Nick Webb is a Conservative activist in the Bristol area and was formerly the Conservative Future Chairman for Bristol and Gloucestershire. His work brings him into regular contact on planning matters with developers, councillors and the public. He says councillors need to give a stronger lead.
When planning hits a problem, you need a new plan. Regional Spatial Strategies, the documents that state how many houses must be built in each local authority area have brought to the fore a major problem with planning matters in England. The spatial strategies are decided at a regional level. They are then approved or amended by central Government. Local Councils are involved and can feed into the proposals, but in truth they are very limited in their influence. This lack of influence from a council level is creating a dynamic that threatens to stifle planning proposals and to induce a malaise among voters, who feel their elected officials are either ignoring them or are impotent in the face of non-directly elected officials in Whitehall or the regions.
The Regional Spatial Strategy is not in essence a bad idea. In 1991 the population of England was 48,067,300, ten years later it was 49,652,000 and as of 2007 is estimated at 51,092,000. It is also worth noting that the average number of people per household in England and Wales was 2.36 in 2001, down from 2.51 in 1991 and 1,500,000 were deemed to be living in an overcrowded household. These statistics demonstrate there is a need to build more houses, and as a result more infrastructure and community facilities. There is logic behind a regional strategic approach, after all some authorities are barely distinct from one another to anyone without a map of the boundaries. Businesses don't think too hard about whether they are based in South Gloucestershire or Bristol, as far as they are concerned they are on the edge of a major city with good motorway and mainline rail links. Residents probably think about boundaries even less. As a result it seems to make some sense planning the number of houses required at a regional level.