RSS and the Central Lancashire City Region – widening the approach

Comments from Alastair Skelton

On 30th September 2008, the long awaited North West Regional Spatial Strategy (RSS) was published, with an overall objective to bring together economic, social and environmental planning issues into a single coherent framework, to contribute to the achievement of sustainable development across our region.

The principal story to hit the headlines from the completed strategy is a recommendation that the region should deliver 413,000 new homes by 2021, thereby raising the North West’s housing target by more than half. Understandably during such a difficult economic period (particularly for the housing sector) this new target has raised eyebrows, but it has also diverted attention away from a less conspicuous component of the RSS which delivers a significant change in direction from earlier regional planning guidance –a focus on the Central Lancashire City Region as a key target for economic growth.

Such emphasis on the sub-region does not mean that other major municipalities have been overlooked; indeed the RSS aims to see Manchester and Liverpool firmly established as world class cites by 2021 based on their international connections, highly developed service and knowledge sectors and flourishing culture, sport and leisure industries. But the new Strategy represents a considerable shift from an earlier, almost exclusive focus on these cities, and its wider geographic focus and increased awareness of the differing needs of urban centres across our region can only be a positive move.

The Central Lancashire City Region encompasses the city of Preston and the towns of Blackburn, Blackpool and Burnley, as well as the local authority areas of Blackpool, Wyre, Fylde, Preston, South Ribble, Chorley, Blackburn with Darwen, Hyndburn, Ribble Valley, Burnley, Rossendale and Pendle. The areas’ diverse requirements and strengths are highlighted in the RSS, as well as the need to focus on specific housing, commercial, higher education, manufacturing and tourism requirements.

This unique mix of rural and urban landscapes is highlighted as our region’s key strength; however it is also acknowledged that its diversity not only brings opportunities to the area, but also distinctive challenges.

With particular attention paid to the development potential of Preston, Blackburn, Blackpool and Burnley, the Strategy emphasises the complementary role that the area has to play in relation to Manchester, Liverpool and the rest of the North West in the delivery of sustainable economic growth.

Preston is widely acknowledged as the main focus of the Central Lancashire City Region – particularly since the traditional administrative centre was granted city status in 2002 and with the benefits it continues to see from ongoing, substantial regeneration. A joined up approach towards planning matters has already benefited Greater Preston (comprising Preston, South Ribble and Chorley), with the award of government Growth Point Status in July this year, ensuring extra funds to support the delivery of homes, schools, health facilities and parks across the three local authorities. The RSS argues for further investment in the City to capitalise on Preston’s position at the intersection of north/south and east/west transport corridors, and it emphasises the potential value to the whole North West through the development of Preston’s role as a regional transport gateway.

Neighbouring Blackburn is also hoping to benefit from considerable renewal plans. With work expected to begin on site next year, plans to regenerate the town’s Cathedral Quarter mark a £multi-million investment into Blackburn, and aim to deliver hotel accommodation, apartments, shops, cafes and leisure facilities in a scheme which has been heralded as the project that will transform the town. Supporting such plans the RSS identifies Blackburn as requiring further housing stock renewal, retail, service centre and knowledge based development and transport improvements. The aim is to position the town as a centre for higher and further education, public administration, justice and legal services – thereby complementing efforts to raise the profile of Lancashire as an important hub for business and leisure.

Blackpool, like Greater Preston, was also awarded Growth Point Status earlier this year, and is highlighted in the RSS as requiring vital regeneration and housing restructuring. The resort, it has been widely acknowledged, needs a fresh approach to address its previous pattern of stagnation. The Blackpool Borough Council Master Plan provides a positive vision for the town’s long-term future, however without a full regional approach and genuine investment it is unlikely that the council will be able to fully redress the large pockets of deprivation that exist in the town. The fact that the RSS has highlighted a critical need for investment in Blackpool raises the importance of the town in the overarching North West strategy, and its significance to the region as an international tourist destination. Perhaps too, the admission of Sir Howard Bernstien, who has been lauded for his efforts in the regeneration of Manchester over recent years, to the board of ReBlackpool will help ensure that such change happens.

The final town singled out in the strategy out as having particular economic potential, Burnley, has in recent years been seen predominantly as a commuter town for Manchester, Leeds and the M65 corridor. With the public sector now the area’s largest employer, the RSS has highlighted a pressing need to attract significant commercial investment into the town and position it as a major retail and service centre,, as well as recommending that it is earmarked for elevation to existing housing market renewal initiatives.

Burnley, like Preston, Blackburn and Blackpool has strong functional links with smaller towns and villages across the region and the decision to focus on all of these centres not only reflects their status within the Central Lancashire City Region, but also the positive impact that development here will have in the less populated surrounding localities.

We agree that the requirements of our smaller cities, towns and villages and the disparities that exist within them need to be recognised before we can even begin to create a coherent development framework. By widening the approach and addressing this issue head-on, the recent RSS signifies a crucial step forward towards guaranteeing the delivery of effective development across the North West.