Memorandum by Jane Thomas (RG 47)
In the absence of any directly elected regional
body with formal, statutory powers we still find that Britain
is defined too much by what happens in that square mile that is
London, and too little by the rest. Currently only about 25% of
public sector spending is controlled by regional and local governmentwell
below most other comparable countries, such as Germany or the
But we are the sum of our parts and the English
regions are not well-served by a highly centralised, one-size
fits all approach to policy making. The move towards devolution
and delegation away from the centre is welcomed but begs many
questions about accountability, transparency and joined-up governance.
One of the Governments top priorities now is
the improvement of public services. People's expectations of publicly
funded services are high. As was stated in the Treasury's Report
Devolved Decision-Making (2004) the next phase of reform requires
an evolution in the relationship between central government, local
government, regional organisations and front line. Central government
should have a strategic role, ensuring national standards are
met and maintained but allowing greater local flexibility.
1. THE POTENTIAL
1.1 Currently there are 910 Public Bodies
and 86 Executive Agencies (as of March 2005) many of whom operate
at sub-national level. In March 2001 the Government ordered a
review of the arrangements for Executive agencies in the context
of the Modernising Government White Paper and Civil Service Reform
1.2 In terms of simplifying existing arrangements
there are a number of areas where the Government has already responded.
The Treasury response to the Regional Emphasis Documents indicated
a willingness to take on board some recommendations especially
where there was evidence of cross-department working. The practice
of pooling budgets as happened with the Regional Skills Partnerships
could happen in other policy areas. The Business Link franchise
has come under the control of the RDAS, as has much of the work
of the Countryside Agency and much of the tourism portfolio from
1.3 This all suggests a growing recognition
of the value of a single regional body to be able to plan holistically.
This makes senseand as long as appropriate scrutiny and
transparency is applied, the function AND delivery side will be
enhanced. But the high national standards and accountability that
underpin the reforms can only be achieved by appropriate and rigorous
1.4 Yet tensions will continue to rise whilst
ever there is obscurity over the relationship between key regional
bodies, quangos and central government. For example the move to
RSS under the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act of 2004 was
a significant move and makes the Regional Assemblies, in all regions,
the designated Regional Planning Body. However the delivery of
RSS will continue to be hampered by the continuance of what Hetherington
refers to as regionalised centralism (further centralised control
by Treasury/Government over spending priorities of Departments
and their executive agencies). So you can have as much integrated
and regional planning as you like but these are likely to be overridden
by national/central demands (it will be interesting to watch transport
spend in the northern regions in the years running up to the Olympics
1.5 At a sub-regional level there are still
serious issues about co-ordination of key policy areas, such as
housing new build, transport plans and economic development, which
simply are just to large to handle at the level of local government
that currently exists. This is brought into sharp relief with
some key new initiatives such as Pathfinders and LEGIinitiatives
that cross local authority boundaries but need a degree of co-ordination
and leadership that simply cannot be provided under the current
1.6 As budgets are devolved increasingly
more decisions are made at sub-regional level. This begs the question
about accountability of public spending and also the role of quasi
autonomous bodies that are increasingly circumnavigating local
authorities (especially when the LSPs are NOT the local authority).
1.7 Allowing the real and necessary flexibility
that underpin the Governments reform agenda in the absence of
regional government is hard. Much is done on good willbut
relationships vary region to region, and can dramatically affect
the outcomes of well-intentioned policy. Regional bodies, notably
the RDAs and Regional Assemblies play an increasingly vital role,
in managing the relationships of regional stakeholders and bring
together key regional and sub-regional bodies.
1.8 It also begs a number of questions about
how you deal with cross-cutting issues and how you align these
within target frameworks, planning and spending cycles and funding
streams. The continued role of key executive agencies and public
bodies at regional and sub-regional level also needs reviewing
in the light of the continued moves towards devolution and delegation.
The Prime Ministers speeches have outlined high national standards
and clear accountability as part of the principles of reformthese
are in danger of getting lost unless these relationships are sorted.
In the Dynamics of Devolution, Hetherington
and Sandford argue that there is a case for a single regional
spending budget for things like economic development as it allows
flexibility and targeting in a way that the multitude of local
economic projects simply cannot do and it can lessen considerably
A moratorium on public bodies/quangos/NDPBs
as requested by the British Chamber of Commerce in 2001!
Place on some statutory footing the
need for key agencies to consult with regional Planning Bodyfor
example, the Highways Agency, and the Environment Agency.
Some analysis of the success, or
otherwise, of the Regional Transport Board and Housing boards
and some analysis of policy fit (ie is there an alignment of work
of the Board with say Pathfinders, Local Authorities, Housing
Corporation and ODPM?)
Regional select committees at Westminster.
More use of cross-cutting Forums.
2. THE POTENTIAL
2.1 There are currently no formal powers
that exist at a regional level. There are, as has already been
pointed out, numerous bodies, making decisions about spending
of public money. However that is not the same thing. To devolve
from one level to another assumes you have multi- layered governance
arrangements which simply do not exist at the moment in England.
3. THE EFFECTIVENESS
3.1 The 2002 report "Better Government
Services; Executive Agencies for the 21st century reflected on
how some agencies have become disconnected from their sponsoring
Department. Despite clear intentions to the contrary and good
examples of working together, the gulf between policy and delivery
is considered by most to have widened. They can also create perverse
incentives and inefficiencies. Quite often Area-Based Initiatives
(ABIs) duplicate or overlap or fail to deliver.
3.2 The report gives 12 very clear recommendations
and calls for, amongst other things, simpler governance connecting
agencies with departmental aims and making better use of non-executive
3.3 There is a continuing tension between
controlling inputs that is at the expense of managing outcomes.
PSA targets often seem overlooked by centrally imposed management
systems and structures that simply do not reflect or allow responsive
delivery on the ground. This could be much improved with clear
strategic direction giving a line of sight from agency targets
to department targets. A clear line of sight is also needed to
PSA agreements with the PSA targets at the heart for improving
3.4 The success or otherwise of joint initiatives,
or programmes with a cross-cutting theme, is largely determined
by having carefully articulated and shared targets. However as
noted in 1.8 this can be problematic without an established framework
for joint working.
3.5 The Devolved Decision Making suggests
a number of things including:
Fewer targets but still within the
framework of PSAs.
Stronger local accountabilities and
Increased performance management.
The report states that "a more devolved
approach makes it essential that local accountabilities and incentives
to improve are strengthened . . . central government and its agencies
should set fewer targets and controls beyond PSA".
3.6 The principle of flexibility and subsidiarity
must be applied. Local transport decisions are often best taken
by those who provide and pay for the service. However the move
towards Regional Transport Boards and the inter-relationship between
this and the RSS is significant. It is early days but it will
be important to ensure that there is some alignment between LTPs
and Regional Transport Plans. More significantly will be how much
this will feed into national transport plansand crucially
how the Spending Reviews are cognizant of what is being planned
in the regions.
Reduce number of funding streams
for ABIs and a better alignment of target frameworks, planning
and spending cycles and funding streams.
Clear strategic direction with a
line of sight from agency targets to department targets and a
clear line of sight to PSA agreements.
Fewer targets but still within framework
Better linkages could be made between
LSPs and regional bodies and strategies. This could be done by
means of protocols between LSPs and regional and sub-regional
A more formalised dialogue between
the centre and the regions at a strategic level to accommodate
in particular the aims and aspirations of Regional Economic Strategies
and the Regional Spatial Strategies.
4. THE POTENTIAL
4.1 The renewed interest in city regions
has been driven by a number of thingsnot least because
of the perceived void created by the failure of the North East
referendum. Much academic work has also been undertaken, drawing
on the experience of Europe where city regions have had some notable
success in the economic fortunes of their area.
4.2 However it is hard to see how city regions
address the issues that regional government attempted to address
(democratic deficit, devolution of powers). It is even harder
to see how city regions can attempt to replicate the success of
their European, or even American counterparts, without being supported
by the same political architecture. In other words successful
city regions elsewhere sit within a properly constituted elected
regional body, or federal state, that has formal powers and a
4.3 That is not to say that city regions
do not present some opportunities. The evidence that cities can
act as economic drivers for their regions is compelling. The New
Local Government Network City Regions Commission suggests that
city regions should be allowed to emerge "from below"
in an asymmetrical fashion, and crucially calls for enabling legislation
to pass powers over housing, planning and transport to the new
bodies. The IPPR's Centre for Cities has boosted the network's
research in this area with its own studies of regional housing
markets and the role of cities in this regard.
4.4 The question is to what extent a city
region would break the fixation with London and become indigenous
economic powerhouses in their own right. Certainly Greater Manchester
and other city regions covered in the Northern Way can see some
opportunities with this agenda.
4.5 Elected mayors and their role within
city regions do not have the support that was first thought. Certainly
in Manchester there is no widespread support to move towards elected
mayors, even though the majority of local politicians support
the city region model. A recent report from the Joseph Rowntree
Foundation suggests that elected mayors have not necessarily resulted
in the strong political leadership and democratic renewal that
was initially expected.
City regions will only work within
a more balanced system of government than at present.
The model should not be imposed and
should reflect local identity and consent (although no-one would
want to repeat the referendum process in much of a hurry).
Local government will need to be
strengthened and reconstituted to take on the responsibilities
and aspirations that a city region should have.
Political leadership is vitalit
confers legitimacy and presence but this does not necessarily
mean in the shape of an elected mayor. Strong, elected local government
that can be held to account and answerable to local people is
Move to unitary local government
throughout England and more financial autonomy.
5. THE IMPACT
The growth of city regions will only work if
it is organic and if size and shape reflects local sensitivities
and geography. At one level most people do not really care who
collects their bins as long as someone collects them. They want
quick and responsive delivery of local services and a person at
the end of the phone when things go wrong.
Identity however is important, even if sometimes
this is more imagined than real. Rural areas often have little
in common with large cities and experience a different set of
problems that require a different set of solutions.
The management of relationshipsboth formal
and informalis crucial. The role of the current Regional
Assemblies could be enhanced to act as broker and mediator and
to ensure a forum for more region-wide thinking. However as was
stated in 1.7 they will need to be put on a much firmer footing
with statutory responsibilities.
6. THE DESIRABILITY
This has to be both welcomed and encouraged.
Indeed inter-regional co-operation has been taking place for many
years in the Northenhanced by the presence and lead the
RDAs have been able to take on transport issues for example. Greater
regional co-operation will go some way to meeting the challenges
of globalization and the ability to address productivity issues.
However one of the most obvious ways to address
the issue of economic disparities is to ensure a level playing
field across the regions of England. That means ensuring that
the distribution of money is fair, equitable and transparent.
Infrastructures projects, and in particular transport spend, has
to be given a greater priority outside of London and the South
East to enable all the regions to compete in an ever changing
And if the Government is serious about the PSA
target on regional disparities then it needs to allow regions
and sub-regions the flexibility and powers needed to apply more
locally-based and owned initiatives. Delivery must take place
at the most appropriate level, as locally as possible, and within
a framework of a strong regional strategic framework to ensure
proper joined-up government.