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Shifting powers in the regions

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English regional government is always a thorny topic, but has the latest reform resulted in handing even more clout to quangos?

Ten years ago regional development agencies were established. Now, a fundamental policy change has seen councils having to work with the quangos to prepare single regional strategies, which embrace the formerly separate economic and spatial ones.

Yet this change has come about just as major doubts surface about the need for agencies at this level, and proposals are made for greater delegation to sub-regional structures.

The original regional government model, set up by the then deputy prime minister John Prescott, saw directly elected assemblies as the bodies that would hold Regional Development Agencies (RDAs) to account.

In the interim, indirectly elected assemblies were created. But the emphatic rejection of an elected assembly by voters in 2004 in the north-east, the region expected by Mr Prescott to be the most likely to vote ‘yes’ - stalled that model and led eventually to the assemblies’ abolition.

New joint arrangements are emerging, which may make regional government more coherent. But co-ordinating council input to regional strategies has posed a challenge.

The government’s sub-national review, published last year, abolished the assemblies and put RDAs in charge of new single regional strategies that bring together economic development and spatial planning.

Professor Alan Harding , from Manchester University’s Institute for Political and Economic Governance , believes the new arrangements will avoid political standoffs between RDAs and councils.

“Heads will be knocked together, and that should avoid the public arguments about whether sites should go for housing or jobs,” he says.

Key amendments to the sub-national review’s fi nal version have won it greater council support than the original version enjoyed.

According to David Sparks (Lab), chair of the Local Government Association regeneration and transport board, one important change was a new requirement that RDAs must gain local authority approval for the single regional strategy.

But he notes that provision was made for central government to step in if there was a disagreement between the two.

Collaboration with the RDAs is being led by leaders’ forums, which are being established in several regions with elaborate structures to ensure representativeness.

“With more than 40 local authorities in each region, not every leader can sit on the board working with the RDA,” Cllr Sparks says.

“But it is important that the board gains the confidence of the local authorities across the whole region.”

4NW was the first leaders’ forum, set up in the north-west of England last summer, while the West Midlands Leaders Board met for the first time in December.

“Local authorities were clear about the opportunities which collaborating with the RDA brought,” said 4NW chief executive Phil Robinson.

“We were building on the good relationship which the regional assembly and local authorities had built up with the North West Development Agency.”

The organisation took on the former assembly’s 35 staff, but has rationalised the structures. 4NW has a 23-member executive board, which comprises 15 local authority leaders plus seven other stakeholders and the Lake District National Park Authority .

Board members are elected by five subregions, but they are expected to set aside their geographical interests and represent the region as a whole to the RDA.

There are joint boards with the North West Development Agency (NWDA) involving officers and executive members from both sides, in which RDA officers tend to focus on economic development work and the forum staff on land use issues.

All of the region’s local authorities are engaged in the organisation’s work through themebased subgroups.

Kent County Council leader Paul Carter (Con), recently elected leader of South East Councils, hopes that his region’s new organisation will be fully functional this month.

It emerged out of the south-east’s regional assembly, which had campaigned closely with the RDA over regional funding.

“The South East England Development Agency has been starved of cash for a long time, despite high levels of deprivation in parts of the region,” he says.

Cllr Carter feels that economic development issues offer opportunities for close collaboration between the RDA and councils. “Local authorities are delivering 16-19 skills and training, which obviously needs to be co-ordinated with the regional economic strategies,” he says.

One of the former assemblies’ key roles was to scrutinise the RDAs’ activities, which the new forums will not be able to do.

Cllr Sparks sees great potential in the select committees which Parliament is setting up to scrutinise each region’s strategies.

“Parliamentary scrutiny tends to be more thorough than [that of] local authorities,” he says.

The committees will be made up of nine MPs, due to be named shortly, with a political balance similar to that at Westminster.

They are expected to meet up to eight times a year.

But Cllr Sparks says the LGA is disappointed that local authority leaders cannot be co-opted on to the committees.

And the long-term future of these new joint arrangements is far from certain. In a lecture to the Policy Exchange thinktank last summer, the then shadow business secretary Alan Duncan suggested that a Conservative government would “reverse the government’s decision to move the regional spatial strategies into the RDAs, a questionable exercise designed as a crude way to grab power out of the hands of local communities and steal them away into the ever-expanding sphere of government”.

RDA economic performance has also come under question in an evaluation by the Department for Business, Enterprise & Regulatory Reform and from a parliamentary inquiry .

The Conservatives are carrying out their own review of regional and local economic development, which is likely to recommend abolition of some RDAs.

Mr Duncan says: “The way we are thinking at the moment suggests that there should be scope for a variety of different models, each adapting to the specific needs of natural economic areas within and across regions.”

This diverse approach gained support from a Centre for Cities report, published late last year, which also recommended a selective cull. The Future of Regional Development Agencies suggested the RDAs had “made only minimal progress towards the government’s wider strategic goals of driving up regional growth rates and closing the north-south growth rate gap”.

One option it proposed was the creation of a single RDA for the north, while in other regions greater powers would be passed down to the sub-regions. The report’s author, Centre for Cities policy head Adam Marshall, said that one of its key points was that regions did not all need to have the same institutional arrangements.

However, Cllr Carter is concerned about the danger of fragmentation in the absence of effective regional arrangements, while Prof Harding suggests that a regional government will always be needed for administrative purposes.

Regional government has long proved a problem.

The Conservatives created government regional offices but those were simply outposts of Whitehall.

Labour ’s idea of directly elected regional assemblies died when offered in the northeast, and the unelected assemblies gained neither public profile nor legitimacy.

The new system leaves the RDAs as quangos, now with formal oversight by MPs and untested links with councils.

Whether this arrangement proves any more enduring than its predecessor must be open to question, whoever wins the next election.

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