Your browser is no longer supported

For the best possible experience using our website we recommend you upgrade to a newer version or another browser.

Your browser appears to have cookies disabled. For the best experience of this website, please enable cookies in your browser

We'll assume we have your consent to use cookies, for example so you won't need to log in each time you visit our site.
Learn more


  • Comment
Regional Development Agencies are vital to the success of regional government, but are they playing their role, ask...
Regional Development Agencies are vital to the success of regional government, but are they playing their role, asks Jon Hanlon?

Regional development agencies are struggling in many of the areas they were set up to tackle - focusing minds on regeneration, managing existing government programmes, and helping establish a new form of government.

Their complex and wide-ranging remit has sometimes led to a fractured approach, according to those who work with the agencies.

Deputy prime minister John Prescott introduced the 10 agencies as part of his drive towards regional government, but their role remains ambiguous in some areas.

Centre for Local Economic Strategies chief executive Neil McInroy says: 'At the moment, because regional development agencies are not directly involved in government it is difficult because they depend on the goodwill of others. Elected regional assemblies would assist that situation. The London Development Agency's relationship with the London Assembly seems to be working quite well.

'The government for London can make decisions and then decide the London Development Agency will be part of things. Regional development agencies have to have that power - they need to work with people rather than be a secretariat.'

Ines Newman, head of policy at the Local Government Information Unit, says elected assemblies would certainly make RDAs more accountable to their areas than to central government.

However, there seems to be some confusion about how the role of councils fits in with that of regional development agencies.

Ms Newman adds: 'They have no direct role with councils, but they do fund some sub-regional projects and councils would be the accountable bodies on this.

'The two get on at the moment, but the issue is that councils have well-being and land use powers. Regional development agencies have social, environmental and economic objectives, though the economic objectives tend to dominate.'

It is these economic objectives that many decide to focus on. Confederation of British Industry director general Digby Jones is a strong critic of plans for regional government, but admits: 'There is a real need to stimulate the economic performance of our regions and businesses, as ever, are keen to see change on the ground.'

The governing boards of regional development agencies in Wales, Scotland and London are appointed by the elected authority of the region, but in other areas they are appointed by the Department of Trade & Industry. This means some have more autonomy than others.

Nevertheless, director of the Greater London Group at the London School of Economics Tony Travers, says: 'RDAs are a rare example of symmetry in the UK's increasingly asymmetrical regional government aspirations. They raise expectations, but their budgets are a tiny proportion of spending in their area so they can't radically alter the economy of the region. Economic development powers are scattered among an array of other institutions. Regional development agencies are a small bit player among an enormous array of other institutions.'

The buzzwords 'communication' and 'partnership' are inexorably linked to regional development agencies with good reason. Effective joint working has been an integral part of regeneration successes so far.

Richard Green, director of regeneration at Birmingham City Council's Eastside regeneration project, is working closely with the RDA Advantage West Midlands.

He says: 'We want to create purposeful joint ventures so we are working very closely with Advantage West Midlands to build a technology park, learning area and cultural quarter. We try and apply every regeneration tool we can, such as using our own strong compulsory purchase powers. We may also decide to set up an urban regeneration company in order to better carry out our regeneration programme.'

This bullish approach to regeneration is replicated elsewhere, but some councils are finding it harder to work with RDAs than others.

One director responsible for regeneration says:

'They are very nervous about publicity and we get slightly frustrated because these projects are good news. They are public organisations, but tend to operate as if they had shareholders to worry about. They are young organisations and we want to help them, but sometimes they need a lot of approval from government and there is pressure on them because they are funded by the DTI.'

This echoes a common criticism that RDAs are unsure of their role and hamstrung by central control.

The effectiveness of regional development agencies undoubtedly varies across the country. The London Development Agency is seen as more effective by some because it has the backing of the London Assembly.

However, Brent LBC's policy and regeneration unit director Phil Newby, says: 'It is a mix of political and non-political, but this could actually mean it is less effective because it is neither one nor the other. The question is 'what are they for?' I don't think they have decided collectively what they are trying to achieve.

'Regional development agencies should be thought of in the longer term, but the government is keen on delivery, delivery, delivery. They are a public/private mix, with the private side having a greater say.'

The mix of public and private, the combination of central and local initiatives and the split between social and physical regeneration seems to muddy the waters.

Nevertheless, Mr Prescott clearly sees RDAs as an important step towards elected regional assemblies. The agencies are increasingly taking control of regeneration projects, while the civil service takes a more strategic role.

Mr Newby agrees that RDAs have an important role, adding: 'That is the way government works. The private sector has a view, we have a view, government has a view and the RDA board helps define that. The critical issue is partnership. Successful regional development agencies will be the ones that know how to work in partnership.'

It is nearly five years since the regional development agencies were set up with a brief to take over some regeneration initiatives and establish a new culture of regional economic government.

They have been expected to deal with everything from building leisure centres to mitigating the effects of the foot-and-mouth epidemic, while keeping an eye on the global economy. There have been some notable achievements, but their continuing health seems to rely heavily on the success of regional government.

Regional development agency success stories

Commonwealth Games 2002, Manchester

The plan for Manchester to host the 2002 Commonwealth Games began with scepticism but ended in a regeneration success of unprecedented proportions.

The Northwest Development Agency along with Manchester City Council and English Partnerships set up a joint venture company, New East Manchester, to lead the project, which eventually paved the way for the regeneration of the east of the city.

A report by Manchester City Council concluded that the games generated about £22m in investment for the city and created 6,300 jobs.

The report also predicted that as a direct result of the regeneration, 300,000 more tourists would visit the city annually, spending £18m on entertainment.

Pubs and restaurants in Manchester reported a threefold increase in takings and £56m was made from sponsorship, TV rights and ticket sales.

A survey of residents showed the city's image had soared since the games - 72% believed it had given Manchester a positive image.

House prices near the new facilities had risen by an average of £8,000 and some by as much as £20,000.

Chatham Maritime Project, Kent

From its humble beginnings as a run-down former naval dockyard in Medway, Kent, this project is now regarded as an excellent example of mixed-use regeneration.

Investment has increased since responsibility for managing the project transferred from English Partnerships to the South East England Development Agency.

As a result of over £400m of public and private inve stment, the largest urban area in the south-east outside London has been transformed into a 'holistic lifestyle development' consisting of business, leisure and residential facilities.

More than 800 new homes have been built with a community of 2,000 residents, along with 80,000sqm of office space, an award-winning marina, more than 70 shops and five restored historic buildings.

There are pre-school nurseries and primary schools and more than 6,000 students are expected at the Chatham Maritime university campus by 2010.

Paul Hudson, director of regeneration and infrastructure for the South East England Development Agency says: 'Chatham Maritime represents regeneration in action. It epitomises the development agency approach.'

Eden Project, Cornwall

The space-age biospheres of the Eden Project rising up from the Cornish landscape are now among the UK's top five paid-for attractions.

The economic value of flagship schemes backed by regional development agencies has been underscored by the £86m project, which has transformed a derelict clay works.

Three huge domes house thousands of species of plants, giving a unique insight into the habitat of tropical, temperate and desert climate zones.

The South West of England Regional Development Agency pumped £15m into the project and the area has been reaping the economic benefits ever since. More than 80% of businesses believe the project has made a positive impact on Devon and Cornwall.

And the results of the project's 2003 Economic Impact Survey shows that in addition to generating £111m for the local economy, attracting well over a million visitors a year and employing more than 400 people, the project is now also boosting business outside the traditional holiday season.

  • Comment

Have your say

You must sign in to make a comment

Please remember that the submission of any material is governed by our Terms and Conditions and by submitting material you confirm your agreement to these Terms and Conditions.

Links may be included in your comments but HTML is not permitted.

Related Jobs