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

Memorandum by Councillor Chris Foote-Wood, Vice Chair, North East Assembly (RG 21)

  1.  In view of my long and close involvement in regional matters, I would like to give evidence to the Inquiry.

  2.  I have been involved in local and regional government in the North East for most of my adult life, starting as a student engineer in Newcastle upon Tyne in 1959. I have worked for various local authorities, and on government schemes, as an engineer and surveyor. I have been a local councillor since 1967, at different times a member of an Urban District, District, County and a Parish Council. I was Leader of Wear Valley District Council for six years and Chairman of Dene Valley Parish Council for four years. Over the years I have had many meetings with government ministers and senior civil servants at national and regional level. I have also been a member of a number of regional bodies, such as Northern Arts and the Northern Sports Council. In the 1980s I was on the steering committee that set up what is now Anec (Association of North East Councils).

  3.  I was a long-serving committee member of the Campaign for a North East Assembly, and was on the executive bodies of the North East Constitutional Convention, the Campaign for the English Regions and the Yes for the North East Campaign. I have seen and heard all the arguments, for and against a directly-elected regional assembly, at first hand. I have also visited the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly on several occasions and seen how they work.

  4.  Following the decisive "No" vote in the referendum of November 2004, I have sought to make the indirectly-elected North East Assembly as effective as possible, given its limited powers, budget and staffing. I have been Leader of the Liberal Democrat Group on the Assembly since its inception in 1999. I am currently Vice Chair of the Assembly, representing the Minority Parties, and also Vice Chair of the Assembly's Scrutiny Committee.

  5.  Despite the efforts over the last 50 years of both Conservative and Labour governments, both committed to regional development, the North East continues to lag behind the rest of the UK in most economic, health and social criteria. The gap is growing. Clearly, the present system is not working.

  6.  The government is committed to reducing regional inequalities. It therefore follows that, as the North East is in the worst position of any region, it should be given extra help over and above the rest of the UK. There is now an overwhelming argument for a "Barnett Formula" for the North East and other poorer regions, just as, over 30 years ago, there was justification for the original Barnett Formula to give additional help to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The Barnett Formula has undoubtedly been a success, as Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have now overtaken the North East.

  7.  I would make an even stronger argument for co-ordinated government spending within the region. It is not so much a matter of getting extra cash, as much as that would be welcome, but if we were able to apply the current levels of government expenditure in the region in a more efficient, co-ordinated and concentrated way, the North East would start to catch up with the rest of the UK instead of falling further and further behind.

  8.  It is clearly an error for government to treat every region in exactly the same way. The South East is getting more and more overcrowded and overheated, causing increasing environmental and human problems as well as being fundamentally damaging to the UK's long-term economic interests.

  9.  This can be seen in regional housing allocations. At the same time that government is following a policy of demolition and restriction of housing growth in the North, the government is seeking to expand housing numbers in the South. In both North and South, the local democratic elements, councils and regional assemblies, are opposed to government policy in this field. Surely it makes sense for government to restrict new housing growth in the overcrowded South, while allowing and indeed encouraging additional housing growth in the North?

  10.  Houses and jobs go together, so to make sense of my proposed change of housing policy, government must do much more to transfer jobs, both government and private, from London to the regions.

  11.  Likewise, housing and industrial development have an inevitable impact on the transport structure. It is essential that all these decisions are brought together under one over-arching body which is democratically accountable to the people of the region, and has the powers to make effective decisions.

  12.  Regional Government exists and has existing for many decades. Decisions on a significant proportion of public spending in each region are made by a vast number of regional bodies, almost all appointed by central government, and each one independent of the other. In my book, "North East England, Land of 100 Quangos", which I published in 2002, I listed a total of 174 regional and sub-regional bodies in the North East which disburse public funds. Of these, over 100 are fully-fledged regional Quangos, appointed by government and responsible to government ministers. A recent BBC television programme identified 106 of these major Quangos in the North East alone. No-one knows exactly how many Quangos there are in North East, let alone in the UK.

  13.  This present, long-established system of regional government in England is expensive, inefficient and lacking in local democratic accountability. Each Quango has its own bureaucracy and its own policy. No government minister can possibly "micro-manage" each of the English regions. The whole point of devolving decisions to regional level is to make them more efficient, more co-ordinated and more attuned to local conditions. It is self-evident that the present system does not achieve this. The decision to make all Quangos in Scotland and Wales (bar one) directly accountable to the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly has, in my view, been a major factor in the effectiveness of these two new democratic bodies.

  14.  Three things are needed to make regional government work: much better co-ordination of decision-making at regional level, a single body with the powers to implement strategic decisions, and a far greater degree of local democratic accountability.

  15.  Initiatives such as the recent North East Economic Summit, which I attended, are welcome, but seem to me to add to the confusion rather than clarify it. Just how much more research needs to be done, and how many more reports written? We know what the problems are. What we need is the power to tackle them. There is still no mechanism for co-ordinated decision making at regional level.

  16.  The recent revelations about the Highways Agency in refusing or delaying development plans illustrate the problems of having such a fragmented system. The North East Assembly is the regional planning body, yet its decisions can all too readily be countermanded by a body (the Highways Agency) over which it has no influence whatsoever. If the North East is to move from 80% of the UK average in economic terms, to 90%, 60,000 jobs will need to be created. It is idle to imagine that 60,000 new jobs can be created without massive further investment in the transport structure, road and rail, even if all possible "green travel" arrangements are brought in. It simply does not make sense for one arm of government (One North East) to be promoting economic development, while at the same time another arm of government (the Highways Agency) is blocking it. One agency is applying the accelerator, another the brake—simultaneously. This situation makes a mockery of the concept of "joined-up government" to which we all aspire.

  17.  Similarly, the Regional Transport Board (of which I have direct experience) has been handicapped by only being able to consider roads and not railways. Yet if the government's policies green growth and encouraging less private car use, which are to be applauded, are to mean anything, decisions on road and rail must be integrated.

  18.  The government has recognised that co-ordinated decision-making is crucial. It did so in the 2002 White Paper on Regional Government, and in its recent decisions to merge regional Housing, Transport and Planning under a single body, the regional assembly. While this is very welcome, without the accompanying powers and the ability to determine where money is spent, bringing these policy areas together under the Regional Assembly will not be effective as the Assembly will still not have the powers to implement its decisions.

  19.  One of the major roles of the North East Assembly is to "scrutinise" the regional development agency, One North East. While ONE is obliged to consider what the Assembly has to say, it has no obligation whatsoever to accept Assembly proposals.

  20.  I am not advocating some sort of vast, regional bureaucracy which attempts to manage every aspect of the regional economy etc. Most of the Quangos are doing useful work which would still have to be done regardless of the command structure. What I am advocating is a single "umbrella" organisation with the powers to make integrated strategic decisions for the region—the broad picture—and identify major developments with a regional impact. The simplest way to do this is for the Assembly (if that is truly to be what it was intended to be) to have the power to approve the budgets and business plans of all the Quangos in the region, as now happens in Scotland and Wales. This would give the Assembly the "tools to do the job", without creating a new bureaucracy. Some post-holders would transfer from the Quangos to the Assembly, but the Assembly would remain a relatively small, streamlined body concerned with strategic planning.

  21.  At the same time, I would expect to see a large reduction in the number of Quango Board members, which I estimate to be in the region of 1,500 in the North East. With strategic decision-making in the hands of a single, over-arching body, there would not be the need for "public representation" in the form of Board members appointed by government for every Quango. In any case, the appointment of regional Quango Board members by government ministers is profoundly undemocratic. To the best of my knowledge, only one of the region's approximate 1,500 Quango appointees is a Liberal Democrat (recently appointed), despite the LibDems being the second largest party in the region, both in terms of elected councillors and total vote at the last general election.

  22.  The main benefit of having a single decision-making body would be to streamline decision-making and avoid duplication, mutually-adverse and counter-productive decisions, and the present waste of time, effort and money with each of the region's 100-plus Quangos trying to make sense of the confusing "spider's web" of communication paths. The numbers of regional reports and regional strategy documents would be reduced—each regional report would be part of a whole, a truly integrated regional strategy as was envisaged in the 2002 White Paper.


  23.  Potential for increasing accountability of decision-making at regional and sub-regional level: at regional level, this could only be done by the Regional Assemblies, as they are the only regional bodies with a democratic mandate and representation from the wider community. At sub-regional level, in the case of the North East this is already in place with four sub-regions covering the whole of the region.

  24.  Potential for devolution of powers from regional to local level: this would only make sense in the context of abolishing the present "two-tier" system of local government and having all-Unitary authorities. Having been a member of both County and District Councils, I can vouch for the inefficiency of the two-tier system and the confusion it causes in the minds of the public. The sooner it is abolished the better.

  25.  Effectiveness of current arrangements for managing services: I do not see regional government as the right level to "manage services", except where it can be shown that a regional service will be better. If it is determined that the Police and Fire & Rescue services, for example, are best run at regional level, I would not wish to see any single regional body running them directly. Rather, the single regional body should have power over strategic planning decisions, with separate democratic arrangements for each service. With Health, for example, recognising that the North East has some of the worst health factors in the UK, it would make sense for the single regional body to agree overall priorities while not being involved in service delivery and management.

  26.  The potential for new arrangements: outlined above.

  27.  City Regions: while I agree that the cities can and should be "engines for growth" and I fully support the efforts of cities to revitalise their inner city areas, I would caution against setting up "yet another tier" of City Regions. Not only would this clash with existing and future overall regional arrangements, it would tend to concentrate resources within the cities at the expense of the rest of the region. Cities already have a built-in advantage through having concentrated populations and the consequent economies of scale, as opposed to the difficulties of sparsely-populated areas (of which I have had a great deal of experience). With most funding being on a "per capita" basis, the rural and semi-rural areas need their own additional, dedicated sources of funding.

  28.  Peripheral town and cities: dealt with above.

  29.  The desirability of closer inter-regional co-operation: this should be done, but only in those areas where it makes sense. For example, in trade and economic development abroad, it does not make sense for each region to "do its own thing." I am all for sharing resources in promoting the regions in the EU and in the wider world. On centres of excellence, it is simply not possible for every region to have one of every kind: it makes sense for two or more regions to join together in promoting these rare and expensive, but very necessary, beacons for the future.

  30.  The Northern Way: as someone who has always striven to make things work, as well as promoting better arrangements, I find too much rhetoric, much of it unhelpful, in the "Northern Way". In particular, talk of a "Linear City" from coast to coast, a highly dubious "social engineering" concept with hugely damaging environmental and social implications.

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