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From next Thursday English councils will have a powerful new body looming over them - the nine regional development...
From next Thursday English councils will have a powerful new body looming over them - the nine regional development agencies, which go live on 1 April.

These new bodies should not be under-estimated. Their cabinet champion, deputy prime minister John Prescott, sees them as 'powerful and influential bodies with substantial budgets, able to make a real mark on the economies of their region'.

Jimmy Mullan, an assistant director of economic development at Coventry City Council, said the strength of an RDA lay 'in its size and critical mass. It can bring together the elements of regeneration . . . a much more holistic approach'.

A lot of the RDAs' work will overlap with important local government responsibilities. In addition the government wants RDAs to contribute to the policies and programmes on transport and other aspects of land use planning, the environment and sustainable development, crime prevention, housing, and tourism, culture and sports infrastructure.

David Kennedy, City of Bradford MDC's strategic director for regeneration, urged councils to draft their own plans for the development of their area, not to leave it to the RDA: 'They need to create their own district development plan, which should be seen as their council's chapter of the regional strategy.'

He was aware of the potential for conflict between councils and RDAs, and stressed the importance of good communication.

The RDAs are critical to Mr Prescott's tenure as secretary of state for the environment, transport and the regions being judged a success so it is no surprise the DETR, to which the agencies report, is imposing a tough schedule for their early work.

One development officer who did not wish to be named believed there could be major problems in the government insisting on each RDA submitting its plan for the region by mid-summer. Such haste could lead to a lack of sophistication in the strategies, or a lack of consultation with partner organisations.

He also foresaw difficulties with each agency having to develop its own culture out of so many disparate bodies, such as the Rural Development Commission, English Partnerships and the government regional offices, and predicted they would need strong chairs and chief executives to succeed.

The RDAs are taking over functions with a total annual spend of around£700 million. On top of this it will now oversee public/private partnership investment which presently stands at roughly£1 billion. It is unclear how much freedom RDAs will have to move funds between the old budget heads. The government has been giving 'mixed messages' on this, the development officer said.

Councils can exert formal influence on RDAs through their four seats on the boards, usually 13-strong, and through regional chambers. And five of the nine chief executives have a local government background. But the RDAs are not creatures of local government, and any new layer of administration could pose a long-term threat. If this regional activity leads to directly elected regional assemblies taking root, ministers have made clear that unitary councils will be the desired council structure. Next Thursday's vesting day for RDAs could in the long term herald another cull of the counties.

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