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


Memorandum by the Forum for the Future (RG 45)

KEY POINTS

1.  Accountability

  Junior ministers across Departments should be given an additional spatial responsibility for individual regions.

2.  Accountabilty

  A reformed House of Lords should include elected representatives from the regions to champion regional issues.

3.  Simplification of arrangements

  Make the delivery of sustainable development the primary focus of the RDAs with the Regional Assemblies responsible for their scrutiny. Review the effectiveness and remit of sub-regional bodies in line with proposed changes to RDAs.

4.  Strategies

  Each region should have one overall statutory plan that includes a vision for the region and sustainable development objectives. This would provide a clear direction and align key delivery strategies such as the economic and spatial strategies.

5.  City-regions

  Existing structures and organisations have made good progress and need time to mature. Review how cities are governed whilst maintaining existing regional structures.

6.  National responsibilities

  Clarify and improve the responsibilities for regions within national departments.

7.  PSA targets

  Include strong PSA targets for Sustainable Development for the Regional Development Agencies.

1.  THE POTENTIAL FOR INCREASING THE ACCOUNTABILITY OF DECISION MAKERS AT THE REGIONAL AND SUB-REGIONAL LEVEL, AND THE NEED TO SIMPLIFY EXISTING ARRANGEMENT

Accountability

  1.1  The "no" vote in the north east devolution referendum means that a mandate for democratically elected regions is unlikely for sometime.

  1.2  Given this situation, one solution would be to have a Minister with special responsibility for each region to whom the regional institutions would report. This spatial responsibility for a region could be combined with the existing portfolios of a number of junior ministers across departments. This would make the Minister accountable for decisions taken in the regions.

  1.3  Another option might be to build in regional democratic accountability into a reformed house of Lords with representation from each region.

Simplification of existing arrangements

  1.4  There is a need to simplify existing arrangements. On the one hand, this is because of the confusion that exists regarding the roles and responsibilities between the different institutions—particularly between the Government Office (GO), Regional Development Agency (RDA) and the Regional Assembly (RA). On the other hand, there is an overlap of responsibility between different institutions with planning responsibilities being shared between the RDA, RA and GO and some scrutiny of the RDA being carried out by both the RA and GO.

  1.5  One solution should be to broaden the remit of the RDAs turning them into Regional Sustainable Development Agencies (RSDAs)—broadening their remit to economic, social and environmental development, with a sustainable development duty as the overall aim. The RA would remain to scrutinise the RDA with the GO's functions divided appropriately between the RDA and RA.

  1.6  The responsibility to deliver regional objectives on the ground would then be cascaded to local authorities for planning and sub-regional bodies for economic objectives—who wield considerable influence over the actual outcomes as many spend up to 50% of the RDAs budget. The ability of the latter varies significantly, dependent on the skills and structures within each body. A review of the effectiveness and remit of these organisations should be undertaken in line with proposed changes to regional organisations.

  1.7  Concordats are currently used to simplify and clarify existing arrangements, and a short review investigating their effectiveness would be worthwhile.

  1.8  Locating the different agencies in the same building (as is the case with SEEDA and SEERA) will undoubtedly help in forging relationships and improving communication between the different organisations.

2.  THE POTENTIAL FOR THE DEVOLUTION OF POWERS FROM THE REGIONAL TO THE LOCAL LEVEL

  2.1  Given the centralised nature of decision making within the UK at present, this question is misplaced. It would be more appropriate to ask about the further devolution of powers from the national to the regional or local level rather than from the regional to the local level. The regional level has limited powers and the two main powers that they have, for spatial planning and economic development, should remain at the regional level, cascading down through the system as at present.

3.  THE EFFECTIVENESS OF CURRENT ARRANGEMENT FOR MANAGING SERVICES AT THE VARIOUS LEVELS, AND THEIR INTER-RELATIONSHIPS

  3.1  There currently exist a wide range of strategies at the regional level with two main statutory documents, the Regional Economic Strategy (RES) and the Regional Spatial Strategy (RSS). An improved arrangement at the regional level could follow the Wales example of having one overall plan for Wales which includes a vision for the region and sustainable development objectives. The spatial and economic strategies sit under this and all contribute towards the overall vision. There needs to be a much stronger sense of how these fit together, along with any other strategies that may be deemed necessary to deliver the full range of sustainable development objectives.

  3.2  At a minimum, the RSDF should become the binding overarching framework for all organisations with targets against which regional institutions are assessed and linked back to the national sustainable development strategy.

4.  THE POTENTIAL FOR NEW ARRANGEMENTS, PARTICULARLY THE ESTABLISHMENT OF CITY REGIONS. THE IMPACT WHICH NEW REGIONAL AND SUB-REGIONAL ARRANGEMENTS, SUCH AS THE CITY REGIONS, MIGHT HAVE ON PERIPHERAL TOWNS AND CITIES

New arrangements

  4.1  Regional organisations are relatively new. With any new structures, particularly at a new level of governance, it takes time to establish and then effectively deliver what is set out. The regional level provides an important strategic overview that cannot be determined at the local level and the regional level has made progress in its delivery of sustainable development. A new arrangement could mean starting from scratch with another long learning period. Quite simply, regional organisations need more time to mature and capitalise on their learning and development to date.

City regions

  4.2  A solely city-region structure across the UK would exclude parts of the UK eg Cumbria from the Northern city-regions, Cornwall and Devon from a Bristol city region. It would not work from an economic perspective to have a city region such as Bristol and then for the remainder of the South West to form a separate region. There is already discontent within the North from areas that do not belong to city regions whilst certain regions have no obvious city-region within them, as with the south east and east of England, so it is unclear what would happen to them.

  4.3  However, it is likely that cities would benefit from one central authority as is the case in Birmingham rather than four separate authorities that exist in the Greater Bristol area. Yet this does not necessarily need to be a city-region, it can be a larger local authority. Specific powers should be further devolved to these cities from the national level.

  4.4  The implications of city regions excluding certain parts of the region and replacing existing regional structures makes it a less attractive option than the current arrangements. However there may be a case for reviewing how existing governance structures of cities could be improved.

5.  THE DESIRABILITY OF CLOSER INTER-REGIONAL CO-OPERATION (AS IN THE NORTHERN WAY) TO TACKLE ECONOMIC DISPARITIES

  5.1  Closer inter-regional co-operation is desirable for a range of issues, not just to tackle economic disparities. The Northern Way is a good example of co-operation but there is much disquiet in the North about the lack of consultation and the focus on economic issues to the exclusion of social and environmental factors. Future inter-regional co-operation on producing strategies should take this into account.

  5.2  It should be noted that attempts to launch similar initiatives in the Midlands and the South West have not taken off. This could be for a variety of logistical factors but shows that the impetus for inter-regional co-operation has to come from what the regions want to make happen rather than from any imposition on inter-regional co-operation.

6.  ADDITIONAL COMMENTS

Recognising regions within Whitehall

  6.1  The responsibilities for regions within Whitehall are divided between Defra, DTI and ODPM. In many cases regional organisations are being pulled in several directions from different departments with diverse messages.

  6.2  This could be resolved by beefing up the role of the Regional Co-ordination unit (RCU) and moving other Whitehall regional heads there from Defra and DTI.

Improving delivery

  6.3  Another way of improving management in the regions would be to introduce "regional proofing" into all appropriate Whitehall policy.

  6.4  The priorities set by Government through the public service agreements (PSAs) do not go far enough. This is the case for RDAs which have a PSA on sustainable development but have no target attached. This makes this PSA less effective than others against which the RDA is measured and its performance assessed. It is impossible to provide an overall picture of regional effectiveness given the inadequacy of the current target set. Regions should be free to negotiate their own targets for example, housing growth, job creation and energy production.

  These views are based on Forum for the Future's extensive experience of working directly with regional organisations since their inception on a wide range of topics at all levels. We have currently eight regional partners, composed of the RDAs, RA and the Welsh Assembly Government.

  Regional Futures is the learning network for the English regions and part of the sustainable development charity Forum for the Future. Its mission is to inspire good regional policy and delivery through sustainable development.





 
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