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Speaking engagements rarely begin as pleasantly as my talk to the Chief Executives & Leaders of South East Counties...
Speaking engagements rarely begin as pleasantly as my talk to the Chief Executives & Leaders of South East Counties last week.

Arriving at a plush hotel near Rye in East Sussex, I was ushered into the garden for a fruit punch. So pleasant were my hosts it almost felt churlish to tell them why they face an uphill battle trying to get a hearing in central government.

The south-east is the country?s most prosperous region and projections suggest the gap with the rest of the UK is set to widen.

Ministerial concern at the lack of a strategy behind the public service agreement target to close regional disparities is the first reason why economically lagging regions will receive most attention.

A second factor is the debate about regional government. The Conservatives, who oppose elected regions, run most local government in the south-east and the region?s size and shape and lack of shared identity mean existing regional structures have to battle for legitimacy.

This effectively leaves the area out of the loop in the debate over the first referendums and ? more worryingly ? leaves it facing the medium-term danger of being under-represented.

Finally, growing interest in urban renewal and the emergence of city-regions is of limited relevance when the city which most affects the area is not even within its boundaries.

Yet there are several pressing issues the region feels Whitehall is failing to address. Top of the list is the ODPM Communities Plan and the question of how to provide the services and infrastructure for the residents of the additional 200,000 homes planned for the south-east.

Given the pressure on transport, waste and water provision it is no surprise the emphasis of regional plans is on sustainable development.

Officers and politicians recognise that if the south-east is not to seize up, it is not just government that has to change but the behaviour of people themselves.

This could mean policies ranging from extensive road charging, new forms of infrast ructure, public/private partnerships and local taxes to encourage environmental responsibility.

In this way our most affluent region could be a learning laboratory for policy responses the rest of the country will need to develop in the longer term.

For this to happen councils will have to combine forces and persuade Whitehall to allow the south-east to develop its own solutions to its own unique problems.

Matthew Taylor

Director, Institute for Public Policy Research

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