Considerations for effective strategic planning

Whilst there is no strict definition of strategic planning, it is assumed that its the production of a Plan that involves more than one Authority. The development of strategic plans across the country is increasing and so therefore will our learning as these Plans develop so this article will be updated from time to time to include any necessary updates.

Every Local Planning Authority needs to set out strategic policies to address local priorities for development. The NPPF offers a flexible approach to strategic policies, they can be the core policies in joint plans, local plans and/or Spatial Development Strategies (where there is an elected mayor with statutory planning powers). 

There are groups of Authorities undertaking Joint Spatial Plans that will set out the strategic policies to guide development across their combined areas with more detailed policies developed in their individual Local Plans. Other groups of Authorities are considering the development of fully combined Local Plans. 

This advice updates an earlier version of the ‘Ten golden rules for Strategic Planning’ published by PAS. This revision incorporates the current NPPF and up to date experiences of strategic planning across multiple authorities.  The matters listed below are not a checklist and cannot in themselves guarantee a sound plan but they do provide the foundations to producing a joint strategic plan. The considerations refer to Local Planning Authorities and there are no direct references to Combined Authorities and Spatial Development Strategies but they will still be relevant.

Points to consider:  

1.      Political Leadership

2.     Corporate Buy-in

3.     Set the project structure

4.     Create an appropriate governance structure

5.     Collaborate to form a vision

6.     Form a professional team

7.     Is your Plan deliverable?

8.     Test Plan against the vision

9.     Promote the benefits of the Plan

10.   Monitor and Evaluate

1. Political Leadership

Strong political leadership is the key to successful partnerships, Members, particularly the Leader and Cabinet/Committee members, from all partner authorities should fully:

  • Form and agree the strategic vision for shaping the future of the area;
  • understand the benefits of joint working e.g. collaboration on key matters and meeting the Duty to Cooperate challenge, the potential for cost and resource saving and a better way to shape places; and
  • understand the level of commitment that is required in terms of the local authority's role and the decisions to be made and in what timescales.

Regular Cabinet/Committee briefings and member workshops will help to keep Members informed of progress and decisions made or to be made. Having a lead councillor or 'champion' for each authority (e.g. Portfolio holder) will also reinforce political support for the partnership but they must have the accountability and confidence to make decisions on behalf of the council.

The opposition groups should also be briefed in a timely manner. Agreeing this as part of the initial project plan will be critical to the smooth progress of the strategic plan and the success of delivering it once adopted.

It is extremely important that ‘hearts and minds’ are won over in the early stages of plan making so that similar discussions don’t have to be had over several times and decisions reconsidered. Clearly, there is a possibility of political change within the process of producing a plan so communication and understanding is key across all political parties.

2. Corporate Buy-In

Councils run many services all with different pressures and priorities. A strategic plan will involve and affect Council services outside of Planning although other departments may not initially see the relevance to their area of work or the need to be involved in the process. Strong leadership by the Chief Executive/Managing Director will be critical to the success of the plan.

Leadership from senior officers is important to manage the challenges of partnership and cross-boundary working which will likely use existing relationships with their counterparts at neighbouring authorities. It may be useful that the Chief Executives/Managing Directors of each Authority have regular meetings about the Plan. To fully consider the impacts that a Strategic Plan can have corporately across each of the Authorities involved it is important that there is understanding and ownership from the senior management team. This will help to ensure that strategic planning priorities are treated as part of each councils' core work programme.

Ideally, there should be a Senior Management Lead from Planning on each of the Council’s corporate management teams to ensure that there is a clear reporting line into the Chief Executive/Managing Director.  This will ensure that decisions can be made in the most efficient way that unblock issues allowing the project plan to run to time.

In many successful partnerships, chief executives/ strategic directors have worked with Members to ensure that the partnership is fully resourced and represented in the right place. They have also acted as the interface between the authorities and other partners (e.g.  Local Enterprise Partnerships) and have been involved in discussions/negotiations with government departments around investment and funding issues.

3. Set the Project Structure

Plans should be managed to a strict timetable with clear lines of responsibility and a strategic plan is no different. It is important to agree time commitments, engagement points and key decisions up front so that everyone understands what they are committing to. This is important because of the involvement of two or more Authorities and therefore the decision making time may need to take place over several weeks maybe even months every time a Cabinet/Committee decision is required.

Good project management will ensure transparency, efficiency of resources, effective use of skills and expertise, prioritisation and good communication. It will also provide a risk assessment of the obstacles and challenges to delivery that may arise along the way. Setting out what these might be and being clear what the different views are at the start of the process will help address the barriers when/if they arise and ensure there are no surprises.

It may be prudent to have someone in a project management role rather than making it a part of someone’s existing role. It would be critical that the person has the necessary project management skills and they may not necessarily need to be a qualified planner. The key skill for the project manager is communication, everyone should know what they are required to do and by when. The project plan should form the agreement by which individuals or teams sign up to deliver their part of the project.

Using visual representations to take people through the project plans helps with engagement. Wall mounted Gantt charts and timelines showing decision points reminds every one of the need to work efficiently. Equally starting all project management meetings with a reminder of the agreed vision helps to focus attention.

4. Create a clear governance structure

Successful decision making structures do not need to be complicated as long as there is clarity around responsibilities and accountabilities. Clear governance arrangements will provide a forum for open, transparent and fair debate, especially if the meetings are held in public. They will demonstrate a high level of commitment from all partners and facilitate good working relationships, building trust and momentum. 

There are two options for Committee’s:

  1. A section 28 Committee (Section 28 PCPA 2004) which is where two or more local planning authorities agree to prepare a joint development plan document and use the Committee as non-decision making sounding board with an opportunity for each Local Planning Authority to be represented and joint discussions to be held.  Decision making would be made by each individual Local Planning Authority.  
  2. A section 29 Joint decision making Committee (Section 29 PCPA 2004) which is where one or more LPA(s) agree with one or more county council(s) to put in place a formal decision making committee. Such committee’s must be agreed by the relevant Secretary of State and their approval is also required if it were to be dissolved.  All decision making on the plan would be conceded from the LPA to the Joint Committee.  

Sharing responsibilities for the various groups/committees or rotating the chair of the committee will help harness the feeling of a shared endeavour and avoid concerns about one partner taking on more of the workload than others or monopolising the agenda. Consideration should be given as to how these arrangements are linked to each partner's governance arrangements, including the scrutiny functions.

It is possible to have informal joint working arrangements. It is important to get a voluntary partnership to commit to a level of governance that is effective and comfortable and does not threaten local sovereignty as this may be the only means of moving forward on specific matters, particularly Duty to Cooperate.

Strategic planning objectives, by their nature, are usually delivered over the longer term and straddle more than one electoral cycle. Although not always possible in a changing political environment, continuity in decision-makers and key personnel will help to develop and maintain good relationships and will keep momentum going. A strong working governance structure that everyone has agreed to will help if changes occur.

Even where there is a change in leadership and therefore potentially in the councillors involved in strategic planning, consideration should be given to retaining existing members, building on their knowledge, experience and relationships already established within the partnership. Cross-party governance structures (e.g. working groups) will also help manage any potential disruption caused by a change to political administration.

 5.  Collaborate to form a vision

Working with communities and partners to establish what you are trying to achieve from a strategic plan is not only good practice, it also anchors the plan. A vision helps to keep policies focussed and is a means of testing the plan in terms of deliverability and viability. Vision setting can be a really creative and inclusive process. Councils have used various techniques to engage different groups and individuals. It may be that some interactive sessions which involve games, models or drawing appeal to some people whereas roundtable discussions suit others.  It is worth considering that you will need to use a variety of methods if you are to get the best reach across a wider geographic area.

The most successful plans are based on outcomes that are clear and attainable. Having agreement from the start about what the outcomes of the plan should be is important.  This needs to lead into agreement on what the strategic policies are and consequently guide any remaining policies.  Vision setting helps to manage some of the hurdles and political sensitivities along the way.  The partnership agreeing a statement of common ground and keeping it up to date will also help  reduce the risks of the partnership fragmenting through, for example, disagreements about priorities and will increase traction in terms of deliverability further down the line.

Some strategic policies will be controversial in nature and might require a certain amount of 'conflict resolution'. So it is important that at the outset when agreeing objectives and the scope of the work, that member authorities (no matter how informal or formal the arrangements are) are honest about the priorities of their communities, and highlight what they can be flexible on. It is also important to manage expectations at this point by being realistic about what the output will be and how it will be delivered.

Successful strategic planning is often the result of strong relationship management at the governance, technical and community levels, especially when it is addressing politically challenging issues which require careful and sensitive handling. Many councils already have good working relationships with neighbouring authorities and with other sectors of their communities but these may have to be adapted to the new 'strategic' environment where the issues are addressed on a different scale and with potentially different outcomes. 

The existing relationships (or newly formed)will therefore have a key role to play in ensuring that their local partners and communities understand why addressing these issues at a strategic level is good for the local area and will often have to manage local sensitivities, building on the trust that already exists.  When considering how to engage with groups and organisations that are not initially supportive of the work, local authorities should give some careful thought as to how they can bring them into the process where they can be privy to the evidence and thinking process and help to set the vision which directs the plan.

At some point in the process the objectives may change, for example, as a result of a change in focus or priority, or the geographical area covered. It is important to ensure that all partners are happy with these changes and content that the new/amended agenda is still relevant to them; a partnership is only as strong as the commitment of the individual partners.

Investing time in the setting of a vision will save time as the plan progresses. It is much better to find out what people feel about the future of the area before decisions are made rather than later in the process.

Collaboration on the Vision will help to start addressing the Duty to Cooperate requirement.  The NPPF paragraph 24 sets out that “Local planning authorities and county councils (in two-tier areas) are under a duty to cooperate with each other, and with other prescribed bodies, on strategic matters that cross administrative boundaries”.  The duty will be tested at the examination of any Development Plan Documents as one of the tests of soundness.

The introduction of the Statement of Common Ground (SCG) will help with discussions around scope of the Plan being considered once the Vision has been set. It is important that the scope of the Plan does not change unless there are fundamental reasons for a change and it is therefore essential that the scope of the Plan is considered and reconsidered at an early stage. The SCG can be updated to reflect resolution of issues as a Plan(s) develops over time.  The SCG will also show whether resolutions have not been possible but that it has been actively deliberated.   

6. Form a professional team

The agreed work programme and governance arrangements will need to be properly managed and supported at both an officer and Member level with a clear route defined between the support and decision-making arrangements. Partners should make the best and most efficient use of the expertise, skills, experience and local knowledge available and consider the use of joint resourcing. Where evidence is being developed the appointment of one authority or person as 'lead' will help manage the resources more efficiently if no programme manager has been appointed.

Joint teams can offer significant benefits in terms of management and resource efficiencies though it is important that the team is seen as specifically working on the strategic plan project and isn’t pulled into other work areas. Co-location can have a beneficial impact on team dynamics and working relationships.  Where a joint team is not possible or desirable, partners should consider joint procurement, shared skills, joint IT resources that allow shared use of documents and software, use of independent support (consultants), use of existing evidence or shared information/ databases/ websites. It may be possible to use existing partnerships/ structures building on established working relationships but these will need to be 'fit for purpose'.

It’s important to consider other teams in the Council and what input will be required from them and keeping them informed of plan progress. It is critical to consider the need for transport and highways, environment and leisure, finance and legal, education and health specialists early. It is likely that this input will need to be timetabled and resourced from the outset so all partners need to clear about the level of input and the likely time commitments.

7.  Is your Plan deliverable?

It’s important that the partnership involves other people, groups or organisations that have a key role to play in terms of evidence gathering or delivery as this will help to assess whether the Plan is deliverable. Some of these will be statutory bodies, such as the Environment or Highways Agencies, but many will be voluntary and will therefore not have the same level of resources to support the work programme despite their willingness to participate.

Local authority partners should, at an early stage in the process such as the vision setting, identify who or what organisations are essential to include in the partnership on a formal basis, as well as others that could have a useful but less formal role. All partners must be clear what the expectations are around their input and resources and where the technical support lies, and should fully understand the decision-making process.

A necessary outcome of this partnership working is a statement of common ground (SCG).  This was introduced through the revision of the NPPF in early 2019. The SCG is intended to reach agreement across the Authorities on all strategic matters, though ultimately, resolving fundamental disagreements may not be possible.

The development of Local Industrial Strategies by LEP’s are important documents and should be considered and linkages made where possible into the strategic plan. These strategies are designed to promote the coordination of local economic policy and national funding streams and establish new ways of working between national and local government, and the public and private sectors.

Identifying the infrastructure that is required to deliver the joint vision and strategic priorities is a critical component of developing a joint plan. Setting out how the infrastructure will be delivered is also a key matter for inclusion.  Working collaboratively to determine what is required and what the framework for delivery should be can help to provide a stable set of priorities that would enable development to come forward and facilitate the delivery of the plan.

Authorities are encouraged to work together to develop meaningful infrastructure funding statements that reflect best practice in governance arrangements and which set out the key priorities for infrastructure funding over a set period. These should reflect the priorities set out in the plan and take in to account funding arrangements including, but not strictly limited to, developer contributions. Infrastructure funding statements need to be produced from December 2020 by each authority that receives funding from developer contributions (Community Infrastructure Levy and Section 106 planning obligations). They should be used proactively as an engagement tool between the groups of authorities for strategic planning as well as with infrastructure providers and the community. For strategic planning they also offer the opportunity for consideration of how joint priorities can be funded through potentially pooling resources. 

8.  Test the Plan against the Vision

Before a plan can be examined it should be tested against the vision. The vision provides the purpose for the plan and only policies which deliver that vision are necessary for inclusion.

An independent reviewer is particularly useful at this point as the Councils can become too close to the plan and may miss gaps or duplication. PAS has a number of plan specialists within its peer network who could be called upon to provide an unbiased perspective and give some assurance on deliverability before submission.

It is also worth considering creating a working group from the vision setting stage who can be used throughout the process to test ideas. It is a useful exercise to explain how the plan works to achieve the vision to a non-planning audience.

9. Promote the benefits of the Plan

Good and consistent communication, transparency and clear boundaries in terms of decision-making are all essential ingredients for successful relationship management, particularly where the partnership is not equal in terms of the decision-making responsibilities i.e. external partners are directly involved in guiding the work but councils have the decision-making authority.

At a technical level, evidence that has been developed by cross-sector partnerships or with input from other organisations increases robustness and credibility of that evidence. Developing good relationships with key bodies, particularly those that can contribute directly to the work, will not only benefit the existing partnership but potentially opens the door to ongoing support in other areas of the council's work. Where the work is being managed on a shared basis, agreeing one point of contact amongst the local authorities for other partners will be a more effective and efficient way of managing the relationship and partner's input.


10. Monitor and Evaluate

It is important to keep all working and decision-making arrangements under review and 'fit for purpose'. The context for the work may change and may result in the need to have additional partners around the table, reconsideration of policy through a national change or new data may require a reconsideration.

Monitoring can take many forms but we would recommend that you have a single place where your data and analysis can be found. Essentially you need to test the success of the policies in the plan in terms of the delivery on the ground. In the first few years post adoption this could be through the policies created in the subsequent local plans but it must translate quickly into delivery.

Monitoring is just the start of the process, however, as collecting and analysing data will be irrelevant if you don’t then use this information to improve future delivery. In terms of evaluation, there is no substitute for seeing policy implementation in the form of developments. This is particularly powerful for members and officers who are not directly involved in the decision making process.