The current government seems committed to devolution – but how much power will devolved authorities have over planning and will it really give power to the people?
On 5 October 2015, the chancellor reiterated the Conservative Party’s commitment to a “devolution revolution”.
The rhetoric has been keen to recreate the Victorian vision of strong town halls and to empower the regions of England.
So what will be the scope and efficacy of devolved powers when it comes to planning?
And, looking at Manchester as an example, will devolution really give ‘power to the people’?
Or is it an attempt to reintroduce regional strategies by the back door?
Reintroducing regional strategies?
Manchester is at the forefront of Mr Osborne’s revolution.
Pending the election of its mayor in 2017, an interim appointment has been made to chair the Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) and allocate responsibilities to a cabinet made up of delegates from each of the 10 Greater Manchester constituent councils.
Central to the devolution deals with both Manchester and Sheffield is the power afforded to regions to set the spatial planning framework.
“Rather than a ‘devolution revolution’, giving power to city-regions ought to be seen as a process and not an event”
According to the GMCA, its purpose will be to “identify future housing and land requirements” for the next 20 years.
This sounds all too familiar when read against the justification for regional strategies originally used by the Department of Communities and Local Government in 2004: “The need to co-ordinate some planning issues… above district and county level and to set targets for growth including housing delivery.”
The government’s decision to abolish regional strategies was predicated on the basis that it considered there to be clear evidence that they didn’t work.
They were criticised for being prepared by unelected bodies that were unaccountable and imposed housing targets that antagonised communities.
Single, authoritative voice
Assuming the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill passes, the Greater Manchester Spatial Framework (GMSF) will be the responsibility of the elected mayor.
However, it will require the unanimous approval of the GMCA cabinet to give effect to its proposals for joined-up planning.
There is, therefore, the potential for just one of the 10 Greater Manchester authorities to halt or at the very least significantly delay the implementation of the GMSF.
There is currently no mechanism to resolve a deadlock between cabinet members.
Uniquely, the GMCA has been an entity since April 2011, building on 25 years of collaboration.
“If Greater Manchester cannot come together with one voice on spatial planning matters, there is little hope of more fragmented multi-council entities finding a single, authoritative voice”
If Greater Manchester cannot come together with one voice on spatial planning matters, there is little hope of more fragmented multi-council entities finding a single, authoritative voice.
A further concern is how the creation of a spatial framework will accord with the localism agenda.
The consultation responses to the GMSF, published in January 2015, were critical of its proposal to deliver approximately 10,700 homes a year in the GMCA area.
There was a broad consensus in the responses that this figure ought to be closer to 15,000 dwellings.
Should the GMSF impose a higher target, there is a potential for local authorities and local communities to perceive a marked return to top-down housing targets.
‘Anti-democratic land grab’
A further facet of the devolution agenda is the ability of the elected mayor to bring forward Mayoral Development Corporations.
The Mayor of London’s effort to utilise such powers around Old Oak Common and Park Royal should be a cautionary tale.
Hammersmith & Fulham Council described the MDCs planning powers as “an anti-democratic land grab” to the benefit of overseas speculative inspectors rather than local people in need of affordable housing.
It is not difficult to imagine similar politically charged arguments between a Labour mayor for Manchester and Conservative-controlled Trafford Council.
Rather than a ‘devolution revolution’, giving power to city regions ought to be seen as a process and not an event.
It is difficult to see how adding a further layer of planning policy will remedy the inherent conflicts in the planning process.
By the end of next year, the draft GMSF could be subject to its examination in public.
All eyes will be on Manchester to see if Mr Osborne’s promise to bring people closer to decision-making has become a reality.
Laura Nation is an associate, and Thomas McCall is a trainee solicitor, at Clyde & Co