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


Memorandum by the West Midlands Regional Assembly (WMRA) (RG 51)

INTRODUCTION AND OVERVIEW

  (a)  The West Midlands Regional Assembly (hereon referred to as "the Assembly") welcomes the opportunity to respond to this inquiry and to highlight briefly the work it has been involved in, particularly its successes to date and future work plan, which we feel will be useful to this Inquiry. The Assembly would also welcome the opportunity of presenting oral evidence to the Inquiry.

  (b)  Firstly we would like to express how timely the Inquiry is given the current work the Assembly is undertaking on submitting a response on Regional Funding Allocations, the Barker Review—Regional Housing Board and Regional Planning Body merger proposals and a number of key planning policy documents.

  (c)  The West Midlands Regional Assembly consists of 100 nominated representatives from a wide range of democratic, social and economic interests throughout the West Midlands Region. There are 68 members representing the local authority sector, 16 representing the business sector and 16 representing other economic and social partners, for example, trade unions, health, further education, higher education, culture, housing associations, environment, parish councils, voluntary and community sector, black and minority ethnic community, disability, gender and faith communities.

  (d)  The Assembly provides a platform for organisations to consider matters of common interest including: regional planning, housing, transport, economic prosperity, sustainability, culture and Europe.

  (e)  The Assembly is the Regional Planning Body for the Region, with statutory responsibility for developing and implementing the Regional Spatial Strategy and for scrutinising the operation of the Region's Development Agency, Advantage West Midlands. Another key function of the Assembly is to ensure alignment of key regional strategies, particularly the Regional Spatial Strategy, the Regional Housing Strategy and the Regional Economic Strategy.

  (f)  The Assembly conducts its business through working in partnership with key regional agencies, under the guidance of the West Midlands Regional Concordat. Further details on the Concordat and its partners can be found at: http://www.wmra.gov.uk/page.asp?id=9

  (g)  To support the full Assembly in its work, a series of Policy Partnerships and corresponding officer groups exist to ensure knowledge and expertise within each policy area is captured from around the Region, from a wide range of local, regional and regionally based national organisations and individuals.

  (h)  The Assembly believes that the Region is ideally placed spatially to address the links that exist between economic, social and environmental issues and that it is particularly at the regional level where the spatial inter-relationship between many of these issues becomes apparent along with their implications for the principles of sustainable development and an integrated policy approach.

RESPONSE TO SPECIFIC QUESTIONS

1.  The potential for increasing the accountability of decision-making at the regional and sub-regional level, and the need to simplify existing arrangements

  1.1  The Assembly feels that it has a high degree of accountability currently, particularly given its membership size and structure. As mentioned previously there are 100 members of the full Assembly, with representatives from all local authorities, weighted to reflect size and a 4:1:1 ratio of local authority members to business and other stakeholders.

  1.2  The membership of the Policy Partnerships is drawn from the Region rather than the Assembly itself. They provide further opportunity along with the officer support structure, for a broad membership to ensure wide representation from a full range of interests as possible to input into decision making at the regional level.

  1.3  One possible way of increasing further the Assembly's accountability is to formalise how local authority Assembly members report back to their local authorities on the issues being discussed and their outcomes and implications for local authority work. Similarly if Local Authority members had an opportunity to discuss issues on Assembly and Policy Partnerships in advance with their local authorities, this would also improve accountability.

  1.4  Whilst it may be possible to simplify existing arrangements, the Assembly currently aims to be clear and concise and effective over a number of policy areas, which can be very complex. Thus the mechanisms and structures for Assembly working need to reflect this to ensure the wide range of policy issues, geographic dimensions and interests of Assembly members (due to its size and range of sector engagement) are addressed yet communicated as effectively as possible to a wide audience. So whilst a steer from ODPM would be welcome as to how existing arrangements could be simplified, the Assembly feels that each region is in the best position to determine what works best with current resource and capacity parameters.

  1.5  Also on the issue of accountability, whilst the Assembly is not legally obliged to comply with the Freedom of Information Act, in the spirit of openness and transparency the Assembly has agreed to respond to Freedom of Information requests and has recently done so.

  1.6  The role of the Assembly and of all assemblies is to provide a forum to represent the issues, often of smaller local authorities, experienced by more than one of them, ie to identify mutual problems and act on their behalf with a stronger single regional voice.

  1.7  Another example is Assembly responses to the many and various Government consultation documents such as, draft PPS3, Barker Review of Housing Supply and Planning for Housing Provision. The Assembly, through its support structures and networks is able to achieve consensus across the Region and respond to Government consultation documents often at very short notice. Thus the Assembly's added value is very much about the weight of its opinion as a regional voice, whilst also setting the context for local and sub-regional work.

  1.8  All of this work is vital to the Assembly and its members welcome the opportunity for their decision making and empowerment ability to increase its accountability and role, particularly in relation to the Government's agenda of devolving power to the more local level to local people.

  1.9  The Assembly takes full advantage of a wide range of mechanisms to disseminate its work within the Region and more widely via its website (which can be accessed at: www.wmra.gov.uk) email groups/networks, mail outs, newsletters, press releases, various publications and also by presenting at events/conferences/seminars, etc. All of this work is co-ordinated by our Communications Team to ensure consistency.

2.  The potential for devolution of powers from regional to local level

  2.1  It is important to note here that the Assembly believes that one of the initial purposes of the Regional Assemblies was the devolution of powers from Whitehall to the regions, as opposed to drawing up power from local authorities. It is this devolution from central Government to the regions which the Assembly supports.

  2.2  Also in terms of the Assembly's current statutory role of acting as the Regional Planning Body and undertaking scrutiny, we feel that these are best left at the regional level.

  2.3  Planning is just beginning to change following the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004, thus the Assembly feels that time is needed to bed in these principles and statutory responsibilities for producing Regional Spatial Strategies.

  2.4  In relation to particular policy areas such as planning and housing it is felt more clarity on the roles of different tiers of local government is welcome and it would be helpful if the proposed White Paper on decentralising power to local people were an opportunity to clarify this.

  2.5  With regards to the Assembly's scrutiny role (which will be referred to in more detail under question 3), the Assembly feels that local authorities are committed to working with us on this but do not have the capacity to undertake it alone.

  2.6  In relation to the Regional Development Agency, Advantage West Midlands, the Assembly feels that there is a need for greater devolution of local service delivery to local service providers, including local authorities.

3.  The effectiveness of current arrangements for managing services at the various levels and their inter-relationships

  3.1  The West Midlands is very effective at co-ordinating wide partnership working across a number of partners within the Region and across a number of policy themes. As mentioned in the introduction, the Assembly delivers its work through a series of Policy Partnerships which draw their membership from a wide range of organisations and individuals with the appropriate expertise and level of influence. Supporting these Partnerships are a series of Officer groups, again whose membership is determined according to expertise in the field.

  3.2  In order for these Officer groups to effectively support the Partnerships and full Assembly we work closely with all the Regions 38 local authorities to capture their expertise on key policy areas and we also have Service Level Agreements with the strategic authorities on a number of planning activities, ie RSS Policy Leads, conformity, etc.

  3.3  The Assembly also works very closely with the West Midlands Local Government Association (WMLGA) on a number of policy areas relating to specific local government issues. Also in terms of inter-relationships, WMLGA and the Assembly hold meetings of full Assembly and WMLGA Association on the same day and there is cross over of membership between WMLGA's Executive Committee and the Assembly's Board. In addition WMLGA has a series of elected member Portfolio Holders for key policy areas who as well as supporting WMLGA, also Chair the corresponding Policy Partnership under the Assembly. This ensures that there is no duplication of effort and ensures good cross linkage between both organisations and their partners at regional and local level.

  3.4  The Assembly's joint working with WMLGA is exemplified even further in the administrative arrangements that exist, in that there a number of shared resources between the two organisations, such as accommodation, office equipment, administrative support, financial support, Support Officer requirements and Policy support. This ensures cost effectiveness and efficiency across both organisations.

  3.5  The effectiveness of current arrangements can also be exemplified through the assembly's co-ordinating role for regional strategies, such as the Regional Spatial Strategy, Regional Housing Strategy, Regional Economic Strategy, Regional Energy Strategy to name a few, down to sub-regional and local level and vice versa. The Assembly believes in the value of undertaking this co-ordinating role and whilst it feels that a great deal is achieved, it is very resource intensive and needs adequate resourcing in order to be effective and efficient.

  3.6  Given the Assembly's responsibility for producing the statutory Regional Spatial Strategy (RSS) and ensuring local development frameworks are in conformity, the Assembly feels that further resources would enable it to be more effective in this increasingly demanding role. For example, resources are required to be represented at public inquiries and defend the RSS when being challenged by planning appeals. The Assembly therefore feels that the work of the Planning Body and the enhanced housing role (following the proposed merger of Regional Housing Boards and Regional Planning Bodies) needs to be effectively resourced.

  3.7  The Assembly has worked closely with Advantage West Midlands (AWM) and Government Office West Midlands (GOWM) to develop an effective and balanced scrutiny process as set out in the Strategic Review Protocol which can be accessed at: http://www.wmra.gov.uk/page.asp?id=10

  3.8  The Assembly through its scrutiny process aims to be a critical friend to Advantage West Midlands, informing policy development and enhancing its strategic approach. The Assembly calls on a wide range of regional and local partners across the Region to contribute to the scrutiny process. Further detail on the process is available in Appendix 2.

  3.9  Another example of the effectiveness of current arrangements is the work the West Midlands Local Government Association (WMLGA) have been undertaking regarding Local Area Agreements (LAAs). Since LAAs were announced in July 2004, WMLGA has worked closely with its constituent authorities and associated partners, to support them in the development and implementation of these new arrangements. WMLGA developed early links with the GOWM Strategic LAA Co-ordinator, which has included ongoing close liaison with the GO Strategic Steering Group. This included early briefing and information exchange sessions with the pilot LAAs.

  3.10  For the 2nd round LAAs a series of events were organised to facilitate learning and best practice, which has included:

    —  A regional getting started event.

    —  During September 2005 a series of events were delivered, focussing on each of the thematic blocks of the LAA framework.

    —  WMLGA also ran a number of sub regional "Introduction to LAAs" sessions specifically for elected members, to enable them to gain a better understanding of LAAs, and their role within this.

  3.11  As part of the ongoing LAA support programme, the key agencies WMLGA, GOWM, AWM and IDeA are working together to pool their resources in providing support specifically for 3rd round LAAs. WMLGA is also facilitating linkage between agencies developing strategy at a regional level and is strengthening its relationship with lead officers from the National LGA.

  3.12  It is important to note here, that in terms of the effectiveness of current arrangements, there are current difficulties being experienced as different Government departments often give conflicting guidance to local authorities on regional and local issues, for example, there appears to be a lack of clear understanding or recognition by the Audit Commission of the way in which ODPM and Regional Housing Boards have been encouraging local authorities to work together and with regional bodies. Colleagues in the Region also have experience of the Planning Inspectorate Service not giving due weight to the findings of housing needs or market assessments.

4.  The potential for new arrangements, particularly the establishment of city regions

  4.1  Recently there has been an intensification of the debate about the nature and role of City Regions, particularly in the context of the Assembly's core activities, namely its role as Regional Planning Body, scrutineer of the Regional Development Agency and as facilitator of regional strategic partnership work.

  4.2  In the West Midlands the seven Metropolitan Authorities with encouragement from ODPM, are actively pursuing a City Region approach. Stoke-on-Trent is also exploring a case for a City Region with support from ODPM.

  4.3  There has been much conjecture about how the City Region approach will play into and support existing regional and sub-regional arrangements. Recent meetings of the Planning Partnership and Assembly Board have discussed the City Region approach. West Midlands Local Government Association also hosted an event for Leaders and Chief Executives from all 38 local authorities to discuss and understand the relationship between the West Midlands Region and the City Region approach.

  4.4  An outcome of those discussions is the appended (1) agreed statement by the Assembly on 18 January 2006 named; "West Midlands Region—Incorporating A City Region and Sub-Regional Approach"; the purpose of which is to:

    —  Clarify the expectations that the Assembly has of the City Region approach.

    —  Agree in outline the nature of the relationship between the Assembly and the City Region approach.

    —  Confirm to ODPM that the Assembly is supportive of the City Region approach as set out in the statement appended.

    —  Set the above in the context of the Region as a whole with all its sub-regions.

  4.5  It is important to note that this is the Assembly's view at the time of this submission. As the regional and City Region agenda is an evolving one both regionally and nationally, the Assembly may wish to review this position at appropriate points in time.

5.  The impact which new regional and sub-regional arrangements, such as the city regions, might have upon the peripheral towns and cities

  5.1  Please refer to the Assembly's response to question 4 above and also appendix 1—the West Midlands Region—City Region mission statement.

  5.2  As promoted above under question 4 a whole region approach needs to be adopted to ensure that each town/settlement and sub-region has a role to play. This is the premise of the Regional Spatial Strategy. Any new regional or sub-regional governance arrangements require careful thought and the full involvement of the Assembly. The Assembly is best placed to broker and facilitate any such new arrangements.

6.  The desirability of closer inter-regional co-operation (as in the Northern Way) to tackle economic disparities

  6.1  The West Midlands has strong relationships with the regions on its borders and a great deal of cross-border work takes place with the South East, North West, Wales, East Midlands and South West.

  6.2  The Assembly and its partners fully recognises that trade and commerce do not recognise regional/administrative borders, just as housing markets do not respect local authority boundaries. Thus the Assembly works hard to engage with other regions on key strategic issues as appropriate and where there is mutual benefit.

  6.3  The Assembly is also actively involved in the English Regions Network (ERN) which promotes shared views and understanding across regional boundaries on a range of issues, eg planning, housing, transport. The Network provides a valuable opportunity for Assemblies to share their approaches to key policy areas and also to respond to Government consultation documents with a single unifying voice across all of the regional assemblies.

  6.4  The two Midlands Regional Development Agencies are leading the development of Smart Growth: Midlands Way, together with the Regional Assemblies, Government Offices and City Regions (currently the West Midlands Metropolitan Districts and the East Midlands Three Cities). Currently there is a brief for further work aimed at developing the existing strategic framework set out for Midlands Way and to identify opportunities for the East and West Midlands and the top end of South East (Milton Keynes South Midlands) to work together.

  6.5  The Assembly believes that whilst it is vital to work across regional boundaries on important issues, these should not necessarily be confined solely to Midlands Way.

  6.6  The Assembly is wary of establishing formal structures between regions, whilst acknowledging that informal working arrangements are very important and indeed are already in place and working well.

  6.7  The Assembly's, AWM's and GOWM's soon to be submitted Regional Funding Allocations response is very much about how we as a Region want to raise our game to bring our GDP closer in line with the UK, therefore ODPM needs to be clear to the regions as to where priorities for activity lie, whilst acknowledging the mutual inter-relationship of all regions.



 
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