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Scrutiny comes with more power

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Local government minister John Healey writes exclusively for LGCplus on moves to help local councils tackle a recession.

Two more big steps have been taken in the direction that last summer’s sub-national review (SNR) mapped out for more devolved and effective economic decisions.

New legislation will mean more streamlined regional planning, councils with a stronger economic role and wide delegation of Whitehall powers to at least two city regions.

These reforms put in place a framework for future growth in jobs, homes, investment and business, and are part of the necessary preparation in all areas for the other side of the recession in prospect.

No one can be certain how the current sharp slow down will develop. But it will hit different areas in different ways to different degrees. The downturn demands responsive action at every level - international, national, regional and local.

This creates an opportunity and responsibility for local councils to help their areas through these tough times and show what local leadership means. And it also reinforces the case for more local and regional economic leadership, which is why our plans have been welcomed by both local government leaders and the regional development agencies (RDAs).

The new economic assessment duty on every council in England will ensure communities are clear about their current circumstances and can prepare better for the future. The local authority leaders’ board will have new responsibilities in developing the single regional strategic plan, jointly with their RDA.

Multi-area agreements (MAAs), with new legal backing where it’s wanted, will bind in councils’ commitment to boosting economic growth and give Whitehall the basis for increased devolution to city regions, as we announced in the pre-Budget report (PBR).

The reforms allow regions to do things differently and cut with the grain of changes that some are already making. The north-west has already set up its own leaders’ board and has started work on developing a single strategy with the Northwest Regional Development Agency .

Nearly 60 councils have sealed their commitment to work together in the seven MAAs, with more in the pipeline which we will announce shortly.

Just as the economy doesn’t stop at council borders, nor should efforts to boost it. However, a central SNR principle is that greater responsibility must be matched by stronger scrutiny and accountability. So while economic leadership will be clearer, residents also need to have confidence in the plans and decisions for their area.

New regional select committees will give direct accountability and ensure regional policy for the first time become the business for our national Parliament.

In addition, elected councillors on the new leaders’ boards will give communities a decisive influence on the regional strategy and interest groups in the region will have to be fully consulted in its preparation.

Following a range of other reforms across government to advance the principles set out in the SNR, these latest plans will make it easier to take local decisions and action. They will help make every area more resilient in seeing us through the current economic difficulties and better placed to make the most of the upturn that will follow.

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