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

Memorandum by Stoke-on-Trent City Council (RG 10)


  This submission attempts to address the questions posed by the Committee within a vision of non-hierarchical city regions, based on competitiveness and innovation. They would highlight bottom up and cross-cutting forms of governance and thereby complement the existing matrix of administrative regions which have an explicitly top down focus. Regional and other administrative boundaries are currently a barrier to competitiveness, and their impact should be softened by giving city region partnerships the flexibility to cross these.


  1.1  Good systems of governance must be tailored to meet the needs and aspirations of the communities they serve and deliver all-round improvements to their quality of life. At the very least, they should guarantee a community's social, economic and environmental sustainability. This basic premise applies to all territorial units, from transnational jurisdictions like the EU down to local neighbourhoods. Experience also suggests that formal governance systems succeed to the extent that they support, and are supported by, a diversity of less formal (extra- and non-governmental) institutions.

  1.2  From that perspective, problems arise where the formal structures of governance are not well matched to the evolving social, economic and environmental characteristics of the communities they serve. A recognised weakness in the UK is that its formal governance structures at each level remain skewed in favour of top-down policies and programmes. Successive governments have promoted initiatives that aim to "roll back the frontiers of the state". But these have largely failed because they have been unable to devise a formula into which the competing demands of top-down, bottom-up and (increasingly) cross-cutting decision-making processes can be sensitively factored.


  2.1  There are inherent difficulties in imposing a "one size fits all" philosophy on local government structures throughout England. The country's urban system does not correspond to a neat, pyramid-shaped hierarchy, with centres of roughly equivalent size and functions distributed fairly evenly across the regions. The reality, as recognised in the Regional Planning Guidance for the West Midlands[1] and other key strategy documents, is that the urban system is polycentric. It continues to evolve in response to a diverse range of stimuli. Some towns and cities grew as market and service centres for their surrounding areas. Others, like Stoke-on-Trent, owe their existence more to manufacturing and/or extractive industries, based on the local availability of materials of production. Others developed as ports or transport centres. Others have mixed origins, while a number constitute "special cases".

  2.2  With economic change over time, these distinctions have in some cases blurred and in others become more marked. London remains by far England's largest and most important city, despite the efforts of politicians and planners to "buck the market". Yet it is impossible to agree on what is the UK's second or third city, or how England is divided up into regions of any description, without bringing political considerations or value judgements into play.


  3.1  The term "city region" is widely used in the current debate, but less often defined in a manner that is consistent or sophisticated. Added to this, other geographical concepts such as "core cities", "urban fields" and "hinterlands" are used interchangeably. The Government itself does not seem to have a clear definition of city regions. It is, however, very interested in the phenomenon of competitiveness and how this can be maximised by using cities as "production units" for competitiveness. Much research in this field has been US-based. When its methodology is applied to European cities and their regions, studies have concluded that very few of these—and only London in the UK—rank among the world's top 50 competitive cities. The proposed new wave of local government reform provides an excellent opportunity for structures to be re-designed in a way that supports competitiveness, innovation, inclusivity and a clear sense of "belonging".

  3.2  The phrase "core cities" has come to denote the eight large urban centres where Central Government Regional Offices and major agencies are located. A large population is not the sole criterion here: Nottingham and Newcastle-upon-Tyne have respective populations only slightly greater than Stoke-on-Trent. Nor is it necessary for a region to have only one core city: the North West has Manchester and Liverpool, while Leeds and Sheffield both enjoy this status in Yorkshire and Humberside. The core city for the South East and the East of England is London.

  3.3  Emphatically, core cities are service centres for the "top down" diffusion of policy, rather than drivers of regional, cultural or economic cohesion. It could be argued that Carlisle, in the North West Region, is more strongly linked to Newcastle than Manchester, and the cultural ties between Bristol and the Commonwealth are more apparent than those it enjoys with Cornwall. To explain the production, distribution and exchange of goods and services in North Staffordshire/South Cheshire in terms of a tributary relationship with Birmingham would be to contradict the socio-economic realities. These include on the one hand, a series of service functions that are largely self-contained at the sub-regional level, and on the other—notably with the ceramics sector—a nexus of transnational supply chains.

  3.4  City Regions, by contrast, have a broader, multi-faceted reality beyond ministerial directives and performance monitoring. They embody processes that Storper and Salais describe as "untraded interdependencies".[2] Untraded interdependencies exist outside the economic sphere. Firms are attracted to particular urban areas less because of infrastructure and transportation advantages than because of the benefits of being close to other customers, suppliers and competitors where this proximity leads to shared understandings and transactions. An excellent example of an untraded interdependency is North Staffordshire's ceramics cluster. The concept works well for this and other established clusters. But it is notably less successful when applied to the "emerging" and "aspirational" clusters that still tend to underpin DTI, Treasury and Regional Development Agencies' (RDAs) understanding of regional competitiveness.


  4.1  The boundaries of England's administrative regions are quite simply that—administrative ones. They do not demark cultural watersheds or self-contained market areas, and are not well placed to influence market forces—notably globalisation—at the macrolevel. They began as strategic military areas during the interwar years, and are essentially what Prof Michael Parkinson has described as "territorial agencies to deliver policies made elsewhere."[3] A clear expression of this is the growth by stealth of powerful institutions such as Government Offices for the Regions (GOs) and RDAs since the mid 1990s and the conversion of regional chambers into regional assemblies whose members are not directly elected. The process of trying to align these regional jurisdictions with more locally-accountable entities has been tortuous. To most laypersons, the phrase "West Midlands" has a greater resonance with the former Birmingham-centred metropolitan county than a large and diverse region embracing North Staffordshire and the Welsh Marches.

  4.2  Recently, coalitions of RDAs working with key partners have led initiatives, such as the Northern Way, aimed at promoting a united economic vision between administrative regions. Although the Northern Way has been hailed as a positive step, and undoubtedly introduces fresh elements of additionality, it still represents a top-down, core city focus on regional economies. Although broad in scope, it is not holistic, and dwells more on figurative categorisations than the inherent potential of diverse communities to foster economic growth through creativity and innovation.

  4.3  The process of binding together administrative regions for such a purpose does not solve the problems of non-alignment referred to in paragraph 2.2 above. It merely pushes them down the list of RDAs' strategic priorities. Indeed, the drafting of the Midlands Way as—in part—a riposte to the Northern Way indicates that the current system of regional governance is as likely to engender perceived threats and rivalries as genuine cohesion between regions.

  4.4  There are particular implications for a city region—like Stoke-on-Trent's- whose sphere of influence crosses local and regional administrative government boundaries. Our city region's mix of identities, opportunities and problems extends beyond the West Midlands into both the North West and East Midlands. Yet our capacity to address these through "single pot" programmes or spatial strategies ends with the regional boundary. By contrast, the EU's portfolio includes numerous funding mechanisms to promote transnational partnerships. Added to this, the technical networks and knowledge bases used in a government sphere are tightly drawn around regional boundaries. In Stoke-on-Trent, we have better data about certain districts on the fringe of the South West region than with our near neighbours in South Cheshire.

  4.5  Because English regions are top-down institutions that can engender a "silo" culture, these issues cannot be effectively addressed through boundary changes. There is, however, a strong case for bringing forward institutional reforms that would promote a greater diversity of measures to support bottom-up and cross-cutting initiatives within and between regions. This would not compromise the crucial role that regional institutions play in policy formation, monitoring and review. But it would help free local, sub-regional and thematic delivery bodies to implement projects and programmes more effectively and accountably. Such an approach would also help regional institutions in meeting their remits through policies and programmes that are better linked to community aspirations and capacities. And because of the greater scope for meaningful inter-regional co-operation, it would promote the better use of resources and national cohesion.


  5.1  Our Council is promoting a new, integrated vision for governance throughout the UK, where competitiveness and innovation are supported through a non-hierarchical network of City Regions. Each City Region would be driven by an agenda focussing as much around local identities as on formal administrative structures. In that respect, they would complement England's nine administrative regions, which are not self-contained economic units or foci for expressing local loyalties.

  5.2  Equally, a citizen-focused democracy cannot be built around forms of governance that relate less to local identities than administrative hierarchies, or that involve an unsustainable degree of "top slicing" in favour of core cities. In that regard, our Council is working with neighbouring local authorities, public, private, voluntary and community sector partners throughout our City Region to design policies and deliver outcomes that will bring sustainable all-round benefits for every stakeholder.

  5.3  Stoke-on-Trent lies at the heart of a North Staffordshire/South Cheshire City Region, whose urban and rural communities are linked together through a rich and changing mix of cultural and economic factors. It encompasses a conurbation of around 400,000 residents and a wider area with more than double that population. This is in turn set within a polycentric urban system at West Midlands and national levels.

  5.4  Our future prosperity depends on being well connected to our neighbours, and working in partnership with them to deliver shared goals. Our case for articulating the North Staffordshire/South Cheshire City Region supports established regional and national policy, and this underscores our partnership working at every level. By way of a few examples, the ODPM's Local Area Agreements Guidance sees LAAs as a real opportunity to facilitate joint working between all the appropriate partners. Our draft LAA has been designed specifically around a City Region approach.

  5.5  The Regional Planning Guidance for the West Midlands (RPG) seeks to deliver regeneration through urban and rural renaissance, diversifying the regional economy and modernising the transport infrastructure. Our City Region would help deliver the RPG by giving added value to the outcomes, indicators and targets listed in its framework and by enhancing the potential for match funding streams.

  5.6  The West Midlands Regional Economic Strategy (RES) promotes growth through synergy between the region's diverse elements. It places its highest priority on a set of challenges—enterprise, manufacturing, skills, transport and economic inclusion. It showcases sub-regional economic partnerships and Regeneration Zones (RZs) as holistic ways to address those challenges in deprived areas. The North Staffordshire RZ is now operating to a City Region agenda. Renew, North Staffordshire's housing market pathfinder, bases its strategic rationale of local sustainability around our City Region.

  5.7  Our Integrated Economic Development Strategy seeks to make our area "the city region of choice for one million people by 2021".[4] We are particularly aware of our strong, ongoing linkages with large tracts of Cheshire, Derbyshire and Shropshire, and the potential of our City Region to provide the sort of dynamic, inter-regional partnership the UK needs to retain its international competitiveness. As a result, we are engaging more widely with new partners from all sectors (particularly innovative businesses) and from neighbouring regions.


  6.1  The ODPM Report Cities, Regions and Competitiveness[5] offers an excellent framework for sustainable City Regions by setting out the special contributions that urban and rural areas bring to the mix. This list of urban-rural contributions can be used as a simple but effective health check on a locality's level of preparedness to embrace a City Region agenda. We are following the rationale of Cities, Regions and Competitiveness in showing how we and our partners will enrich the relationships that define our City Region, as illustrated in the outline descriptions below.

6.2  Contributions from our City

6.2.1  Critical Mass of Knowledge Institutions and a Vibrant Environment for Knowledge Creation and Transfer

  North Staffordshire's two universities and Further Education institutions are key symbols of its cultural identity. They work with schools, training providers, employers and the wider community to raise aspirations and provide more inclusive learning opportunities. Keele University's Science Park and medical faculty, the Staffordshire University "Quarter", Stoke College's construction industry training programmes and Business Innovation Centres are driving this forward. Programmes such as Building Schools for the Future and Closing the Gap will help build a sustainable local knowledge economy.

6.2.2  Strategic Business and Financial Services and the Connectivity to Attract Higher-Value Business

  This sector is crucial to the articulation of our city region, but is still under-represented locally. A keynote of successful city regions is the presence of corporate headquarters, including government offices, banks and consultancies. We are working to support city centre regeneration through a new business district and to bring relocated Civil Service jobs to North Staffordshire.

6.2.3  Concentrations of Highly Paid, Attractive Jobs and "Key Influencers"

  We recognise that North Staffordshire is not well favoured for executive employment. In part, this is due to the quality of the local housing stock and the physical environment. RENEW North Staffordshire is helping to secure a broader local social and economic mix by linking the provision of better quality housing to the wider regeneration framework. An integrated City Region would attract high quality jobs and provide the conditions for bringing in yet more in the long term.

6.2.4  Concentrations of Cultural, Leisure and Sports Facilities/Transport Hubs

  A City Region framework would enable our cultural, leisure and transport offers to be properly articulated, and accentuate our strategic links with the North West and the East Midlands. Work to progress this includes the improvement of Stoke City Centre's Cultural Quarter, Staffordshire University's Media Centre, and new proposals for the city's stadiums linked to the 2012 Olympics. Local partners are delivering highway improvements, better public transport options and new, green travel alternatives.

6.2.5  A National and International Profile

  A City Region's identity depends as much on recognition by those beyond its boundaries as local stakeholders. It must be outward-looking and seek out potential markets. Our acclaimed ceramics cluster is a defining element, but our long term offer must be more inclusive and flexible. Biomedical and design technology, already well represented, will be part of that offer, supported by an expanded services sector. Transnational links are expanding between local partners and medical technology businesses in Bavaria. We shall also be progressing an integrated marketing strategy for our City Region.

6.3  Contributions from the Region

  6.3.1  Cities, Regions and Competitiveness gives equal attention to what surrounding areas can offer cities within a regional framework. These include:

    —  Space for economic and infrastructure projects.

    —  A wider range of urban and rural housing options.

    —  A variety of population centres with niche retail experiences, business sites and premises.

    —  A wider workforce and skills base.

    —  Opportunities for countryside leisure.

    —  Feedback on reputation and performance.

  6.3.2  The operational areas and strategic agendas of our local Health Authority, Police, Renew and RZ partners and the emerging Local Development Framework are geared towards sustainability at a City Region level. This is mirrored in our public transport, local radio and newspaper catchments. There are unique cultural traits stemming from the Six Towns of the Potteries, the Borough of Newcastle-under-Lyme and the Staffordshire Moorlands that are embedded in the delivery style of service providers. Effectively, a critical mass of top-down, bottom-up and cross-cutting agendas within our City Region—many of these involving major, long-term resource commitments—need to be reflected within any new governance structures.


  7.1  A logical conclusion of the foregoing analysis might be to bring the whole City Region together under a single unitary authority. Certainly, if one examines the component elements of county, metropolitan, unitary and district councils across England, there are inconsistencies that will need to be resolved in a fresh round of reorganisation. It is, for instance, more difficult for a unitary authority like Stoke-on-Trent, whose boundaries are tightly drawn around a built-up area, to plan for sustainability than a council with a central city and large tracts of rural land.

  7.2  But, as highlighted in paragraph 4.5 above, boundary-focused solutions are no longer sufficient in a culture of governance in which public bodies work with a growing array of partners from other sectors and where globalisation continues to blur the parameters of the local state. Problems are rarely solved, or opportunities grasped, by drawing lines around them. Socio-economic progress is achieved through empowerment, not controls. The new vision for local government in England needs to be driven by a capacity for innovative, accountable partnerships to operate across administrative boundaries wherever possible.

1   Regional Planning Guidance for the West Midlands (2004), p 2. Back

2   M Storper and R Salais Worlds of Production: the Action Frameworks of the Economy Cambridge MA, Harvard University Press (1997). Back

3   Michael Parkinson, Cities and Regions: Institutions, Relationships and Economic Consequences, EIUA (2002), p 2. Back

4   Integrated Economic Development Strategy for the North Staffordshire Conurbation Manchester DTZ Pieda (2005). Back

5   ODPM Cities, Regions and Competitiveness Second Report from the Working Group of Government Departments: The Core Cities, the Regional Development Agencies (2003), p 7. Back

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