While the urban and rural white papers are a welcome addition to the debate on the future of cities and the changing nature of the countryside, this comprehensive approach is weakened by the myriad of initiatives and their dependence on a multitude of agencies to deliver the vision.
This culture of initiatives and plethora of players is bewildering. But in many ways it emphasises the growing importance of strategic, community leadership and the partnership role of councils.
The white papers have to be cross-referenced with the comprehensive spending review and other major funding commitments, such as the 10-year funding plan for transport.
Both white papers set out an enhanced role for a range of agencies such as the regional development agencies. The urban white paper creates 12 more urban development corporations to bring regeneration to the most deprived areas. Significantly, English Partnerships - a major land owner - is to work with regional development agencies. This may foreshadow its eventual and logical merger with development agencies.
Rural areas will receive funding for new initiatives through the Countryside Agency and the Housing Corporation. Regional development agencies will oversee the regeneration of market towns, with further money drawn from the European Community.
The government shows a consistent over-dependence on agencies, while its continued reliance on quangos raises questions of co-ordination and implementation, as well as concerns over the erosion of democratic accountability. The agencies' lack of democratic mandate and that of urban development corporations raises concerns over the government's focus on a macro-economic framework, rather than on proposals to implement the initiatives. The job is left to the many agencies that continue to mushroom across urban and rural areas alike.
But this emerging strategic framework does deserve praise. It reflects a recognition by the government that countryside policy is concerned with more than just farming, and involves regeneration, alternative employment and access to new technology. Problems of affordable housing also have to be addressed.
Both white papers set out aspirations for public service improvements. Some of these are provided by local government but most fall outside, such as New Deal programmes, the Small Business Service, the Community Service Fund and the English Cities Fund. But while the private sector forms the source of funding for this regeneration, many of the problems facing policy makers reflect the past failures of private enterprise.
Labour market restructuring reflects changing economic needs. In rural areas, restructuring and the adoption of intensive farming has led to a reduction in employment. The tension between diversification, development and planning has reduced job creation opportunities. The drive of private house builders to acquire land for former city dwellers has led to a housing shortage in the countryside, forcing lower income residents to migrate to the cities. The high price of land in many urban centres is creating labour market shortages.
The ability to implement a range of initiatives may be another emerging problem. It is not clear how the multitude of funds set up and managed by a range of agencies will deliver joined-up government. It would make more sense for one body, one contact point with one agreed set of criteria, to manage and distribute funding. Democratic accountability would be enhanced if that role lay with local government.
Parish and town councils will have an increased role. How far they are able to implement rural transport partnerships or take responsibility for providing a range of services is a matter for conjecture.
Town councils with a population of 10,000 can generate a sufficient precept to provide services and fund staff. But small parish councils may find it more difficult to raise funds. The majority of rural parishes may need other forms of support from principal authorities.They may need to work together to take on the role set out in the rural white paper.
Despite the government's reluctance to put councils centre stage in terms of service delivery, success in implementing the white papers depends on local government leadership. A central theme of the urban white paper is local strategic partnership. The challenge for councils is to establish and assume leadership of urban and rural local partnerships. By bringing these together, a common vision can be established. This requires political leadership and the deployment of new skills and resources.
Both rural and urban white papers will have a long-term impact if all agencies work within local strategic partnership strategy, and if different funding sources are brought together to provide a one-stop approach. Without local government leadership, implementation of many worthwhile proposals in the papers will be weaker and the democratic deficit will continue to grow.
Nigel Long, policy officer, Local Government Information Unit.
Achieving the vision
Four key points need consideration if the vision set out in the white papers is to be achieved:
-Council leadership has a major role, through local strategic partnerships, in leading, co-ordinating and guiding key proposals.
-Funding of the initiatives needs to be viewed in the context of earlier spending commitments.
-The papers are over-dependent on a range of agencies and rely on assumptions about the private sector's willingness and ability to be involved in their implementation.
-Initiatives must be co-ordinated or suffer an implementation deficit.