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


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.

OUR MAIN PRINCIPLES FOR THIS ENQUIRY

  1.  Despite the result of the regional referendum in November 2004, we believe England would be better governed by:

    —  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.

INTRODUCTION

  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.

INCREASING THE ACCOUNTABILITY OF DECISION-MAKING AT THE REGIONAL AND SUB-REGIONAL LEVEL

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 accountability include:

    —  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.

THE POTENTIAL FOR DEVOLUTION FROM REGIONAL TO LOCAL LEVEL

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.

EFFECTIVENESS OF CURRENT ARRANGEMENTS FOR MANAGING SERVICES AT THE VARIOUS LEVELS AND THEIR INTER-RELATIONSHIPS

Key message: partnerships have both benefits and limitations

  14.  There are a range of problems with the current arrangements:

    —  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 local difference.

    —  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.

THE POTENTIAL FOR NEW ARRANGEMENTS PARTICULARLY CITY REGIONS

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 government.

  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.

IMPACT OF CITY REGIONS ON PERIPHERAL TOWNS AND CITIES

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.

CLOSER INTER-REGIONAL CO-OPERATION TO TACKLE ECONOMIC DISPARITIES

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.



 
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