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

Memorandum by The Law Society (RG 65)

  I write on behalf of the Law Society's Planning and Environmental Law Committee in response to the request for written evidence to assist the ODPM Committee in its inquiry into regional government. The Law Society is the professional body which regulates and represents the 100,000 solicitors practicing in England and Wales. The Committee is comprised of 20 practitioners expert in these areas of the law from a cross section of the profession, both public and private sectors and from across the country.

  The Committee has been consistently critical of the establishment of Regional Development Authorities which lack the democratic involvement of the people who live in each region. Indirect representation through the nomination of representatives from constituent local authorities and the involvement of invited "stakeholders" is no substitute for democratic election. However, as the referendum in the North East in 2004 demonstrated, there is no appetite amongst the electorate for the creation of a new tier of government which many regard as likely to be both remote and bureaucratic.

  The Committee's interest in regional government lies in the area of town and country planning and the planning of other strategic issues such as housing and transport. Under the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 there is a new obligation on Regional Planning Bodies to produce Regional Spatial Strategies. The Secretary of State has designated the Regional Development Authorities as the Regional Planning Bodies for this purpose, without addressing the question of democratic accountability. Indeed, fresh initiatives in relation to regional devolution seemed to have been placed in the deep freeze.

  The Committee acknowledges the need for issues which cut across the boundaries of local authorities such as housing need and transport, to be addressed at the strategic regional level in order to maximise co-ordination across the area and to act as a focal point when seeking Government funding. The transition from Regional Planning Guidance prescribed by the Secretary of State to Regional Spatial Strategies developed within each region has to be regarded as an improvement. The significance accorded to community involvement in the production of RSS has yet to be tested in practice. There is a real problem in rendering regional level plans relevant at the local level and the Committee fears that few ordinary members of the public will feel impelled to participate in that process. It is to be hoped that novel approaches to community involvement can be initiated to address this disinterest and to ensure that there is some material level of popular participation and hence consent.

  In the absence of democratic involvement at the regional level, the Committee considers that there must be a clear demarcation between the respective responsibilities of the regions and the constituent local authorities. In all cases issues should be for the local authority unless there are demonstrable reasons for dealing with an issue at the regional level. As indicated above, the Committee agrees that there are good reasons for that regional level in planning and transport. That aside, as far as practicable planning issues should be the responsibility of the local authority and not the regional bodies—as indeed is the case with minerals and waste planning which lies with the county council or the unitary local authorities. However, there is no immediate solution to the absence of democratic involvement in regional government. The Government's reluctance to undertake further devolution referenda is not particularly helpful. The job of selling the principle of regional government has scarcely begun.

  The Committee is sceptical of the establishment of city regions and inter-regional co-operation along the lines of the Northern Way for purposes of economic regeneration. Both concepts appear to focus on core central areas rather than looking across the whole of the area. Indeed, the Northern Way is focused on urban centres almost to the exclusion of the regional hinterland. If these sorts of initiatives are to be taken forward as an alternative to regional government they will need to embrace far more clearly the whole of their areas. They will also need to address the issues of democratic involvement and popular support for these approaches to regional development lest they share a fate similar to that of the Regional Assembly in the North East.

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