Hugh Sykes: How spatial planning can make levelling up a reality

14 Jan

Sir Hugh Sykes is Chairman of The One Powerhouse Consortium, a retired industrialist and was Chairman of the Sheffield Development Corporation from 1988-1997.

Today sees the publishing of four draft “Spatial Plans” for the four super regions of England that show how spatial planning can finally solve the seemingly intractable problems of regional inequality and make levelling up a reality.

Right across the political spectrum it is understood that it is unacceptable for a child to be born 25 miles from London and have one set of life chances, while a similar child, with similar capabilities, born 25 miles from Plymouth, or Doncaster, or Stoke or Lowestoft has a completely different set of likely outcomes – unless he or she moves.

That is the stark human reality that lies behind the levelling up agenda.

And yet this situation persists. The regions of England have been blighted by low productivity and inequality of opportunity for many years. The causes are historic and political, local and national.

Governments of all colours have tried various ways of addressing inequalities with little evidence of success. Of late, Boris Johnson has been more than explicit in his ambition to address the issue – especially as many of those who live in these areas have turned to him at the ballot box to find a solution for them.

So what can be done? My experience as Chairman of the Sheffield Development Corporation in the Eighties showed me that there is a solution. It is the simple discipline of making a plan, agreeing the plan with stakeholders, and implementing it effectively.

Fortunately, the discipline of spatial planning exists precisely for this purpose.

But I am not here today to simply urge the Government to adopt spatial planning. I wanted to show what can be achieved. That is why my charitable foundation has worked with The RSA and globally recognised practitioners Aecom, Atkins and Barton Willmore to produce draft spatial plans for the regions of England. They are a gift to the nation – and they are available to view today on our website.

Why spatial planning? Put simply, it is the “where” of decisions – it helps policy makers to see where, and how, to focus effort, direct investment, encourage economic activity and – in a very practical way – address inequality and encourage economic activity. In very general terms it is a map, combined with a shopping list.

Spatial planning as a discipline is well understood in countries and regions around the world, notable examples include advanced economies similar to ours, Germany’s Rhine/Ruhr, Holland’s Randstad and New York City’s Regional Plan Association, all of which use spatial planning as a discipline to focus political will, economic activity and social reform to great effect. Indeed, spatial planning has been used in Scotland and London with demonstrably positive results. We now need it for the regions of England.

Not only is spatial planning reliable, it provides the Prime Minister with a transparent framework to show his government’s practical commitment to levelling up. Not least in terms of government spending. There are of course funds available to the regions – the Shared Prosperity Fund, the Towns Fund, funds for green energy, and others too numerous to mention. But those monies will be dissipated if there is no plan, no “focused effort” to organise and deliver the investment.

One of the mistakes of the past has been to think that solving regional inequalities is just about money. It isn’t just about money. It requires the transformative potential of spatial planning, harnessed to locally representative bodies such as LEPs, mayors and local authorities, brought together to work together, in partnership with ministers in Whitehall.

Scale is important too. To break out of the inevitable competitiveness of city regions, and make the most of much needed infrastructure investment, Johnson needs to think in terms of millions of people, not hundreds of thousands of people. Especially where infrastructure is important – as it is in the North in particular.

Lord Kerslake’s UK2070 Commission has been very active in this area and his Commission has cited our work specifically in its recommendations.

We believe that the time for theorising and conjecture on regional issues has long passed and we trust that the work that The One Powerhouse has done, shows a clear direction of travel for further work.

Our recommendations are, we believe, straightforward and achievable. We have done the early work on drafting what the plans should look like. We suggest the Government tasks Sir John Armitt’s National Infrastructure Commission with developing our plans further. As that work takes shape, we also suggest his commission works in collaboration with locally representative “Growth Boards” made up of existing LEPs, mayors, local authorities and other interested parties to ensure the regions themselves are well represented. Both then report into a minister. Perhaps the Prime Minister…

Brexit is done. I believe we have produced the way for levelling up to be done.