I established Arup's town planning capability in...
Recession in the west has brought a temporary respite in the planning arena through reduced pressures on land and lower growth in both traffic levels and household formation. It has also brought new challenges in the form of neighbourhoods blighted by mortgage repossessions in North America and "ghost estates" of empty new houses in Ireland.
In the UK, residential patterns will be influenced by impending spending cuts through changes in the housing benefit regime and through significant rises in commuter rail fares.
So how is planning positioned to react to these new challenges in an era of austerity?
Perversely, just when strategic skills should be most useful to make sense of the new landscape, localism is seen as the new mantra in England. While it may be laudable to give power to local people on local planning-related issues, such as maintaining green spaces, coordinating local social infrastructure, and design issues (subsidiarity), there are risks in them determining the overall level of new development that should be accommodated there.
It is also unclear how localism can deal with challenges affecting a wider spatial scale over longer time periods such as increasing renewable energy generation or more sustainable waste management.
Two examples demonstrate the continuing relevance of strategic planning. First, it provides a mechanism for more efficient use of public resources. Scotland leads the way here in setting out a clear framework to focus investment around key infrastructure projects of national significance and guiding local authorities on the associated development implications. A coordinated approach will clearly be needed for maximising the catalytic effects of investment in future high speed rail lines and spreading them across sub-regional economies.
Secondly, strategic planning is essential for the practical delivery of sustainable urban development. For example reducing vulnerability to extreme weather events and responding to increased coastal erosion involve actions at the level at which natural systems operate, not just within local authority boundaries.
London is now a model of decentralisation with its directly elected Mayor, integrated control of its transport network, and the London Plan coordinating investment in economic development, housing, social and physical infrastructure. It punches above its weight in terms of international prestige and leadership on decentralised energy and climate change.
Are there lessons here for other parts of England? Should the constituency of the elected Mayors promised for the 12 largest cities cover their wider zone of influence rather than just the central part of the metropolitan area? Should collaborative working between local authorities in city regions outside London become more formalised?
It is deeply ironic that England is turning its back on strategic planning at the very time that our Arup colleagues in East Asia are discovering its logic to provide frameworks for growing city regions in China and Vietnam.
Regional planning is also making its mark in North America, for instance, in setting a more sustainable growth framework for southern Louisiana in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and in selecting new development patterns which minimise CO2 emissions in and around New York and Denver.
Many students from developing countries study in Britain, and may well be the public officials of tomorrow dealing with the challenges of rapid urbanisation. It is important that they see what can be achieved through good governance, of which strategic planning should be one part, albeit one which is currently being downplayed here.
As we contemplate a return to growth in England, Arup planners stand ready to contribute to the reinterpretation of strategic planning and the institutional means by which it can help tackle the challenges of the day.