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

Memorandum by Durham County Council (RG 49)


  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 2023—a 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.


  3.1  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.


  4.1  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 and empowerment.

  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 stakeholders.

  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.


  5.1  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)[66].

  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 other.

  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[67] with several significant centres with over-lapping areas of influence. For Tyne and Wear, research by CURDS[68] 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 of Newcastle[69], 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 Assembly.


  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 urban areas.

  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.


  7.1  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

67   Tyne & Wear City Region: Emerging Polynuclearity (Mike Coombes, CURDS, Newcastle University). Back

68   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

69   City Regions and Rural Areas in North East England (J Midgley, N Ward & J Atterton, Centre for Rural Economy, University of Newcastle, 2005). Back

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