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REGIONAL ASSEMBLY WELCOMES OPPORTUNITY FOR DEBATE

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The South West Regional Assembly has welcomed the publication of the white paper on regional governance. ...
The South West Regional Assembly has welcomed the publication of the white paper on regional governance.

Assembly chair Chester Long said:

-We are all delighted to have clarity on the government proposals. This paper offers an ideal opportunity for a debate on the future of the South West. The region is being offered a range of options, and there will many views on what is best for the South West. We hope people across the region will respond to the government; the assembly will aim to encourage debate on the key issues before preparing its own response.'

One of the key opportunities on offer is greater accountability for central government spending in the region.£20bn of central government funding comes into the region - only£4bn is managed by elected bodies.

Vice chair Chris Clarke said:

-The white paper offers a new approach. If powers are moved from Whitehall to the South West, decision-making becomes more accountable to the people living here. This could be a big step forward for the region, and we need to consider the options in detail. This is an opportunity to build towards a better, more responsive approach for the South West.'

Assembly members have developed a draft framework of 'tests' against which the white paper proposals will be evaluated. They will be considered at a full assembly debate on 27 May.

Vice chair Malcolm Hanney said:

-There are areas of common ground, but there are also common concerns. These 'tests' will help establish how the various proposals might benefit, or hinder, the development of the region. The assembly's priority will be to protect and promote the interests of the South West: where powers are to be transferred, they must come from Whitehall, not local government, and any proposals for change must ensure decision-makers are held accountable by local communities.

Deputy chair David Roberts said:

-We will be keeping an open mind as we hear the range of views over the next few weeks. We have never believed in a 'one size fits all approach', and we will be looking for consensus on the key issues for the South West before drafting our own response. The government is now seeking views on what the people and organisations of the South West want for themselves. There are a number of opportunities and options proposed. If everyone contributes to the debate, we are in a better position to agree the best way forward for the South West.'

One of the most innovative elements of the regional assembly, as currently constituted, is the direct involvement of partners including TUC, business, the voluntary sector, health and education as well as environment and tourism interests. These partners elect a spokesperson to serve on the assembly and represent views of a wide range interests. The assembly's involvement in SWARMMS, which will be announced this afternoon, highlights another aspect of region-wide-partnership and greater accountability.

Libby Lisgo, chair of the Social and Economic Partners said:

-How we build on the existing arrangements is a real challenge for the South West. Currently, for the first time, a range of interests can come together to discuss decisions vital to the future of the South West. It is a useful forum for establishing common ground, and working out our differences. Organisations and sectors not normally fully involved in the decision making process now have a real voice - the whole region will benefit if we can continue to develop the partnership approach.'

Background notes

1The South West Regional Assembly

The South West Regional Assembly is a voluntary grouping of councillors from local authorities in the region and representatives of various sectors with a role in the region's economic, social and environmental well being. It covers an area of 23,829 square kilometres from Gloucestershire and Wiltshire to the Isles of Scilly, and represents a population of almost five million. There are currently 117 members: 79 come from the 51 unitary, county and district authorities in the south west; two represent the national parks authorities in the region; two come from the Association of Local Councils; and 34 represent the region's social and economic partners. The social and economic partners are drawn from businesses, the voluntary sector, education and training, environmental bodies, faith communities, trades unions, tourism, health, TECs, agriculture, the arts, Racial Equality Councils, sports and co-operative agencies. The South West Regional Assembly has been given a specific role by the Government to scrutinise and monitor the work of the appropriate Regional Development Agency. In the South West, the Assembly also acts as the Regional Planning Body for the region.

The Regional Assembly is the Regional Planning Body (RPB). The Assembly therefore is responsible for preparing draft Regional Planning Guidance (RPG) (including the Regional Transport Strategy), monitoring the final RPG and preparing subsequent revisions to it. Regional planning guidance forms the framework for statutory development plans that are the responsibility of local authorities. As the RPB, the Assembly provides a forum to discuss regional planning and sustainability issues; to prepare strategic guidance, regional commentaries; and to encourage co-ordinated and consistent planning policies among local authorities. Where appropriate, the Assembly as RPB initiates action, responds to and lobbies Government, national and international organisations on behalf of the region.

2Next steps

The Assembly will be considering the issues arising from the White Paper in the light of the tests devised for evaluation, and will be responding to the Government in due course, after having considered all the issues arising. A full Assembly meeting will be held on 27th May.

3The Key 'tests'

The issues which it is considered should form the focus of the regional debate include;

- Will the proposals better enable the South West to secure its economic, social and environmental well-being and to achieve the outcomes its communities are seeking?

- Will they provide the basis for improved governance of the region and for increased accountability of public expenditure in the South West?

- Will they offer an opportunity for a staged development from the current Assembly's role through the intermediate stages to a fully elected Assembly, should the region express a desire for it?

- Will they allow sufficient flexibility so that new arrangements for increased regional governance may be tailored to the specific needs and circumstances of the South West?

- Will they result in effective devolution of powers and responsibilities from central government, and limit the extent to which responsibilities are drawn up from local councils?

- Will they offer the opportunity to de-couple the extension of regional governance from any future re-organisation of local government? Will they maintain a clear and positive role for social and economic partners?

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