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

Memorandum by the South West Regional Assembly (SWRA) (RG 59)


  1.1  The South West Regional Assembly (SWRA) is pleased to have been invited to provide a response to the terms of reference for the Committee's enquiry into "Is there A Future for Regional Government".

  1.2  As a cross-party, broad based partnership; members of the SWRA have wide ranging views about the future of the regional agenda and the relationship between Central Government, the region and sub-regional and local partners. Nevertheless, there are matters on which the SWRA is able to offer a consensus view. The points made in this response reflect:

    —  on the impacts and successes of the regional agenda as it has developed in the South West region;

    —  the Assembly's response to the 2002 Regional White Paper; and

    —  the Assembly's response to the Rt Hon David Miliband's letter on the structures and functions of Assemblies.

  1.3  The Assembly is one of a number of the organisations working at the regional level within the South West, and is a relative newcomer only having been in existence since 1998. It is a true regional partnership in that it is both politically and geographically representative of the region and draws together elected politicians with key social, economic and environmental organisations in the region. By bringing together such a wide partnership it has not only enabled some strong regional decision making but a number of important qualitative outcomes around cross-boundary collaboration, sharing of information and resources, and enhanced understanding of the challenges facing the South West. It considers amongst its key headline successes to date to be:

    —  agreement across regional organisations as to the South West's key aims and objectives through the Integrated Regional Strategy;

    —  effective engagement of local authorities in planning for the future growth of the South West through the emerging Regional Spatial Strategy; and

    —  accountability of the South West RDA to the people of the region through successive regional strategic scrutiny reviews.

  1.4  Members and Officers of the SWRA would be willing to appear before the committee in further support of this submission.

  1.5  The following sections address each element of the terms of reference in turn.


  2.1  Assembly members are committed to increased accountability and transparency of decision making at all levels.

  2.2  The Assembly believes that real progress has been made in the South West on increasing accountability at the regional level through the Regional Assembly working in partnership with key regional organisations. The following list provides some key examples of progress:

    —  The publication of Just Connect!, the South West's first Integrated Regional Strategy in 2004, which for the first time provides the region with a set of clear aims and objectives to aid the integration of the 20 plus regional strategies in the South West and is signed up to by all key regional organisations (copy enclosed).

    —  Agreed regional responses on the Regional Emphasis Document 2003, consultation on the potential for Regional Funding Allocations in 2004, and the Regional Funding Allocations process in 2006.

    —  Regional strategic review—the Assembly's approach to its role in scrutinising the SW RDA which draws together partners from across the South West at regional, sub-regional and local level to reflect on policy issues of regional significance and the respective roles of organisations in delivery.

    —  In progress—a draft leaflet outlining the work of 3 of the key regional level bodies—the Assembly, GOSW and the SW RDA which should help increase understanding of the respective roles.

  2.3  The Assembly believes that it is the only regional level body with a clear measure of democratic accountability, however imperfect. All the 51 local authorities nominate a Councillor to the Assembly and the local authority membership which accounts for nearly 70% of the total is politically balanced reflecting the make up of the region. In addition key regional partners, across sectors as diverse as business, the environment and equality groups, are represented on the Assembly.

  2.4  Nevertheless, there is potential for change that would enhance the accountability of decision making for which there is clear appetite both within and beyond the region. Much of this appetite stems from the fact that it is clear that current arrangements at regional level are not well understood by all players which leads to lack of clarity over lines of responsibility. Indeed, a consistent finding of the Assembly in undertaking its regional strategic review programme to scrutinise the work of the South West RDA is that there is a desire amongst partners at all levels to understand better the relationship between regional and sub-regional players and their respective roles and responsibilities. It follows that there is a desire for clear communication and further understanding on the roles of players at all levels.

  2.5  The Assembly considers that there are a number of processes in the pipeline that will increase accountability and aid simplification at the regional level, for example the creation of Natural England and the proposed merger of the Regional Planning and Regional Housing bodies. Nevertheless, the Assembly would encourage the Select Committee to explore the following issues around the potential for simplification:

    —  the opportunity to streamline where institutions are involved in doing the same thing eg are there too many agencies doing the same thing, eg around business support and economic development?;

    —  the opportunity to combine regional assemblies with regional observatories to enable assemblies to more effectively link policy development work and their role in providing "the voice of the region" to regional intelligence;

    —  the opportunity for organisations to come together on statutory planning work eg several regional organisations are involved as statutory consultees on development plans and applications—is there an opportunity to the draw together regional players in responding to their statutory consultee role?[87];

    —  the opportunity for regional assemblies to have more of a role in the appointment of board members to organisations such as RDAs, and for the greater sharing of board papers amongst regional institutions including assemblies; and

    —  the need for greater connectivity between policy and delivery. Further opportunities for spend to be connected to strategic policy, such as through the Regional Funding Allocation process, need to be explored.

  2.6  Although joint working within the Just Connect framework, has helped ensure that decision making is set more firmly within the context agreed by the region, there remains a lack of formal accountability to the region by the vast majority of regional institutions. At the moment the Assembly only has the remit and capacity to scrutinise the Regional Development Agency spending within the region, but increasingly the scrutiny reviews are looking at issues which cross organisational boundaries both at regional and local level and which are helpful in ensuring more open and better joined-up decision making at regional level for example: the strategic review of the Learning and Skills agenda encouraged Learning and Skills Councils in the SW to work together regionally for the first time; the strategic review of tourism enabled the linking of regional and local activity so that expenditure supporting tourism in the region works better.

  2.7  The Assembly considers, therefore, that the Select Committee should explore seriously the potential for increasing regional accountability through further endorsement and effective use of the Assembly's scrutiny function. Regional reviews of public spending led by the Assembly bringing in other key partners will help ensure more soundly based expenditure in meeting regional as well as national priorities. One area which the South West Regional Assembly is keen to be able to contribute to ensuring effective regional working in the activity of the Highways Agency. There needs to be a closer relationship between the Highways Agency, Assembly as the body responsible for regional transport and local transport authorities.

  2.8  The Assembly also believes it would be helpful to arrange more partnership working across the health, education and crime sectors in the South West. (The South West Assembly has found it very beneficial to have a secondee from public health support the development of the Regional Spatial Strategy).


  3.1  The Assembly remains committed to the principle of decision making being at the right level for the purpose (as outlined in the Assembly's response to the Government's White Paper).

  3.2  Powers that are currently held at regional level cross a range of regional institutions from the economic role of the Regional Development Agency to the role of Regional Assembly on statutory planning. Nevertheless, it is important to emphasise that powers held at the regional level are still relatively limited. The Assembly's current role is clearly in the area of strategic policy and regional overview—facilitating cross-boundary working. The Planning and Future Housing Body functions, will still be advisory to Government and Few regional organisations have executive, decision making powers directly influencing spend in the region.

  3.3  From the Assembly's perspective a key question that needs to be pursued is about ensuring accountability of decision making at whatever level it takes place. As outlined in section 2 above, key institutions operating at the regional level are effectively arms of national Government and are therefore accountable at national level rather than regional or local level.

  3.4  The Assembly firmly believes that joint-action at the regional level has been important in assisting effective delivery at the local level. For example, two key areas where coordination at a regional level in the South West has proved to be particularly important have been on waste incineration and affordable housing. The regional housing body, in drawing together key partners, has been able to provide clarity on the South West's housing needs and priorities in a way which has been beneficial at all levels in the South West. The Assembly in partnership with the South West Local Government Association has then taken this forward in making the case to Government on behalf of all the region.

  3.5  Clearly, one of the key functions of the Assembly is regional planning. Working at the regional level is enabling the greater joining up of policy at the local level. It is arguable whether the extent to which some of the successful cross-boundary collaboration on planning for the future of parts of the region would have taken place without the influence of the region. Joint Study Areas that have informed the developing Regional Spatial Strategy have involved significant cross-boundary collaboration in many parts of the South West.

  3.6  It will clearly be important for the Select Committee to reflect on the findings of the Lyons Review on the functions of Local Government as part of this inquiry.


  4.1  The SWRA operates at the strategic level and does not have a direct role in service provision. However, it is able to make two key observations on this area.

  4.2  The first is that it is committed to the subsidiary principle—service delivery should take place at the right level. There may be much to learn from Local Area Agreements which offer the flexibility to local authorities to deliver services in innovative ways to meet their needs.

  4.3  The second is that the mismatch in institutional boundaries across service providers creates confusion. At whatever level services are deemed appropriate to deliver at, co-terminosity of geographical boundaries would be of significant benefit.


  5.1  The evident link between the economic performance of regions and the competitiveness of their towns and cities is clear. This is one of several reasons why the SWRA, through the emerging Regional Spatial Strategy, supports the focussing of housing and economic growth in its key urban areas. However, as a very rural region, these areas' importance cannot be overlooked.

  5.2  The "city-region" concept is gaining increased parlance. Yet, without clear details on the purpose, funding or administrative arrangements for city-regions it is hard to comment on the real potential for, or implications of such a model for the South West. Three key observations that the SWRA can make are:

    —  any city region structures should not be a substitute for regional wide policy coordination and debate which has shown to be of real benefit to the South West region as detailed under section 2 above;

    —  the relationship between any new and existing arrangements needs to be clear and transparent and increase accountability not blur it; and

    —  if "city-regions" are to be equated with England's core-cities then in regions such as the South West, with only one core city, arrangements will need to be sensitive to the needs of other cities, towns and rural areas.

  5.3  The SWRA would be cautious about instigating new arrangements without proper assessment of the value and effectiveness of current structures.

  5.4  It might be helpful to know that under the auspices of "`The Way Ahead'—the South West's submission to Government on the Sustainable Communities Plan"—the region (led by the South West RDA) has established a "Key Areas Group". What this group has shown is the benefit of sharing best practice and experience between urban areas.


  See comments under 5 above.


  7.1  There are clear and tangible benefits to close inter-regional co-operation to tackle economic disparities. As the Northern Way has shown, where commonality of objectives exists, there are real economies of scale achieved by working closer together.

  7.2  From the perspective of tackling economic disparities in the South West two key areas that can be influenced by inter-regional co-operation relate to transport infrastructure and spatial planning. The South West has worked closely with Wales and the South East on the Multi-Modal Study and continues to work with across-regional boundaries on the development of the Regional Spatial Strategy. A current priority is working with the South East and East of England on the implications of the construction of Crossrail on the economies of our respective regions. Nevertheless, the SWRA considers working cross-regional boundaries is an opportunity that regional players collectively need to do more of.

  7.3  In the context of increasing global competitiveness, it is clear that regions will need not simply to collaborate with one another within the UK but look to solutions to tackle economic disparities with neighbours in Europe and beyond.

87   The Assembly is committed to establishing protocol with other statutory consultees to ensure that in commenting on local plans and planning applications there is a consistency of approach and the avoidance of duplication. Back

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