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Hot and cold spots of sub-national strategic development and planning capacity

Source: PSE Aug/Sep 15

Dr Lee Pugalis EE (2) editDr Lee Pugalis (pictured), Reader in Entrepreneurship and chair of the Research group for Economic Development, Innovation and Entrepreneurship (REDIE) at Newcastle Business School, Northumbria University, comments on the first comprehensive analysis of the planning roles of local enterprise partnerships.

Since the birth of local enterprise partnerships (LEPs), their role as planning actors and their interface with the statutory planning system has remained opaque. With LEPs (and other stakeholders) imploring government to provide greater clarity, I recently led a research project to provide the first comprehensive analysis of the planning roles performed by LEPs – examining past activities, future prospects and the deployment of accompanying institutional mechanisms, such as combined authorities. The project was funded by the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI). 

Based on an examination of all strategic economic plans (SEPs) prepared by LEPs, accompanied by a national survey and programme of interviews, we found that different combined and cooperative modes of (strategic) planning are unfolding in an asymmetric manner. Even SEPs take different forms, as they are intended by LEPs to perform slightly different roles. They vary in style, substance, credibility and longevity. On the latter point, some interviews with LEPs revealed that these plans were redundant as soon as Growth Deal negotiations were concluded, whereas other LEPs consider their SEP to guide the longer-term strategic direction for their area as well as their organisational priorities. 

Of the 38 SEPs, 15 are characteristic of bidding documents, whereas 23 are more akin to plans for the area. It is the latter type of SEPs – those more intricately enmeshed in wider institutional systems of governance – that are more likely to influence planning deliberations. 

There are some marked differences across SEPs in terms of their planning content and also the degree of sophistication of spatial planning analysis. Indeed, the majority of SEPs make no reference to the nature or status of local plans in their area, although areas with joint core strategies appear to feature more prominently in the work of LEPs. SEPs also differ in their definitions and treatment of growth: 15 are framed by an extremely narrow view of growth. Further, many SEPs ignore the issue of deprivation, and some LEPs fail to consider the social and environmental ramifications of growth plans. 

The soft foundations of LEPs (and limited funding and capacity at the outset) limited their statutory role in the planning system. Thus, most partnerships opted not to pursue an (optional) planning role alongside statutory planning bodies, with interviewees citing the necessity to prioritise a core economic growth remit. Although not all LEPs recognise or wish to perform ‘planning roles’, it is difficult for them to avoid such a role, given their core remit of providing strategic economic leadership or not. Consequently, LEPs are considerable actors in the sphere of planning, even if some LEPs are reticent to engage with the statutory planning system. 

Following a hiatus, strategic planning is returning to prominence. However, different approaches and institutional mechanisms are emerging in different areas of the country. Indeed, strategic or combined planning capacity and appetite remains highly irregular. For the time being, informal modes of strategic planning are likely to predominate, although since the Association of Greater Manchester Authorities’ announcement that they will produce a statutory strategic plan for the metropolitan area, as well as the rising number of combined authorities and ‘devolution deals’, the rate of statutory plans and combined planning teams is set to escalate.

More than half of LEPs intend to align or pool local authority growth funding, particularly in relation to housing, transport, economic development, regeneration, planning and infrastructure. Nineteen refer to joint contracts or collective decision-making arrangements with local authorities, and 17 to combined authorities or economic prosperity boards. This aligns with the preferences of central government, which as part of Growth Deal agreements inserted a commitment for some LEPs to support local planning authorities in their duty to cooperate. Nevertheless, it is not always clear if LEPs are the instigator of improved coordination and enhanced collaboration or whether they are merely benefitting from such joint working. LEPs are part of the local growth landscape that is engendering both hot and cold spots of sub-national strategic development and planning capacity. 

Many LEPs are reluctant planning actors, but the planning roles they have performed have increased over time and this looks set to continue in some areas, including in relation to strategic planning. Further, LEPs are now perceived by both internal and external stakeholders as performing an important role in shaping places. Whereas LEPs are but one piece in this evolving institutional jigsaw, our research shows that they have the potential to be powerful players in sub-national development and planning. Nevertheless, caution is needed in how the planning system treats SEPs, particularly the boosterist, bidding document variety.

The research is at:


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