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


Memorandum by the County Councils Network (CCN) (RG 73)

THE COUNTY COUNCILS NETWORK

  The County Councils Network (CCN) is a Special Interest Group within the Local Government Association (LGA), with all 37 English Shire Counties in membership. The County Councils Network promotes the voice of counties within the LGA and the values and interests of the English Counties. Together these authorities represent 48% of the population of England and provide services across 87% of its land area.

THE GOVERNANCE OF SHIRE ENGLAND

  The Select Committee has asked for views about the potential for increasing the accountability of decision-making at the sub-regional level. We consider that the existing county councils provide a very effective mechanism for co-ordinating the delivery of key public services at a sub-regional level. It is for this reason that the CCN and its member authorities made the case (successfully) for the retention of the role of county councils in strategic land use planning during the passage of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004. We believe the fact that the Government overturned its original proposals and accepted the case for this role was recognition of the place of county councils as the sub-regional building blocks.

  County councils are democratically elected bodies and it is through this that they derive both a mandate and accountability for performing a sub-regional coordination role. We consider it is significant that in shire areas it is the county council which leads the Local Area Agreement process. We consider that counties are of a scale to have both the capacity and capability to bring together the various agencies necessary to produce an effective Local Area Agreement.

  It is the strong belief of the CCN that the exiting counties are of a scale to operate effectively at the sub-regional level. We see the sub-regional role as being one which mediates between the community and the regional level. The scale of counties enables them to be effective advocates of their communities and a regional level, whilst at the same time being local delivery agencies enabling them to implement strategic decisions at a locality level.

  County councils have a long track record in the governance of shire England. However, as organisations, they have proved themselves able to adapt to changing circumstances and the requirements of the modern world. We would cite the fact that all shire county councils proactively responded to the development of local Public Services Agreements and subsequently to Local Area Agreements as evidence of their commitment and ability to operate and deliver effectively at a sub-regional level.

  The Select Committee is interested in receiving views about the current regional arrangements. County councils enjoy generally good, positive and productive working relationships with their Government Offices. We would observe that the quality of these relationships can be variable both between Government Offices and on different issues dealt with by the same Government Office. However, we consider that a regional presence of government is beneficial where this improves understanding of local circumstances and speeds decision making. Whilst we consider that there is added value in the Government Office arrangement, we would not want this to be the only interface which principal authorities (such as county councils) have with government departments, since on certain matters it will be entirely appropriate for us to deal directly with Whitehall. In this context the role of the Government Office should not be seen as a filter. Government departments based in Whitehall need to retain a clear awareness of what is happening on the ground, the quality of their understanding will be enhanced if they have information directly from local government as well as feedback from Government Offices.

  On various occasions our membership has expressed concerns about "creeping regionalisation", the process whereby additional powers and functions are established on a regional basis. We would cite the example of the move to the establishment of regional fire control centres as an example. Regarding the delivery of public services, we believe that the principle of subsidiarity should apply. Where there are moves to establish public services delivered at a regional level, a clear business case needs to be made in each and every case. We have also noted a growing trend for Government Offices to be involved in the coordination of matters such as public health, performance assessment of local government and formulation of Local Area Agreements. We believe that where the use of regional coordination can be clearly demonstrated to add value, by improving the speed of decision making and strengthening the interface between central and local government, these developments can be beneficial. However, we are concerned that on occasion these arrangements can add an additional layer of bureaucracy which works against these objectives, and in practice slows decision making and responsiveness. We can cite examples in the preparation of local Public Service Agreement and Local Area Agreements where Government Office officials were acting as intermediaries between local government representatives and officials and Ministers in Whitehall with the effect of creating an additional layer of administration.

  Further, we would wish to impress upon the Select Committee that the devolution of decision making in relation to funding for local highways schemes from Whitehall to Government Offices has risks as well as potential benefits. Under the arrangements which are currently being implemented, schemes are determined against regional priorities. Whilst Government Offices can often have a better understanding of local circumstances, there is a risk when schemes which would have significant sub-regional benefits are tested against regional criteria. We consider that this could result in a distortion of resources, favouring schemes of regional significance, and resulting in schemes of sub-regional impact being lost. In submitting written evidence we consider it inappropriate to cite specific examples, however, we would urge the Select Committee to seek systematic evidence on this issue. The CCN would be pleased to submit some illustrations in support of the arguments which we have advanced.

REGIONAL INTERDEPENDENCE AND CITY REGIONS

  The Government is giving high priority to the role which core cities play in the economic performance of the national economy. Whilst these cities play a major part in economic prosperity, a research report published in 2004 by the County Surveyors Society and the Chief Economic Development Officers Society provides evidence that (when London is excluded) three-quarters of all economic activity is outside the eight core cities. The CCN considers that it is important to give due weight to the inter-relationship which exists between these cities and their hinterland. It is that hinterland which is served by county councils. Shire areas play a key role in the prosperity of the core cities. These hinterland areas provide significant amounts of labour to service the industries and businesses of these metropolitan and city areas. The services provided by county councils are key in ensuring the well-being of these workers and their families. In addition, hinterland areas are often the location key support services, and of small and medium sized enterprises which form part of the supply and delivery chain for larger firms. We would cite the role of county councils in strategic economic development, regeneration and the development of skills, support for business development and innovation, both as direct providers and working in partnerships with others including Local Strategic Partnerships and the learning and skills councils as practical demonstration of this pivotal role.

  Further, hinterland areas, due to their high environmental quality, provide important sources of recreation and other amenities for city dwellers. Facilities such as county parks, cultural and heritage facilities, key tourism venues are provided or supported by shire authorities. These facilities provide an important and complementary resource for city dwellers and workers.

  The CCN considers that the debate so far has focused overly on the role played by cities themselves. We would urge the Select Committee to give consideration to the interdependence of cities and their hinterland. We note that the Select Committee is interested in the issues of both intra and inter-regional cooperation and coordination, we consider that this issue of interdependence is relevant for both considerations.

INTRA-REGIONAL CO-ORDINATION

  The Select Committee has asked about the current arrangements for managing services at various levels and their inter-relationships. The CCN considers that cooperation between local authorities has enabled a great deal to be achieved and that this has resulted in the delivery of more efficient and effective public services at a local level. A great many public services are now delivered through some form of joint-working. We would cite the examples of waste disposal, adult social care, services for children with severe learning or mental difficulties, economic regeneration and highway maintenance as being examples of key service functions where there is already a high degree of co-operation and co-ordination between local authorities at a sub-regional level. We would be please to share specific examples of such activity with the Select Committee upon request.

  Whilst we can cite a large number of examples of joint or shared provision in front-line public services, we would also wish to impress upon the Select Committee the extent to which local government is also developing arrangements to share back office functions on a sub-regional basis. Arrangements exist in a wide variety of forms; some being joint arrangements between local authorities, others involve cooperation with other sub-regional public services providers, such as health and police services. We would also note that a number of these arrangements involve partnership with the private sector, often bringing skills and resources which complement the public sector organisations. We can provide detailed examples of such arrangements operating in a range of functions including, revenue and benefits services, payroll and financial services, human resources and staff training, and property services and asset management. It is our belief that these arrangements are working well. Analysis of the Government's most recent assessment of savings made through the Gershon efficiency review shows that local government (and county councils in particular) have been able to realise the benefits not only of improved cost efficiency but also enhanced performance through such shared back office arrangements.

INTER-REGIONAL CO-OPERATION

  We would observe that, from a county council perspective, the existing regional administrative boundaries are not an impediment to the type of cross-boundary coordination detailed above. The authorities which we represent have demonstrated the ability, in a range of circumstances, to engage in joint arrangements with neighbouring authorities as readily where these cross administrative regional boundaries as when they operate within them.

DEVOLUTION OF POWERS

  The Local Government Association (LGA), on behalf of local government collectively, makes a powerful case for further delegation of powers and functions to local government, we strongly support this case. County councils have been proved through the inspection process as having attained the highest levels of performance in the delivery of public services. The Audit Commission has demonstrated that one of the key success factors for local authorities is in having clear and effective leadership, both politically and managerially. Further, high performing authorities are those which are closely in touch with and responding to the needs of their communities. The CCN believes that county councils are of a scale which makes them effective in operating at both the strategic and local level. Combined with high performance, it is for this reason that we believe a strong case can be made for the devolution of new powers and duties to county councils. Current ODPM Ministers have indicated to the CCN (and more publicly) that they consider that departments and agencies are far too directly involved in local service provision, and that more could be devolved to local government. The CCN considers that in a number of key public services improvements could be made not only to the cost effectiveness but also the quality of delivery by such a move. We would cite the examples of highway maintenance, environmental regulation, economic and social regeneration, public health, community safety, as being areas where there would be benefits and added value in a greater role for local government in the commissioning, delivery and scrutiny of local public services.

  In a speech to the New Local Government Network annual conference on 18 January 2006, David Miliband the Minister for Communities and Local Government spoke about his vision for "double devolution". He made the case for greater devolution to local government and to neighbourhoods and individual citizens. He observed that "[in England] national government takes a lot of decisions that in other countries are taken locally." We consider that "double devolution", whereby greater power and responsibility is devolved from national to local government and from local government to communities, could produce real benefits in improving the quality and effectiveness of public services. The Select Committee has raised the question of the devolution from regional to local level. We believe that such devolution should take place, but would go further in encouraging the devolution of more from national to local and community level in the manner which we understand the Communities and Local Government Minister to be describing.





 
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