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


Memorandum by Torbay Council (RG 90)

1.  PURPOSE

  1.1  To inform the Group Leaders about the possible reorganisation of local and regional government in England.

2.  RELATIONSHIP TO CORPORATE PRIORITIES

  2.1  All Corporate objectives would be affected by the reorganisation of local government. Most directly, it would affect corporate improvement and the efficient delivery of services.

  2.2  Strategic planning is currently carried out by the Regional Assembly, which prepares the Regional Spatial Strategy (RSS). This has a significant effect on all corporate priorities that involve the use of land, (eg improving Torbay's economy, improving access to affordable housing, valuing our environment and creating sustainable communities).

3.  RECOMMENDATION(S)

  3.1  That the Council makes representations to the ODPM Commons Select Committee supporting the principle of devolution of powers from regional assemblies to enlarged unitary authorities.

4.  REASON FOR RECOMMENDATION(S)

  4.1  Effective local government reorganisation would help Torbay meet its Corporate Objectives more effectively and improve service delivery.

  4.2  There is an increased emphasis on city regions and sub-regions as a unit of planning. These reflect housing markets, travel to work areas, retail and school catchment areas. Structuring local government to reflect how localities function would assist good governance.

5.  KEY RISKS ASSOCIATED WITH THE RECOMMENDATION(S)

  5.1  There would be no immediate impact on Torbay of not making comments on the ODPM Committee. However in the longer term, reorganisation represents a significant opportunity to improve local government structures. It is appropriate for Torbay to have an input into the process.


6.  ALTERNATIVE OPTIONS (IF ANY)

  6.1  The Council does not need to comment, in which case its view would not be considered. However, it is important that the views and needs of smaller authorities are considered, as well as the large metropolitan areas, who stand to gain most from becoming city regions

7.  BACKGROUND

  71.  Lyons Review. The Government has also commissioned Sir Michael Lyons to inquire into funding of Local Government. In September 2005 it broadened the terms of reference to cover the role of government and scope for devolution. An interim progress report has been published and recommendations will be made in late 2006. The Lyons Inquiry will feed into a White Paper, also expected in late 2006.

  7.2  Comments and Relevant to Torbay. It would appear that reorganisation may be some way off and is tied up with the difficult issue of local government finance. In addition it may be influenced by political and governance considerations. Many observers consider that the concept of the "city region" is an appropriate model for governance. but this could change. A common criticism of Regional Government is that it is distance and there is a democratic deficit. Major strategic decisions affecting Torbay are made in Taunton by a combination of unelected and indirectly elected decision makers.

  7.3  However, if Torbay Council does not engage with the Regional Assembly and other regional bodies, it will lose investment and other input into addressing regeneration, housing, infrastructure and other needs.

  7.4  Regional Spatial Strategy and Joint Study Area. Torbay's spatial planning policy is affected by the Regional Assembly in various ways. Under the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 the Regional Assembly is charged with preparing the Regional Spatial Strategy for the South West. This is part of the development plan and sets strategic matters, such has housing numbers to 2026. The Act and accompanying guidance require sub-regional studies to be prepared to feed into RSS.

  7.5  The Torbay and South Devon Sub-Regional Study has informed the RSS preparation. This has involved extensive sub-regional work with neighbouring authorities. In addition, planning is increasingly reflecting housing market and travel to work areas, rather than district boundaries. There would, however, be a number of significant issues to be resolved in relation to formalising the Torbay and South Devon Sub Region. In particular Teignbridge sees itself as gravitating towards Exeter, whilst some people consider Marldon to be an entirely self-contained settlement. However the sub regional work, which was led by Torbay, points to the close links areas such as employment, health and housing between Torbay and the rest of the South Devon area. There are also links between the Torbay and South Devon and the Exeter Sub-Regions.

  7.6  Draft Planning Policy Statement 3 requires local planning authorities to prepare joint housing market area studies (HMAS) and housing land availability studies (HLAS). These will assess the demand and supply of housing on a sub-regional basis. Torbay, Exeter and other Devon authorities are currently preparing a sub-regional market area study. This will examine housing need and demand in the various housing markets across South Devon.

  7.7  Suggested Response on Behalf of Torbay Council. Although the 23 January deadline has passed, It would be appropriate to make a representation to the ODPM Select Committee setting out the following broad points:

    —    The principle of devolving power to local authorities is supported, in line with the principle of subsidiarity. Regional Assemblies have tended to take powers up from County level (eg Strategic Planning) rather than devolve them down from Central Government.

    —    Local Authorities must be properly funded to carry out the functions that Central Government requires. As long as Councils are supplicants of Central Government, they will never have autonomy. This is currently being investigated by the Lyons Inquiry.

    —    Councils should have greater autonomy in spending revenues arising in their area. For example any Planning Gain Supplement (PGS) should be ring fenced to the area that it arises in to meet the need to create sustainable communities. Otherwise there is a danger that it could disappear into Government's general spending.

    —    Regional spatial strategies are an appropriate planning tool to set a strategic framework, so long as they are properly informed by sub-regional studies. Now that (county wide) structure plans have been abolished, it makes more sense to base sub-regional strategies on housing market areas and travel to work areas.

    —    There will need to be a regional level planning body, with responsibility for RSS preparation. In the absence of a fully democratic regional assembly, the option of transferring their role (and staff) government regional offices would reduce duplication. This should be accompanied by a strengthened role for 4(4) structure plan authorities. This would build on the Government's reforms to the planning system in the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 and help to focus further the role of the planning system on delivering sustainable development. It would also enhance the role of government offices for the regions and help ensure the compliance of RSS with Government Policy. There could be a conflict of interest between Government Regional Offices as purveyors of Government policy and as a regional planning body. This would need to be considered carefully.

    —    There is a role for larger unitary authorities in city regions, particularly where this relates to housing market or travel to work areas.

    —    The non-city region hinterland will need to be considered carefully. Any system needs to ensure that their requirements are met and they are not treated as a "rural rump". However, there are successful Unitary Authorities in rural areas.

    —    Exeter is likely to be the "economic power house" and principal growth area in Devon. There is therefore logic in an Exeter City Region.

    —    Torbay is already a Unitary Authority and a principal urban area. However, the travel to work area and housing market area extend beyond the local authority boundary and include areas of the South Hams and Teignbridge. Therefore it would be appropriate for the Torbay and South Devon Sub Region to encompass parts of the neighbouring areas, including part of the area of overlap with the Exeter Sub Region.

    —    It is desirable that some form of County identity remains, due to their historic and cultural importance. However, this does no necessarily have to be invested in formal county councils.





 
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