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ROUNDUP OF LOCAL GOVERNMENT STORIES IN THE NATIONAL PRESS

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CBI CALLS FOR SHAKE-UP IN REGIONAL AGENCIES ...
CBI CALLS FOR SHAKE-UP IN REGIONAL AGENCIES

England's nine regional development agencies are failing to deliver economic leadership because of government interference, uneven leadership and an unsustainable workload, the Confederation of British Industry claimed yesterday, according to the Financial Times(p4).

The agencies, set up in two waves in 1999 and 2000, were intended to boost economic growth in the regions by improving planning and raising business investment and competetiveness. But a six-month inquiry by the CBI has concluded that the agencies have far too many responsibilities and too little independence to provide the strategic leadership promised by ministers.

'Business is keen to see greater and more consistent signs that the RDAs are achieving delivery on the ground', said John Cridland, CBI deputy director general. 'Business was promised a lion, but the initial reality was closer to a mouse'.

The CBI comments reflect wider business concern about the agencies' performance. John Irwin, president of the North East Chamber of Commerce, said their launch had created excessive expectations.

'The expectation by business of what they would do is disproportionate to their remit and what they are able to do', said Mr Irwin.

Allan Willett, chairman of the South-East agency and of the nine agencies' chairmen, said a shake-up in the£1.3bn funding that takes effect next year would provide 'much greater flexibility...to addresss regional problems'.

However, the CBI says agency budgets are 'miniscule' compared with the size of regional economies, and most of the cash is ring-fenced for specific programmes. In the East Midlands, economic activity is£49bn, and the RDA budget is£81m, of which the agency can dispose of only£10m. The report says spending on this scale is 'not much' to influence regional economies, especially as agencies have few direct powers and rely on achieving change by influencing other bodies.

It says agencies should:

*stop playing a direct role in social inclusion and environmental issues, despite government pressure, and concentrate on transport, planning and skills.

*have much greater freedom to determine priorities and spending - especially freedom from government control of appointments, contracts and salaries.

*have more influence over government offices for the regions and indirectly elected regional assemblies, which should give RDA strategic plans precedence.

*make more use of business negotiating skills by increasing the proportion of members with a business background to 60% from less than half.

The CBI says the RDAs' task is complicated by the confused structure of regional government, which is carried out dozens of overlapping agencies and departments at national, regional and local level.

Officials say it is unclear whether elected assemblies would help. A white paper is due later this year.

PEOPLE IN INNER CITIES FEEL FORGOTTEN, SAYS MINISTER

Significant numbers of people believe the government has forgotten about them and feel alienated, Lord Falconer admitted yesterday, reported the Financial Times (p4). The housing minister said recent violence in northern cities such as Bradford and Oldham reflected 'a profound problem in the fabric of our society'.

Home secretary David Blunkett yesterday made his first visit to Bradford since the riots there last month to learn about youth projects in the city. He praised the projects for 'engaging the commitment of young people and diverting frustrations away from violence on the streets'.

But Lord Falconer said the government needed to do more to meet the needs of people living in deprived inner city areas.

Last month the government established a ministerial group to look at how the government can reduce the risk of further disorder. The group has a£5m fund to finance arts and sports activities for young people over the summer, and the youth projects that Mr Blunkett visited have received money. 'Solutions cannot be top down -'made in Whitehall' - which is why the sorts of projects I have seen today are so important', said Mr Blunkett.

The Association of Chief Police Officers has sent guidance to police forces on how they can contribute to good community relations.

The ministerial group, led by police minister John Denham, is due to produce a final report next months. The cabinet office's performance and innovation unit will publish a report next spring on the prospects and experiences of ethnic minorities. Particular attention will be paid to labour markets.

CITIES CONDEMN DUMPING OF ASYLUM-SEEKERS IN 'SLUMS'

Cities in northern England and Scotland are demanding improvements to the 'shambolic' scheme to disperse asylum-seekers across the country, reported The Times (p1).

Some councils say that they can take no more families and have stopped providing homes. They accuse the home office of paying unscrupulous private landlords to house thousands in slums.

Glasgow councillors are worried about more violence after an Iranian was stabbed on the same housing estate where a Kurdish asylum-seeker was murdered. The latest victime, Davoud Rasul Naseri, 22, said that he 'hated Glasgow' and wanted to leave because he did not feel safe. Glasgow officers held an emergency meeting yesterday to decide where to house the three busloads of asylum-seekers being sent every week.

Liverpool City Council decided to stop offering homes after months of negotiations with the home office broke down. In Hull, local leaders say they can take no more asylum-seekers until they can care for the 1,800 already there.

Councils in Greater Manchester, North Lancashire and on Merseyside have contacted home office minister Lord Rooker with their complaints. The government has, however, postponed sending asylum-seekers to only three towns: Burnley, Bradford and Stoke. A home office spokesman gave no reason for that decision. There has been violence among ethnic groups in all three towns in recent weeks.

Liverpool city councillor Richard Kemp said: 'We haven't got a clue how many [asylum-seekers] are in our city because the government shoves them into privately-owned, rundown tower blocks which we could demolish if we could'.

The city estimate that 2,200 have arrived since last April, out of a national total of almost 30,000 people relocated.

'That is a guess because we aren't informed until after they arrive and usually the information we are given is wrong', said Mr Kemp.

Mr Kemp, the Liberal Democrat executive member for housing, added: 'Councils of every political persuasion regard it as a shambles'.

A Hull councillor, Danny Brown, met Lord Rooker in London yesterday. He said: 'The real problem is that we are left out of the loop and NASS [National Asylum Support Service] go directly to private landlords'. Unaccompanied minors had arrived in Hull without the council being informed.

The home office said that the NASS contract with private landlords directed that they meet asylum-seekers and take them to decent accomodation. The landlord had also to help the newcomers find local services such as doctors and schools. 'If they fail to do so then they will be dealt with', a spokesman said.

BLUNKETT IGNORED WORST HIT AREAS, SAY ASIAN LEADERS

Asian community leaders in Bradford yesterday criticised the home secretary for visiting the city and ignoring the communities worst hit by last month's race riots, reported The Guardian (p5).

David Blunkett, on his first visit to Bradford since the race riots four weeks ago, stopped briefly at a youth centre in Fagley, a predominantly white area. He then met six Asian youths at a health project a quarter of a mile from Manningham, where around 200 rioters torched pubs and a club.

Barry Malik, a Bradford magistrate and senior member of the Muslim Pakistani community, said he was saddened by the home secretary not finding time for Manningham. He said it sent a negative message to the people trying to rebuild those communities.

Mr Malik said: 'This is the fourth largest metropolitan district in the country. To leave out the worst-hit area is not good enough. He should have made us a priority, to show some support to those suffering.

'Mr Blunkett has a meeting next week with a group of so-called representatives of the local communities. But if that takes place in London, he will not be able to witness the real situation in the city. From Whitehall, he can't properly gauge what local feelings are'.

Mr Blunkett said he could not travel to every riot-torn area of Britain. 'It is very important that I do not travel [the country] visiting places because of disturbances and riots. This is not a government of reactive response'.

He said the government was instead putting money into preventive measures such as education and community youth centre summer schemes. Mr Blunkett added: 'I am determined not to reward communities that riot. But I am determined to help them'.

Mr Blunkett's office issued a statement saying he would be returning to Bradford next week for meetings with members of various faith groups.

ROAD SCHEMES REVIVAL AWAKENS PROTESTERS' FEARS

The government is to take a fresh look at a series of major road schemes that were rejected shortly before the election because of the damage they would do to the environment, reported The Times (p6).

The decision is a blow to environmental groups, which has hoped the government's rejection of the Hastings bypass last month had indicated a change in attitude. The Highways Agency has been given six months to find ways of making four schemes more environmentally acceptable.

The schemes that may now be revived include the widening of the A23 south of Crawley, from Handcross to Warninglid, which passes through the High Weald, with the National Trust Nymans estate on one side and ancient woodland on the other. In another scheme, a mile long bypass could be added to the A417 between Cowley and the Air Balloon roundabout in Gloucestershire.

The other two schemes rejected in March and now being reconsidered are the A69 Haydon Bridge bypass in Northumberland and an enlargement of junction 10 of the M20 in Kent.

Ministers have also ordered the agency to carry out further studies on another 10 projects.

US-STYLE SCHOOL BUSES FOR VILLAGES

American-style yellow school buses will be introduced in rural villages under a scheme that will save more than 27,000 car journeys a year, reported The Times (p6).

The door-to-door services that are a feature of life in America will operate in Pennine villages in West Yorkshire from the new year. Two buses will serve six schools in the Hebden Bridge, Heptonstall, Colden and Blackshaw Head areas and will transport more than 100 children aged four to 11. Until now children from these villages have walked to school or been driven by their parents.

The transport company FirstGroup, one of the partners in the scheme, hopes to have 100 buses in service in schools across the UK next year. Manufacturers boast that the buses, which are fitted with extra padded seats and seat belts, are 70 times safer than a car.

COUNCIL TURNS TO TV ADS TO SOLVE TEACHER CRISIS

An education authority facing a desperate teacher shortage less than a month before the start of the new school year is resorting to television advertising to recruit staff, reported The Daily Telegraph (p9).

Although the government has been running commercials for teachers nationally, Kent CC is the first local authority to try television as a solution to a crisis that has left it with 230 vacancies. The advertisements, being aired at a cost of£13,000, are aimed primarily at teachers who have left the profession.

Steven Scheuregger, who produced the commercials, said: 'People think that television advertising is expensive. But these commercials will cost no more than an advert in the Times Educational Supplement'.

BACKBENCH BACKLASH AGAINST PFI PLANS

Tony Blair last night faced the first organised resistance to privatisation plans as a Labour MP launched a backbench guerrilla war, reported The Mirror (p2).

David Taylor, MP for North-west Leicestershire, bluntly warned the prime minister he was creating a catastrophic 'policy timebomb'. He is recruiting Labour MPs to fight increases in the use of private cash in schools and hospitals. He believes they can forge a powerful alliance with unions such as the GMB and Unison to resist the 'utterly barmy' private finance initiative.

Mr Taylor, regarded as a mainstream Labour MP, said he was winning support across the party. 'There are a lot of people on the backbenches who are deeply unhappy and it's not just the usual suspects on the left. They did not come into parliament to see the dismantling and sell-off of public services and we will resist it'.

Writing in Public Finance magazines Mr Taylor said PFI will attract 'the rapacious, multinational piranhas forever circling governments, seeking limbs to devour.

'PFI is prohibitive in cost, flawed in concept and intolerable in consequences to taxpayers, citizens and workers. Treasury intransigence has created a policy timebomb which, left unattended, will eventually erupt like Etna, spraying economic, social and political damage as far as the eye can see'.

Mr Blair inisists the public are interested in better services and not how they are delivered. But he faces a rough ride at the TUC conference next month and the Labour conference in October. The backbench camapign will come as a blow - but not a surprise - to Mr Blair.

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