Memorandum by Durham County Council (RG
1.1 In response to the Office of the Deputy
Prime Minister's invitation, this document contains evidence and
perspectives from Durham County Council concerning the query,
"Is There a Future for Regional Government?"
2.1 County Durham is a socially, economically
and physically diverse county. Most of the county is rural, with
12 main towns and over 290 other small towns and villages, many
of them former colliery villages. There is a distinct local culture
and sense of local community, particularly in the smaller settlements.
The county is bordered by the urban areas of Tyne and Wear to
the north and Tees Valley to the south. As such, the County has
key transport and employment linkages with these burgeoning "City
Regions" and therefore plays a vital role in the economic
success and stability of the region as a whole.
2.2 Parts of the county face challenges
associated with deprivation: over 30% of the County's residents
live in wards classed among the 10% most deprived nationally.
Some of the key issues are poor educational attainment, low life
expectancy, economic activity rates and non-decent housing.
2.3 Significant progress is however being
made in tackling these challenges, with the County Durham Strategic
Partnership bringing together representatives of all sectors in
support of the County Durham Vision. This Vision aims to create
a Dynamic Durham by 2023a County with a strong economy,
with a commitment to lifelong learning, with strong healthy and
safe communities and with an enhanced environment. Underpinning
this aspirational vision is a Local Area Agreement for County
Durham, which is in its final stages of formulation and is to
be signed by the Deputy Prime Minister in March 2006.
3. THE LEGACY
3.1 The campaign and referendum around the
establishment of an Elected Regional Assembly (ERA) for the North
East in 2004 generated substantial public reaction as a result
of the high profile campaigning by the Government and lobby groups.
The campaign did however result in a great deal of public confusion,
which was compounded by the Electoral Commission's linking of
two fundamentally different issues; the establishment of an ERA
and the re-organisation of Local Government in two-tier areas
(County Durham and Northumberland). Such confusion was evident
when County Council Members learned that a number of County Durham's
residents had voted "no" for the ERA in the belief that
this would retain their County Council (ie a vote for status quo
in local governance) even though a unitary County Council was
one of the options available with local government review occurring
in the event of a "yes" vote to the ERA.
3.2 Compelling arguments exist for both
the establishment of an Elected Regional Assembly and for the
re-organisation of two-tier local government. An Elected Regional
Assembly would provide greater control and better co-ordination
in taking forward ambitious programmes to impact upon the whole
region. Unitary County-level local government would clearly result
in significant financial savings, absolute clarity for the public
around the role of the local council and an opportunity to balance
strategic effectiveness with innovative local engagement and devolution.
In linking the issues however, the Government risks prejudicing
each individual debate because of the related nature of the different
agendas. If the Government seeks to consider these issues formally
in the future, it is strongly advised that the issues are considered
in isolation from one another.
3.3 Furthermore, it is important to note
that one of the key issues in the campaign for an Elected Regional
Assembly was the public and business community's concern that
the ERA as proposed did not have sufficient powers to effect major
change in regional economy or people's quality of life. Any new
developments in governance structures, be they at a regional,
sub-regional or neighbourhood level, should have sufficient powers
and functions to convince the public that they are able to effect
real change and are worth the accompanying bureaucracy or cost.
3.4 The ODPM Committee may be interested
to note that public reaction in the North East region since the
ERA referendum has been particularly hostile towards any tier
of "extra government" that could potentially result
in residents' council tax being spent at a regional level. In
the County Council's experience, residents predominantly wish
to see their financial contribution spent locally, and residents
express significant discomfort when funding is seen to be "passported"
through the local Council to distant bodies or projects.
3.5 As such, there has been substantial
public opposition to the current (unelected) North East Assembly
and the Association of North East Councils and local councils
have received "freedom of information" requests seeking
financial details around council contributions to both forums.
4. BALANCED REGIONAL
4.1 Durham County Council believes that
there is significant advantage in stakeholders coming together
at the regional level to debate certain issues and develop a collective
or consensus position. Such forums provide an opportunity for
discussion and effective communication around issues that affect
the region as a whole (such as transport policy or spatial planning)
and also have the potential to create "added value"
for the region's public services through "economies of scale"
efficiencies or sharing of innovations. A recent example of such
"added value" has been the establishment of the North
East Improvement Partnership, which is actively leading on peer-led
improvement in the local government sector.
4.2 It is vital that in shaping the governance
arrangements for the North East, decision makers have due regard
for balanced regional governance; with focus equally attributed
"horizontally" across both rural and urban areas. If
allied with coherent and efficient "vertical" governance
(from regional, through sub-regional down to neighbourhood level
forums) it is possible to achieve a governance model that balances
the need for strategic decision making with local self-determination
4.3 In the pursuit of balance between "top-down"
strategic perspectives and "bottom-up" information and
empowerment, clarity around role and function of bodies at all
levels is desirable to assist with transparency and accountability
to the public. Such clarity is challenged by the emergence of
tiers or layers of governance that overlap or share areas of responsibility.
4.4 At the regional level local authorities
have appreciated the evolution of the Government Office for the
North East as the "first point of contact" in negotiations
or discussions with central departments. Further clarity around
the roles and relationship between Regional Development Agencies
(RDAs) and the Government Offices would be welcomed. Arrangements
at the regional level should, where possible, continue to hold
strong democratic accountability. The development of the role
of the RDAs has been positive in the North East in terms of providing
the trigger for improved regionally focused development of structures
and guidance on activities and priorities. It has, however, been
accompanied by concerns about the voice of stakeholders. One NorthEast's
active engagement with, and delegation of funding to, sub regional
partnerships has to an extent provided reassurance in this regard.
This is however a fragile arrangement and any substantial change
in policy would result in a loss of confidence on the part of
4.5 At the local level the Government's
recent focus on Local Area Agreements as the mechanism for delivering
local community strategies has also been welcomed, and despite
the difficulties associated with intensive partnership working,
is likely to lead to more effective local self-determination.
The "outcomes" focus of the Local Area Agreement process
brings further clarity to the impact that public services are
having in their areas, and the evolution of Local Strategic Partnerships
(LSPs) as the "partnership of partnerships" will assist
in truly "joining up" local governance. It is clear
however that confusion and a lack of clarity still exists in two-tier
areas such as County Durham, where the public simply do not understand
which tier of government is responsible for what. Furthermore,
LSP and Local Area Agreement negotiations are complicated where
public organisation boundaries are not co-terminus, and a range
of competing interests have the potential to distort the focus
upon achieving outcomes for the public.
4.6 The momentum gathering behind the development
of locally focused planning and prioritisation with Local Area
Agreements is therefore welcomed. It is clear however, that partners
have difficulty committing to significant investment of funding
and time towards the shared local agenda, when central departments
continue to make excessive demands against national priorities
and targets. If local areas are to be given effective self-determination
over priorities, they must also be given the freedom to exert
an influence over addressing these priorities. Any further devolution
in powers around managing the balance between local taxation and
local service provision would therefore be welcomed.
4.7 In the formulation of the Local Area
Agreement the key role of the voluntary and community sector "infrastructure
organisations" has been apparent. In devolving responsibilities
around local prioritisation through enhanced roles for Local Strategic
Partnerships and the Local Area Agreement process, the Government
should also consider freedoms and flexibilities around the use
of funding streams for both supporting the voluntary and community
sector and resourcing intensive partnership processes.
5. THE POTENTIAL
5.1 The North East faces significant economic
challenges with regional Gross Value Added per head in the North
East standing at 80% of the national average. There is an approximate
North-South sub-regional balance in output based on 2002 figures,
with Northumberland and Tyne and Wear accounting for 58.2% of
the regional GVA total and County Durham and Tees Valley accounting
for the remainder (NERIP, 2006).
5.2 There is clear potential for new arrangements
to assist in carrying forward the economic development of the
North East of England. Whether this should be focused on the development
of the city regions should be considered firmly in terms of the
specific circumstances within each region and the additionality
that can be provided by taking a city region approach.
5.3 The development of the Northern Way
as a pan regional approach, supported by City Regional Development
Programmes has served to emphasise the disparities between city
regions, whether in terms of scale, nature and proximity to each
5.4 The two city regions in the North East
region, Tyne & Wear and Tees Valley, are at the smaller end
of the scale, and are set within the smallest of England's standard
regions. They are essentially polynuclear in nature
with several significant centres with over-lapping areas of influence.
For Tyne and Wear, research by CURDS
indicates that there are in fact six key employment centres which
make up the city region, with the urban core being within the
two of NewcastleGateshead and Sunderland. In Tees Valley, several
towns make up the city region, and although they are spatially
close, they do not yet form a continuum.
5.5 Research and analysis on the Northern
Way and rural areas, by the Centre for Rural Economy at the University
describes three different relationships between city regions and
their "hinterlands". For the North East, it sets out
that there is a high level of interdependence between the city
regions and the rest of the region. This contrasts with, for example,
the differentiation between Liverpool and Cumbria in the North
West. This demonstrates that there is no case for an assumption
that a city region driven approach is necessarily appropriate
in all regions of England.
5.6 The small scale and polynuclear nature
of city regions in the North East is typified by the fact that
County Durham forms a bridge between the two, with both city region
development programmes featuring the North East Technology Park
(NetPark) and the University of Durham as opportunities to carry
forward improved productivity.
5.7 As highlighted earlier, the public in
the North East demonstrated their opposition to what was perceived
as an "additional layer" of bureaucracy at the referendum
for an Elected Regional Assembly. The development of the city
regions may require additional bureaucratic arrangements, such
as city region bodies, officer support groups and other elements,
which would run counter to current public opinion.
5.8 Durham County Council therefore proposes
that an approach based upon competing and semi-autonomous city
regions is unlikely to assist the North East region in achieving
its economic aims. Rather, a favoured approach would be to focus
upon collaboration and maximise capacity through developing the
potential of all areas of the region; be they rural or urban.
As such, a stronger case may be made for strengthening the existing
and developing regional arrangements, such as the Regional Transport
Board, the Regional Housing Board and One North East's co-ordination
of the tourism activities, to provide an improved regional performance.
The functions of these bodies would clearly have been adopted
and further re-enforced as significant powers of an Elected Regional
6. THE POTENTIAL
6.1 Taking into account the polynuclear
nature of city regions in the North East, and the high level of
interdependence between the city regions and their surrounding
areas, re-direction of focus solely onto the city regions may
have an adverse affect on major towns and rural areas. Even when
broadly defined, the city regions are small in comparison with
others in the North of England. During the development of the
city regions concept, it has become clear that this broad definition,
while useful for preparing statistical evidence supporting the
city region approach, is unlikely to be reflected in bringing
forward activity; this is more likely to be centred on the core
6.2 Current arrangements, and the direction
of travel of the Regional Spatial Strategy, provides some balance
between the thrust of economic development activity and sustainability,
with attention given to the opportunities and needs of the towns
and rural areas in both of these respects, but with the bulk of
funding and resources directed to the urban core areas. There
is, therefore, some counterweight to the increased distance and
volume of commuter journeys currently made, particularly for travel
to work but also for retail purposes.
6.3 Focusing attention on the core urban
areas, with a view to making these a more desirable place to live
and work, runs counter to the aspiration of the general population.
Assuming that the change can be achieved, carrying it forward
will have a very long time horizon; in fact the change may not
be achievable. In either case, the impact of loss of attention
and resources to the major towns and rural areas will have a damaging
effect. The region would move from interdependence to separateness.
6.4 If the region is to drive up its economic
performance and reduce regional disparities it must retain variety
in its tourism, housing and business offer. In the North East
it is vital that no opportunities are lost. Reducing its capacity
to capitalise on its substantial environmental, historic and cultural
assets (for example, the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural
Beauty and GeoPark, Durham Cathedral & Castle, Hadrians Wall
World Heritage sites and Beamish and Locomotion Museums) will
not assist the North East to improve its economic performance.
7. THE DESIRABILITY
7.1 Pan regional and inter regional co-operation
can be a route to reducing the level of regional disparities and
maximising the economic activity of the UK, and enable it to compete
more effectively on a global scale. In the context of the North
East of England, there is a case for looking more closely at the
opportunities presented by improving the efficiency and effectiveness
of intra-regional arrangements.
7.2 The North East's city regions are essentially
polynuclear in nature and small in size. As such, if economic
policies focus upon city regions working in isolation from one
another, they are not well placed to develop the "critical
mass" needed for city regions to make an impact. Currently
however, a regional approach is making progress, with the Regional
Transport Board, Regional Housing Board and regional co-ordination
of tourism activities. These regional approaches work in tandem
with a range of sub regional arrangements to develop approaches
which achieve outcomes for local people regardless of their existing
local authority administrative boundaries.
66 North East Regional Information Partnership (2006),
"State of the Region 2006". Back
Tyne & Wear City Region: Emerging Polynuclearity (Mike Coombes,
CURDS, Newcastle University). Back
Coombes MG and Raybould S (2004) "Finding work in 2001:
urban-rural contrasts across England in employment rates and local
job availability"-Area 36 202-222. Back
City Regions and Rural Areas in North East England (J Midgley,
N Ward & J Atterton, Centre for Rural Economy, University
of Newcastle, 2005). Back