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


Memorandum by Localise West Midlands (RG 56)

  1.1  For there to be a future that will win popular support regional government needs to have a clear, understood purpose and it needs to be predominantly about bringing power closer to local communities, not regionalising power from the localities.

  1.2  Regional levels of government needs to be elected and based on a clear set of principles—without this it will be seen by the public as just another level of expensive and confusing bureaucracy.

2.  THE PRINCIPLES FOR LEVELS OF GOVERNMENT

  2.1  Government should be administered at the level nearest to the locality that is practical.

  2.2  Responsibility and authority should be held at the same level. Thus if regional government is to be responsible for the coordination and funding of major infrastructure projects then it should have the power and resources to deliver its plans. If however local authorities are responsible for delivering community based regeneration then they should have the power and resources, these should not be partially held at the regional level.

  2.3  Government organisations should be learning organisations. This requires them to be able to monitor and evaluate their own policies and have the power to amend them accordingly. They should be responsible to their own electorate for the effectiveness of their policies not to a higher tier of government or to external inspectors. A crucial aspect of learning comes from qualitative evaluation rather than number crunching. That requires closeness to the ground.

  2.4  If the electorate is to be reengaged with government then government needs to operate and have the clear powers to operate as close as possible to the people whose lives it is impacting on. This will normally be at a much more local rather than regional level.

  2.5  As far as possible structures should promote cooperation rather than competition between various levels of government. Organisations should be empowered to produce their own solutions rather than compete with each other for the same limited resources.

  2.6  Regional and local authorities should be able to raise revenue locally and control how it is then spent locally.

3.  THE IMPLICATIONS FOR REGIONAL GOVERNMENT

  3.1  Regional Government should only be responsible for those items that have a clear regional basis to them. This will be items that can not be effectively handled at a local authority or community level and which require different responses in different regions rather than a uniform national approach. This could be based on appropriate economies of scale, or aspects that need co-ordination across greater geographical areas than the local authority level.

  3.2  In practical terms this would imply:

    —  Major infrastructure projects eg trunk roads, railways not local road networks, tram routes which are local issues.

    —  Major new industrial developments that will have a regional impact to ensure the most appropriate location that will maximise the benefit from new or existing infrastructure. These should be rare.

    —  Major new urban developments again to ensure the coordination of infrastructure.

    —  Ensuring the provision of major housing sites within a region to meet national targets. This is important because of the extent to which nimbyism has led to an under-provision of land for housing in many areas. Density and design parameters are also crucial.

    —  Co-ordination of the provision of other unpopular but necessary facilities and infrastructure. Eg Travellers sites, major waste disposal sites and mineral workings.

    —  Management of resources that have a regional element eg water, rivers and reservoirs and some minerals.

    —  The production of a regional spatial strategy. This would include housing at a very broad level and be linked to necessary public investment.

  3.3  There may also be some services where the economies of scale are such that there may be a regional role. This could include the location of specialised hospital facilities where the regional requirement is for only one or two such units. Specialised educational or research facilities where there is only such limited need. In these cases the regional authority should not take control of such facilities but should be able to decide on their location where there is excess competition for such facilities.

  3.4  There will also be some aspects where individual local authorities will be too small for it to be cost effective for them to employ specific skills. This could include major regeneration projects, the development of new initiatives such as sustainability appraisal, and major projects such as airports and ports. In these cases the role of the regional body would be to make specialists available to local authorities as advisors or trainers not as decision makers.

  3.5  There will also be a role for the Regional assembly to act as a referee between local authorities on issues that cross local authority boundaries and where they can not agree.

  3.6  There could also be a role for the regional assembly to act as an appeals forum against individual local authority decisions or non decisions within the region. Care would need to be taken in designing this role to ensure that it does not take responsibility away from local authorities to make democratic local decisions or to pass the book on difficult decisions to a different level of government.

  3.7  In relation to the two above points the Regional Assembly would also have a role in ensuring conformity with regionally agreed strategies and in monitoring and evaluation of delivery.

4.  THE CURRENT STRUCTURE OF REGIONAL GOVERNMENT

  4.1  The current structure can only be described as an inefficient, confusing and unresponsible mess.

  4.2  There is a multiplicity of unelected regional organisations. Regional Development Agencies, Regional Government Offices. Regional Planning Boards, Regional Housing Boards (to be merged). There is a separate Passenger Transport Executive. There are proposals to have regional police forces and Learning and Skills Councils as further separate bodies. Most infrastructure decisions are made by national bodies—both public and private -with some element of regional structures all independent of the existing regional bodies. It should not be described as regional government but is rather poorly coordinated regional administration.

  4.3  There seems little logical reason why the powers of many of the public sector bodies such as the Housing Corporation or English Partnerships should not be devolved to regional levels and beyond to local authorities.

  4.4  It is hard to imagine a structure more designed to create duplication, waste, fighting between regional, national and local organisations, lack of effective co-ordination, lack of accountability and thus irresponsibility than the current structure.

  4.5  It needs a complete overhaul based on sound principles for the whole system not just adding on something for the latest single initiative and "fund chasing".

  4.6  Most importantly it needs to be accountable to a democratically elected body, elected by residents of the region who at least have the possibility of being able to understand what the regional assembly to which they are electing people is actually responsible for.

  4.7  Currently many of the issues that most people expect local authorities to be able to deliver have confused responsibility. In practice what the local authority can do is very heavily prescribed by central government officials, and sometimes also by regional officials and sometimes by national auditors. Sometimes the demands of all three are conflicting. It can be impossible for the councillor to discover where the real power lies. It is rarely with the local elector—so why should they have confidence in this system or any proposals for more confusing governance.

5.  CURRENT REGIONAL BOUNDARIES

  5.1  The West Midlands perhaps more than any other region is a city region based on Birmingham.

  5.2  The peripheral areas of the West Midlands are however not part of the city region. Stoke for instance has as many links to Manchester as Birmingham.

  5.3  All the various areas of the West Midlands have their own distinctive characteristics and advantages on which they should build. Their interdependence with Birmingham varies by distance and from issue to issue.

  5.4  There will never be a perfect set of boundaries for regional or indeed local government. This is one of the reasons that it is crucial to only carry out the appropriate activities at the appropriate scale.

  5.5  In the West Midlands, only Birmingham would be strong enough to base a city region upon. This would however provide a very poor structure for the more peripheral rural and urban areas.

  5.6  An appropriate Birmingham City region should really be a slightly larger area than the old West Midlands County Council. While there is an argument for recreating this with stronger county councils to replace all regional bodies our belief is that the level of interdependence across county boundaries does support a regional structure as long as its remit is clear and appropriate. The area of a Birmingham City Region could be based on a commuter pattern.

  5.7  The current structure of local authorities is also inappropriate for many of its activities. Birmingham for instance is too large to operate close to the ground in the wide variety of neighbourhood and personal services that are of prime importance to people. It is a large and complex city with a range of different areas. To some extent this has been recognised by the council in its decentralisation initiatives. At the same time it is not large enough to cover the economic and travel to work area that is dependent on the city or the role that the city centre performs for a large part of the region. While Birmingham Council is large enough to run education and many health services most district councils are not.

  5.8  There is a need to review the structure and size of local authorities. It is however our belief that this should not be done at the same time as restructuring regional government.

  5.9  The process should be one of deciding what can be decentralised from national government to the regional and local level, developing an appropriate regional structure which may differ in each region and then considering the structure and scope of local government within each region accepting that even with using a common set of principles there may be differing structures in each region.

6.  INTERREGIONAL CO-OPERATION

  6.1  There will always be cross boundary issues on which interregional cooperation is required.

  6.2  The Northern Way is however about more than this. It is about a multi regional framework to promote the economic development and regeneration of the North.

  6.3  The question that needs to be asked is why such an approach is needed. The logical answer is because of failure of central government. Its failure to have a proper regional strategy to support dispersed economic growth and its failure to devolve power with responsibility to the regional and local authority level. Instead it has set up regional development agencies to compete with each other for foot loose investment.

  6.4  The most effective way to tackle economic disparities is through national policy and through local areas growing their own economies and building on their strengths, rather than prioritising putting resources into competing with other regions or areas within a region for the limited and less stable footloose investment. The role of the "local multiplier effect" should be considered.

7.  CONCLUSIONS

  7.1  There is an urgent need to restructure regional administration and make it into a democratically elected, uniform structure with a clear and appropriate remit.

  7.2  The new structure needs to be based on the principles of:

    —  Decentralisation to the most local level possible.

    —  Clarity and transparency

    —  Accountability and responsibility.

    —  Effectiveness.

    —  Self-reliance.

  7.3  The regional structures should have a responsibility to promote the development of strong local communities, and economies that are environmentally sustainable within their region.

  7.4  Taking such an approach would remove duplication, waste inefficiency, ineffectiveness and help preserve and strengthen local distinctiveness, helping to create places where people choose to live, vote and work.





 
previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2006
Prepared 15 March 2006