Spatial plans – the key to ‘levelling up’

The influential One Powerhouse Consortium (OPC) has called on the UK government to deploy ‘spatial planning’ as a clear, practical step to unlock the human talent and wealth across England's four super-regions of the north, the Midlands, the south west and the south east to get 'levelling up' done.

At an online meeting of MPs and local government leaders, the OPC, in partnership with the RSA, also called on the government to ask the National Infrastructure Commission to build on the work already done, accelerate the agglomeration already started and create regional growth boards as the fastest way to level up England’s regions.

Spatial planning looks at a defined geographical area and makes an assessment of everything contained in that area - towns, cities, housing, schools, universities, roads, rails, airports, offices, factories - and then makes assessments and recommendations for further development.

The OPC highlighted that countries and regions around the world have used spatial planning to focus political will, economic activity and social reform to great effect – citing notable examples include Germany’s Rhine-Ruhr, Holland’s Randstad and New York City’s Regional Plan Association.

The OPC has now launched draft plans for England’s regions, linking up with industry big-hitters including Atkins (for the north), AECOM (for the south east) and Barton Willmore (for the south west and the Midlands).

As the UK has now left the European Union, the OPC says that now is the time for the government to bring forward a clear and coherent programme to tackle widening regional inequalities and provide a substantive basis for extensive infrastructure spending. 

Stressing that levelling-up is more than a matter of investment, the OPC has made the following six recommendations to the government. 

  1. Adopt the principles and processes of regional spatial planning that have proved so successful in other developed nations and can complement industrial strategy, infrastructure planning and local economic development.
  2. Make the move to ‘mega-regions’, not as top-down regional agencies but as bottom-up collaborations between regional leaders in the Northern Powerhouse, the Midlands Engine and ‘super-LEP’ areas in the south east and south west.
  3. Put in place a regional investment pipeline alongside a fiscal framework for change which involves changes to Green Book appraisal, lifting the cap on capital investment, long-term investment allocations with full delegation of decision-making, a network of regional investment banks and a pathway to greater fiscal devolution.
  4. Provide greater support for emerging institutions at the mega-regional scale, building the capacity of mega-regional co-ordination agencies like NP11 and Midlands Engine and creating appropriate boards or other bodies to hold such agencies to account.
  5. Task and resource the National Infrastructure Commission with responsibility for overseeing and supporting the development of regional spatial strategies and an overarching UK spatial framework.
  6. Introduce four regional ministers, one for each of the English mega-regions, whose primary role is to represent the region to government and who will form a committee for regional rebalancing attended by secretaries of state at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, Department for Housing, Communities and Local Government, Department for Transport and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and chaired by the chancellor of the exchequer.

The OPC say that these spatial plans will be vital in swiftly guiding government and local authorities to make the right decisions in the right places for the economy to recover and then grow.

Sir Hugh Sykes, whose charitable foundation funded the consortium as a philanthropic gesture to the nation, said after the launch: “Time is short, but One Powerhouse has done all the initial work for the government to begin the process of levelling up England's regions as an integral part of the plan to recover from the pandemic. We hope they accept this gift, engage the National Infrastructure Commission to take our work to the next level and to create regional growth boards to implement these spatial plans.”

Richard Coburn, director of urban and regional economics at Atkins, said: “Now is the time for spatial planning to play its part in delivering the Northern Powerhouse vision and providing a firm platform for enabling effective and efficient collaboration across the entire territory of the north.” 

Simon Prescott, partner at Barton Willmore, said: “The way to tackle regional inequality does not lie just in increasing funding, but targeted investment and collaboration with communities – in other words: proper spatial planning.  Levelling up is about connecting people and encouraging collaboration from the bottom up rather than imposing strategies from above. We need carefully thought-out local and regional plans tied together by a guiding national framework that looks at the longer-term and at the larger geographic picture.”

Matthew Taylor, CEO of the RSA, added: “Regional spatial planning is both practical and transformative, providing a realistic roadmap to ‘levelling up’ for English regions. We believe it can play a vital role in unpicking the inequities of the past, while preparing us for the new challenges of the post-Covid future.”

Click here to download the One Powerhouse Consortium report, A Vision for Britain. Planned.

If you would like to contact Rob O’Connor about this, or any other story, please email