He argues that public leaders need to involve the private sector in developing innovative strategies, in order to benefit from this collaborative approach.

Final reflections

The overall messages that can be drawn from the papers include:

  • Over-centralisation limits the ability of local areas to develop their own solutions to local problems, whether in the planning field or other sectors, but simply devolving decisions to the local level is not the answer.
  • Local communities should have a say in decisions that affect the area where they live, and the evidence is that decentralisation is good for well-being, however a broader ‘supra-local’ level of governance is needed.
  • Fiscal devolution gives local and regional bodies the means to implement the solutions they identify
  • Devolution offers a real opportunity for encouraging innovation in developing solutions to policy problems…
  • … but this requires new leadership skills for the public sector to take the risks involved in innovation, and to coordinate the range of interests involved
  • As Torfing describes it, this would mean “a new type of public leadership that is more proactive, horizontal and integrative and that recasts public leaders as conveners, facilitators and catalysts of collaborative innovation”.

By Alan Gillies, Idox


You can read the full collection of papers, published by the RTPI, on their website.

The Idox Information Service has introduced an exclusive offer for RTPI members to help them with their evidence needs.

This year Idox is also sponsoring the RTPI Awards for Research Excellence, recognising and promoting high quality spatial planning research.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s