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

Memorandum by Barnsley Metropolitan Borough Council (RG 34)


  1.  Questions of governance need to be tackled holistically rather than piecemeal. There should therefore be a review of governance arrangements leading to a new constitutional settlement.

  2.  The review needs to:

    —  be comprehensive, covering all levels of government and all types of institutions;

    —  be honest and open;

    —  be independent; and

    —  take the time it needs.

  3.  The new settlement should conform to certain principles:

    —  subsidiarity, with decisions made at the lowest appropriate level;

    —  devolution of spending, subject to a competence test;

    —  form should follow function in deciding the size and shape of institutions;

    —  accountability and democratic legitimacy;

    —  encouragement of partnership working between institutions; and

    —  quality services and efficiency.


  1.  Barnsley is a borough of some 218,000 people. It lies within the South Yorkshire sub-region of the Yorkshire & Humber region in England.

  2.  Barnsley Metropolitan Borough Council is the area's unitary local authority.

  3.  Barnsley takes as lively an interest as anybody in questions of regional arrangements, not least because of its location in both the Sheffield and Leeds City Regions.

Our starting point—a new constitutional settlement

  4.  The issue of regional government cannot be considered in isolation. Governance arrangements at one spatial level are inextricably bound up with the governance arrangements for the spatial levels above and below it.

  5.  The recent past has seen substantial change in governance arrangements and related policy approaches at various levels, including:

    —  the creation of Regional Chambers;

    —  the creation of Regional Development Agencies;

    —  limited devolution of spending to regions;

    —  the creation of Local Strategic Partnerships;

    —  changes to local government powers and duties;

    —  changes to Agencies and Non-departmental government departments;

    —  the Northern Way Growth Strategy (and parallels elsewhere); and

    —  the development of city region theory and practice.

  6.  The near future promises further change.

    —  Ten year vision for local government.

    —  The "neighbourhoods" agenda.

    —  A proposed White Paper on local government.

    —  A proposed White Paper on cities and city regions.

    —  The forthcoming report by Sir Michael Lyons into local government functions and funding.

  7.  All of these and more have impacted or will impact on decision making at the regional level. Addressing one or several of these without reference to the others can at best produce partial solutions, and at worst it risks either shifting problems from one place to another, or replacing one problem with another.

  8.  We therefore believe that what is needed is a comprehensive review of governance, leading to a new constitutional settlement. We further believe that that review and the new settlement should conform to a number of fundamental principles. These are set out in the next two sections.

Fundamental principles of the form of a review of governance

  9.  The review should cover governance at every level, from neighbourhoods to national. It should cover all forms of public administration, including local and national government bodies, non-departmental public bodies, quangos, qualgos and voluntary associations such as Regional Chambers.

  10.  Any review must be conducted in an open and honest way. Politicians and officials must be willing to consider new arrangements, and must not seek to hold on to power for its own sake.

  11.  In practice this almost certainly means that the review will have to be conducted in a way which assures its independence. Although not recently fashionable, one possibility might be a Royal Commission—though other formats can also easily be envisaged.

  12.  We acknowledge that such a wide ranging review will take time. But we believe that it is better to be right slowly than wrong quickly. Continuing to implement piecemeal reforms from above risks deepening the widespread disengagement of citizens from the political process.

Fundamental principles of a new constitutional settlement

  13.  Government should always be conducted as near to people as is possible. The starting assumption should be that all decisions are made at the neighbourhood level, with decision-making powers being devolved upwards—but only where this is more appropriate to the matters in hand.

  14.  Alongside this devolution in decision making goes devolution in spending. Subject to proving their competence, public bodies should enjoy substantial freedoms and flexibilities to allow them to respond to local needs and wishes, and to deliver services in innovative ways.

  15.  Form should follow function. Sensible decisions on the size and shape of governance structures can only be made when there is clarity about the roles and responsibilities assigned to each level.

  16.  Bodies need to be accountable to the people they serve, with a democratic mandate to make decisions on their behalf. This does not always or necessarily require a direct democratic mandate—there is certainly a role for indirect accountability—though there should perhaps be a presumption in favour of direct accountability. But in all cases some form of legitimisation is required to retain people's trust and engagement in the political process.

  17.  Flexibility must be built in to the system. Whatever structures are put in place, there will always be a need for more informal partnership working arrangements to join them up for certain purposes. Bodies need to have both the power and the duty to co-operate where it is appropriate.

  18.  Bodies must deliver quality services efficiently, and they should be designed in the way most suitable to do that. All the principles above will contribute to achieving the dual ambitions of quality and cost-effectiveness.

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