Select Committee on Office of the Deputy Prime Minister: Housing, Planning, Local Government and the Regions First Report



18. The overall purposes of elected regional assemblies are set out in Clause 43 of the draft Bill which states that they will be given general powers to promote economic and social development and to improve and protect the environment. The same clause sets out a range of activities through which an Elected Regional Assembly will be able to pursue these broad purposes. Social development is defined in some detail in the Bill as including:

The Policy Statement accompanying the Bill explains that the Government's aim, in giving elected regional assemblies these general powers of competence in economic, social and environmental affairs, is 'to place contributing to the achievement of sustainable development at the heart of elected assemblies' responsibilities'.[27]

19. The written and oral evidence received by the Committee suggested that, for the most part, this way of defining the purposes of elected regional assemblies was either broadly welcomed, by those who favour the move to elected regional government, or at least seen as relatively uncontroversial, by more sceptical observers. However, there are concerns that:

    a)  an Elected Regional Assembly's proposed general powers of competence overlapped with the power held by local authorities to promote economic, social and environmental wellbeing;

    b)  an Elected Regional Assembly with broadly defined purposes but few resources under its direct control would inevitably concentrate upon a limited range of activities and neglect others;

    c)  sustainability principles were not sufficiently explicitly stated.

    d)  the powers need to be strong enough to attract a diverse group of candidates interested in becoming members of the assemblies


20. Other evidence to the Committee suggested that an Elected Regional Assembly with broadly defined purposes but few resources under its direct control would inevitably concentrate upon a limited range of activities and neglect others. Representatives of the voluntary sector, community groups and environmental organisations, for example, suggested that elected regional assemblies might concentrate unduly upon economic development activities and downplay the social and environmental priorities. The opposite argument was put by representatives of the business community who felt that the business leadership of the current Regional Development Agencies (RDAs) and the strong commitment that RDAs have to economic modernisation and innovation could be diluted once an Elected Regional Assembly with broader social and environmental purposes became responsible for producing regional strategies and overseeing RDA work. In his oral evidence, Alan Clarke of One North East expressed this concern:

21. We believe that how elected regional assemblies reconcile and integrate their economic, social and environmental goals would be determined by the balance of resources available to them rather than how their purposes are defined in the legislation. The assemblies would need to be clear which agencies would deliver each of their objectives.


22. The main issue relating to Elected Regional Assembly purposes raised in evidence to the inquiry was the degree to which the pursuit of sustainable development was enshrined as a core focus of Elected Regional Assembly activity. Concerns that sustainable development was underplayed in the draft legislation were expressed in evidence from the RSPB, Friends of the Earth, the NE England Green Party, the CPRE, the National Trust, North West Environment Link and Forum for the Future. In his oral evidence to the Committee, Mr Burton of the National Trust criticised the Bill for separating the three strands of an Elected Regional Assembly's purposes:

He went on to comment that

    we do not think [sustainable development] is sufficiently far up the order of hierarchy, and an oblique reference to it as part of the scheme, as sort of the means to do it, we do not think is going to be sufficient.[30]

23. Mark Sandford from the Constitution Unit at University College London told us:

    I think the most important lesson from the National Assembly [for Wales] is that the existence of that statutory duty was really a vital form of impetus in getting the assembly to take notice of sustainable development at all. What the assembly has done….is adopt a kind of a framework of targets, not a strategy as such, across departments which allows sustainable development to be progressively inserted into the wider work of the assembly. Sustainable development fanatics will tell you that this is what sustainable development is, it is not a policy but a way of doing policy. Having that statutory requirement there has encouraged this to be done where it might otherwise simply have gone by the board.[31]

24. Elected regional assemblies would need to strike the most appropriate and sustainable balance between economic and social development and the protection and enhancement of the environment in developing their bespoke regional strategies and delivering their programmes. Clause 45 (2) of the draft Regional Assemblies Bill requires that an elected regional assembly 'must indicate the means by which the assembly's exercise of its functions is intended to contribute to the achievement of sustainable development'. This provides sufficiently strong statutory encouragement to elected regional assemblies to take the issue of sustainability seriously. The requirement on assemblies to promote sustainable development should be backed up by a requirement to undertake sustainability appraisals on key strategy statements and corporate plans or to identify sustainable development targets.

25. The largely strategic powers that elected regional assemblies would have received might not motivate a cadre of potential new regional leaders as strongly as the Government would have wished. A strong formal position on diversity and equality issues could help send a positive signal to potential candidates that elected regional assemblies provide a platform for providing services differently. Councillor Gibson of the North East Regional Assembly suggested that the draft Bill should:

    … mirror that clause in the Welsh Assembly Bill that talks of - that brings about an absolute duty on regional government around diversity and equality. I think it is a huge opportunity to make it happen, to set the Bill to make it happen. We do not try hard enough to bring women and ethnic minority groups into mainstream politics. We have an opportunity here to mirror the Welsh Assembly and have written into the Bill a clause around equalities, diversities etc. The Welsh Assembly is congratulated by me on many occasions for achieving 50 per cent of women in Parliament. I think that is absolutely wonderful and terrific and should be happening everywhere.[32]

26. It is important that the assemblies attract a new group of politicians. This would only be achieved if the assemblies have enough powers and were seen as worthwhile. We also recommend that a suitable statutory commitment to promoting equality and diversity should be included in any future Bill.

The power to make a real difference

27. Elected regional assemblies would have been strategic authorities with few direct powers to implement policies in the region. Their role will be to "develop a strategic vision for improving the quality of life in their regions"[33], and to work in partnership with other bodies working in the regions to deliver "a more coherent 'joined up' approach to regional strategies and policies."[34] The Minister, Nick Raynsford, explained the approach as follows:

    It is right that the elected regional assemblies should set the direction, give the overall policy guidance, but should work with the partners within the region. It is not going to be a body that is simply exercising command and control functions; it will be a body that will build partnerships, that will work in partnership with business, local authorities and other stakeholders.[35]

28. To improve the effectiveness and accountability of current arrangements for regional governance through the Elected Regional Assembly route, then elected regional assemblies need to be 'fit for purpose'. They need the powers to fulfil the purposes for which they are established. Evidence to the Committee suggested that their powers were too general and strategic which would limit their effectiveness. The only Government departments prepared to devolve powers to the Assemblies were the ODPM and to a lesser extent the DTI in terms of control over the Regional Development Agencies.

29. We encountered scepticism that the role of elected regional assemblies in setting out strategic policy guidance would make a real difference on the ground in the short term. In the absence of substantial 'command and control' functions. Nicholas Boles from Policy Exchange argued "it is just going to be a talking shop……The only point in having a strategy is if you are the body that then does the stuff."[36] Mark Sandford commented that the impact would only appear in the very long term and in a low key way, in particular because in many fields, assemblies would lack the carrots and sticks with which to make that policy work, in particular where other bodies maintain control over policy implementation budgets.[37] We consider below the assemblies' lack of financial clout.


30. Rather than setting out a precise catalogue of functions, the draft Bill proposes giving elected regional assemblies a wide-ranging general power. They would be able to take action likely to further any of the general purposes of assemblies, including

31. When powers are defined in an open-ended way, there may be scope for interpreting them beyond the spirit of the legislation, and encroaching on the functions of other public bodies. Government has recognised this possibility both in a number of limitations on assemblies general powers specified in the draft assemblies Bill, and in a commitment to introducing further restrictions to prevent elected regional assemblies from providing education, health services, social services, children's services or social security schemes.

32. Much of the evidence suggested that general powers needed to be tied down with some more specific statements of assembly functions. Such statements would introduce clarity, but might also fire the imagination of both the general public and of potential candidates to the assemblies: Among the 'concrete' functions witnesses referred to were skills, public health, culture and, in particular and repeatedly, transport, echoing, in part, the recommendation of an earlier report by this Committee[39]: Where elected regional assemblies are introduced they should have direct responsibility for at least business development, learning and skills, neighbourhood renewal and transport policies and funding.

33. With the general powers proposed in the draft Bill there would have been little chance of persuading the electorate or potential assembly members that the elected regional assemblies would be worth establishing. The assemblies must have specific powers and responsibilities not only to convince the electorate that they are worth voting in favour of but also to persuade serious politicians at local and national level, that they are worth getting involved in.

34. Regional assemblies would need to have a clearly defined set of functions and the resources to perform them effectively. In light of this evidence we are not convinced that a simple statement of open-ended powers is the most appropriate way forward, and recommend that the general power be supplemented by a clearer definition of a core set of specific functions that elected regional assemblies would perform.

27   Policy statement, para. 19, p10 Back

28   Q359 Back

29   Q169 Back

30   Q170 Back

31   Q14 Back

32   Q 329 Back

33   Policy Statement p8 Back

34   Policy Statement p11 Back

35   Q 431 Back

36   Q 77 Back

37   Q 40 Back

38   Policy Statement p10 Back

39   Office of the Deputy Prime Minister: Housing, Planning, Local Government and the Regions Committee - Ninth Report of Session 2002-03, Reducing Regional Disparities in Prosperity Back

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