Strategic Planning and the Importance of Regionalism

For a small country, Scotland is regionally diverse, and it has a strong tradition of planning at the regional level dating back to the 1940s. Under Tom Johnston, Scotland’s wartime administration initiated the preparation of three major regional plans covering the most populous parts of the country to guide post-war reconstruction. The regional planning tradition established at that time has persisted through successive reforms of local government under Governments of different political complexions, with a particularly strong strand of continuity in Glasgow and the Clyde Valley. From the 1970s, and for a period of more than 30 years, the statutory vehicle for strategic planning at the regional level was the structure plan. Since 2006 it has been the strategic development plan.


The Scottish Government’s consultation on the future of the planning system, Places, People and Planning proposes that strategic development plans should be removed from the system, with regional planning priorities henceforward set out in the National Planning Framework (NPF). The current review of the planning system was initiated in 2015 by the then Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice and Communities, Alex Neil. The initial questions posed by the review reflected the familiar neoliberal narrative of creative and dynamic private enterprise held back by the bureaucracy and inefficiency of the public sector and suspicion remains that it was initially driven by a desire to ease the regulatory burden on volume housebuilders. The abolition of regional development plans is something a number of major housebuilders have been calling for, though without any very clear rationale. Disappointingly, the Scottish Government seems ready to oblige.

The reason the Scottish Government gives for proposing the removal of strategic development plans is that the effort put into the procedures for preparing them leaves little time to work actively on delivering them. If that is the concern, then a more obvious solution would be to adopt the approach proposed for local development plans and review them every 10 instead of 5 years. The main reason that strategic development plans have tended to lose momentum in recent years is that the regional strategies which had been worked out on their first or second iteration remained substantially valid, but the planners who created them have found themselves locked into a statutory process of review when their time would have been better spent on delivery.

The Government’s consultation paper recognises the importance of co-ordinating development and infrastructure at the regional level and proposes that planners should continue to work together at the regional scale to help shape spatial priorities and develop strategies and delivery programmes. However, it is unsatisfactorily vague about how strategic priorities are to be determined at regional level and how spatial strategies for the regions are to be prepared and agreed. The consultation paper refers to strategic planners “helping to shape” regional spatial priorities (para. 1.11) and local authorities “helping to develop” regional strategies (para.1.13). The use of the word “helping” seems to hint that regional priorities and the content of regional strategies might ultimately be decided elsewhere, particularly as they are to be articulated in the National Planning Framework. Is the Government hinting that regional priorities and strategies are ultimately to be determined by Ministers at national level, with the role of regional planners being no more than delivering on the strategies set out in the NPF?

It needs to be acknowledged that the one-size-fits-all approach of the city region model of strategic planning ushered in by the 2006 Act failed to reflect Scotland’s geographical diversity. Not all of Scotland’s diverse regions are focused on cities. The consultation paper’s proposals for partnerships which reflect regional geographies could offer opportunities for Ayrshire, the Highlands and Islands and the South of Scotland in particular. The opportunity to rationalise boundaries for spatial, transport and land use planning should certainly be taken. However, if this is not to be another exercise in centralisation, the Government needs to think more carefully about how policy-making capacity and agency are to be retained and strengthened at the regional level.

The National Planning Framework has been a valuable innovation, setting out a long-term vision and identifying developments of national importance. However, we should be wary of the assumption that we will make it more effective by loading more and more onto it. There is a danger that charging it with responsibility for setting not just national but also regional priorities could have rather the opposite effect, making the NPF unwieldy and top-heavy, and at risk of collapsing under its own weight. The fate of the regional tier of government in England should be instructive. Its association with what was seen as a remote and bureaucratic approach to strategic housing land allocation played an important part in its demise. A top-heavy and over-bearing NPF would quickly fall out of favour.


Scotland has an important regional dimension which needs to be reflected properly in our planning system and strategic housing land allocation is one of the key functions which needs to be discharged at regional level. Central government lacks the knowledge and capacity to undertake that task successfully and the political tensions which would be created by pursuing that course could seriously undermine delivery. Disowning the implications strategic decisions on housing taken centrally would prove an attractive way for politicians to gain local popularity.

Instead of centralising strategic capacity at national level, we should be celebrating Scotland’s regional diversity and ensuring that our regions have the agency to play to their strengths. That the Scottish Government recognises the sense of that is at least implied by the policy initiatives it is pursuing in relation to the island authorities and a new enterprise and skills agency for the South of Scotland. It needs to apply the same thinking to the reform of the planning system. In the more populous parts of the country, we need to nurture the role of our cities as the economic and cultural capitals of their respective regions. We need to make closer links between strategic planning and cities policy, with strategic development plans accorded a key role in the delivery of city deals. We should be very wary of turning our backs on a tradition of regional agency in strategic planning which has served Scotland well for over seventy years.

The Scottish Government’s consultation on the future of the planning system runs until 4th April 2017.

Comments (12)

Leave a Reply to Willie. Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published.

  1. Grant Buttars says:

    One of the key differences between now and the 1940s is the basket-case that passes for local democracy. If regions are to function effectively, then local government needs to be able to identify and reflect local need in a meaningful way. The current disconnect is used as a justification for centralisation, exacerbating rather than addressing the problem.

  2. Clive Scot says:

    Seems to me there are too many fingers in too many pies. Huge duplication and therefore waste in 32 centres of local government. Why do we need 32 heads of bin collection, 32 procurement officers for bin lorries, 32 education chiefs, 32 wildly over paid council chief executives etc etc. There are only a bit over 5m people to provide services for.

    1. Willie says:

      The reason we need 32 local authorities is for exactly the reasons you have stated. Thirty two opportunities to have heads of this and heads of that. That together with endemic inneficiency and corruption that we don’t like to talk about is why local government is a good idea gone rotten.

      1. Alf Baird says:

        There are now over 10,000 senior public sector employees in Scotland being paid salaries over £100,000 a year (with some really ‘bricht mynds’ up to £400,000) across all local and central gov, NHS, universities, and hundreds of quangos and collectively extracting at least £1.5 billion/year out of the Holyrood budget. Such high salaries are needed by the public sector elites to enable them to afford private schooling for their offspring whilst they inflict the state school system they manage on our behalf onto the rest of society.

    2. DPG says:

      While recognising your point about duplication, I would like to suggest that these activities may be better reasonably localised. The issues about local authorities is much more complex than this kind of knee jerk reaction. The first comment about the ‘basket case ‘ local democracy is the key issue. It has become some kind of joke, and the oversight of the ‘professional officers’ is, to put it mildly, lax. The level of community involvement in Scotland is hopeless and much less than is typical elsewhere. The local authorities are being run by some very shady characters, riddled with unrestrained cronyism, and the councillors seem only to prop up much of the charade of local democracy with little or no meaningful community involvement. Accountability is the issue.

      1. Willie. says:

        Very shady characters you say DPG. Quite agree, and aided and abetted by gangsters who would put a bullet through your head, the question is why this is being allowed to happen. Can we, and or our the Police, excercise no restraint on the criminality that masquerades as public service.

    3. Alf Baird says:

      “Why do we need 32 heads of ….”

      Or 19 principals of Scotland 19 universities, many needlessly duplicating faculties of business, law, medicine etc etc etc, an aw their thoosands o heid bummers (over 100 at Glasgow uni alone taking salaries of over £100k, and their principal struggling on £400k).

      Aye, aw thon mankit wastery an still nae Scots Langage Degree onywhair in sicht!

    4. Muscleguy says:

      Because of geography. A formal part of Police Scotland uniform is a fur hat with droppable ear flaps inherited from Northern Constabulary. It is not anticipated that officers in Central Edinburgh will require them. But it illustrates a regional difference.

      What needs a council in Tayside to bother itself over ferries? We have bridges instead.

      If we did not have local councils then the local regulations for Dundee would have to include regulations about lifeline ferries and air services and the landing of aircraft on Benbecula beach. To no good end.

      Regional councils also enable the continuation of local character and tradition. Now you may not like such or downplay it but many do. That Tayside planning document pictured has a picture of our lifesized statue of Desperate Dan, there is a similarly lifesize and diminutive Mini The Minx behind him lining him up with a catapult. It has become the place to arrange to meet people in Dundee. Along the street at the Auld Steeple church a line of bronze penguins hop along a retaining wall and down a step or is it a freeze frame of one penguin? It reflects the city’s connection with Antarctica also reflected in the RSS Discovery berthed on the waterfront. Halfway up the Perth road three lemmings (computer game variety) climb a gatepost. This celebrates our computer games industry and heritage (Lemmings was born here).

      How does a national government handle arrange, raise the funds for and most importantly see the need and sense for such things? It won’t.

      Dundee doesn’t need bylaws to regulate Up Helly Ah and Orkney or Shetland councils don’t need a lifesized bronze of Desperate Dan or some bronze lemmings or need to worry about the Tay Road bridge.

      There is an argument to be had about what is the sensible size for a local body and the sense of hiving off Invergowrie and Monfieth both of which are contiguous with Dundee to Perth and Kinross or Angus Councils respectively? But that we need local government is unarguable.

      What councils are responsible for can also be varied. Back in New Zealand where I grew up councils do not run schools, that is a national govt responsibility as is housing. Though there is some local provision of elderly housing. Police and Fire are also national though there are regional commanders. Dunedin a university city about the size of Dundee is the centre of a large local body which has a large hinterland included. Dundee’s boundaries are in contrast very constrained. As a result a land value tax to replace the council tax would be a problem for Dundee, it occupies a rather small area of land.

  3. c rober says:

    Take the Local Development planning , first page almost it states its to aid householders , developers , land owners…. The rest is secondary or worse.

    ITS review , suggests even more AIDING , in the form of less prevention , easier planning , as developers land bank , or when land is added to LDP with res remits where developers dissolve before building them… only to re appear as an entirely new company.

    This as we head for our greatest housing crisis yet , the assisted living , care homing , and the aged population problem.

    And it is a VERY BIG problem .

    We arent gearing for it in the “prevention better than cure” argument , and this will lead to held over barrel , private , corporate housing and care , provided for PROFIT after the fact so the costliest option , of held to ransom = bankrupting an indy Scotland in its fledgling days.

    So housing/planning is at least as important as currency in post indy Scotland… but the SNP on land reform , LDP , well it is failing, and therin lies the problem – the politicians themselves , seeking re election means short termism. So the best scenario is to remove them from the equation , well as much as possible.

    Our land in an indy yes is as much an asset as that black stuff , same as the people that will be in the houses upon it.

    There is those wanting the likes of AGR as a solution for that , combined with or accelerating land going into public ownership , and of course where councils are selling off the jewels to developers instead of being allowed to be corporate renters , thus re investing the profits back into further housing , including SALES via shared ownership , self build as contractors with leasehold or freehold , and so on. The council as ENABLERS of housing needs more than a planning dept enabling profits for the few , but not a free hand without accountability on the reins.

    Housing is important in that a low waged economy , where more than half of our income is going straight back out the door in the form of paying for it needs to end , we simply need to stop this , its only going into banks hands – much like the farming industry and machinery replacing the workers….rather than wages re entering gdp.

    Today we are seeing 8x multiple main income earner mortgages bank advertised as affordable , where we should be shooting for a maximum of 3.5 admitted by Holyrood themselves. Then on top we have council tax , heating and further tax , and of course actual commuting to jobs.

    Perhaps then we can have the floating of the NEW TOWN idea once again , not just for housing , but for housing 2.0 , of care villages for renters , owners with conceierge care?

    Our last 20 years of housing planning has been diabolical , housing built with no land for expansion for adopting a continental , or Asian style adaption for 3 generation living. And now we see the care tsunami on the horizon. So this is proof positive of planning failure , and it is not party independant. Remember our depleting birth rate will not be able to fund this , either in the UK or as independent.

    1. Alf Baird says:

      AGR or variations of it is surely the way to go, however this seems increasingly unlikely if wealthy landowners are now being seconded to ‘work’ inside the SNP Scottish Government, as Greens MP Andy Wightman highlighted during last week’s FMQ.

  4. Ian Wight says:

    As someone who has been in the regional planning ‘biz’ for most of my professional life (in Canada, but always with an eye on what was happening in my native Scotland) this piece has me thinking of what I have made of this experience (which also includes some 1980s doctoral philosophising about regional development planning on the Celtic Fringe). One outcome has me rather suspicious about the persistence of regional/regionalism terminology… for example, the ‘reg-‘ derives from royalty, and the time of their absolute rule over their ‘subjects’. Another outcome has me now advocating for planning as placemaking as wellbeing by design; this makes me interested in – literally and figuratively – ‘re-placing’ regional terminology with something more directly democratic (rather than something that has become essentially technocratic and bureaucratic). I’d suggest trying to ‘re-place’ our regional thinking and acting by re-conceiving this (strategic/planning/regionalism) as a call for ‘common-place-making on a grand scale’, where ‘bottom-up’ and ‘top-down’ meet, and co-mingle. Such ‘places’ should be defined essentially with regard to the people in/of the place in question, whatever the scale. The planning becomes their placemaking, with their wellbeing paramount – by design.

    Regions, and regional strategizing, have been mainly the province of (‘modern’) professionals and administrators, engaged mainly in system maintenance (with less interest in system change and system transformation). The ‘plannees’ – the people in/of the place – have usually been secondary considerations, with limited engagement and little direct empowerment, especially as local government was diminished. Civics has not really had a ‘look-in’ for decades now.

    Perhaps the time is ripe for reframing planning in Scotland, as placemaking, as wellbeing by design, with the people in/of the place as paramount, and with a ‘neo-civics’ as underlying intention. Professionals – such as planners and administrators – would still be involved, but more on tap rather than on top. And – ideally their ‘professionalism’ would be considerably ‘evolved’ to better align – to be better ‘fit for purpose’ – in these very different times (from when planning and professionalism was first institutionalized in early modernity). Get the governance balance right – locally/communally, inter-locally, intra-nationally; make regional/regionalism redundant; make planning about wellbeing by design.

    Patrick Geddes advocated for (town) planning in his day in the critical context of a societal ‘civics’. Some of his planning ideas were picked up, but his civics-context insistence was mainly jettisoned (in favour of a political economics-cum-technocratics). His ‘folk/work/place’ triad still attracts some interest, and the inherent ‘integration’ interest very definitely merits contemporary concern. But this particular Geddes triad had ‘rustic’ roots, and he (and Victor Branford) actually were inclined to promote another triad as more appropriate for an urban, industrialised societal context: ‘polity/synergy/art’. The latter has received very little ‘play’ in scholarship or practice, but perhaps its time has come – as a re-orienting template for a neo-civics’. Perhaps planners can recast themselves as artists of such possibility, as generators of such synergy, as entrepreneurs of such polity.

    1. Graeme Purves says:

      I agree with much of this, but not the disdain for planning at the regional level. Patrick Geddes was a proponent of regional survey and planning. His son, Arthur Geddes, taught regional geography at Edinburgh University and co-authored a report on regional planning for the Highlands and Islands (1949), at the time Frank Fraser Darling was working on his West Highland Survey. Geddes’ son-in-law, Frank Mears, led the team which prepared the post-war regional plan for Central and South-East Scotland (1948), which led ultimately to the Central Scotland Forest and the Central Scotland Green Network. These were progressive, creative thinkers who promoted the empowerment of communities, but none of them would have supported the fetishisation of the local and the hobbit economy in the way some of the romantics of the modern Green Movement do.

Help keep our journalism independent

We don’t take any advertising, we don’t hide behind a pay wall and we don’t keep harassing you for crowd-funding. We’re entirely dependent on our readers to support us.

Subscribe to regular bella in your inbox

Don’t miss a single article. Enter your email address on our subscribe page by clicking the button below. It is completely free and you can easily unsubscribe at any time.