The government’s drive for devolution in England is making it clear that it is difficult to take strategic decisions about the economy and infrastructure without first deciding where development will go.
We are therefore, thankfully, seeing the return of proper strategic planning in many proposals for devolved powers and combined authorities. But a big question remains: who will perform the strategic planning role for these authorities?
Strategic planning capacity has all but disappeared since the demise of structure plans in 2004 and the abolition of regional planning in 2010. In many two-tier areas the traditional home for this role was the counties, but you’ll be pushed to find anything resembling a strategic planning “team” now. In some cases, there are no strategic planners left at all. It’s therefore time to reinvent the role to ensure that, as plans for new joint teams are being considered, the technical support is fit for purpose.
So what skills will the 2015 strategic planner need to navigate the new strategic planning landscape? First, they will need strategic vision. This will be particularly important where council officers are seconded and are expected to guide decisions for the greater good, rather than specifically on behalf of their own authority.
Second, it will be essential to have a good understanding of the planning system. This does not mean that the individuals concerned will need to be professional planners, but they will need to talk the language. The most effective strategic planning teams will be drawn from across the disciplines. They will have a good understanding of both policy development and all aspects of implementation, ensuring that they can realise their shared visions.
Third, they will need to be good at relationship management, working with a wide range of stakeholders with different roles and responsibilities and potentially very different views. Building trust with all partners, often arbitrating between competing agendas, is a key part of delivering an effective strategic planning framework. Good communication skills will also be critical. Be prepared for a bumpy ride!
Last but not least, they will need to be good ringmasters. Planning is part of a complicated matrix of governance and working arrangements now, with many key players operating on different scales, such as local enterprise partnerships and city deals. As the impact of the devolution proposals starts to be felt, this picture will become even more complex. It will be important to understand who does what at a strategic level and influence the work of all relevant programmes.
So let’s start fostering a new generation of strategic planners and ensure that they are at the heart of the devolution revolution. Many local authority staff already have the right skills and experience and there are many bright young things who, with the right guidance, could join them.
Catriona Riddell is strategic planning convenor for the Planning Officers Society and a freelance consultant