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

Memorandum by the South West Constitutional Convention (SWCC)(RG 60)


    —  Controversial policy issues in most regions—for example new housing targets and strategic transport infrastructure—do not map neatly on to the mandates and competences of existing authorities. Leaving them to be determined centrally is unlikely to prove politically acceptable, as bitter debates about new housing patterns shows. There is a need for these issues to be controlled, as far as practicable, by democratically accountable authorities, advised where appropriate by appointed quangos. There is also a need for wide-area issues to be addressed by authorities—whether elected or not—whose members are constrained neither by parochial NIMBYism nor by arbitrary and narrow "silos" of specialism (See section 2, below).

    —  The referendum result for the North East last year was a sobering—and perhaps unexpectedly stark—insight into the depth of public scepticism about the Government's devolution plans at the time. However, we believe that the scepticism was about the effectiveness of local government generally, and about the robustness of emerging city-regions in the North, as much as about the viability of the specific model of elected assembly being proposed in the Draft Regional Assemblies Bill (See section 3, below).

    —  The concern a few years ago about a "democratic deficit"—when judging English governance by the standards of continental Europe—seems to have been replaced by a concern about the calibre of local and regional governance—and of politicians themselves. The Comprehensive Performance Assessment (CPA) regime has shown over the last three years that some authorities struggle to reach even basic levels of corporate competence, which is often a consequence of their simply being too small. But nor are the unelected assemblies held in high esteem. There is a growing consensus that better governance, and restored public engagement in local politics, could be secured by having fewer, better qualified, better empowered and more focused people engaged in governance (see section 4, below).

    —  People are sceptical about enlarging government, and fear that it will create additional fiscal drag on the region's economy. This argues not only for persevering with the rationalisation of the two-tier system, but for ensuring that any new structure is rationally based on subsidiarity. It is unlikely that the existing tiers of local government will muster much enthusiasm for this, as too many personal careers and power bases may be threatened, but the status quo is now so confusing and inefficient that the long-term case for pressing ahead is overwhelmingly strong (see section 5, below).

    —  There is a possibility—not beneficial to the South West—that "city regions" will take root by default. The cities face intense regeneration needs, and many in the southern regions also face crises in affordable housing and sustainable transport. This may mean that new forms of governance will evolve to fill the vacuum in regional policy, but will fail adequately to address the interdependence of conurbations and rural England—a particular challenge in the South West where a minority of people live in urban settings.


  2.1  The current apparatus of governance in the South West has, in the wake of the NE referendum, needed to carry on for at least a while, although we are aware that the existing (un-elected) South West Regional Assembly (SWRA) is not highly thought of, and is increasingly regarded in the region as an expensive and over-large talking-shop which many attended with extreme reluctance. We are also aware the Conservative party nationally has—in the wake of the NE referendum—called for the unelected assemblies now to be wound up, and that some Conservative politicians see them as Trojan horses for the imposition via ODPM of unacceptably high new house-building targets.

  2.2  On the other hand, we recognise that issues such as house-building, general land-use and long-range transport cannot entirely be resolved at the level of district or even county councils, and that some kind of regional decision-making apparatus is needed. Those involved in the former Regional Planning Conference can testify as to the degree of tension between even upper-tier local authorities when these issues are being negotiated.

  2.3  In the Regional Assemblies legislation, the creation of elected assemblies was linked to the rationalisation of the existing two tiers of local government to a single unitary tier in shire areas. We have always believed that the move to unitary government was likely to resume at some point—and was desirable—even if temporarily stalled because of the NE result. The existing unitary authorities are likely to want to press ahead with their respective agendas without waiting for a regional policy to be reassembled. Unless the problem of two-tier local government is addressed within a year or two, it seems likely that that existing unitary authorities—mostly centred on conurbations—will by default seek to develop their infrastructure and policies along the lines of city-regions. This would simply not suit the South West, as large tracts of the region are centred on comparatively small market and coastal towns.


  3.1  The result on 5 November last year of the referendum held in the NE region appeared to show a high degree of public rejection of the proposal to create an elected NE Assembly. We believe that the referendum had probably offered a "lightning-rod" for a local electorate who might have reacted against a whole series of secondary issues, apart from the specific idea of an elected North East Assembly.

  3.2  Among the dislikes encountered during the campaign were (a) a general disenchantment with the current Government and anything it proposed, (b) a non-specific suspicion of politicians generally (perhaps especially a new tier of politicians), (c) a worry that an extra tier would be costly in relation to the limited powers on offer, (d) an unease about the prospect of regional power being concentrated in one locality (probably Newcastle) at the expense of others, (e) worries that regional government was the first step towards dismantling the sovereignty of the UK, and (f) a general conservatism about the notion of changing patterns of government at all. In short, it was difficult to be sure precisely what people were saying "no" to, but the effect was undoubtedly to blight any immediate prospect of parallel referenda in other English regions.


  4.1  The calibre of local politicians—whether members of the SW Assembly or not—is not universally high, or at least not as high as it needs to be to restore public faith and engagement in local politics. A few years ago, the concern being voiced was of a "democratic deficit"": of there being too few elected politicians to represent the diverse territory of the region. There is still concern in some quarters that an elected assembly with not less than 25 but not more than 35 members (as originally proposed in para 3(5) of the Draft Regional Assemblies Bill) would have struggled to secure fine-grained local knowledge of a region as extensive and diverse as the South West. Even so, more often nowadays one hears complaints that the members in office in the existing authorities are unimpressive, and that good governance could be secured by having fewer members who were more focused on their mandate.


  5.1  We in SWCC support the principle of subsidiarity in shaping governance structures. But that is not what we currently have in England. On a rigorous application of subsidiarity, one would expect to see truly local services, such as the running of a local library or the management of a local care home, administered by the most local democratic tier of government, and yet these are two examples of county council functions. Most county councils run these services well enough, but need to set up sub-county teams—often with their own local offices—to achieve this.

  5.2  By the same token, one would expect to see very wide-area functions such as strategic transport through the trunk road network, accountability for rail franchises, the shaping of land-use policy, such as the handling of waste disposal or the protection of amenity land, handled at a regional level. There seems currently to be an acceptance by Government that police and fire services need to be seen as at least sub-regionally structured, as strategic health service management is already. And yet strategic transport and land-use functions are rather awkwardly scattered among non-democratic regional quangos, individual county councils with different cross-boundary policies, or else are subject to diffuse influence through the non-elected regional assemblies.

  5.3  For their part, the district councils seem to us to hover rather uncomfortably between cohesive local communities—such as urban neighbourhoods, market towns or clusters of villages—and arbitrarily-drawn larger entities (such as Torridge or West Somerset) which have neither the self-awareness of natural local communities nor the strategic detachment and critical size needed to escape NIMBYism. The result is—in the South West—far too many small bureaucracies, each struggling to sustain a huge breadth of functions for a relatively small area. Again, within these constraints, most perform surprisingly well, but we cannot help thinking that this same level of ingenuity and industry applied within a more appropriate framework would work better for the populations they serve.

  5.4  The South West is also a region still governed predominantly through two-tier local government structures. Now that we have had three years' experience of formal performance rankings for local authorities through the Comprehensive Performance Assessment (CPA) regime, we can see all too clearly the effect of some of the smallest districts in the South West struggling to maintain basic corporate functions. Even where new unitary authorities were created in the late 1990's, as in Torbay and Plymouth, it was painfully obvious that they struggled to apportion resources with the pre-existing county council—in that case, former Devon—and neither has yet regained financial stability even seven years after incorporation. While SWCC values the democratic sensitivity which can flow from two tiers of elected local government, we are concerned by the spectacle of 51 sovereign authorities each seeking to support administrative back-of-house functions, with—inevitably—51 sets of mostly purpose-built premises for a region of only 5 million people.

  5.5  It seems clear to us that the rather unimpressive array of powers on offer to proposed regional assemblies in the last legislation has been a factor in failing to capture public enthusiasm for elected assemblies, and has allowed the allegation that they would be little more than expensive talking shops to take root. The Campaign for the English Regions (CFER) has campaigned strongly for the range of powers to be extended. A report recommending this, "Regions that Work", was published jointly by the CFER and the Local Government Information Unit in March last year. But ultimately some (including SWCC) had allowed themselves to be persuaded that assemblies with initially few direct powers might be a basis for regional policy growth in future years. This was a tactical error. The "expensive talking shop" epithet has stuck—for at least some people—and will now require that there should be clear moves towards properly empowered assemblies before there is any chance of future public support for the concept.

  5.6  There is a particular difficulty over the current planning regime, in that development control authorities are the lowest available tier of government (excluding the parishes), and this seems likely to encourage members on planning committees to pursue very parochial interests or simple "NIMBYism", safe in the knowledge that the Secretary of State could always take the flack in over-riding their decisions in the wider interest. This had over the years fostered an unhealthy disregard among local politicians for issues which benefited any area outside their immediate "patch".


  6.1  The South West is England's most extensive region, and probably also its most culturally and economically diverse. At its eastern end, around Swindon, it effectively contributes to the economy of the south-east through the M4 corridor, where connections to Heathrow and Greater London make the sub-region attractive as a location for national headquarters offices and to new technology inward investors. At its western end Cornwall, Plymouth and Torbay struggle with economic fragility and some of the highest levels of social deprivation anywhere in Britain. This size and diversity has encouraged some dissenting groups in the South West to campaign for smaller sub-regions—perhaps most conspicuously one centred on the county of Cornwall—or to promote the re-drawing of boundaries. We believe these to be dangerous distractions from the more pressing issues of critical mass and subsidiarity.

  6.2  The issue of regional boundaries has been played down both by Government and by CFER for the last few years, on the grounds (a) that economies of scale demand that a viable region in the mainland European mould be of about five million population—roughly equivalent to that of the whole of the current SW region, and (b) that it will probably never be possible anyway to reach a universal agreement about where a region actually begins and ends. For the SW, the main friction points have been Cornwall (some of whose residents oppose any continued association with points north and east, and contend that Cornwall is an economic, linguistic, and cultural region in its own right) and the "Solent fringes" of East Dorset, Christchurch, Bournemouth and Poole, whose economic and cultural hinterland extends more naturally to the east than to the west. To a lesser extent, there are also boundary ambivalences in Gloucestershire (tending to look north towards the West Midlands conurbation) and in Swindon and East Wiltshire (tending to look east along the M4 corridor).

  6.3  These issues are a minefield, and suppressing debate about them might alienate certain would-be supporters of devolved governance. Rekindling them might, however, divert attention away from the less popularly visible shared resource and infrastructure problems of the region. In the current climate the Government might well be tempted to re-cast its proposals on different geographic boundaries, if that meant capturing more local support. This is a particular issue for the South West, because open support for devolved government here is lower than in other parts of England anyway. If the towns and cities along the M27 arc bordering the Solent were, for the sake of argument, to evolve by default into a Solent city-region, than that would further deplete any political will to create a wider SW region incorporating Bournemouth and Poole. And that in itself could make the Cornish tension greater, even if it meant moving the regional centre of gravity further west.

  6.4  The concept of city-regions is now gaining ascendancy by default, and they may well offer a suitable model in those parts of England which are more urban in character than most of the South West. City regions are less prone to boundary disputes, simply because most of the debates about land-use and economic activity are focused on the conurbations themselves, allowing the gravitational pull of the cities to feather out into their economic and cultural hinterlands. But in the case of the South West, this would inevitably lead to a loss of political profile for those parts of the region—the great majority—lying beyond the travel-to-work areas of Bristol, Bournemouth and Plymouth.

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