Tuesday, 19 April 2016 14:34

Effective strategic planning

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So often startegic planning is disregarded or under-resourced, but used effectively it could provide a means of delivering inclusive and sustainable development. Therefore research by a practising planner on effective strategy-making is welcome. Jan Vogelij has many years experience both in his native Netherlands and as a past President of the European Council of Spatial Planners (ECTP_CEU). Thus it was an act of bravery bordering on masochism to commit to researching for a PhD at the Technical University of Delft. Dr.Vogelij gained the qualification he deserved, but has also benefitted the planning profession by creating a rigorous assessment of the circumstances under which strategic planning might - and might not - prove effective. His PhD thesis has been published as a book.

From Bologna to Glasgow - five case studies

The empirical core of Vogelij's work is a series of case studies, that drew on publications and materials on websites but also interviews with stakeholders. Vogelij selected his cases by asking ECTP-CEU colleagues to identify examples of successful strategic decision-making. Thus, each sat within a specific national / local context, and implicitly had been judged against different, context-specific criteria. A long list of 13 was whittled down to five, which between them represented different planning traditions within Europe.

The Piano Strutturale Comunale di Bologna sits in the "urbanism" model of planning that typifies southern Europe.  The Drechtstreden 2030 was a cooperation project involving eight municipalities round Dordrecht in the south of Holland, and in the Dutch comprehensive integrated tradition. The Glasgow and Clyde Valley Strategic Development Plan is part of the UK's land use management approach to planning. Grödental is in the Dolomites of North Italy and commissioned a Master Plan which became the Vision Gherdeina. Five local councils were involved, and though in general Italy exemplifies the urbanism model, this was an innovation that Vogelij deems to be more akin to the comprehensive integrated style of planning. The fifth case study was in Meetjesland, a rural sub-region in the north-east of Belgium, In terms of planning cultures this was the most tricky one to nail down. It is a regime a bit like the land use management of the UK, but very permissive - a poisonous cocktail when it comes to strategic spatial planning!

 

What works?

Vogelij systematically evaluates his five case studies, and decides that Glasgow, Drechsteden and Grödental have proved effective over time, while the other two have not. Of course, this assessment necessarily is formed in relation to the criteria that the researcher set, which in turn were rooted in the theoretical literature.

Co-ownership was one of those criteria, and the Bologna plan, while promising in the early stages, got enmeshed in a bureaucratic sclerosis as the legal requirements of the regulatory system came to the fore. In contrast, fifteeen years after the  Drechtstreden 2030 began, and halfway to its target date, the interiews revealed a strong sense of co-ownership. The incremental adaptation of the Glasgow city region plan also gave stakeholders a sense that they had ownership, while in the Tyrol example the ownership is "enthusiastically shared", but the Meetjesland cooperation had given way to deep divides between civil society partners and the local councils.

Co-design was another criterion. Did the stakeholders have a real say in the strategy? As Vogelij tellingly observes "agreeing on a set of objectives for development without substantiating into new localized options affecting various interests is a not very controversial stage". Only Drechtsteden and Grödental were given ticks on co-design.

Other measures used by the researcher to judge success were whether options or scenarios were used to inform and explore choices, and in addition whether there were maps that enabled visualization, and if so, at what stage were the maps used? Vogelij also makes the case for "real openness" of the decision-making process. He found that within Italy, the closed, statutory regulatory system that had so stymied efforts in Bologna was in effect circumvented in the Tyrol where there was the political will to do things in an innovative way. However, in Glasgow and the Clyde Valley there were mutterings of a bureaucratic focus at "higher levels" (presumably the Scottish Government). Yet higher level support is generally needed for strategic spatial planning to be effective, because of its cross-cutting nature. While much depends on formal structures and responsibilities, Vogelij stresses that the people involved can make a difference too.

It is good to read Vogelij's outsider description of the Scottish planning system as "a rather strict top-down system". Of course, the same could be said of the planning systems in the rest of the UK, but so often people practising here just take this centralisation for granted; it is the "real world" which any idea must be moulded to fit. Similarly, at a time when investment in the planning service is plunging as councils struggle to balance the books while coping with real cuts in funds, it is refreshng to find that this piece of research ends up affirming the long term benefit of involving professional planners who nourish strategic planning with "information and insights".

PhD theses are rarely an easy read - if you've never read one, take my word for it. But they bring the kind of careful argument and consideration of counter-interpretations that are rarely allowed to befog policy making and planning practice. Vogelij's assiduous sifting of evidence and interpretation gives a base from which an informed debate should be conducted by planners and policy makers across and beyond Europe about how to make effective strategic policy and plans.

 

COMMENT

Graeme Purves: Having been responsible for central government liaison with the Glasgow and the Clyde Valley structure plan team over a period of some 15 years, I am intrigued by the reference to 'mutterings of a bureaucratic focus at "higher levels" (presumably the Scottish Government)'! My recollection is that while there may have been differences of view over aspects of strategic land supply or infrastructure from time to time, central government was generally comfortable with and supportive of the strategy developed and that relationships with the Joint Committee,constituent authorities and officials were generally positive and cordial. Intervention through the structure plan approval process was generally light touch or, at least, strove to be! I see the generally good relationships and close working between Scottish Government and local authorities on planning matters as one of the strengths of the Scottish system. I have encountered much less positive relationships in other North European countries.  I agree that Glasgow and the Clyde Valley offers an example of strategic planning working really well over many decades.

 It doesn't strike me as an accurate portrayal of the nature of the relationship when I liaised with the Glasgow and Clyde Valley team and I would be surprised if it had changed dramatically since. I'm not sure what is meant by the claim that Scottish Government officials are 'juridical', but it is clear that the intention is that it should be read as a criticism. Does it mean any more than that central government officials are concerned to ensure that Ministers meet their statutory responsibilities in relation to the strategic development plan? If there were to be any doubt about that, they would be subject to legal challenge. During my time, we worked very closely with Glasgow and the Clyde Valley officials in the successful defence of 3 ill-founded challenges of that kind in the Court of Session and the House of Lords. Academic analysis needs to move some distance beyond tittle-tattle if it is to inform future policy and practice.

The characterisation of central government planning officials as 'distant' and 'controlling' in their engagement with strategic development plans is such a grotesque misrepresentation of the we operated over the last 20 years that I feel bound to challenge it on the record.

 

COMMENT

Vincent Goodstadt:

 

I totally understand Graeme's concern, especially as he was instrumental in building an open and productive relationship between central and local government.  As Graeme says the support that the Glasgow and Clyde Valley (GCV) plan got at critical stages was key. Having worked in planning across the UK and elsewhere, his contribution was exceptional.

Glasgow and Clyde Valley  planning represents one of the very few successful strategic planning stories over the last 15 years in the UK. In fact, it is potentially misleading to refer to describe it as "part of the UK's land use management approach", since it stands out in stark contrast to the rest of the UK, with a very few exceptions. A reading of Jan's book clearly highlights a whole range of areas in which the planning in the GCV was highly effective. It is not surprising that the GCV has been an exemplar used in developing the European Benchmarking of strategic planning, and recognised nationally as best practice.

Jan's book inevitably does not provide (nor seek to provide) a comprehensive list of all that was and is still being achieved. It also has some inaccuracies and misunderstandings. However the core message that the GVC plan was / is effective is correct; this is not to deny that it could be more so. However that is just one of those universal truths that apply to all his case studies, but still does not detract from them as exemplars. If all regions in the UK and Europe performed to an equivalent level , we would  be  in a much better place.  For those who might want a wider perspective of the GCV experience I would refer you to Thompson & Dimitriou's book on strategic planning and Patsy Healey’s earlier book on collaborative planning.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Read 1830 times Last modified on Monday, 25 April 2016 12:02

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