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

Memorandum by Mr James Paton (RG 09)

  I write to give evidence to the Committee on the various points it is investigating.

  My starting point is the scrutiny of the papers and subsequent report, which were presented at a regional symposium in Yorkshire and the Humber at the end of last year on regional governance. These can be accessed on the internet at the following URL:—contentDocs/839—1.pdf

  You will note that the papers and report really only describe current regional arrangements rather than make any substantive headway about the future of regional governance or regional government arrangements.

  See pages 48-52 of the report for the beginnings of a discussion on real issues.

  A diagram from page 37 of the report shows only some current regional relationships and governance. It does not show a host of other regional partners or organisations/national bodies with regional offices eg all the regional offices of the DCMS, DEFRA , DfT non-departmental organisations eg the Arts Council, Sport England, Cultural Consortiums, Environment Agency, Countryside Agency, Highways Agency, Big Lottery Fund.

  My substantive point here is that if you were going to put in place sensible, workable regional governance or government arrangements, you wouldn't start from here.

  Exceptionally light touch scrutiny of the RDA, by the Assembly, means the RDA does very much as it likes. Monitoring by GO has not used existing regional scrutiny at all to form a part of its monitoring evidence base. A classic case of two government departments DTI and ODPM not joining up at a regional level.

  Powers and decision-making clearly still lie with central government both in policy priorities and spending priorities. This is partly why Northern Way and city region agendas will fail if governance arrangements are not changed, as the priorities and decisions are not being made in the region and for the region.

  The difficulties now surrounding any debate about regional government have been wholly created by the Government through their ill thought out and ill promoted ideas for regional government. There was no collective cabinet responsibility for this and at the time very little cabinet support for it, although there was, and still is, a manifesto commitment to devolution in the English regions. It was due to this that the people of the North East rejected, not the idea of devolution, but the Government's very limited—as compared to the Scottish Parliament, German Lannder, French Department or Spanish regional—concept of devolution. The North East has a long tradition of supporting devolution ever since, and indeed before, the first referendum debate in Scotland in 1978.

Where next?

  Either the Government come back with extensive and conclusive decision-making and financial control arrangements for regions ie meaningful power that may encourage people to take an interest or it forgets any concept of regional government for a generation or two.

  As to regional governance, there are clear and significant improvements that Government can make to current regional arrangements.

  Applying the same logic to regional governance that is being applied to renewal/reform of local government currently to devolve and reconnect local government to neighbourhoods and the citizen. Similarly the Government should bring forward proposals on an enhanced strategic role to local government to take decisions at regional level including enhanced and vigorous (meaningful) scrutiny of the Regional Development Agency, Learning and Skills Councils, Environment Agency to name but three.

  Reflect on proposals for Local Strategic Partnerships in relation to local government in the delivery of Local Area Agreements and mirror these arrangements for local and national Government in relation the regional strategic partnerships (Assemblies or Chambers) delivering on the regional agenda.

  Given the ongoing democratic deficit in relation to regional level decision-making (in effect a quangocracy) in terms of parliament (MPs) and local government, give more strategic power to local authority leaders to act collaboratively on regional issues. This may mean directly elected leaders for all local authorities.

  In specific answer to the questions posed:

The potential for increasing the accountability of decision-making at the regional and sub-regional level, and the need to simplify existing arrangements


  Give more strategic power to local authorities (with obvious and significant reforms to local government ie less councillors but salary them to make them professional decision-makers to better exercise leadership and more powers) to scrutinise as they have the internal and health service scrutiny expertise which they can build on.

The potential for devolution of powers from regional to local level


  See above. Need distinction between what needs local and what needs regional action. eg region includes waste, flooding, climate change, transport infrastructure, major economic decision-making. Note new planning laws has created a statutory regional planning power, regional level activity, particularly that not given over to regional partnerships (assemblies/chambers) should be scrutinised by the localities/local councils.

The effectiveness of current arrangements for managing services at the various levels, and their inter-relationships


  Service management should be as close to the client as possible, eg community and neighbourhood level. Local authorities have proved in many cases that they are not responsive to customer/client needs and not capable of running services eg special measures for LEAs who have been incapable of administering local education eg Leeds, Bradford, Hull. Reinvigoration of real local democracy through existing and recreation of town and parish (commune?) councils with spending/contracting and decision-making powers.

The potential for new arrangements, particularly the establishment of city regions


  Depends on the region. They are all different. Yorkshire and Humber with three key city regions needs a degree of regional level co-ordination, agreement, compact between its city regions—particularly in the context on pan-regional activity and decision-making ie Northern Way > the regional partnerships Assembly's could be charged with facilitating and brokering arrangements.

The impact which new regional and sub-regional arrangements, such as the city regions, might have upon peripheral towns and cities


  Needs development of strategic partnerships where a city's hinterland and commuter towns have some power and say. Regional body could be the arbiter/broker of such arrangements. Should not be imposed from the centre.

  Note the lack of economies of scale of district councils and that of North and North Lincolnshire Council needs to be tackled through single tier and merger respectively. Trade off is more power to parish and town councils.

The desirability of closer inter-regional co-operation (as in the Northern Way) to tackle economic disparities


  A £100 million will do absolutely nothing to bridge the productivity gap. However strategically alignment and prioritisation of the big funding on road and rail, housing, skills and economic development combined might begin to make a difference. Why has the number of years of Learning and Skills Council funding and indeed RDA money not made "significant" impact on productivity.

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