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


Memorandum by the East of England Regional Assembly (EERA) (RG 71)

1.  INTRODUCTION TO EERA

  1.1  The East of England Regional Assembly (EERA) is the designated voluntary regional chamber under Section 8 (1) of the Regional Development Agencies Act 1998. EERA originally came into existence in 1999 and, within severely limited resource constraints, made the most of its role of scrutinising the new Regional Development Agency, EEDA.

  1.2  The May 2002 Regional Governance White Paper provided a major boost to EERA's work and paved the way for a major constitutional review. Public appetite for an elected regional assembly was found to be weak in the East of England when the Government took soundings in 2003. The Assembly chose to embrace the so called Chapter 2 agenda from the Regional Governance White Paper, seeking to incrementally develop regional arrangements, without drawing up from the powers of democratically elected local authorities. The Assembly sought to extend democratic influence to central Government departments, and non departmental public bodies. Our scrutiny role with EEDA has also continued to develop, and we have extended the Assembly's scrutiny role, on a voluntary basis, to other public agencies such as the Environment Agency and the Regional Cultural Consortium.

  1.3  The Assembly's own organisational arrangements are somewhat unique in an English regional context. The EERA is the single "brand" under which three separate regional functions are operated. EERA acts as the voluntary regional chamber for the region, but also undertakes the role of the Regional Local Government Association, and also the Regional Employers' Organisation. These arrangements are not only highly cost effective, in terms of bureaucratic structures and costs, but they have enabled EERA to build on its established links with all the 54 local authorities in the Region, together with the new stakeholder partners which the Assembly was required to recognise as a condition of being designated as the Regional Planning Body. A major review of the Assembly's constitution in 2003 introduced a new single constitution which guarantees the participation of all 54 local authorities, who, in spite of differing political views about the merits of Regional Agenda, all voluntarily pay a subscription to the Assembly. Unlike other regions, to date the Assembly has not had any requests for its dissolution nor requests for local authorities to withdraw from membership. We believe that this situation directly stems from a strong belief in working together, to advance the interests of the Region, drawing on the strengths of both our local government and stakeholder partners.

  1.4  There is all group consensus on the Assembly about the benefits of working together and whilst individual political groups have their own views as to the long term future of regional working, and the nature of regional arrangements, the Assembly has successfully established itself as a key regional institution which is there to support the actions and capacity of local authorities in the region.

  1.5  This degree of consensus is perhaps doubly remarkable given the political "colour" of the East of England Westminster and Local Government Map, and also because the Assembly has had to manage the process of a highly controversial Regional Spatial Strategy (the East of England Plan), with its headline uplift in housing numbers of 15% over previous plan targets.

  1.6  We strongly believe that a key to our success is the inclusive nature of Assembly working, where all local authorities are members of the Assembly but the detailed work of the Assembly is undertaken in a range of both thematic panels and a smaller Executive Committee. So while the 102 member Regional Assembly meets in full twice per year the detailed work of the Assembly is done in much smaller panels of 20-30 members and an Executive Committee of 40 members. Much of the day to day policy continuity of the Assembly is provided by the Assembly's Group Leaders (total five members) working consensually.

  1.7  We have however recognised that we have to work hard at continuing to secure the buy-in and goodwill of all the local authorities, political groups and stakeholders on the Assembly. Very recently we have agreed to improve our strategic engagement with the district councils in the region, where there is probably less capacity to engage with the regional agenda, but where it is now even more critical for districts to understand the nature of regional working, and to take advantage of the support offered by the Assembly, eg in the improvement agenda.

  1.8  We have noted with some concern that the Assembly arrangements in other regions appear to be considerably less robust than ours. In some regions Assemblies and Regional Groupings of local authorities are moving apart whilst in other regions they are becoming more integrated. But we are unique in having achieved the degree of integration we have narrated by a single Assembly constitution and supported by a single organisation. We believe there are some lessons about critical mass which may be of relevance to other regions as they review their Regional Governance Arrangements.

2.  Effectiveness of current arrangements for managing services at various levels and their interrelationships

  2.1  Throughout its development, EERA has always recognised the need for local and sub-regional buy-in to regional arrangements and to secure the delivery of regional strategies. For example, the Draft East of England Plan, which commenced its public examination on 1 November, contains a partial coverage of the region into planning sub-regions, which depart from established local government boundaries, and aim to deal with the planning and growth dimensions emanating from the Sustainable Communities Plan, and other growth proposals in parts of the region not formally covered by the SCP.

  2.2  In addition, EERA's Regional Housing Strategy is based on a different but complete coverage of the region into housing sub-regions. These housing sub-regions bring together local authorities and other housing service providers working in partnership, and this experience will be particularly relevant as we respond to recent ODPM proposals for allocating housing by sub-regions based on housing markets.

  2.3  The recognition of the importance of sub-regional delivery is well understood within the East of England and is a feature of the delivery mechanisms of the key regional partners. For example, EEDA's new Regional Economic Strategy observes the same planning sub-regions as the East of England Plan, and so we have already started the process of aiming to use a consistent set of sub-regions for delivery across housing, planning and economic development domains. The forthcoming merger of housing and planning will give a further impetus to achieve consistent planning and housing sub-regions in the future.

3.  Accountability for decision making at the regional and sub-regional level and the simplification of existing arrangements

  3.1  The results of the Referendum in the North East Region, coupled with the contents of the draft East of England Plan, raised the profile of EERA and led to unprecedented media interest and public scrutiny. Regrettably, much of the media coverage has been "informed" by misunderstandings, and misrepresentations about the activities and constitutional legitimacy of EERA, as a voluntary regional chamber. However, in spite of these issues, EERA is quite clear about its constitutional legitimacy and its accountability to its local authority and community stakeholder members.

  3.2  EERA has maintained a quiet consensus across all Assembly Groups about the need to work together to speak up for the Region, and work with our key regional partners in strongly articulating the region's needs and aspirations to Government. This consensus includes the determination to extend the accountability of "big government" including what is colloquially known as "the quango state", other bodies engaged in regional and sub-regional governance and indeed EERA itself. We believe it is through robust partnership between key regional bodies that such accountability can best be achieved.

  3.3  This commitment to partnership working is well established across organisations in the East of England as manifested in the completion of a first Integrated Regional Strategy (IRS) for the region, a joint initiative with the Government Office and RDA. It is the cornerstone of new initiatives within a Regional Governance Framework to improve our ability to give sound prioritisation advice to Ministers across the policy domains of housing, economic development and transport. The East of England region was the only one specifically invited to make a regional submission to the 2004 Spending Review.

  3.4  Although we are proud of our integrated arrangements within EERA itself, we have concluded that fast moving national and regional agendas require us to be even more innovative. We have recently agreed to set up a new Regional Partnership Group, combining the democratic influence of local authorities, as expressed through LAA Groupings, EERA Group Leaders and non-executive representatives of EEDA etc and a range of Executives from key regional partners. By drawing from the emerging Local Area Agreement Groupings in the Region we can ensure a complete geographical coverage of the whole of the East of England, combined with the thematic executive responsibilities of key regional partners, many of whom have substantial regional public service budgets which need to be more aligned to secure the improvements in social, economic and environmental well being which we all want.

  3.5  The Regional Partnership Group will shortly sign off the region's first advice on Regional Funding Allocations and will play a similar role where Government asks "regions" to make an input into national government policy eg the regional input into the next comprehensive spending review.

  3.6  The Regional Partnership Group is not a replacement for the Assembly, rather it gives a unique blend of non-executive and executive interests in the region and particularly those public sector delivery bodies in housing, planning, transport, economic development, skills and environment domains which are critical to the successful delivery of "sustainable development" in its broadest terms. There is a strong read across to the national sustainable development agenda and ODPM's Five Year Plans to build stable, sustainable communities.

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

  4.1  From the very beginning, the principle of subsidiarity has been important in the business and activity of EERA. In conducting its business EERA is always keen to differentiate between those decisions that require a regional perspective and those decisions which are best taken more locally to ensure the efficient and effective delivery of services at a sub-regional level. Indeed as has already been mentioned, EERA and its regional partners have actively sought to promulgate sub-regional delivery. Only recently, EERA took the opportunity to debate and respond to the Home Secretary on the subject of police force reorganisation. EERA was quite clear in its view that the case for amalgamation at a regional or sub regional level had not been made, quite apart from its profound concerns about the consultation process.

  4.2  Outside of the planning system, EERA's "powers" are few. As a voluntary regional chamber, EERA concentrates its efforts on exerting influence and we would respectfully suggest that the real question regarding the devolution of powers would be to examine the devolution from the national level be it to regional, sub-regional or local level.

  4.3  EERA's development has also been closely intertwined with changes to the new planning system. Since June 2001 the Assembly has been involved in preparing a new Regional Spatial Strategy for the East of England. During the course of the preparation of the draft East of England Plan (the RSS) the planning system has been comprehensively overhauled leading to changes both in relation to the new statutory nature of the RSS, and also corresponding changes to the development plan system at local level. In spite of this difficult background the Assembly has made good progress in formulating a new Regional Spatial Strategy and this was formally submitted to Government in December 2004. The Plan is currently undergoing its public examination.

  4.4  These changes to the planning system have indeed seen the demise of the County Structure Plan but in the debates and discussions surrounding that change, it is all too often forgotten that within the previous system local authorities worked through planning conferences (in the greater south east they were SERPLAN and SCEALA). The existence of these planning conferences demonstrated that for some decades local authorities have needed mechanisms to cooperate and plan collectively on matters of sub-national importance. EERA fulfils that function within the new planning system and we would contend fulfils it more effectively and transparently. To illustrate this point, SCEALA, the former regional planning body for Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire famously once refused to come to a view as to whether the A11 or the A14 should be the top roads priority in East Anglia. Contrast this with the fact that at its last meeting, EERA was able to agree a schedule of 23 transport schemes across the whole East of England for an extremely limited amount of priority funding.

  4.5  The places at the SERPLAN table were very few indeed and certainly the representation of District Councils was particularly derisory. Contrast this with the fact that all 54 local authorities are members of EERA, all have an equality of voting, and all meetings are open to the public.

5.  IMPACT OF CITY REGIONS

  5.1  In the particular circumstances of the East of England the City Region model would need very careful adaptation, both in concept and scale. None of the designated core cities, around which the concept appears to have been built, are in the East of England and while we have a number of small and medium sized urban settlements in the 80,000—120,000 population range none are in the same league as say Manchester, Newcastle, Leeds or Birmingham. However, in the draft East of England Plan, EERA has recognised the value of such settlements as being the key preferred locations for much housing growth, as urban centres serving a wide hinterland area for services and jobs and as key transport interchange centres. So we are supportive of initiatives which maximise the importance of such urban centres within their natural footprint.

  5.2  There remains a degree of uncertainty about whether changes to the governance arrangements for such small and medium sized towns and cities will be offered and there has been limited interest in our region to date in some of the new executive mayor arrangements (Bedford and Watford being conspicuous exceptions).

  5.3  Unless it is changed by Government actions accompanied by a move to the introduction of unitary local government the predominantly two tier pattern of local government in the East of England will also probably inhibit the development of city regional governance in the East of England. In many ways the East of England is a region of shire sub-regions rather than natural city regions, and of course in many parts of the East of England the only city which really matters is London whose influence affects a good part of the southern part of the Region.

6.  POTENTIAL FOR OTHER NEW ARRANGEMENTS

  6.1  Housing: EERA is ready to take on the responsibilities of the Regional Housing Board and arrangements are in place within the region to assume these responsibilities early in 2006-07. Last year EERA produced a new Regional Housing Strategy 2005-10 which further develops the concept of new housing sub-regions and this development will also pave the way to work within the new housing market areas, recently signalled by ODPM in Draft PPS3.

  6.2  Health: The current pre-consultation exercise on health structures seems to be pointing to a single SHA being developed for the East of England, the policy position adopted by the Assembly in the 2001 review of health structures (which led to 3 SHAs being formed within the East of England). If such an SHA is introduced following the formal consultation on health structures, then we believe very strongly that it will be important for EERA to undertake a single regional scrutiny role over the activities of the new SHA.

  At its last meeting EERA agreed the first Health Strategy for the region, presented by the Public Health Group in GO-East. Given the importance of the health service, including the health economy and its links with a variety of key public services, EERA is well placed to undertake an RDA type scrutiny role with regard to the new SHA, properly integrating health planning into our wider work, particularly in housing/planning/transport.

  6.3  Extending Accountability of the quango state within the region: EERA has been innovative in seeking to secure, through voluntary agreement, greater influence for the Assembly over the activities of key public sector agencies. We already have a voluntary concordat with the Environment Agency which is paving the way for a greater scrutiny role over the regional activities of the Environment Agency by the Assembly. Similarly, we are developing a scrutiny role with Living East; the regional cultural consortium.

  The Regional Funding Allocations exercise, where regions are being asked to give co-ordinated advice to Government on how best to use a small regional pot of housing/transport/economic development funding could be capable of wider extension into other policy domains. Skills would be an obvious example. In the East of England the budget of the Regional Learning and Skills Council is some 6 times that of the Regional Development Agency and it will be important to draw in to regional policy making a number of key regional NDPBs. Our new Regional Partnership Group should pave the way to make these relationships work more effectively.

7.  DESIRABILITY OF CLOSER INTER REGIONAL CO-OPERATION TO TACKLE ECONOMIC DISPARITIES

  7.1  As a Regional Body with responsibilities for the East of England, EERA naturally concentrates its efforts on promoting East of England issues. However, we recognise that given the somewhat arbitrary nature of regional boundaries, we are increasingly required to work across them, and to maximise the benefits of inter regional co-operation. The East of England has to actively manage its relations with London, the South East and the East Midlands in view of particular cross regional projects such as the Milton Keynes-South Midlands Sub Regional Strategy, London 2012 and the Thames Gateway. EERA has actively participated in the Inter Regional Planning Forum (London, the South East and the East of England) and in the Milton Keynes Inter-Regional Board. We are also aware that the Regional Development Agencies covering the Greater South East have recently agreed to work more closely together, given the similarity of economic development challenges facing these regions. Whilst we are working towards reducing both inter and intra-regional disparities in economic performance, and we note the development of initiatives such as "the Northern Way", it is important that the needs of the East of England, as a region with further considerable potential to offer to "UK plc", are not ignored in any overriding objective to tackle national economic disparities. EERA will keep such matters under close review in the light of emerging Government policy in this area.

8.  CONCLUSIONS

  8.1  As a somewhat new and as some would say artificial region, key regional partners in the East of England have forged strong and mutually beneficial ways of working. In particular, GO-East, EEDA and EERA have faced up to their new role as key regional institutions, and have sought to build robust partnerships and inclusive working arrangements which serve the needs of the Region effectively. We will continue to respond innovatively and pragmatically to further developments in the regional agenda and in a way which adds value to the actions of our local partners and seeks to draw down genuine devolution and decision making from Whitehall into the East of England.





 
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