Devolution is the transfer of power from the central government to lower level authorities within a state (Clifford and Morphet, 2014), to transfer decision making power to regional, local or state level, with the aim of making administration more relevant to the local area. Examples include legislation to devolve planning in Scotland in 1999 and transferring responsibility for certain services including those for planning (Hayton, 2002). Within the United Kingdom (UK), devolution has occurred on multiple scales including neighbourhood, local, sub-regional/city and national (Morphet and Clifford, 2016). In England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, various powers have been devolved to a national level, including but not limited to planning, education, transport, housing and environment. This essay will examine the planning system on multiple levels of administration and argue that devolution has, to a large extent, not caused policy divergence in the UK, despite speculations of divergence in policy. This is because planning is not an isolated process, and is linked to a range of factors including economic, social and political pressures (Allmendinger, 2002) amongst others. As the constituent nations of the UK are in close proximity to each other, factors which affect planning policy are similar, interrelated and interdependent.
The founding of the Scottish Parliament in 1999 granted a large amount of power in planning policy to the region, however, this is not the case with the Welsh Assembly and this asymmetrical nature of devolution has meant that the Welsh plan has been cautionary to creativity (Adams, 2008). This is a similar case where Northern Ireland, where fewer powers were devolved to the Northern Ireland Assembly compared to the Scottish Parliament. It was expected that devolved administrations would abolish previous plans and develop their own plans, but in the case of Scotland and England, the newly created structure of planning has been a similar, two-tier system. In England, Regional Spatial Strategies and Sub-regional Strategies were introduced, while in Scotland, a Strategic Development Plan and Local Development Plan were created (Allmendinger, Morphet and Tewdwr-Jones, 2005). The titles of the plan suggest similar scales, one being a larger master plan and the subsequent being a plan on a local scale.
Regarding the Scottish and English plans for spatial planning, both have common themes and approaches post-devolution. On a national scale, the Scottish National Policy Planning Guidance in 2000 aims to guide planning of future schemes to be in long-term public interest, as well as ensuring that developments are in suitable locations and are sustainable, preventing unsuitable developments. The three main objectives including setting up frameworks to promote sustainable economic development, promote and support regeneration, and to maintain the quality of natural heritage and enhance the built environment (Allmendinger, 2002). There is an Equivalent section in the English Planning Policy Guidance in 1997 which states that the aim of the planning system is to provide sustainable homes and buildings, investments and jobs, promote competitiveness while conforming to the principals of sustainable development and protecting the environment (Allmendinger, 2002). Essentially, both planning documents aim to promote the economic competitiveness, sustainable building development and protection of the environment of each of the nations. It is evident that these two areas have similar factors affecting them and due to the similar situations, they have similar policies in place to improve economic and environmental factors.
Among the plans, another distinctiveness is also common to many plans, including the Scottish, Northern Irish, Welsh and London. There are “manifested in statements such as: ‘devising responses to distinctively Scottish issues’; ‘a new start has warranted a new plan’ based on ‘celebrating distinctiveness’ in Northern Ireland; ‘becoming international yet distinctively Welsh’; ‘positioning Republic of Ireland as a single region’; ‘London’s economy has always been distinct'” (Davoudi and Strange, 2008, p.317). The inclusion and emphasis on distinctiveness in these areas are apparent in all these regions, with the wording almost identical clearly conveying similarity in their policies. This is due to the similar historical background of the constituent nations, which means renewal and innovation are important to the countries and their policies also focus on conserving historical and cultural backgrounds.
Policy delivery is another similarity after devolution in Scotland and England, with focuses on resourcing and efficiency, even though measured with subtly different indicators (Tewdwr-Jones and Allmendinger, 2011). With similarities in both outlook and delivery, it is inevitable that despite devolution to local authorities, the Scottish and English planning systems are to remain similar. For the Welsh Assembly, due to their limited power compared to the Scottish Parliament, their options are limited and divergence in policy is not likely.
On a city level, there are also signs of policy convergence. City deals are agreements on funding and granting decision-making power between the central government and local authorities (Ward, 2017). They aimed to shift decision making power to local communities and offered local councils the opportunity to submit plans promoting economic growth (Burn-Murdoch, 2017). These are based on the model of the devolved government in London and has taken place in various cities in England such as London, Manchester and Leeds. Manchester and Leeds experienced decentralisation of powers as they were designated to be the pilot cities of the city-regions scheme, and were quickly recognised by regional and local actors (Allmendinger, 2010). Similarly, in Scotland, there are devolved city-regions, including Glasgow City, Aberdeen City, Inverness and Highland City and most recently, Edinburgh and South-East Scotland, a city regional deal which was secured in July 2017 (Accelerating growth, 2017). Both deals have clauses which show a resemblance to each other, with a main focus on innovation, investment in transport, employment and housing. Additionally, there is also city-regional level devolution in discussion in North Wales, also with similar aims, and plans include an innovation hub (Gov.uk, 2017). With both deals having similar plans on transport including improving infrastructure and public transport, planning policies can be interpreted to be similar in both cases.
Policy convergence is also evident in transport planning, in the form of the road using charging. Currently, there are two road charging schemes in place in the UK, both in England, and Edinburgh city council in Scotland is considering the possibility of a charging scheme (Santos, 2004). The power to introduce a congestion charging scheme was granted in the Greater London Authority, an example of devolution to a city level, to Transport for London in 1999. Similarly, The Transport (Scotland) Act grants local authorities the power to introduce road user charging schemes, and the City of Edinburgh Council had already been contemplating the scheme several years earlier (Gaunt, Rye and Allen, 2007). As devolution has granted power to these city authorities to control traffic in their area, it is evident that there is policy convergence, as cities have chosen similar policies despite other policies which can also deal with the matter, such as improvements in public transport.
Local development plans are present in all four countries of the UK and are required in all except in England where the National Planning Policy Framework directs, without the legal requirement for the Local Planning Authority to produce one. In Northern Ireland and England, they must set out an overview of fifteen years into the future, and this is also shadowed in Wales where the plan should cover a period of ten to fifteen years, compared to Scotland which has a minor divergence of updating the plan every five years (NIA RaISe, NAW Research Service, HoC Library and SPICe, 2016). With the exception of Scotland, the rest of the countries within the UK have the same timescale in their local development plans despite being devolved, separate entities.
One identified difference between plans is on a neighborhood or community scale. Currently, these do not exist in Scotland or Wales, but there are existing plans under the Localism Act of 2011 in England and the Local Government (Northern Ireland) Act 2014, and a pilot scheme of a Place Plan in Wales (NIA RaISe, NAW Research Service, HoC Library and SPICe, 2016). It is clear there are differences on the community scale of planning in the four countries making up the UK, nevertheless, the future trajectory seems to be similar with the pilot scheme in place, suggesting further convergence to occur even on a neighborhood scale.