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


Memorandum by District of Easington (RG 35)

INTRODUCTION

  1.  Easington District Council is one of seven District Councils in County Durham situated in the North East of England. The District is located along the coastal strip between the more urban centres of Sunderland to the north and Hartlepool to the south and has a population of some 94,000. The economic base for the area was previously associated with coalmining and has been the subject of considerable regeneration activity over the last 10 years to address the economic, social and environmental legacies of the loss of this sector of employment as well employment in the textiles sector. As a consequence of this structural economic change, the district has chronic levels of deprivation and disadvantage and is ranked as the 7th worst district (Rank worst for all shire districts) on the ODPM's IMD 2004.

  2.  The Council has sought to provide a strong leadership capacity to advocate for actions to address the area's regeneration and to provide the communities of Easington with a more certain and sustainable economic future. Through this role the Council has recognised its future prospects will in part be shaped by actively contributing in policy debates at the regional and sub regional levels so as to inform others of the needs of Easington and to also influence their decisions to bring about a positive impact for the communities of Easington. The Council was strongly in favour of the establishment of a Regional Assembly for the North East, but in the light of the Referendum decision has moved on to work with others to deliver and play its part in the agreed "Vision" for the North East of England:

    "the North East will be a region where present and future generations have a high quality of life. It will be a vibrant, self-reliant, ambitious and outward-looking region featuring a dynamic economy, a healthy environment and a distinctive culture. Everyone will have the opportunity to realise his or her full potential."

  3.  The Council welcomes the Select Committee's Inquiry at a time of debate and change around public service structures and governance arrangements at the regional level and the emergence of the City Region concept as means to achieve greater economic performance and productivity for the Northern Regions with resultant greater prosperity for our communities. However the Council would through its evidence to the Committee invite it to carefully examine the economic case for, and how, City Regions might be used as a policy tool to become the driving force for economic development and the consequences and implications of this for Local Government in terms of strategic relationships between various elements of government at the regional level; democratic accountability; and relationship to the neighbourhood level agenda.

  4.  In summary the Council's view is that any regional or city region structure should add value, deliver improved outcomes for local communities and assist the delivery of an improved quality of life and better prospect for the next generation. This should however be underpinned by a strong local authority involvement and engagement in associated decision making process as well as review to ensure delivery accountability and democratic accountability.

GENERAL PRINCIPLES

  5.  Easington Council would argue that within any framework of regional, sub regional or City Region based arrangements for the governance of public policy decision making there should be:

    —  A strong role for the local authority sector to maintain democratic accountability and to allow for local representation on strategic issues. The Council believes Local Authorities are uniquely placed to provide the accountable local leadership to assist the translation of regional/sub regional policy frameworks into local delivery arrangements to achieve the desired outcomes set within wider spatial and partnership arrangements.

    —  Appropriate partnership structures to permit firstly, agreed goals determined jointly by users and delivers of public services to achieve more tailored and responsive services. The potential within Local Strategic Partnerships to achieve this should be maximised. Secondly, for other governmental organisations (such as Regional Government Offices, Regional Development Agencies and Regional Learning and Skills Councils for example) there should be a strong scrutiny role for the local authority sector to maintain an effective degree of accountability to local people for their decisions and actions taken on behalf of those communities.

    —  An inclusive approach to any governance or partnership arrangements so that all interests are appropriately represented and there are open and transparent consultative and decision making arrangements that are firmly evidenced based. Experience of the current arrangements for the above within regions is that too often the time for effective consultation and deliberation on policy options is curtailed and as a result is often concentrated amongst a few limited regional stakeholders. This is seen as detrimental to effective regionally owned policy formulation and decision making and is unsustainable if real change is to be delivered through a shared and consensus based approach towards prioritisation of critical strategic interventions.

TREND TOWARDS REGIONALISATION

  6.  Post the North East Referendum there has been a strong re-organisational shift towards more sub regional and regional level structures, as the Committee will be aware, evidenced by proposals within the North East for changes to Regional Health Authorities (and Primary Care Trusts), Police Authorities, Learning and Skills Councils, Job Centre Plus. This serves to widen the gap between strategic decision making and local communities. In the Council's view this "gap" must be lessened through appropriate representational and consultative arrangements with local authorities.

  7.  The Council therefore feels that such arrangements need to be complemented and underpinned by appropriate locality arrangements so that regionally directed services are responsive to locality needs and can be connected to local communities in an effective and joined up way. Local Strategic Partnerships supported by Local Authorities as "advocative" community leaders need to be clearly given this role as part of the arrangements to balance regional governmental structures with local neighbourhood based delivery. This would assist to overcome what the Council believes is a widening democratic deficit, lack of effective accountability for regional governmental organisations and an emerging dislocation of policy development and service commissioning form local community needs, requirements and indeed aspirations—all critical factors for a healthy and vibrant democratic system.

  8.  In part, as a response to dealing with critical policy issues at a greater spatial scale than an individual local authority area a greater use of sub regional partnership arrangements has emerged and come into play. One NorthEast with their decision to devolve 75% of their budgets to Sub Regional Partnerships is a welcomed approach. However in the Council's view this essentially financial allocation delegation needs to be accompanied by greater subsidarity in decision making to engender greater ownership for decision and to permit local resolution to difficult issues of prioritisation and the resultant hard choices. At present there is a too heavy control of decision making by the introduction of policy "musts" and low levels of delegation on actual decision making. However it is accepted that in order for regional level objectives and priorities to be delivered some degree of policy direction is needed. This would however be better achieved by the development of an agreed policy framework with specified outcomes within which any sub regional partnership or arrangement of local authorities would have to operate, but how the required targets and outcomes linked to achievement of regional goals are delivered should be left far more for to local determination through discussion and challenge. Such a process will engender stronger partnerships and ownership of the process of change than a more top down directional approach.

  9.  The second round of Pilot Local Area Agreements in which County Durham is engaged should help to further test the notion of effective sub regional working and the Council welcomes the ODPM's commitment to let local authorities in consultation with key service partners determine their own future priorities and targets for certain improved key public services outcomes. The Council feel that this working at a sub regional level needs to be driven by local priorities and choices responsive to community aspirations and needs and solely determined around centrally imposed must dos. The Council however feels the opportunity was not seized by the ODPM in looking for new ways of working with local communities across districts the trialling of a sub county level Local Area Agreement model in County Durham.

CITY REGIONS—THE CONCEPT

  10.  City Regions has emerged as the new preferred methodology or policy framework to govern economic development within regions. Based on the principal that 90% of the population of the Northern Way live within the eight defined city regions and that these areas account for 90% of the North's economic activity. The policy drive has shifted to the promotion of city regions and indeed core cities. It does however run a risk of marginalising the mix of medium sized urban communities and rural areas that characterise County Durham.

  11.  The Council is concerned that the emerging economic policy analysis based around the concept of City Regions as drivers of economic growth is often some what simply translated into a categorisation of core urban centres and conurbations as city regions and the remainder within the sphere of economic influence of a city region are rural areas and some how their needs are subservient to the promote of city centric economic growth. This approach has major implications for access to employment and services, commuting distances and environmental sustainability and the future of less attractive market locations that can often have more disadvantaged neighbourhood with poor connectivity and public transport.

  12.  The City Region concept is however based on "real world" observations of economic patterns of activity and flows that extend over greater areas than the metropolitan/conurbation boundaries. The Council would argue that the City Region concept should be:

    —  Recognised as an "area" based on economic analysis representing flows of economic activity (labour markets, travel to work areas etc) and not an administrative area linked to metropolitan authorities.

    —  The extent of a city region will change over time as economic patterns change.

    —  Seen as being substantially more than a focus on the needs of the core city within a city region.

    In the case of the Tyne and Wear City Region Area (within which Easington District is situated) this should be more correctly seen as a "polynuclear" as opposed to a "polycentric" city region area, comprising a number of economic centres, though acknowledging amongst these component centres there is a hierarchy of centres. Each of the centres offers a contribution to the economic well being of the overall City Region area. This city region scale of economic influence includes core urban centres, inner city areas, outer suburbs, small and medium sized towns, as well as more outer lying rural areas. All of these centres contribute to the economic performance to some degree of the city region, and all have an interrelationship and interdependence with each other.

  13.  The relationship between urban and rural should be seen as a continuum and the focus should be on the interrelationship between threes areas core urban centres—urban towns—rural areas rather than being portrayed a separate and distinct policy areas. As a consequence of the above, there is a risk in the Council's opinion that the City Region concept could be implemented in a way that underplays key issues linked with economic development related to connectivity between communities and centres of economic activity, accessibility and housing market issues in terms of spatial extent, low demand, affordability and the promotion of sustainable communities in these wider range of settlement areas in different spatial setting within and adjacent to a City Region area.

  14.  As an example of this interrelationship between intra city region parts, is the issue of the regeneration of former coalfield areas, a key ODPM policy priority. In the case of Easington at the heart of the former East Durham Coalfield, the area is situated within the economic labour market of Tyne and Wear and the economic regeneration of the area is positively contributing to the region's economic performance as research by the Coalfield Communities Campaign has demonstrated.

  15.  The ambition for the Region should not be to focus all growth in the main core urban centres at the expense of other locations and to maximise their accepted growth potential by at the same time disenfranchise the less economically attractive locations. It should not be about accelerating economic growth in urban centres by de-accelerating economic investment elsewhere. The policy framework under a City Region approach should support economic investment in appropriate locations. To do otherwise, such as having a solely core urban growth led policy approach would lead to a widen gap between economically attractive areas and the most disadvantaged communities.

  16.  To achieve an economically successful region there is a need to ensure that the economic latent potential of all the communities within a city region area is maximised and this has to include the small and medium sized communities such as those in County Durham that economically have a relationship to the either the Tyne and Wear City Region or the Tees Valley City Region.

  17.  The Council therefore on this basis supports the contention that there are a number of activities that are best co-ordinated at a City Region scale such as strategic economic development and regeneration, spatial planning and transport, housing and skills development. These policy areas are seen to require effective co-ordination if the economic performance of the Northern Regions is to be improved in line with the goals of the Northern Way Growth Strategy and to help close the £30 billion productivity gap.

  18.  However, such arrangements need to be inclusive if the economic contribution that can be played by all areas is to be effectively harnessed. Decisions taken at a city region scale should add value to policy delivery in local communities and take place within the context of a whole region approach so that the relationship to remoter urban and rural areas is articulated. The City Region implications and relationship with other regional arrangements and organisations such as the Regional Development Agencies and Regional Learning and Skills Councils for example also need to be clearly expressed. In all of this, the principle of decisions being taken at the right level for the issue and subsidiary should be applied and local authorities need to be, and should be effectively engaged at each level.

CITY REGIONS—GOVERNANCE AND NEIGHBOURHOOD RENEWAL

  19.  In taking the city region approach forward there will need to be due attention given to related issues of governance models and the relationship of a city region approach to the policy agenda for neighbourhoods and local delivery. In respect to governance it is the Council's view that this needs to be firmly embedded with local authorities but also inclusive of other key regional stakeholders. There should also be appropriate representation for all local authority areas with an interest in the economic well being of a City Region area and not one whereby the urban centre authorities are placed in a position that can lead to the more peripheral areas such as District Councils being seen as having a more subservient or secondary role in respect to leadership and direction, decision making and partnership working. Leaders of District Councils are able to equally contribute effectively to a process of leading a city region based "economic"' growth programme.

  20.  Implementation of the City Region agenda should though be advanced in partnership with the ODPM's commitment to local delivery and neighbourhood renewal. In this way city region scale issues will remain at the right spatial level and indeed could assist to set clear priorities within which neighbourhood renewal can be advanced as well as ensuring strategic investment is connected with, and benefits the more disadvantage communities within a city region area. It should also ensure more strategic decisions are taken in ways that are responsive to local delivery local and neighbourhood based and community owned solutions.





 
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