Co-operation or Leadership?

Duty to Co-operate on Strategic Planning

For the past 3 months I have been working 2 days week in secondment to PAS, on a project to help embed the new ‘duty to co-operate’ on strategic planning.

My day job is with East Midlands Councils (EMC), a ‘sub national’ grouping of local authorities, where I work on an eclectic range of issues including rail investment, climate change, developing CPD for council planners, and various consultancy projects for EMC member councils.   Before that I managed the regional planning function in theEast Midlandsfor 10 years, also leading on transport and housing investment. Given my background in the apparently ‘dirigiste’ world of regional planning, it may seem strange to some that I am working on a project about ‘co-operation’.But in truth, much of what we did at the regional level was based on a co-operative model.  In the East Midlands, the Regional Plan led directly to a pattern of joint and aligned core strategy arrangements covering most of the region which, at the time of writing, are all still in place. 

Co-operation is nothing new – it is something planning authorities have always done to a lesser or greater extent.  Why then is there such scepticism about the new ‘duty to cooperate’ being an effective means of delivering strategic planning?  I have lost count of the number of times officers and councillors have said to me (confidentially of course) words to the effect that:  ‘it will never work you know’. Without an element of compulsion it seems that many within local government feel that councils will not have the political will to make the tough decisions and stick to them. This attitude is even more surprising when you consider that the drive for change to the new system came from local government, and in particular the LGA.  

There may be an element of ‘be careful what you wish for’ here. But there is also potential for significant reputational damage, both to local government generally and to the LGA in particular, if it does all go ‘pear shaped’.    And yet it seems to me that the new duty should represent an important opportunity for local councils to develop their community leadership and ‘place making’ functions – surely core responsibilities for councils in the 21st century. What is required to make it work is of course co-operation, but more importantly leadership and, in particular, political leadership.

When it comes down to it, the whole system stands or falls on the ability of local councillors to ‘pool sovereignty’ on key issues, and to make well evidenced strategic decisions on the scale, form and location of growth.  There are of course many examples acrossEnglandwhere his is happening already, but perhaps just as many (if not slightly more) of where it is not.

My colleague Catriona Riddell and I have been developing a package of resources to help both members and officers make the most of the new system – and to avoid some of the more obvious pit falls.

We will be road testing ideas at a series of seminars across the country from early February, along with speakers from DCLG, PINS and councils themselves, ending with an event aimed specifically at elected members on the 9 March in London.   Further details can be found on the PAS web-site. If you are not already down to come to one of the events, we would love to see you and hear what you think.


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