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FEATURES - THE POWER GAME

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Proponents of regional assemblies predict devolved power that will transform the lives of residents. But cut throug...
Proponents of regional assemblies predict devolved power that will transform the lives of residents. But cut through the fighting talk, and what remains? Chris Gray reports

They have been 'beefed up', according to the spin. New powers announced for elected regional assemblies are supposed to turn them into the 'Beefy' Bothams of the local government world, hitting a string of sixes for their regions.

Such powerful beasts might seem likely to suck up power from councils, just as Ian Botham's best performances sucked the life from his opponents. But, for many in local government, including those in the north-east who are most likely to find themselves under an assembly, the new team member is not as powerful as advertised, or as much of a threat as some have warned.

The new powers revealed in the government's draft regional assemblies bill will, according to deputy prime minister John Prescott, give the assemblies the power to make 'a real difference' to people's lives in their region.

The difference will be made through the assemblies' powers to promote economic and social development, improve the environment and advance sustainable development. These have been strengthened since a 2002 white paper on the issue. Proposed new powers have been increased in regard to fire and rescue, stakeholder engagement and planning.

The key change, Mr Prescott argues, is that 'decisions currently made by different sets of unelected bureaucrats will instead be taken by one democratic body elected by the people of the region'. But local government's answer is a sceptical, 'Well, yes, to a point'.

'My conclusion after looking through the draft bill is that little has changed from the white paper published two years ago,' says John Adams, research director of the northern branch of the Institute for Public Policy Research. 'The powers are in economic development, planning and housing, and there are new powers on fire service and civil contingencies. But fundamentally, the powers on learning and skills and transport really don't exist.

'It is a reasonably influential body but it has not got a huge amount of powers in transport and skills, and the government was wrong to raise expectations in those areas,' he adds.

For Mr Adams, one of the biggest surprises is what he calls a backtrack on plans in the white paper to devolve power for regional cultural policy and funding to the assemblies. He says the 2002 white paper indicated that a north-east regional assembly would control a£12m budget devolved from the Arts Council and Sport England, but in the draft bill the only power was the assemblies' incorporation of regional cultural consortiums, which 'do not very much at all'.

'The actual powers in the draft bill were not at all what was indicated in the white paper. Presumably the Department for Culture, Media & Sport has been arguing to keep hold of these responsibilities against the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister,' he says.

The result, in his view, is that the assemblies will do nothing to redress the centralisation of arts policy in the north-east, which happened when local authority body Northern Arts was abolished by the Arts Council.

'The whole regional arts renaissance was promoted by a body that was of the regions but now has been replaced by a branch of the Arts Council. The bill won't change that,' he says.

Jo Dungey, policy officer at the Local Government Information Unit, agrees the bill has not gone far enough and points out the ODPM select committee recommended last year that assemblies should have direct responsibility for learning and skills, neighbourhood renewal, transport policy and funding, and business development.

Under the draft bill's proposals, the assemblies will have to produce a transport plan but will have no powers of implementation - and control of the roads budget stays with the Highways Agency and Department for Transport.

Control over regional learning and skills policy should pass to assemblies rather than be spread across the complex structure the bill was looking to establish, says Ms Dungey. 'The assemblies have quite broad powers and reasonably solid power over the regional development agencies, but we would like to see more in terms of coherent devolution of transport, and learning and skills.'

She adds: 'We need to be clear about what happens nationally, locally and regionally and at the moment we do not have that clarity. It is a step in the right direction, but we would like to see it strengthened.'

Local Government Association policy officer Iain Twine agrees. 'If it is to be true devolution, there has to be more power devolved down from central government than up [from councils],' he says.

'At the moment, it is not much different from what unelected regional assemblies do now. The government has opened itself up to criticisms about creating more talking shops, when really it has got to be letting people in local areas decide what the priorities are and get on with it rather than reporting back every day.'

Both the LGA and the LGIU support regional assemblies as long as they do not take power from local government beyond the strategic planning role that will be taken from county councils.

Ms Dungey sees no particular dangers for local government in the bill, but Mr Twine points to a clause that says the secretary of state can confer extra functions on the assembly without new legislation. 'We do not want to see powers drawn up from local government and we have concerns about the statement that the secretary of state can confer additional powers,' he says.

The apparent threat that assemblies will fall victim to 'mission creep' and begin to suck up powers from local government has been seized on by the Conservatives, who argue this is not about devolution but centralisation.

'It is going to take powers away from existing councils,' says an LGA Conservative group spokesman. 'To displace established local councils and establish regional assemblies is likely to destroy a tier of government that is quite close to most people.

'Although it's couched in terms of bringing power back from Westminster, the reorganisation will make people feel more remote from their council than they did previously. If you live in Scarborough, you might feel that Leeds is just as remote as London,' he explains.

Mr Adams, of IPPR North, is not convinced, arguing that because regional assemblies will not fund local authorities, councils' tensions about losing power through targets and control of finances will continue to be aimed at central government rather than the assemblies.

'I find it hard to see how assemblies can suck up power from local government level. They will have opinions that differ from local government, but that's part of a vibrant polity,' he says.

He adds that councils should also remember Mr Prescott's battles to increase the powers of assemblies have all been with central, not local, government.

In the north-east, which will hold a referendum in November on establishing an assembly, any worries focus on the local government reorganisation that will follow a 'yes' vote rather than the powers in the bill.

Durham CC deputy chief executive Mark Lloyd says there is nothing in the bill to contradict ministers' assurances that, planning aside, assemblies' powers would be drawn from central government.

The fact that assemblies had been given any say over learning and skills, transport and business support is 'a breakthrough', he says, adding that Mr Prescott's ability to confer extra powers means they can be strengthened once they have proved their worth.

'We think it is a good starting point to earn its spurs. We are not concerned that regional assemblies will take power from local government. It will bring democratic accountability to a wide range of things that are run by quangos and take power from central government.'

Mr Lloyd's council stands to gain control of all services in County Durham, in any restructuring of unitary authorities. But the prospect facing districts in Durham and Northumberland is abolition or amalgamation. However, district council chief executives at Durham CC and Blyth Valley BC see no threat. For them, the issue is about how much power the assembly can take from central government, how that can help the region, and how to explain these benefits to the public.

Durham CC chief executive Brian Spears says the proposed powers on economic development, planning and housing could shape the region. But clearer information is needed about what the assembly would do and what its powers would be, if the public is to be convinced of the merits.

Blyth Valley BC chief executive Geoff Paul hopes a new assembly would draw more power from the centre. 'An assembly will renew local government in the north-east. Because it is new, there is an opportunity to engage in a more meaningful way than we did with central government.'

Frequently asked questions: assemblies

What is the purpose of new elected regional assemblies?

To promote economic development, improve the environment and provide a long-term strategy for the region. It will join up local and national priorities.

What powers and responsibilities will they have?

Economic development Regional development agencies will be directly responsible to the assemblies, which will set the agencies' budgets and can modify their strategies.

Assemblies take over administration of European structural funds from government offices. The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister remains the managing and paying authority.

Learning and skills Assemblies can appoint five members to each of the learning and skills councils in the region. They can appoint the chair of the regional skills partnership.

Planning From regional planning bodies, assemblies take over responsibility for reviewing and revising regional spatial strategies.

Assemblies will acquire responsibility for issuing strategies from central government.

Assemblies take over from central government the 'call-in' power to direct councils to refuse strategic planning applications.

Transport Assemblies will produce a regional transport strategy. They can advise government on funding, and propose schemes of regional importance to the national organisations for highways and rail.

Culture Assemblies will fund and sponsor the regional culture consortium. The consortium will draw up a regional cultural plan.

Tourism Assemblies can promote regions and provide funding.

Fire and rescue A regional fire and rescue authority will be set up as a body of the assembly.

Environment Assemblies will produce a regional waste strategy. They can nominate two members to the Environment Agency's environmental protection advisory committee.

What power does local government stand to lose?

Strategic planning has already gone. Supporters say new powers will come from central government. Others warn of 'mission creep' by assemblies

How much will they cost to run?

Running costs are estimated at£24m in the north-east and£33m in the north-west and Yorkshire & Humber. It would be funded by central government and an estimated 5p weekly increase in council tax.

They will have direct responsibility for£500m in the north-east,£1.02bn in the north-west,£710m in Yorkshire & Humber and will have influence over another£620m in the north-east,£1.53bn in the north-west,£1.03bn in Yorkshire & Humber.

What are the benefits to communities?

Elected bodies will be able to influence money now controlled by central government, to reflect local priorities. Voters will have more say in issues affecting the region.

What are the benefits to local government?

An opportunity to renew local government and create a new relationship with a regional body, controlling or influencing money previously controlled at the centre.

What are the drawbacks for local government?

Establishing assemblies will require reorganisation to replace county and district structure. Reorganisation is always expensive, anddoes not necessarily bring savings.

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