Is giving County Councils a strategic role reintroducing an unnecessary layer into the planning system?

County Councils in England argue that a ‘wholesale review’ of planning reforms is required and have called on the government to reintroduce strategic planning in order to boost economic growth and housebuilding. But is this reintroducing an unnecessary layer into the planning system?

Strategic planning has not been a formal part of the planning system since the late 2010s. The duty to cooperate is the tool for how councils work together, although the previous government planned to scrap this.

The County Councils Network (CCN) believes that strategic planning should be part of the forthcoming planning and infrastructure bill, contending that this mechanism is “vital” to the delivery of more homes, better infrastructure and investment zones.

Council leaders believe the current planning system is too fragmented. They say infrastructure has not kept pace with development, which they argue has led to overcrowding on roads and public services in some parts of the country.

If the government is to deliver its aims to increase housebuilding and economic growth, the CCN says strategic planning would “ensure that county councils, which are responsible for transport, infrastructure and the delivery of investment zones, work more collaboratively with district councils in their areas, which are responsible for housing and planning”.

Furthermore, a better joined-up planning system could help local authorities to “zoom out” and pinpoint the best location for new homes across England’s counties. It would also ensure that such development is backed by the required infrastructure, including roads, schools, and health centres.

A series of recommendations are made in the CCN’s latest chapter of its Five Point Plan for County and Unitary Councils:

The government should review strategic planning arrangements and introduce new powers to empower counties through strategic planning in any forthcoming planning and infrastructure bill, where desired. This would give parity to county areas and would see effective cross-boundary working to deliver strategic infrastructure and unlock growth.

When the government puts forward reforms to the developer contributions system – which could include the previously proposed infrastructure levy – it should ensure that county councils have a statutory duty in the contributions systems, working with district and borough to set rates and negotiate contributions, enabling more of this funding to be spent on vital infrastructure.

Any future capital funding for infrastructure projects should be amalgamated into a single pot, rather than local authorities bidding on individual pots.

Roger Gough, planning and infrastructure spokesperson for the County Councils Network, welcomed the prospect of planning reforms in a planning and infrastructure bill, explaining that over a number of years “there has been far too much focus on headline housebuilding numbers, rather than on planning as a whole, and on the infrastructure that is needed to make developments viable in the long-term”.

“The new bill should contain a power to reintroduce strategic planning into the system, which would be a win-win for a government looking to build more homes and generate economic growth. By giving county councils a renewed role to work collaboratively with district councils in their area, we can come together to plan for houses in the right areas, backed by the necessary infrastructure, and ensure that investment zones get off the ground quickly.

“The County Councils Network has long argued for a collaborative model of strategic planning and form reforms to the developer contributions system. Taken together, these easily implementable reforms could yield significant results in creating better communities and unlocking development.”

But is all of this simply reintroducing an unnecessary layer into the already complex planning system? In theory working more strategically at a local level sounds great! But working collaboratively with other councils will be protracted and lets face it the tier was removed for a reason (or several).

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