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 bodiesas 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
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.