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LDF L&DG: Spatial Planning - Shaking off the Shackles

Date: 26/4/2005

The pilot authorities met again on 26 April 2005. This bulletin sets out what came out of that meeting. It focuses on issues around spatial planning, in terms of:

  • being clear what spatial planning is and how it differs from land use planning
  • communicatng spatial planning to others
  • getting others involved
  • choosing approaches which will ensure that planning is truly spatial

HEALTH WARNING - The material here sets out the broad conclusions which came out of discussion with the pilot authorities, and represents an early view of what seems to be sensible practice. It is not presented as good practice at this time, because the test of that will only come when it has been applied in reality and can be seen to have worked.

  • what is apatial planning, and how is it different?
  • communicating spatial planning to others
  • getting others involved
  • choosing approaches which will ensure that planning is truly spatial

What is spatial planning, and how is it different?

Planning liberated - The move to a spatial planning system provides the exciting opportunity to re-invent planning as central to the future quality of life in our communities and as a creative and dynamic function. The Act has provided the pre-conditions, and now it is for practitioners to make the most of the new opportunities. A system which was hampered by the limitation to land use has been liberated, to allow planners to address and tackle the needs and problems of the area without being constantly constrained by the system itself. Of course there are many examples of planning authorities which sought to set out in plan policies the interaction between land development and other aspects of public policy. But they were open to challenge (and commonly were) on the basis that their plan went beyond the limitation to land use. Now all relevant spatial matters can legitimately be included.

Spatial planning is, of course, more than "old style" planning without the previous limitation to land use. It is about an integrated strategy for the future of an area which is rooted in a clear vision, with commitment by all the relevant agencies to its delivery.

It follows that we shall only succeed if planners and their local government colleagues and partners understand the concepts of spatial planning, its scope and its reach. This has to begin with practitioners being confident of their own grasp of spatial planning, and having a well thought out approach to how they will communicate it to others and gain their commitment.

However, it is apparent that in reality many practitioners are still unclear what spatial planning really means, and how it differs from the familiar land use planning system. If planners are uncertain about the meaning of spatial planning, they cannot expect to communicate it successfully to others.

Understanding spatial planning - Paradoxically, because many planners have worked throughout their careers within the limitation to land use, it could be more difficult for them to take a firm grasp of the concepts of spatial planning than non-planners, whose thinking is not fettered in the same way. In particular there is a need to "un-learn" familiar and instinctive approaches and responses, which is actually more difficult than acquiring new knowledge.

To assist in that un-learning, two things are helpful -

  • to be clear about all the ways in which spatial planning differs from land use planning - it is not just a matter of the removal of limitations
  • to adopt approaches to LDF preparation which are distinctly different from the way one has customarily tackled old-style planning, since that will assist in identifying spatial issues which should be addressed

The pilot authorities brainstormed the differences between land use and spatial planning, and came up with the following -

Differences between land use and spatial planning
Land use Spatial
Legal Framework
Scope prescribed by statute and case law Scope significantly broader, though still prescribed (see below)
Boundaries are familiar Boundaries to be established
Plan could be prepared in isolation from other agencies Requires a collaborative approach with a range of agencies
Compatible with silo Council organisation Predicated on Council having an integrated approach to strategy and delivery
Plan owned by the Council Council leads preparation on behalf of Local Strategic Partnership and a range of agencies owned by a wider community
Planners could be peripheral to the Council, but still prepare the plan Expects planners to be engaged in corporate strategy and policy making
Vision not mandatory Shared vision required
Objectives constrained to land use Scope for diverse and more fundamental objectives
Site specific and defined areas for operation of policies Can contain non site-based policies
Requirement for general conformity with higher level planning strategy General conformity with Regional/London spatial strategy continues, but now also the requirement to have regard to the community strategy
Process generally of only legal concern Process ongoing and important in itself
Consultation with communities focused on proposals Early and ongoing engagement with communities, focused on needs, concerns and problems
Consultation with agencies on proposals Requires consensus with agencies on strategy, integration and delivery
Monitoring a limited suite of data Monitoring performance on delivery of objectives across the board
Delivery mainly through development control by the local authority Delivery through a range of channels and a range of agencies
Focus on allocations and what gets built - outputs Focus on delivery of objectives and all the elements which go together to achieve them- outcomes

While spatial planning is clearly wider than land use planning, there is still a statutory prescription that LDDs will set out proposals for "the development and use of land in their area", which should be read in the context that it will be a spatial plan. The limits of spatial planning remain to be defined, presumably by a combination of emerging consensus on practice, decisions of Inspectors following examination of DPDs, Government policy and case law. In deciding what should or should not be included in an LDD planning authorities will have to rely for the time being on their own common sense.

Clearly, any policy material which would have been appropriate to a land use plan will be capable of inclusion within a spatial LDD, though much of the detailed policy which typifies many local plans will not be necessary due to -

  • not having to repeat policies from planning policy statements (and presumably PPGs which have not yet been replaced by PPSs)
  • the use of generic development control policies
  • the use of supplementary planning documents to present necessary detailed policy and guidance

In cases of doubt about whether it is appropriate to include particular policy material, some preliminary ideas are that it should contribute to one or more of the following -

  • it is necessary to enable the delivery of an objective or policy of the community strategy
  • it relates to the delivery of a significant proposal of the plan
  • it sets out the planning authority's policy or expectations in terms of planning obligations

It is suggested that for the information of users of the LDF and the inspector at the examination, each LDD should set out concisely what limits have been set on its content in terms of spatial policy coverage.

Communicating spatial planning to others

Colleagues within the authority and partner agencies will need to understand the broad concepts of the new planning system and spatial planning before they will be able to see their relevance to their own activities and the fit with community planning. This does not mean they will need the same depth of understanding as planners, nor do they need to understand all the intricacies of the new system.

The following advice is offered -

  • keep it simple - identify the key aspects of spatial planning which are most relevant to the particular audience, and concentrate on them. Avoid the terms "spatial planning" and "sustainable development", preferring language such as "the new planning system" and "quality of life"
  • avoid the use of planning language and concepts - for example, most people do not have a firm grasp of the concept of land use planning, so to say spatial planning goes wider than land use will leave them none the wiser
  • similarly to say the implementation of the new plans will not be solely through the grant or refusal of planning permission is an equally difficult technical description
  • concentrate on what is in it for them. Senior management and other colleagues within the authority need to understand that the LDF is a duty and their support and assistance may be required: but they will grasp the principles of spatial planning more quickly if they can see that it can be positively helpful to them and their own roles and activities
  • similarly, partner organisations are likely to be attracted to the idea that action by them and others will be better integrated and more likely to be successful - this is part of the reason they subscribe to community planning

In relation to the key strategy, a key diagram can be helpful in communicating the emerging spatial strategy, and thereby the nature of spatial planning. The challenge will be to produce a key diagram which communicates itself to non-planners without the need for a key.

There is as yet no agreed, concise definition of spatial planning which will resonate with non-planners. Therefore, rather than try to force a definition, it is likely to be better to concentrate on describing the key characteristics of spatial planning and the new system, ie -

  • being about places, how they function and how they relate together; and how good design in the widest sense can be achieved
  • managing change to secure the best achievable quality of life for all in the community without squandering scarce resources or the environment
  • the local authority and other agencies working together and coordinating their activities to achieve agreed objectives

In practice it will often be the case that planners need to do three things at once -

  • explain the new system and how it differs from the old;
  • get across the significance of the change to spatial planning; and
  • persuade others that they should support the preparation of the LDF or contribute to it

Clearly, senior management, other colleagues, partner organisations and other agencies will need to understand the broad structure of the new system, but to concentrate too much on how the processes are different will run the risk of confusing them, and certainly won't get across the wider significance of the changes. The better approach will be to concentrate on the key characteristics of the new system, presenting them as strengths and opportunities, with less emphasis on the process changes.

Getting others involved

Securing corporate commitment and cooperation - For the LDF to be successfully delivered it needs to be properly resourced and appropriate arrangements made for it to fit in with other corporate processes. The support of leading members and senior management (the Chief Executive and Management Team) will therefore be critical. They need to be well briefed and informed so that they appreciate that -

  • the LDF will be an ongoing plan-making process rather than the production of a single plan, and will require permanent forward planning capacity. The process of engagement with others is as important as the final document
  • its wider scope and the need for good quality evidence will require more technical work and funding to meet the cost
  • to progress the LDF expeditiously will require effective member steering arrangements (drawing on both the cabinet and the planning committee to provide effective ownership of the resultant plan). Decision-making machinery should not be tied to infrequent cabinet or board meetings
  • decisions will be needed on how the requirements for sustainability appraisal should fit into the wider corporate approach to sustainable development and sustainability appraisal (having in mind the new obligations flowing from the Sustainable Environmental Assessment Directive)
  • similarly the requirements for community engagement raise questions about how planning consultation should relate to corporate consultation processes
  • the obligation to have regard to the community strategy means that planners need to have an effective dialogue with the local strategic partnership and those within the authority who lead community planning
  • the LDF must conform generally with the regional spatial strategy and particularly with its targets for housing and employment

The objective should be to get the LDF confirmed as a corporate priority, both in terms of its significance and to ensure adequate resources and corporate commitment to its successful production.

However, this is only part of the story, because it only covers the support the planners need to be enabled to prepare "their" plan. It is actually more important to get across to Management Team and senior members that the new system offers significant opportunities to the organisation and its partners. Corporate ownership of and commitment to the LDF should lead to improvements in the way the authority functions and its inter-agency working. It will also integrate development planning more effectively with corporate and community planning, with a consequent enhancement of the standing of planning and planners.

Depending on the circumstances of the authority, a range of possibilities can be identified which could benefit the wider authority and its work with partners -

  • to use the process of producing the LDF (especially the core strategy), to bring out key choices and opportunities for the area and ensure that they are properly debated and evaluated, not only for the purposes of the LDF but also in relation to corporate strategy and the community strategy
  • to ally the LDF process with preparations for comprehensive performance assessment as a means of assessing how well current strategy fits together, and to strengthen or rationalise the corporate strategic framework
  • to agree with the local strategic partnership that the community strategy will be reviewed alongside the preparation of the core strategy; with the complementary aims of enhancing the community strategy to provide an effective local context for the LDF, and of ensuring that the core strategy fully reflects the local ambitions and objectives set out in the community strategy
  • to use the process to further develop working relationships with other agencies, so that in addition to their signing up to deliver those policies and proposals which fall to them, there is a stronger commitment to joint delivery more generally
  • to constructively challenge the policies and programmes of other agencies in terms of how well they address the needs, concerns and priorities of different communities, and whether they are coherent when considered together
  • to review or develop the authority's approach to sustainability appraisal and strategic environmental assessment of strategies, with a view to establishing a unified sustainability appraisal framework which will offer rationalisation, consistency and economies
  • to run the production of the statement of community involvement alongside a review and rationalisation of corporate consultation strategy and practice, possibly resulting in a broadened SCI which will cover all the authority's consultation and community engagement activities
  • more generally, to integrate work on the LDF with other evidence gathering and policy making processes so as to share resources, obtain more from the available staff capacity and secure economies
  • use of e-planning as a tool for integration of information, analysis and graphic display processes across the authority

Role of the head of service - There is a key role for the head of service here. He or she needs to provide clear leadership to the department to gain their commitment to the production of a challenging and exciting LDF, and ensure that all staff understand the significance of spatial planning and the opportunities offered by the new system. Those messages then need to be communicated to senior members and officers to get them on board, and to see the corporate benefits which can be gained. Sustained effort will be needed to keep the messages in front of members and officers, so that they become progressively more ingrained, and to demonstrate how each aspect of the new system provides challenges or opportunities for the authority as the case may be.

The LDF system demands inter-departmental cooperation at both management and operational levels. Again, the head of service should take the lead, to ensure that senior colleagues of other departments understand the main features of spatial planning and the new system, and the opportunities. This will begin to create the right environment for forward planning staff to find the cooperation they need. However, the members of the forward planning team must also expect work with colleagues in other departments to get the messages across, tailoring their approach to the audience and always emphasising the benefits they offer to others, and not just what they need from them.

Securing commitment from partners and other agencies - One of the defining characteristics of spatial planning is that it seeks to integrate and present the contributions that all relevant agencies make to the future development of the area. This, coupled with the requirement to have regard to the community strategy, makes it essential to establish a fruitful working relationship with them. It needs to be kept in mind that this does not only apply at the local level. Effective collaboration between Counties and Districts will be important in Shire areas, both in relation to fitting together District LDFs and County minerals and waste LDFs, and because both are significant service providers. At the wider level, all authorities will need to establish effective working with the regional development agency and the regional housing agency.

Locally, the approach to be taken will depend on the extent to which the planning department or forward planning section is already engaged with community plan preparation and wider community planning processes. In authorities where the two functions are together or there is established cooperation and involvement, there is a ready basis for effective integration of the two processes and collaboration with the local strategic partnership. In such cases, the issue will be how to work with the LSP partners to build their understanding of the new system, and get their commitment to collaborative working. Clearly, while the LSP provides a forum for presentation and explanation, there will also be a need for sustained communication with individual partners and agencies, whether through theme based delivery partnership groups or bilaterally.

It should not be assumed that where there is goodwill towards the principle of collaborative working, it will happen naturally or easily. Other agencies have very different ways of working, financial mechanisms, accountability structures, programmes, priorities and, of course, language. It will be necessary to develop an understanding of the environment in which they operate, their language and the mind-sets it reflects. Collaboration must be seen as a two way process, working with people on their own terms as partners. A successful way of working with one agency may be quite different from what works best with another. Also, where agencies are driven by delivery programmes whose form and content may change radically with shifting Government or other high-level policy, it will be necessary to keep alert to changes in programmes to ensure that actions which are important to delivery of the LDF are not suddenly omitted.

There is considerable potential benefit from coordinating a review of the community strategy with the preparation of the core strategy. It is suggested that the feasibility of this is considered at an early stage. It is useful to remind ourselves that community strategies have quite different purposes from development plans, and therefore there will not be an automatic and easy fit between them. Planners need to understand the function and role of community plans, and avoid the rather superior way of thinking that says "They aren't proper strategies or plans". A useful and thought-provoking question to ask is "Why do so many people welcome and embrace the community strategy but find the development plan a turn-off?"

The evolution of community plans tended to focus initially on building consensus over the vision for the area, providing a vehicle for inter-agency collaboration, bringing the voluntary sector into policy making, improving the way different agencies services fit together, and identifying gaps in service provision and seeking ways to fill them. Commonly, only when trust and collaborative instincts have become established has it been feasible to contemplate moving forwards from coordination of action to the development of an overall, inter-agency strategy for the area. Moreover, the focus on services and action has not generally required a strong spatial dimension. It is suggested that the two planning regimes actually have a lot to learn from each other. Tackling them alongside each other can be used to sharpen the vision and strategy of the community strategy and set out a more coherent spatial context for the LDF; while at the same time ensuring that the LDF demonstrably takes forward the key aspects of the community strategy.

Of course the practicality of coordinating the two planning processes will depend on how well their timetables fit together. The local development scheme commits the planning authority to a timeframe for LDF preparation, and among other factors planning delivery grant will depend on meeting milestones in the programme. Where the timing or pace of LDF preparation does not allow for coordinated processes, it may be necessary to accept the community strategy in its present state of development, while committing to make an effective contribution to its review as and when it happens.

In authorities where the planning department has not been closely engaged in community planning, or does not play a significant role for other reasons, it will be necessary to tackle the fundamentals. This will require the head of service to get the message across to senior colleagues that the authority has an obligation to ensure that its LDF has proper regard to the community strategy, and the benefits which can flow from bringing the two planning processes closer together. The case will need to be made for providing appropriate access to the LSP and the community planning team, and persuading partners of the benefits to them of closer working with the planners.

However, no matter how hard the head of service and departmental staff try, there may be some authorities where their message is not fully accepted or understood, leading to continued difficulties in collaboration between the development planning and community planning functions. In such cases it may be necessary to tactfully put on record the risks which could arise at examination. The most fruitful way forward may be to give early emphasis to working bilaterally with other agencies to secure the best possible integration of their respective proposals, and to get their commitment to delivery. As working arrangements with those agencies strengthen, this of itself is likely to provide opportunities for engagement with community planning processes.

Choosing approaches which will ensure that planning is truly spatial

Like anyone else, planners have inbuilt ways of thinking about how to tackle new tasks. These draw upon their experience and the mental approaches which have succeeded for them in the past. Much of this is quite unconscious and deep-seated, so that even when one is entirely clear that new ways of thinking are required, the conditioned reflexes can still re-assert themselves. Relating this to the preparation of spatial plans, practitioners need to find approaches to plan preparation which are sufficiently different from their familiar experiences of land use planning to support their conscious efforts to think in spatial terms.

It follows that there are some familiar and/or apparently logical approaches which should be not be employed, including -

  • starting work without any attempt at creating a vision for the area
  • planners developing the LDD in isolation from others, sharing it only when it has begun to take shape
  • using the existing local plan or UDP narrowly as a source book for possible policy headings, rather than taking it as a starting point for considering what else may be needed
  • reviewing the effectiveness of development control policies as an early step in formulating the plan
  • consulting on possible solutions before having gone through engagement aimed at identifying needs and concerns
  • asking "what policies do we need?" and seeing the plan as a set of policies
  • telling people what cannot be done through planning

All these approaches work from the premise that a plan is about policies and proposals, which are the tools of land use control through development control. Of course, where objectives of the plan will be delivered through development control, the relevant policies will need to be properly framed to enable their effective use. But such attention to drafting detail should only take place when the strategic principles of the plan have been established.

Since spatial planning is more to do with identifying the outcomes which are desired and how they are to be delivered, the kinds of approaches which are likely to be fruitful, include -

  • looking to the regional spatial strategy/ London plan and what it has to say or is likely to say about the area, and how it compares to the community strategy
  • focusing community engagement upon the needs and problems of the area and avoiding premature discussion of solutions - the reasons for this are primarily to do with seeing community engagement as a process of seeking consensus over the issues which need to be tackled, but it will also assist in developing a spatial mind-set
  • asking what are the big drivers of change in the area which have a bearing in economic, social or environmental terms, and how help from other organisations and activities can be harnessed in responding to them
  • local visioning -asking what kind of place we want this particular town or village to be in 20 years time, and what is needed to achieve it
  • working on the formulation of the plan with non-planners such as community planning colleagues and staff of partner organisations and other agencies who are likely to be relevant to delivery
  • putting people who are likely to have distinctive mind-sets together to talk about the needs and problems of the area and what needs to be done - eg carrying out a brainstorming exercise with the local strategic partnership
  • when it comes to drafting, starting by considering and logging the objectives for the area and the key action needed to achieve them in simple non-policy language, together with identifying which agencies will deliver the actions
  • in considering plan actions, continually asking "What is essential for this to succeed or be successfully delivered?"
  • at every stage asking "What are we trying to achieve?" rather than "What policies do we need?"

Above all, thinking about the plan and what it will contain should continually come back to places and spatial relationships. The "unique selling point" of development planning has always been the fact that it is the regime which seeks to address how our cities, towns and villages will develop as places and to manage change in those places for the benefit of the community. There is much to do in the new system about developing relationships and new processes, but that should be developed alongside the focus on places and their relationships in the broadest sense which is spatial planning.


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