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

Memorandum by the North West Regional Assembly (NWRA) (RG 87)


  1.  This response from the North West Regional Assembly to the Committee makes three principal arguments.

    —    First, we hope that the committee will focus on the respective roles of existing institutions of regional and sub-regional governance and advocate that the principle of subsidiarity is applied more rigorously at national, regional and local level.

    —    Second, as the Government looks to the next phase of its thinking on regional and city governance, we hope that the Committee will add its voice to ours in arguing that future changes should add to the credibility of all institutions and processes of regional governance.

    —    Third, we would expect the Committee to acknowledge that the current debate about regional governance has moved on from that about elected regional government and that new initiatives such as city region governance and Regional Boards (which bring together Assemblies and Development Agencies) should be supported and where appropriate piloted and evaluated.


  2.  The North West Regional Assembly is a partnership of local government, business organisations, public sector agencies, education and training bodies, trade unions and co-operatives together with the voluntary sector, working to promote the economic, environmental and social well-being of the North West of England (Cheshire, Cumbria, Greater Manchester, Lancashire and Merseyside).

  3.  It is the Regional Chamber with responsibility for scrutinising the North West Regional Development Agency (NWDA); preparing the draft Regional Spatial Strategy; and working with partners to advise Government on how to prioritise £764 million of public money is spent each year in the North West region on economic development, housing and transport. The Assembly also acts as a strategic focal point on a variety of genuinely regional matters including European issues.


  4.  In October last year the Assembly restructured to create a streamlined Executive Board comprising representatives of each of the North West's sub-regions, and the economic and social partners. The NWDA and Government Office for the North West participate at senior level although without voting rights.

  The creation of the Board was a response to the difficulties the NRWA had experienced in the early period of its operation and in anticipation of the Government's current emphasis on streamlined organisations fit for purpose.

  5.  The NWRA is confident that its partners view the regional Board as providing an inclusive mechanism for driving forward the regional agenda.

  6.  This is the North West Regional context for the Select Committee's Inquiry, context which leads directly to the first and perhaps most important point we would wish to impress upon the Committee. It is that developing credible and durable institutions is a long-term process, requiring widespread co-operation between partners. Change initiated by the centre needs, therefore, to be introduced with great care. Ill thought through changes are not in the interests of anyone. We would also urge the Committee to impress upon the Government the need for clarity so that all parties know their roles and thereby ensure that the governance of the region as a whole is improved. The present situation is one of considerable regional complexity and no small amount of uncertainty.

  7.  The NWRA's response to the Committee advances this theme looking in detail at the potential impact of developments in city regional governance, changes in existing Government structures in the regions and t the future for regional governance.


  8.  In the wake of the referendum on the introduction of an elected Regional Assembly in the North East, Ministers have made it clear that the Government is considering the next steps to improve the governance of the regions—particularly to help improve regional growth. Though no definitive statement has yet been made, it is clear both that the Government now believes regional structures can co-exist with the development of measures to help the development of city regions and that city regional governance is under active consideration.

  9.  The Committee's inquiry therefore provides a well-timed opportunity to ask important questions of the Government and thereby ensure that further reform is well-grounded as well as considered alongside the range of other devolutionary initiatives taken by the Government since 1997.

  10.  Academic opinion varies on the matter of governance versus other solutions to the co-ordination issues facing cities and city regions. What is clear is that governance solutions always co-exist alongside other, more informal arrangements and that with cities the size of the major English conurbations, there is always likely to be the need for co-ordination at a number of levels.

  11.  It is important that change is well planned and implemented and as infrequent as is consistent with delivering effective services and good governance.

  12.  We therefore have no objection in principle to the development of ideas for the governance and coordination of city regions. On the contrary. The North West's cities are considering these ideas actively whilst the Assembly as a whole recognises that a successful region requires strong and well-governed cities. The issues for the NWRA are therefore about: how change is developed and consulted on; the impact of changes in city regional governance on areas beyond their boundaries including in rural areas; and, how any new institutions and arrangements proposed by the Government relate to what it has done previously or what the regions themselves have in place.

  13.  This leads to several recommendations.

  14.  The creation of a regional framework of decision making has not been easy. After much effort it is making significant progress, improving decision making of the region. The Government's next steps should seek to build on this progress.

  15.  The Government should make clear at the outset that any future plans for city regions will not imply changes in the statutory role of Regional Assembly role in planning or in scrutiny.

  16.  When it sets out its proposals on cities and regions, the Government should make a clear statement on the division of labour between existing regional and sub-regional governance as well as any new institutions, and lay out a clear vision for the future and a commitment to stability of governance in the future.

  17.  City regional pilots are a logical extension of the sub-regional arrangements that have been emerging over recent years. North West city regions volunteer to pilot arrangements. However it is hoped that the Government's plans will be brought forward following full consultation with existing regional and sub-regional as well as local authority partners.


  18.  The impact on regions and localities of Government policies and programmes has been recognised since the mid 1990s, when, under the previous Conservative administration, Government Regional Offices were established. This in turn paved the way for Regional Development Agencies and Chambers.

  19.  Government has long had arrangements for the regional management and oversight of its programmes. As the framework of regional governance has matured, more Whitehall Departments have shown a willingness to use them in the oversight of Government activity or to assist in the allocative process itself. For example, the Regional Housing Boards will now shoulder the responsibility for housing strategy and investment in the regions. Regional Assemblies also have responsibility with RDAs for advising the Department for Transport on investment priorities, something which we hope would evolve into regional transport boards in due course.

  20.  The Government has added to the complexity of the regional picture through the creation of a range of sub-national bodies, increasingly using the region as an important tier. For example it looks set to change matters—and possibly to complicate them—as it moves towards finalising regional structures in the police and fire services. The NWRA view is that, whatever one's view of any of these changes, they need to be managed in a way that takes account of—and builds on the credibility and effectiveness of—other regional bodies.

  21.  The Government has shown willingness to give responsibility to Regional Assemblies to provide both scrutiny (RDAs) and, increasingly, a role in allocating resources: for example the regional housing board function as well as advice on transport priorities. This has been welcome and in the North West, as the recent regional prioritisation of transport investment undertaken as part of its response to the Regional Funding Allocations initiative demonstrates, there are positive signs that the regionally-led arrangements are now adding real value.

  22.  But there remains the risk that different parts of Government are pushing for rapid developments in their regional mechanisms in potentially uncoordinated ways, and could miss the opportunity to integrate the changes with the existing regional infrastructure. More confusing still to the public and to professionals alike are the overlaps brought about by a lack of consistency over boundaries. Whilst progress has been made on these issues over recent years, the issue of coterminous boundaries remains important.

  23.  However the administration of health suggests that reform in and of itself may not be key. Over the last 30 years successive Governments have created, abolished and are now re-creating Health Boards at the regional level. The issue is in part one of how reform is carried out and the central importance of linking infrastructural change with the activities of partner agencies and those delivering "on the ground". We therefore make the following recommendations.

  24.  The Government is introducing, consulting or planning a range of regional-level changes in service configuration in: police, fire and health among others. The Government should ensure that in any changes, the principle of subsidiarity applies and that policy responsibility is as local as possible. Moreover changes need to more clearly take account of—and build on the credibility and effectiveness of—other regional bodies.

  25.  Given the complexity of partnership arrangements and the level of inter-agency cooperation required to deliver many key services to the public, a policy of evolving coterminous regional and sub regional boundaries should be considered by the Government in order to improve efficiency.

  26.  Where the Government does intend to change the balance of functions carried out at national, regional, sub-regional and local level, these changes should as a matter of course—and preferably as a legal requirement—be subject to consultation at the appropriate level, ie with Regional Assemblies and sub-regional bodies and local government.


  27.  Whatever the merits or otherwise of regional government, the experience of the North West provides important lessons on the dangers of proceeding at pace towards a policy goal that is not clear as was the case with Elected Regional Assembly (ERA) powers. The lack of clarity on the Government's part hindered the development of substantive debate on the issues. As opinion differed both within and between political parties, the combined result was that the facts about ERAs were difficult to communicate to the public, something which is unlikely to have helped foster a positive public attitude to devolution and sub-national governance in the longer term.

  28.  The NWRA takes the view that it would be regrettable indeed if the Government failed to learn the lessons from this policy. Principal among these are: the need for identity (at regional and city regional level) to be fostered in advance of significant changes in regional governance; and the need for the changes to work with pre-existing partnerships between regional and sub-regional bodies to enable any new changes to bed-in effectively. In short, because there already exists a range of bodies at regional and sub regional level—including a form of indirectly elected regional government—the Government should ensure that it takes full cognisance of the impact of its policies and seeks to avoid prolonged periods of uncertainty.

  29.  Similarly, the Committee should ask the Government to establish a clear picture of what public attitudes to devolution are in the Northern regions. The intention would not be to re-open the argument about ERAs but as popular opinion about devolution (if not ERA) are mixed, and possibly contradictory, independently commissioned and analysed opinion research would help to understand attitudes and so to inform future policy development.

  30.  In summary, the NWRA would offer the Committee to consider the following suggestions.

  31.  The North East referendum on regional government has had the unfortunate effect of creating division and diversion in the regional institutions of Northern England, creating confusion and thereby undermining the credibility of the existing institutions. In its next, and all future steps, the Government needs to consider both the public attitudes to the geographies of proposed arrangements and the track record of the existing regional institutions in developing regional, sub- regional and local identity.

  32.  To this end, and with directly elected regional assemblies not a likely prospect, the Government should commission independent opinion research on attitudes to regional and sub regional affiliation, and views on the desirability of devolving power from Whitehall.

  33.  The Government should pilot Regional Boards similar to the public service boards emerging at local level in many areas. These would take forward the joint working encouraged by the Regional Funding Allocations initiative and bring together the currently separate activities of the RDAs and the Regional Chambers with Government Regional Offices inputting and adding value. Such a structure will foster the alignment of strategies and greater accountability. The North West would welcome participation in any such pilot.

  34.  In the next stage of its thinking on cities and regions, the Government should make an explicit recognition of the existence in England of the existing regional governance structure and the growing track record that the Regional Assemblies are playing in providing democratically elected leadership.


  35.  The Northern Way has been an important development for the Northern regions of England. It has encouraged the regions to look at their common interests in a way, which they have not done hitherto. Compared with the policy of growth areas in the South of England, the Northern Way has had both considerable success and some shortcomings. The Northern Way has been widely welcomed by local and regional government bodies, though the role and importance of the Northern Way remains a question in the minds of many; moreover it is probably not a concept of any significant meaning to the residents of Northern England.

  36.  In substantive terms, and certainly in comparison to the Southern growth areas, the Northern Way may have been less successful. The Northern Way has not had the resources—or the promise of the resources—of the South East growth areas. But, even allowing for lack of resources, other features of its governance and operation may have limited its impact. First, the "ownership" arrangements of the Northern Way appear to lack a degree of clarity: is it for example an institution of Government or the regions? Given the respective roles of the RDAs and Regional Assemblies—and their involvement in a Steering Group—the reason for this lack of depth to the ownership of the Northern Way is not obvious. It may however have contributed to the sense in the North West region that the Northern Way has failed to make sufficient progress on practical projects nor taken off as an idea as much as it should, or could, have done.

  37.  The NWRA therefore makes a series of suggestions for the future of the Northern Way based on the view that the Northern Way needs to be moved up to the next stage of its development. We look to the 2007 Comprehensive Spending Review to define the role and increase the level of resource to support the development of the North and believe that consequent to that improvements in governance should be considered.

  38.  The Northern Way has had the positive effect of encouraging collaboration between the Northern Regions, though its overall economic impact remains to be tested. However the balance between the creation of the Northern Way identity and the development of concrete projects dealing with important trans-regional issues has probably not been optimal. Future Government support should be aimed directly at fostering cooperation in priority areas such as transport and housing and facilitating the private and public investment that is required to make the north's potential a reality.

  39.  The Northern Way should therefore receive substantial support in CSR 2007. If there is a step change in the Government's commitment to economic growth in the north and the Northern Way then its governance should be reviewed to ensure greater ownership and leadership from Regional Assemblies and City Regions as well as other partners in addition to the Regional Development Agencies.

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