Memorandum by The Local Government Information
Unit (LGIU) (RG 43)
The Local Government Information Unit is an
independent policy and research organisation that provides an
information, advice, training and lobbying service to its local
authority and trade union members. The LGIU celebrates the strengths
of local democracy and advances the case for greater powers, discretions
and financial freedoms for local government.
1. Despite the result of the regional referendum
in November 2004, we believe England would be better governed
Increased decentralisation and democratisation
of services currently provided by central government, its agencies
and quangos. Democratisation now needs to be based on local government,
in various configurations. Other democratic representatives, MPs
and MEPs need to work together in new ways creating a voice for
the places they represent. This would also reduce the public sense
of alienation from national politics.
Sustained or increased subsidiarity
in service provision. Real problems, such as economic inequality,
or sustainability, require flexible, responsive and joined up
working by public services. This can only be achieved by working
at a more local level than at present. This would provide better
outcomes on issues of concern to the government.
Government needs capacity to tailor
national policies to the interests of different regions, and some
of the steps taken by government are a welcome recognition of
this. However, the government should not use this to control local
decisions and services.
Any new arrangements, such as city
regions, should build local democratic capacity and should not
remove any service areas or functions (eg housing, transport planning)
from local democratic control. Different geographies may need
different structures of local and regional/sub-regional government.
2. For several years in the lead up to the
referendum in the North East in November 2004, LGIU was an advocate
of directly elected regional government, as a means to decentralise
and democratise services currently provided by central government,
agencies and quangos. We did extensive work on the implications
for local government of the regional agenda. LGIU's research on
this issue appeared in our publications such as The New Regional
Agenda, The Democratic Region, and Regions That Work. We would
welcome the chance to give oral evidence (or further written evidence)
to the select committee.
3. There will be mixed views about why the
result of the referendum was a "no" vote. However, the
package of powers proposed by government was extremely limited,
and the linkage with local government reorganisation created some
concern and confusion among the public.
4. Since then, central government has made
various changes which strengthen the regional tier. These include
the proposals for greater transparency in budget allocations to
the regions; the partial regionalisation of the fire services;
the possibility of regional police authorities; the increased
role of the Government Offices for the Region, for example in
decision-making on Local Area Agreements, and the implementation
of Regional Spatial Strategies, the development of the Sustainable
Communities Plan, the Northern Way and other strategies of this
type. There has been limited strengthening of the current regional
assemblies, in relation to advising on spatial strategies, housing
strategies and funding. However, the general move has been to
strengthen top-down regional structures. We have characterised
government policy as one of "steered regionalism".
5. This creates greater capacity for government
to implement differentiated policies in the regions, particularly
in relation to the government's PSA target of reducing the gap
in regional economic growth. It will also help to identify where
government actions are not in line with this aim, for example
by being clearer where transport investment is directed.
6. So this greater regional capacity has
advantages. It is however, directed from the centre. There is
extensive international evidence that local and regional capacity
to make decisions and act autonomously is a contributory factor
to regional and city success. Current policy does nothing to strengthen
local and regional democratic capacity. Its success in economic
development terms therefore remains doubtful.
7. Democratic capacity and local self-government
also need to be strengthened if we are to tackle public alienation
from politics and participation. Involvement in very local issues
in neighbourhoods is not enough.
8. From the point of view of local government,
there are concerns. Too much control is exercised from the regional
tier. Local authorities are generally positive about the additional
investment provided by RDAs, and their role in co-ordination.
However, regional bodies such as GORs and RDAs need to be more
responsive to local needs and supportive of local community planning.
The development of sub-regional arrangements, such as the use
of city regions in the Northern Way, should not be a tool to increase
control over local decisions. Local authorities are seeking to
influence their sub-region or city region, their region and national
government. This is complex, particularly for citizens, and for
community, voluntary and private organisations who may seek to
influence public policy and decision-making.
Key message: support a local government led approach
9. There is a need to increase accountability
but we would like to see the evidence that the government does
really wish to do this.
10. Options to increase regional and sub-regional
Implement elected regional government:
we assume this is off the agenda for a long time.
Decentralise direct to local government,
discussed in the next section.
Decentralise to groupings of local
government. In the current debate about the role and powers of
the core cities, some councils have put forward the idea of executive
board of leaders, for example the 10 leaders of metropolitan councils
in Greater Manchester. A Passenger Transport Authority type model
is an alternative.
Create new democratic structures
in limited areas, for example conurbations.
Strengthen regional chambers to become
a more high profile regional parliament, for example giving powers
from the Secretaries of State, to determine the RSS, to allocate
housing funding, to scrutinise regional investment and the GOR,
not just to advise.
Require the Government Offices for
the Regions to work in a more open way, for example more partnership
work, access to information requirements and meetings open to
the press and public, more subject to scrutiny.
11. It would be useful for Members of Parliament
to consider their own role in increasing regional representation.
One of the responses made by some voters in the north east referendum
to the argument that regional government would give the region
a voice, was that they already had many MPs, MEPs, councils and
councillors, and where were these in providing a voice for the
region? Engagement of MPs and MEPs in regional assemblies (chambers)
particularly in strategy development debates, and some kind of
voice for each region in parliament could be considered.
Key message: We believe there is great scope for
this, and would advocate devolution to local government, and not
to non-elected bodies
12. In some cases services could be devolved
to counties, or unitary authorities, and there should be a systematic
review of this. Services which should be considered include: Learning
and Skills, some transport functions, some rural development functions
(continuing the work of the Haskins review), activities of the
current regions of the Arts Council and the Sports Council, some
English Heritage functions. Some of the work of the Government
Offices for the Regions involves excessive control of local government,
and Local Area Agreements should not be extended to give greater
control over councils and LSPs to regional civil servants.
13. It is important that all government
departments are involved in consistent support for decentralisation.
This is not happening at present, with the possible move to 15
police authorities, some regionalisation of fire authority functions,
and changes to probation.
Key message: partnerships have both benefits and
14. There are a range of problems with the
Over centralisation: too much is
controlled from the centre, and in reality the mechanisms to do
this are bureaucratic, stifle initiative and are insensitive to
Fragmentation into single-function
agencies and departments which do not work together.
Boundaries: Lack of co-terminosity,
including definition of sub-regions inhibits co-ordination.
Governance and accountability: Top
down decision-making makes sensitive area level work difficult.
For example an executive agency such as the Highways Agency has
limited scope to make decisions about transport priorities within
a county, sub-region or region because its accountability is to
a national department. Even more decentralised structures such
as RDAs are driven by nationally determined targets.
Uncritical reliance on partnerships:
the proliferation of partnerships is extreme, and the limitations
of this approach, as well as the potential benefits, must be acknowledged.
Ensuring effective links between partnerships representing different
tiers or geographical levels raises particular difficulty. For
example someone from a local strategic partnership (who might
be in fact from the Primary Care Trust or similar) is expected
to represent the LSP and all the services within it on a sub-regional
partnership contributing to the spatial or economic strategy.
In reality, he/she may have neither the knowledge or the authority
to do this effectively.
Key message: City regions are not a concept which
can usefully be applied everywhere, but decentralisation should
be available to all
15. Given the problem of over-centralisation,
giving powers to city-regions and sub-regions, (probably represented
by partnerships of local authorities), would be a benefit. These
should not be new quangos, and should not take powers from local
16. In some places, city regions are already
a reality. For example in Greater Manchester, there is an overarching
strategy agreed by all the councils, the universities, the PTA,
the police authority, the universities, the LSC, the strategic
health authority, Connexions, the fire authority, and the waste
disposal authority. Clearly, some of these public institutions
are city regional institutions.
17. City regions are not a concept which
can be applied everywhere. However, for strategy development,
there may be a need to define consistent sub-regions within the
standard English regions.
18. The scope to develop city regional partnerships
is most apparent in the former metropolitan counties, building
on what already exists. If we consider other major cities outside
London, in one case, Bristol, the former county of Avon is broadly
a city region of four unitary authorities. Others, such as Leicester
or Nottingham, are often unitary authorities within an otherwise
two-tier county. Some quite major cities, such as Norwich, or
Northampton, are district councils within two-tier counties. Frequently
the conurbation extends beyond long established city boundaries.
Research on extending city boundaries for the 1990s Local Government
Commission indicated this would be unpopular with the public in
suburbs. It would often leave a surrounding fringe of very small
districts. County-wide partnerships linking rural and urban needs
may be more effective. However, the fact that cities like Leicester,
Oxford, Derby, Norwich (the classic county towns) provide and
pay for facilities which are used by a wider, and often more affluent,
suburban and county population, needs to be addressed.
19. We would support the government if it
put forward proposals for devolution of powers to the metropolitan
areas initially. This could be followed at a later stage by opportunities
to extend devolution of powers to other sub-regional or county
partnership arrangements. This (or any reorganisation of local
government) should not be used to move powers from local government
to a larger and more distant tier.
20. Transport investment appears to be one
of the most fundamental issues for conurbations and simply to
build on the powers, including financial powers, of the current
PTAs would help.
Key message: democratic structures will ensure
equal representation of whole area
21. This is of concern to some authorities
who might be defined as "hinterland" or who are located
between two major cities or city regions. Arrangements should
represent the whole conurbation equally, and resource distribution
should be allocated by the area concerned. There should not be
too much reliance on a "regional capital". A fair and
democratic distribution of power is most likely to give all areas
an equal voice.
Key message: more important is how all government
decision-making impacts on this goal
22. If agencies find interregional co-operation
useful then they should be free to work together. However, the
Northern Way appears to have been developed primarily in response
to criticisms of the resources being put into the affluent southern
counties under the Sustainable Communities Plan. The English regions
are already large, as is shown by the extensive sub-regional working,
and the pressure to create city regions. Regions and sub-regions
should not have to work at a larger level in order to access resources.
It also shouldn't be necessary for a group of quangos (which RDAs
are) to lobby government to implement its own stated policy of
reducing regional disparities.
23. It is not clear to us that agencies
lack the power to enter into co-operative arrangements where they
judge these to be useful, so this is not a priority for government
action. It would be more useful if the government strengthened
its own mechanisms for ensuring its own decision-making (on this
and on other overarching priorities such as sustainability, or
tackling poverty) promoted its stated aims, across all government
departments and agencies.