Careers Advice: Key lessons for joint strategic plans work

Written by: Catriona Riddell
Published on: 21 May 2018

Catriona Riddell

The Government’s attempt to get local plans in place has given a welcome boost to strategic planning activity with an increasing number of local authorities working together to prepare joint strategic plans (JSPs).  So far, five groups of authorities have become vanguards of this new approach, with a number of others considering this as a potential option for addressing strategic priorities, particularly housing and strategic infrastructure needs. This is the Government’s model of choice, so what can be learned from those leading the way?

  1. The key drivers for taking a statutory joint approach to strategic planning tend to be common to all:

  • the need to develop a strong long term place-based approach, ensuring that development is delivered in the right places with the right infrastructure, with a larger spatial canvas offering more opportunities to do this;

  • the need to maximise funding, whether for infrastructure delivery or other funding, such as capacity funding and plan-making resources; and

  • to meet the increasingly high bar required to get legally compliant and sound plans in place.

  1. Strong governance and leadership (both political and technical) is essential, with ownership for the strategic priorities and plan-making process from the top down in every partner authority.  The governance structure required will depend on what the shared priorities are and may need to adapt over time as the plan-making process develops and moves into the implementation phase. Although a Section 29 statutory joint planning committee (whereby such joint committees are vested with local planning authority decision-making powers)  is not currently being used by any of the five groups of authorities developing JSPs, this may change if more robust shared fiscal accountability is needed, for example, to raise and spend infrastructure funding.

  2. It is important that all local authorities have an equal status in the joint arrangements, including county councils in two-tier areas.  They may not be local planning authorities but have a key role to play in a number of other important areas, particularly in the delivery and facilitation of infrastructure. Where a Section 29 joint committee is being used, the relevant county council must be a statutory partner and not simply a statutory consultee.

  3. If the plan is being prepared jointly by different teams within the partner authorities (as opposed to a joint team), a clear project management structure and lines of accountability and responsibility are essential.  The priority given to the joint arrangements needs to be understood by all management to ensure it is considered part of ‘the day job’. A ‘champion’ at a senior level, preferably a chief executive, will provide a good link directly into the strategic leadership of each partner authority.

  4. The plan must be based on a shared vision for the sub-regional area which needs to be thought through and agreed at the start of the process. A useful way of emphasising the strategic nature of the plan is by taking away all local authority boundaries from maps and other visual tools. This will help partners look holistically at the area as one defined planning area and not as a sum of individual parts. The agreed vision can then be used to develop the scope of the Joint Strategic Plan and what the shared strategic priorities will be.  

  5. Once the scope of the plan has been agreed, it is important that all partners stick to this as the plan is developed.  It should be clear from the scope what will be addressed in the strategic plan and what needs to be addressed through other ‘local policy’ documents which will form part of the wider planning portfolio for the area.  It may be useful to set out the draft contents page for the plan at the start and use this to define the evidence base required to support the plan.

  6. Finally, although individual local development schemes and statements of community involvement will still be needed for each individual local planning authority (where a Section 29 joint committee is not being used), a uniform template should be used for each to ensure a consistent approach.

Catriona Riddell is strategic planning convenor for the Planning Officers Society and a freelance consultant