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

Memorandum by the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) (RG 70)


  1.  The Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) engages as a key stakeholder throughout all the English regions. Our primary aim is to promote environmentally sustainable development, and particularly the protection and enhancement of the countryside. Our Regional Groups and dedicated Regional Policy Officers in each region have amassed considerable expertise in regional policy issues, particularly in connection with regional spatial planning policies and processes.

  1.1  CPRE therefore welcomes this opportunity to acknowledge recent achievements in regional working, to highlight concerns of real significance and to discuss future options for the regions that would promote our core aims.

1.  The potential for increasing the accountability of decision-making at the regional and sub-regional level, and the need to simplify existing arrangements

  1.1  Under current arrangements Regional Assemblies are required to develop a spatial strategy in line with central Government policy. Assembly members are not directly elected at the regional level and they tend to act as county delegates who promote the best interests of their "sponsoring" authority. Scrutiny of the Regional Development Agency (RDA) by Regional Assemblies is solely in an advisory capacity, as RDAs report to the Secretary of State. Assemblies' financial resources are small when compared with the RDAs and their staffing levels minimal. The Draft Elected Regional Assemblies Bill sought to address accountability with the introduction of directly elected members. However, the constituency size envisaged in the dual electoral process was so large as to preclude genuine representation of local communities in the Assemblies, especially where the proposed membership was intended to be so very much reduced. No additional powers were envisaged and we were concerned that the dual electoral system offered less effective representation of local interests than the first past the post system enjoyed in national and local elections.

  1.2  If the Government is to continue to pursue the regional government agenda, CPRE wishes to see directly elected Regional Assemblies with greater numbers of members than those proposed under the recent draft Bill. We particularly highlight the need for smaller constituencies as this can provide the necessary level of representation for rural communities. Otherwise there is a concern that the voice of the greater numbers living in urban areas could dominate the agenda of Regional Assemblies to the detriment of rural communities and the countryside. In this context, CPRE highlights the need for regional electoral boundaries to distinguish between urban and rural areas.

  1.3  If elected regional assemblies were to become truly accountable to the communities they represent, we would have no objection in principle to their assuming greater powers in those areas where they can better address the needs of their regions. CPRE highlights the particular expertise gained by those working at the regional level on issues relating to natural resources, landscape protection and economic activity in rural areas. We wish to see a system that accommodates distinctive regional identities and sensitivity in working towards the over-arching goal of securing sustainable development in each region. Regional Sustainable Development Frameworks contain regionally specific indicators that can be used to guide policy development in regional spatial strategies and other regional policy documents, notably regional economic strategies.

  1.4  CPRE welcomes the development of stakeholder working at regional level. The intended 30% stakeholder representation on Regional Planning Boards and in other areas of regional government has created close co-operation between the indirectly elected members and key stakeholders. As the majority of stakeholders work with a regional rather than a more local focus, this has helped develop a truly regional perspective and identity. However, the arrangements for stakeholder involvement in the different regions have varied considerably. In the North West the introduction of a cabinet system has meant that stakeholder involvement is substantially reduced at all but full Assembly level. With the introduction of some delegated powers in regional planning, we are concerned that stakeholders have become increasingly marginalized in that region. This contrasts with the position in the South East where the Assembly actively supports the engagement of stakeholders with a small secretariat and where 30% stakeholder representation is rigorously maintained with an emphasis on increasing stakeholder diversity. CPRE believes that the need to recognise distinctive regional circumstances should not preclude greater consistency in the representation and engagement of stakeholders. We strongly support the development of more consistent arrangements.

  1.5  CPRE recognises that the introduction of elected Regional Assemblies would mean the end of current voting rights for stakeholders. However, with such bodies, we consider it essential to ensure continuity of stakeholder engagement and representation at the current 30% level. This will allow the significant expertise of economic, social and environmental partners to inform the decision-making of elected members. Under the provisions of the Draft Elected Regional Assemblies Bill this continuity of engagement could have been lost, with ad hoc arrangements put in their place only at the discretion of the much smaller assemblies proposed. Currently, many stakeholder organisations invest substantial resources in the employment of staff to engage at regional level. If levels of stakeholder involvement were to reduce it is questionable whether some organisations would be able to justify continued financial commitments at this level. If the powers of Regional Assemblies are to be extended, CPRE believes it would be appropriate for consideration to be given to providing greater support, including financial, for stakeholder engagement in the future.

  1.6  CPRE believes that making RDAs accountable to directly elected Regional Assemblies would provide greater confidence in the activities of these bodies. There is a serious deficit in accountability under current arrangements since the statutory duty of Regional Assemblies to scrutinise the activities of the RDAs only enables them to perform an advisory function, as these latter bodies report directly to the Secretary of State. The emphasis should be on giving elected Regional Assemblies real powers that are properly resourced, and to make these bodies properly accountable to the electorate.

2.  The potential for devolution of powers from regional to local level

  2.1  With regard to the scope for devolving from regional to local levels, the recent announcement by David Miliband that the Government is to review local government arrangements with a view to replacing district with unitary authorities is ambiguous. It could suggest a movement in the opposite direction, ie away from the local level. As we set out in our submission to the Boundary Committee, CPRE believes that it is vital that any changes should result in authorities on a scale that is small enough to remain meaningfully accountable and for the public to feel a sense of identity, but also large enough to be strategic. The approach that can achieve this will vary across the country, but a central objective throughout should be to improve, rather than undermine, local communities' ability to participate in and influence decision making in their areas. CPRE's network of branches, regional groups and volunteers play an active and, on some issues such as planning, informed role, in local civic matters. We are concerned that the creation of more geographically remote authorities could make it more difficult for local communities to engage with those responsible for delivering services and making decisions in their area—if only by making distances so great that such participation is prohibitively difficult and expensive.

3.  The effectiveness of current arrangements for managing services at the various levels, and their inter-relationships

  3.1  Service delivery is mainly by local rather than regional government but sub-regional working might provide scope for delivery at that level, particularly when addressing the specific needs of rural communities. More seamless working by the authorities concerned would be needed.

  3.2  Business support and training provision by RDAs should specifically address the skills required in rural communities to ensure the good husbandry of the countryside and management of the landscape, as well as other social and economic needs of rural communities, based on sound local knowledge.

  3.3  Additional service delivery in areas such as education and health could develop in the future, but this would require the devolution of additional powers to Regional Assemblies and RDAs, an additional funding requirement and robust measures to ensure equity of provision.

  3.4  CPRE is also concerned that, despite the statutory provisions in the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004, there is a lack of opportunity for county councils effectively to engage in regional spatial planning processes. The powers of Regional Assemblies and the cross-border nature of sub-regional working mean that the expertise of accountable and elected county and unitary councillors is not harvested to the best effect. CPRE strongly recommends that county councils and unitary authorities, as well as Regional Assemblies, should be asked to consider how the role of former in regional planning processes can be enhanced in future.

4.  The potential for new arrangements, particularly the establishment of city regions

  4.1  City regions, with their constituent networks of market towns and villages, are relevant in some regions. This is particularly true in the northern regions where most people live in large urban conurbations. However, there is a need to ensure that the needs of rural communities, especially regarding affordable housing and transport provision, are effectively recognized. The maintenance and possible extension of significant areas of designated Green Belt as an integral element of the city regions concept is essential to safeguard and improve the quality of life for both urban and rural communities in the future.

  4.2  The relevance of the city regions concept is less clear in other regions where population is more dispersed and where there are a large number of urban areas, none of which exerts a dominant influence over the region. There is a need to avoid a "one size fits all" approach. For example, the "polycentric" distribution of settlements in the greater South East, beyond London, does not match the current city region model. There is an overwhelming need to appreciate the fundamental differences between regions when developing future models for regional government.

5.  The impact which new regional and sub-regional arrangements, such as the city regions, might have upon peripheral towns and cities

  5.1  A weakness of the current system is that each RDA is charged with maximising economic growth within its own region to the exclusion of other areas, which often causes damaging competition with other regions. Inappropriate application of the city region model in this context could focus resources into areas with the greatest immediate potential for prosperity, while communities most in need of investment, whether on the periphery or in the urban core, are neglected. The drive towards economic growth must not undermine objectives for social and environmental progress in urban and rural communities, with protection and enhancement of the countryside and the natural environment as key factors underpinning regional quality of life.

  5.2  There is a danger with planning according to the city region of urban interests dominating and as result there could be a failure to engage with and understand rural issues. For example, a draft version of the North West's Regional Spatial Strategy described the city region as "containing a range of towns, villages and urban fringe" (he North West Plan Interim Draft Revisions to the Regional Spatial Strategy for the North West of England, October 2005). It is vital that any conceptualisation or definition of city regions explicitly recognises the value and role of countryside, not purely as an adjunct to urban activity, but as integral to achieving wider social, economic and environmental objectives across the region as a whole and beyond.

6.  The desirability of closer inter-regional co-operation (as in the Northern Way) to tackle economic disparities

  6.1  The focus of both Regional Assemblies and RDAs on the economic growth within their own region without regard for others, has the potential to cause significant problems in future. We therefore welcome, in broad terms, the thinking which underpins the Northern Way initiative. However we have very serious concerns about the dominance of the RDAs in the process and elements of the policy agenda which is being promoted. Sub-regional working arrangements have often been developed in recognition that housing and labour markets, as well as communities, do not conform rigidly to the administrative boundaries of county or district councils. Equally, the natural environment and discrete areas of economic and social activity show similar disregard for regional boundaries.

  6.2  There is a need to look beyond the purely economic context for inter-regional working. We therefore welcome inter-regional cooperation where necessary to address and pursue environmental objectives. For example, the recent development of strategies in isolation for the disposal of waste in London and the greater South East demonstrates the need for integrated inter-regional working to support a more joined-up approach in this policy area. Effective, inter-regional cooperation is also a priority in the area of transport planning, particularly in view of the importance of reducing the need to travel by car.

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