In 2019 the Hertfordshire local authorities agreed to produce two Joint Strategic Plans as part of a wider programme of place-based working. The subsequent work of the North East Central group of authorities to take forward the JSP for their area is the subject of this case study. The study identifies the issues and challenges the authorities faced, how these were addressed in their particular circumstances, and draws out some broad learning points that are more generally applicable to strategic planning work
In 2019 the Planning Advisory Service (PAS) invited groups of local authorities wishing to develop a joint strategic plan to bid for independent support to help with this work. This case study reflects the background, outcomes to date and learning points from the work undertaken by local authorities of Broxbourne, East Hertfordshire, North Hertfordshire, Stevenage and Welwyn Hatfield, together with Hertfordshire County Council in North East Central (NEC) Hertfordshire, with support from consultants Cambridge Planning Services, as part of The Strategic Planning Partnership, appointed by PAS.
The work to inform this case study was largely undertaken during the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020. Consequently, there were restrictions on the type of engagement that could take place, which is reflected partly in the outcomes to date.
The ten Hertfordshire local authorities, together with the county council, established the Hertfordshire Growth Board in 2019. The purpose behind the Growth Board is to collaborate on place-based working across Hertfordshire to address sustainable growth. This joint approach is captured in a Memorandum of Understanding, which includes, amongst other matters, agreement to the development of two Joint Strategic Plans (JSPs), for South West and NEC Hertfordshire.
The purpose of the JSPs is to provide a long-term growth strategy where future collaboration is needed to deliver strategic-scale growth. The polycentric geography of Hertfordshire, with no dominant town or city, together with a number of tightly constrained new towns lends itself well to a strategic approach that considers growth needs across administrative boundaries. The plans will identify a joint vision, long-term development needs, strategic development locations (possibly including new settlements); and strategic transport infrastructure, green infrastructure and climate change issues and policy responses.
The authorities undertook a comprehensive scoping exercise to understand better some of the challenges and issues associated with the preparation of a JSP, including the issues where support was needed. These include the relationship of a JSP to local plans, the type of strategic plan that would best meet the area’s needs and how its preparation would be resourced, as well as how long it would take. These issues are considered further in the case study.
Key Issues and Influences
The five local authorities have either recently adopted local plans or have plans at examination, all with end dates beyond 2030. These will, therefore, provide for growth needs over this period. The intention is that the JSP will address the period between the end dates of these plans and 2050. As such, it will provide for long-term growth needs, recognising that major developments like new settlements and urban extensions have long lead-in times. It will not, however, override the need to produce local plans as well to deal with non-strategic matters. This is the approach that underpins the JSP for South West Hertfordshire, which is at early stages of preparation and evidence-gathering.
The authorities recognise that there are broadly two options for preparation of a JSP, either on a statutory or a non-statutory basis (the latter effectively being a spatial framework to distinguish it from a statutory plan). There are a range of examples of each approach being followed across the country. From a planning perspective it is important that the approach should be issues-led, recognising the unique geography of the area.
The following are the types of issues that the authorities considered with regard to a statutory or non-statutory approach:
- the functional cohesiveness of the area as a whole, as indicated by different Housing Market Areas and settlement patterns (including the relationships with neighbouring areas).
- The flexibility versus certainty created by statutory/non-statutory plans, including the need to ensure that a non-statutory strategy would be sufficiently robust to be followed through in local plans.
- How far a non-statutory plan could go in setting a strategy and detailed policies, and the more limited weight that would be given to this compared to a statutory plan.
- The current legal and evidential requirements for statutory plans: a number of statutory plans have foundered on their inability to prove the deliverability of long-term projects.
- The timetabling and resource implications, acknowledging that a non-statutory strategy would not be subject to the same requirements, including examination, as a statutory plan.
Resourcing the preparation of a strategic plan as well as local plans is challenging, because it inevitably involves a commitment of staff time or additional funding, or most likely both. The optional approaches for resourcing preparation of the JSP that were considered are:
- use staff from existing policy teams to create a part-time JSP team; or
- transfer staff from policy teams to create a dedicated JSP team; or
- appoint new staff to a dedicated JSP team; or
- commission consultants to prepare the JSP.
The local authorities had particular regard in considering this issue to the appointment of a Strategic Director to manage the strategic planning work for South West Hertfordshire, which enabled a full-time, independent manager to steer the work.
Governance Structure and Working Arrangements
The establishment of the Hertfordshire Growth Board resulted in a strategic governance structure to oversee work on the JSPs. The Board itself comprises the Leaders of all the Hertfordshire local authorities. Under this, a Programme Board comprising Chief Executives and Directors of the authorities manages the various sustainable growth workstreams. More recently, a dedicated local authority Leader and Chief Executive have been appointed to the JSP workstream.
The Heads of Planning for the five authorities and county council formed a working group that meets regularly to address the practical issues concerning development of the JSP.
Opportunities and Challenges
Having carefully scoped and considered the issues outlined above, the authorities decided to prepare initially a non-statutory framework, rather than a statutory plan. The reasons for this are:
- The need for two authorities to complete current local plan examinations and for all authorities to then take stock of the position on the JSP in relation to local plan reviews.
- The inability currently to commit resources from policy teams that are engaged in this work.
- National planning reforms, where the publication of a white paper and on-going discussion about the role of strategic plans and planning creates some uncertainty in the short to mid-term.
- The fact that initial work on a non-statutory framework could be ‘banked’ and subsequently used in preparation of a statutory plan, if circumstances changed.
For these reasons, the authorities concluded that a pragmatic and flexible approach is required, which can be adapted to reflect changing circumstances. They also recognised, however, the need to make progress with the JSP work, whatever form the plan takes. This led to a focus on developing a brief for a strategic growth study that would provide a central part of the evidence to inform a long-term development strategy.
The value of this piece of work would in large part be due to its adaptability, for use in informing a statutory or non-statutory strategic plan/framework and/or local plans. Furthermore, there would be considerable economies of scale and cost savings from jointly commissioning and steering this work. As the work develops the authorities recognise the importance of bringing stakeholders on board and ensuring that there is an effective communications strategy for the strategic planning work.
With regard to resources, there is an acknowledged tension between using a newly-recruited team to prepare the JSP against the need for ‘ownership’ of the plan by the authorities. However, the authorities also recognise the value of having a lead officer who is employed by all of them and not affiliated to any single authority. This allows not only a dedicated resource to lead the work, but also an ‘honest broker’ who can take an impartial and objective view. Therefore, a hybrid approach of new, dedicated staff with part-time input from existing staff in policy teams appears to be the most appropriate option. It is important, however, that there is a clear commitment that the agreed staff resources will be made available or this is likely to undermine delivery of the plan.
Main Learning Points
In 2019 a decision was made collectively by the Hertfordshire local authorities to develop two JSPs covering the whole county. The NEC Hertfordshire authorities have subsequently scoped the approach that will best suit their circumstances. Based on their experience to date, the following broad learning points can be drawn out that are more generally applicable to strategic planning work:
- Develop a clear governance structure, both at the technical and political level. Where there is an existing governance structure in place to facilitate cross boundary working it will usually be better to use this as a starting position. Having a dedicated lead member and chief executive for strategic planning can help to achieve ‘buy-in’ from wider groups and help to bridge any gaps between political and technical issues.
- Scope and define the issues and outputs – Consider the strategic issues that need to be addressed and the form of the output early in the process. This includes identifying the genuinely strategic issues to be addressed (possibly through a Statement of Common Ground) while distinguishing these from purely local issues, and thinking about whether the approach taken will follow the statutory or non-statutory route. The approach should be rooted in the geography of the area, which includes the settlement pattern and functional relationships between the main towns and strategic transport linkages, both inside and outside the county.
- Be pragmatic and flexible – There may be good reasons why it is not possible or desirable to decide the type of plan early in the process. However, this should not be an impediment to progress, particularly where early work can focus on the evidence to inform the future development strategy.
- Develop an approach rooted in national policy as well as being delivery-focused – It is important to ensure that the approach taken responds effectively in a local context to the requirements of national policy. The strategic plan is a broad spatial document that can encompass a range of issues and objectives, rather than just a narrowly focused ‘planning’ agenda. This will ensure that the plan can address relevant strategic issues across the wider area that are likely to be significant for a wide range of stakeholders, such as climate change or health issues. This will also help to achieve ‘buy-in’ from wider audience than would be the case if the plan is perceived as a narrow, planning-focused document dealing with just housing and hard infrastructure.
- Identify appropriate, targeted resources for strategic planning work – There is generally acknowledged value in having an objective, experienced lead officer, ideally not affiliated to any single authority, who can act as an ‘honest broker’ in working with and for groups of local authorities. This role can be particularly valuable in two-tier areas where it is important to co-ordinate and manage district and county functions at a strategic level. Equally, individual authorities need to be able to commit resources to support the overall work programme.
- Be realistic about the length of time needed to prepare a strategic plan, especially where there are a large number of authorities involved and no formal joint governance structure (such as a combined authority or Section 29 Joint Local Planning Committee). Any potential for slippage should be identified through a risk management approach, for example, due to change in leadership or changes in resources.
- Develop a communications and engagement strategy – Be clear about internal communications between authorities and how external engagement and communication will be managed. It will be important to involve key external stakeholders early in the process, particularly where they will have a role in delivering the development strategy set out in the plan.
- Learn from others – There is an increasing number of groups of authorities who are deciding to work together on some form of strategic plan, whether these are statutory, non-statutory frameworks or joint local plans. Sharing experience and learning from others’ challenges and successes is a valuable input to any strategic planning approach.