Tourism - Great Destinations - Brian Human writes

These are turbulent times for the public sector, not least as it tries to maintain the ability to make and shape places in the public interest. Leaving aside the financial dimension, legislation and government guidance are posing serious challenges to the principles of planning and heritage protection, both of which are seen as barriers to sustainable growth.  In reality sound planning is essential to economic prosperity and should be seen as part of the solution to the challenges facing the country, not the problem.  Planning for tourism is a good example of this.

In a major speech in August 2010, David Cameron gave an unexpected, ringing endorsement of tourism, saying:  ‘Tourism presents a huge economic opportunity.  Not just bringing business to Britain but right across Britain driving new growth in the regions and helping to deliver the rebalancing of our national economy that is so desperately needed.’ March 2011 saw the publication of Government Tourism Policy by DCMS, which said, amongst much else: ‘A thriving tourism industry creates beautiful places to visit all round the country, which also improves the quality of life for everyone who lives near them as well.’

March 2011 also saw the publication of VisitEngland’s, England – A Strategic Framework for Tourism 2010-2020. This set out a vision: ‘To maximise tourism’s contribution to the economy, employment and quality of life in England’, with an objective ‘To offer visitors compelling destinations of distinction’. Just prior to this, in February, VisitEngland launched a consultation on nine action plans designed to take the Strategic Framework forward.  These covered a wide range of issues from research to resorts and growth to access.  Final versions will be launched on 16th June. Two further action plans, on transport (to include infrastructure) and skills and quality, will be consulted on during the summer and published by the end of 2011.

It is hard to see how this laudable vision for the future can be delivered without sound planning.

The planning and management of tourism has been a longstanding concern of the Historic Towns Forum.  This stems not only from a recognition that a great deal of tourism is based around an interest in heritage, with all the consequential impact on sensitive historic places, but also from a wider recognition that sustainable tourism is based on the experience of exceptional places.  This itself requires an inclusive approach to destinations bringing together all the public and private sector players to manage the place for a sustainable future. Tourism is too important to be left to marketing and events organisers.  And one other thing has to be recognised: hard though it may be to accept, not everywhere can be a great destination.

The Forum will continue to work with these issues and emphasise the key roles that local authorities have in responding to the challenges set out by the Government and VisitEngland.  In addition to its continuing role in conserving the historic environment, there are four areas where it needs to be proactive.

First, in promoting the importance of sound planning to sustainable tourism. This will mean continuing to press for improvements to the revised planning system that will emerge from the Localism Bill. It will also be important for the proposed National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) to address tourism issues. The NPPF will need to: recognise the link between heritage and tourism; address the role of tourism in town centres; recognise explicitly, to avoid uncertainty, the need to plan for tourism facilities in town centres, e.g. hotels; and promote the idea of planning working hand in hand with destination management. We need to shout about the achievements of sound planning from the Ipswich Riverside to Oxford Gaol and Turner Contemporary in Margate to the Titanic Quarter in Belfast.

Second, and linked to this, working towards a positive approach to the wise growth of tourism through Local Enterprise Partnerships. This could include urging LEPs to: explicitly include tourism in their objectives; negotiate planning roles, with sound planning being seen as an answer to key challenges; forging multi sector partnerships including tourism operators; and embracing the bigger picture to create great places that are economically, environmentally and socially sustainable.

Third, looking at innovative ways of developing mechanisms to forge partnerships that invest in exceptional places and ensure their future. Business Improvement Districts (BIDS) have been a valuable counterpart to town centre management partnerships in giving them much needed resources. Is there scope for initiating Tourism BIDS and where might they be most appropriate? At present there are legal constraints, but cities as diverse as Bristol, Birmingham, Great Yarmouth, Manchester and Plymouth are interested in the concept, or at least modifying existing BIDS to embrace tourism.

Fourth, looking at ways of working in partnership with VisitEngland and other national tourism bodies to achieve common objectives. The HTF has already offered to be a partner in the delivery of the Wise Tourism Action Plan and it may have a part to play in others. VisitEngland is setting up a Destination Management Forum and a Visitor Economy Forum and the HTF will be invited to be represented on the latter. There may be scope for working with VisitEngland to provide training on planning for non planners, not least to dispel some of the myths about planning.

The Government has thrown down a challenge and Visit England talks about the importance of great destinations. The Forum must respond. We must get all players to see, understand and embrace the bigger picture and work to create places where people want to live, visit and invest.

Brian Human
7 June 2011