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

Memorandum by Local Government Association (LGA) (RG 36)


  1.  The Local Government Association (LGA) promotes the interests of English and Welsh local authorities—a total of just under 500 authorities. These represent over 50 million people and spend around £74 billion a year on local services.

  2.  We believe that a bold and ambitious devolution of power from central government to local councils will improve the lives of local people and their communities. The government has proposed a "deal for devolution"—power released from the centre in exchange for stronger local accountability—we are working to make this change a reality.

The LGA's six questions

  3.  Set out below are six questions that we believe should be asked of any government proposals that emerge as a result of the current debate about city regions. They are not meant to be empirically based or comprehensive, but to act as a benchmark to ensure that the concerns outlined in this paper have been addressed.

    1.    Do the proposals represent the devolution of powers from the national or regional level?

    2.    Are the appropriate powers being devolved to improve the competitiveness of the sub-region?

    3.    Would the proposals benefit all areas of the sub-region affected and involve all the authorities affected in the decision making process?

    4.    Do they allow existing partnerships to be built on or allow partnerships to be built from the bottom up to reflect local circumstances?

    5.    Would they weaken democratic accountability in the sub-region?

    6.    Would the proposals contribute to the sustainable development of the region?

  4.  There is little doubt that current regional arrangements in the public sector are typified by confusion and uncertainty. This confusion was brought into stark relief by the government's decision in 2004 to suspend its planned referendums in the North West and Yorkshire and Humberside on directly elected regional assemblies and the unexpectedly heavy defeat for a proposal in the North East in October 2004.

  5.  Since the failure of the vote for a directly-elected regional assembly in the North East a vacuum has emerged over possible future directions for regional policy in England. While the government has a "blueprint" in chapter 2 of the 2002 White Paper "Your Region, Your Choice", the situation remains in flux. Government Regional Offices are currently under review and doubts continue over the capacity of voluntary Regional Assemblies to carry out their roles such as scrutiny of the Regional Development Agency (RDA) and strategy formulation as effectively as possible. The impact of the rapidly emerging City Regions debate on existing regional bodies such as Regional Development Agencies is as yet unknown.

  6.  The LGA believes that the current situation, which involves a plethora of regional Non-Departmental Public Bodies (NDPBs) and quangos which are unaccountable to the region, is unsustainable in the long-term. The only element of indirect regional accountability is offered by the Regional Assemblies which themselves lack the capacity and resources to make full use of their role in strategy-making and scrutinising regional quangos.

  7.  In 2003 the LGA commissioned the University of Birmingham to undertake research on the government's Chapter 2 proposals.[43] The report concluded that in terms of scrutiny, there is a need to strengthen the accountability of quangos, policies and programmes in the regions. Realisation that local authorities acting individually have little prospect of effective scrutiny of the regional quango state suggests that greater emphasis should be placed on working effectively through the regional assemblies. The LGA is awaiting the results of the current Audit Commission study on the effectiveness of regional assemblies with interest.

  8.  Chapter two of the "Your Region, Your Choice" white paper confirmed the role of the regional assemblies in scrutinising RDAs but offered no additional powers to deliver this. The LGA considers that this is one area where regional assemblies could play a more significant role that they have in the past. At present, the scrutiny of regional quangos is largely through government Ministers to Parliament. In future, the regional assemblies could take on this role and could also have a role in scrutinising regional public bodies other than the RDAs. Therefore, in terms of strengthening regional accountability and increasing devolution the LGA considers that the capacity of Regional Assemblies should be enhanced to allow them to play a much stronger role in scrutinising the whole range of regional quangos and NDPBs and in formulating an overarching "sustainability strategy" that could serve to integrate the activities of the various public bodies at regional level.

The potential for devolution of powers from the regional to the local level

  9.  It is vital that no shift upwards of powers or responsibilities which are currently managed at the local level occurs. The LGA strongly believes that power needs to be exercised at a level as close as is possible to those affected. Regional organisations must recognise the abilities and experience of local government and must be prepared to trust local level arrangements when these are most appropriate.

  10.  The LGA continues to work enthusiastically with the government on the development and roll out of Local Area Agreements as a potential way of devolving greater control of funding streams to local authorities and their partners. The principle of devolution must also apply to the way regional bodies work with local authorities. Local authorities have much to offer regional bodies in terms of delivery experience, capacity and innovation, flexibility and ability to manage change. Local authorities have the ability to represent local community concerns and opinions, are democratically accountable and are therefore in a legitimate position to make decisions on behalf of those they represent. Linked to this is the ability to draw existing local communities and sub-regional networks into regional agendas.

  11.  The LGA has welcomed the decision by some regional bodies, including several RDAs, to devolve decision-making on a proportion of their funding to the sub-regional level and considers that there is potential for such devolution to be replicated across England eg through expansion of the concept of `joint investment frameworks' whereby a number of regional and sub-regional public agencies align or pool their funding streams.

The potential for new arrangements, particularly the establishment of city regions and the impact which new regional and sub-regional arrangements, such as city regions, might have upon peripheral towns and cities.

  12.  In our manifesto the next four years: the future is local we identified "a thriving and sustainable local economy" as an aspiration for every council. We want to see all local communities benefiting from policies to improve their local economy. This applies as much to smaller towns and cities and rural hinterlands as to the big regional cities. While the LGA welcomes the thrust of the current debate surrounding devolution of powers and freedoms to cities, it is crucial that any proposals should benefit communities in all areas.

  13.  There is a current debate about the concept of the "city region" that emphasises the importance of policy-making and planning at a level that recognises the economic realities of where people live, learn, work and shop. The theory is that policies to promote growth, enterprise and employment need to be made at a level that makes sense in economic terms, which reflects the reality of the way markets work. So travel to work areas, retail catchment areas and the way that supply chains work are more important than administrative boundaries.

  14.  However, reflecting the reality of people's lives means that the boundaries of city regions are fuzzy and cannot be fixed with any certainty. For example, some people may be in different city regions for different purposes—shopping at a local centre, commuting long distances to work and going to a different town for cultural and entertainment purposes. And some places may fall in more than one city region—for example Barnsley is involved in partnerships in both the Leeds and Sheffield city regions.

  15.  And many, perhaps the majority, of places do not fit neatly into the classic concept of a city region with a large core city at its heart. Some sub-regions have no identifiable core city, but rather a cluster or network of smaller towns and cities. Some areas, for example the counties surrounding London, do not contain towns with more than 125,000 inhabitants within one council boundary (the government's definition of a "principal urban area"), but have their own local economy. And in very rural and peripheral areas the city region concept may have little resonance, but these areas also have local economies that make an important contribution to the national and regional economy and would benefit from policies that better reflect the realities of local markets.

  16.  There is also a worry that even in the areas with a readily identifiable city region the promotion of city regions will concentrate attention on the urban core and neglect the needs and aspirations of the wider region, including smaller towns and cities and suburban and rural areas. These are the places in which the majority of people live. It is vital that any discussion about city regions does not just become a discussion about devolving powers to the councils in our biggest cities but addresses the economic needs of all our communities.

  17.  Finally, the concept of city regions is often framed in exclusively economic terms, concentrating on a city's "economic footprint". But towns and cities are not one-dimensional, mechanistic economic drivers but places where people live their lives along with their families, friends and colleagues. Any policy seeking to promote the vitality of our urban areas must also take into account their social and environmental footprints. Promoting social and cultural vitality and environmental sustainability are vital in creating successful towns and cities.

Spreading the benefits of town and city centre renewal

  18.  To make sure that all communities benefit from urban renewal the LGA commissioned an enquiry jointly with the Special Interest Group of Municipal Authorities (SIGOMA) on "Spreading the benefits of town and city centre renewal". The research looks at how the benefits of urban renewal of the big cities could be spread to benefit all urban areas, including suburbs, "second tier" towns and the wider region.

  19.  It finds that investing all our efforts in the centres of the biggest cities and relying on a "trickle down" of benefits to other areas will not work—it risks creating a "winner takes all" approach. What is needed is a proactive approach at the local, regional and national level to make sure that all areas benefit from urban renewal and that all urban centres participate in the urban renaissance.

20.  A summary of the findings our research is attached to this evidence, but the most important conclusions in terms of the current debate are that:

    —  We should not see our town and cities as a hierarchy, with the biggest cities at the top of the pyramid, but rather as a network of interconnected urban centres, each with a distinctive economic role to play and contribution to make.

    —  The keys to thriving urban centres are liveability, connectivity and productivity. The most successful towns and cities have already demonstrated the importance of vibrant centres and they now need more powers and resources to improve connectivity and productivity. All urban centres would benefit from this approach.

    —  The key to success is local leadership and strong partnerships between authorities and their social and economic partners at the local and sub-regional level. These partnerships have evolved to meet specific needs and reflect local circumstances. There is no appetite for top-down prescription or administrative reorganisation.

    —  Access to adequate resources is vital and competitive bidding and time limited funding undermines long-term partnership working. Local councils and their partners need to be given incentives to promote their urban centres and this will include benefiting from the increased property values associated with successful economic development and regeneration.

The LGA view

  21.  The LGA believes that all local communities would benefit from a greater devolution of powers over economic development to the appropriate level. This devolution has to be to accountable local councils and not unaccountable quangos. Decisions about the appropriate level should be left to councils and their partners, who are in the best position to know what is required. There should be no central prescription as to the kind of partnerships that councils establish.

  22.  We recognise the value of the "city regions" concept but fear that it is quite an exclusive and does not reflect the reality of the many areas in England that do not have a readily identifiable "core" city. It would be more appropriate to talk about the devolution of powers to sub-regions, which would include city regions, but could also include areas that have different patterns of urban development.

  23.  We believe that ultimately all local councils should have a greater say in decisions made about policies to promote a thriving and sustainable local economy in their areas. But we recognise that some areas are more advanced in their thinking on this and there might be value in piloting a new approach in a limited number of areas. However, it will be important that any pilot takes account of the needs and aspirations of all areas of a sub-region and not just the core urban area. It should also be open to areas that do not conform to the standard "city region" model to participate in any pilot project.

43   The Changing Regional Agenda: Chapter Two, Regional Assemblies and English Regional Governance, Jeffrey, C and Reilly, A (2003) Back

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