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ROYAL SOCIETY RECOMMENDS BOLDER DEVOLUTION OF POWERS FOR ENGLISH REGIONAL ASSEMBLIES

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Findings from a two-year Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) English regio...
Findings from a two-year Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) English regional devolution inquiry* states that the government's current proposal will fail and a bolder devolution of powers is needed.

The recommendations are published by the RSA today in a report entitled Elected Assemblies in English Regions: democratic passport to inclusive prosperity or powerless talking-shops?

The RSA inquiry studied the implications of the government's proposals for the South West region. An interim report was submitted to the ODPM in April 2003. Further consultations and research were undertaken by six task forces on whether and how the proposals might be enhanced in order to achieve the government's desired outcomes in terms of improved regional and national prosperity and greater democratic transparency. Whilst using the South West as a 'test bed', the RSA inquiry has consistently considered the applicability and adaptability of its conclusions to other English regions. The task forces made recommendations on governance model, economic development, education and cultural services, environment, transport and health.

RSA recommendations for an enhanced Elected Regional Assembly (ERA) include:

1.Four connecting principles should underpin regional and sub-regional governance. These are Transparent Accountability (all tiers and delivery institutions), Fitness for Purpose (the governance tier or agency best equipped for a particular task), Scale, Coherence and Consequences (making joined-up governance and public service a reality) and Competency Frameworks and Development (improving administrative and management quality.

2.The need for flexibility - one size will not fit all. The regional governance model should be flexible in relation to the assembly's membership size and application of region-specific weightings to common policy areas to reflect geographic, demographic, economic and social circumstances.

On assembly size, the inquiry says that to afford adequate representation to the South West's geographically dispersed and rapidly growing electorate, suggests an elected assembly of between 70 and 90 with regional cabinet of 8 to 10.

On the issue of sub-regional governance the Inquiry asserts that an ERA with most of its powers and budgets devolved from central government and others devolved or assumed by the ERA, according to the principle of 'fitness for purpose' is not an additional tier of government. It is therefore not necessary for the elimination of a tier of local government to be axiomatic upon the establishment of an ERA.

On funding, the inquiry recommends that the block grant from central government should be augmented by the budgets which fund the regional policies that should be transferred to the regional ERA and RDA. The ERA's borrowing powers should include the ability to issue bonds.

The ERA should also have strategic and financial responsibility for regional programmes funded by and matched by the UK government and should set the strategic priorities and control allocations from the regional Capital Venture Fund.

3.The ERA should have exclusive responsibility for all regional strategies, all of which recognise the primacy of sustainable development. The inquiry stresses that 'strategic departmental responsibilities' means the powers and budgets to deliver strategic visions, not merely the writing of documents. It adds that wherever a budget or a responsibility is devolved to the ERA it is essential that central government should no longer have those powers, budgets or agencies with the same remit.

4.The Regional Development Agency (RDA), augmented with top flight civil servants from regional government office and specialists from the private sector should become the ERA's Policy Preparation Resource.

5.The slimmed down regional government office should assess standards of regional and sub-regional service delivery and value, and work with the ERA on regional implementation of national policies and internationa l agreements.

6.To further regional competitiveness and economic development the ERA should establish an enhanced economic and marketing research and planning resource within the RDA. The assembly should determine the region's economic funding priorities and allocate the financial resources needed.

7.Within Education, Learning and Skills Councils should be incorporated within the RDA and aligned more effectively with re-organised local education authorities which serve populations of between 250,000 and 500,000. There should be a prescribed capacity for regional taxation to fund regional strategies in the schools and further education sectors. The ERA should also develop strategies and use its influence to facilitate a core role for regional universities and institutes of higher education in regional economic development.

8.In addition to the environmental powers specified in the White Paper, the ERA should have strategic responsibility for rural affairs, urban renewal, recreation and the environmental aspects of transport and utility supplies and services as they relate to housing and business development.

9.The ERA's transport powers should be substantive with significant transfer of responsibilities from central government and the powers to direct local government. It should be empowered to raise and commit finance for regional transport investment and services. The ERA should have dedicated staff (within the RDA), focussing on strategic planning disciplines, embracing transport and land use.

10.The regional director of public health should be transferred from Government Office to the RDA and Regional Public Health strategy become the responsibility of the ERA and integrated with other regional strategies such as spatial planning, transport and social services.

The inquiry specifies the substantial powers, together with the human and financial resources which should be transferred from central government to elected regional assemblies. The RSA contends that this will not create additional bureaucracy or cost and will:

* Facilitate joined-up regional strategy development

* Attract the quality of membership the elected regional assembly warrants

* Attract and retain top calibre civil servants

* Command the respect of central government departments, regional business, NGOs and agencies and local government tiers

* Relieve central government of responsibility for policy areas which have limited relevance to its primary national and international roles

* Make it clear that government trusts regional electorates and their representatives to act responsibly in their own region's best interests

The inquiry's findings are not intended to endorse or oppose the principle of elected assemblies in English regions. They are to help ensure the integrity and cost-effective delivery of future regional and sub-regional policies funded by tax payers.

* The full report Elected Assemblies in English Regions: democratic passport to inclusive prosperity or powerless talking shops? is available here.

* The RSA's proposals The Inquiry's Proposals for the ERA's Economic Development Powers are available here.

Note

The RSA encourages the development of a principled, prosperous society. It does this through a programme of projects and events and with the support of a network of influential fellows from every field and background. In 2004 the RSA celebrates 250 years of inspiring the future.

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