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

Memorandum by the English Regions Network (ERN)(RG 77)


  1.  The English Regions Network is pleased to submit written evidence to the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister Select Committee—is there a future for regional government? The English Regions network represents all eight English Regional Assemblies.

  2.  The ERN would welcome the opportunity of presenting oral evidence to the Select Committee.

  3.  Following the outcome of the North East referendum the Government announced that elected regional assemblies were off the agenda for the foreseeable future. There remains, however, a complex web of regional and sub—regional governance arrangements. Common to every region there are three core bodies: a Regional Assembly, a Government Office for the Region and a Regional Development Agency. In addition there are a plethora of non governmental bodies operating in each region such as Learning and Skill Councils, the Environment Agency, English Heritage, the Highways Agency, the list goes on.

  4.  ERN believes that the current regional governance arrangements, driven as much by a quest for administrative efficiency as a coherent policy on devolution are likely to continue for the some time to come. This being the case, a focus on regional governance is more pertinent than a focus on regional government.

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

  5.  Regional Assemblies, as the regional strategic partnerships, already play a key role in ensuring decisions taken at a regional level are accountable back to the region.

    —    They are responsible for scrutinising the work of Regional Development Agencies (RDAs), to make sure that delivery is in line with regional priorities and objectives;

    —    They have robust internal governance structures to ensure that policies developed by the Assemblies are fully owned by the region (particularly important in the development and submission of Regional Spatial Strategies);

    —    They are responsible for aligning strategies at a regional level through the development of regional integrated strategic frameworks/integrated regional strategies and regional sustainable development frameworks (RSDFs). The use of these frameworks and tools by a wide-range of local and regional agencies provides a degree of accountability back to the region. In addition, there is a greater sense of ownership as strategies are developed by the region for the region. Much of this work takes place on a partnership basis.

  6.  Regional Assemblies are uniquely placed to improve regional accountability and strategic alignment. No other regional organisations have the same breadth of functions and membership. Assemblies comprise regional, sub regional, city-region, local and rural representatives. Nor do any other regional organisations have governance structures that engage locally elected politicians alongside other key partners in the way that all Assemblies currently do. Regional Assemblies are uniquely placed to provide democratic legitimacy for regional decision making. Whilst the exact profile and number of Assembly Members varies from region to region in general 70% of Members are elected local authority councillors and 30% are social, economic and environmental partners drawn from sectors such as business, arts and culture, education, faith groups, community, voluntary and environmental organisations.

  7.  The ERN believes that a number of steps could be taken to increase the accountability of decision-making at the regional and sub-regional level. These include:

    —    Confirmation by Government of the democratic mandate of Regional Assemblies resulting from the majority of Assembly Members being elected local councillors. This legitimacy is enhanced and strengthened by involvement of stakeholder partners.

    —    Expanding the scrutiny role of regional assemblies beyond that of the RDA, and strengthening the scrutiny powers that regional assemblies have, would lead to better and more accountable strategies within the region which would in turn make a greater contribution to achieving national priorities. There are numerous non-departmental public bodies (NDPBs) spending large sums of public money at the regional level that are not currently accountable to the regions eg the Highways Agency, the Environment Agency, the Learning and Skills councils. Such bodies would be better able to deliver more effective and more aligned strategies if supported by a clear framework of governance and accountability. Regional assemblies are best placed to provide this framework, building upon the expertise and skills developed though the scrutiny role of the RDAs;

    —    Increasing the involvement of Regional Assemblies in the appointment of board members to the numerous NDPBs. In the case of appointments to the Regional Development Agency Boards, for example Assemblies, via their Government Office are given the opportunity to comment on the draft person specification for appointments however not on potential applicants. As well ensuring the right skills and competencies are present there may also be case for geographical representation on boards of NDPBs operating at the regional level.

    —    Accountability might be extended by involvement of MPs and MEPs in the work of regional assemblies and other regional bodies. With elected regional government off the agenda Government needs to think creatively about how it will ensure that structures are in place to support accountable decision making at a regional level. For instance, there may be a case for a select committee for each region, or a committee for the regions at Westminster or an annual state of the regions debate. Assemblies themselves would be keen to work in partnership with government to investigate possible ways of engaging MPs/MEPs in future work.

    —    Assemblies are increasingly taking on an important role as strategic co-ordinating bodies, bringing together a range of partners to broker policy deals and activity eg work on Regional Funding Allocations. This work is often carried out by a "partnership" or "board" comprising senior level representation from the key regional organisations including the Regional Assembly, RDA and Government Office. Such emerging governance arrangements and the regional leadership they can provide should be recognised by Government.

  8.  The Government announcement to proceed with the merger of Regional Housing Boards and Regional Planning Bodies resulting in the transfer of responsibility for the RHB functions moving from the Government Office to Assemblies is a good example of existing arrangements being simplified and increased accountability being achieved. Other options for simplifying arrangements include:

    —    A commitment by government that accountability back to the region will be a key factor in how any new NDPBs are developed in the future.

    —    Building on the introduction of Regional Funding Allocations, Government should respond positively to any future requests from regions to work more flexibly though greater use of pooled budgets such as those developed by the Regional Skills Partnerships, RDAs (the single pot concept) and through Local Area Agreements. Using resources more flexibly, within the national PSA target framework, would allow the development of regional solutions to specific regional issues. This would ensure that national standards were met and maintained whilst allowing greater regional flexibility. This would mean fewer targets and more accountability to the regions.

    —    On the grounds of simplification and increased accountability Government should also give full consideration to extending the scope of the Regional Funding Allocations to include more of the funding spent at the regional level on transport, housing and economic development and to encompass other areas such as skills development, including the European Social Fund allocation. Skills policy is a key contributor to regional economic performance and there is already close working by regional partners to deliver better skills through Regional Skills Partnerships.

    —    Further emphasising the roles of integrated strategic frameworks/strategies and Regional Sustainable Development Frameworks in aligning policy development and evidence bases.

The potential of devolution of powers from the regional to local level

  9.  Regional Assemblies are concerned with drawing down powers from the centre not up from local government. ERN is committed to the principle of decisions being taken at the appropriate level. It is widely accepted that certain policy areas need to be addressed at a cross authority level. Strategic Planning and sustainable development, for example, can not be confined to the local authority borders.

  10.  In relation to the core functions of Regional Assemblies; ie preparation of the Regional Spatial Strategy (RSS) including the Regional Transport Strategy, scrutiny of the RDA, policy co-ordination at the regional level and acting as the voice of the region, the ERN does not believe that these roles could be devolved to the local level. It should be noted that in case of the RSS and soon to be the case with the Regional Housing Strategy the role of Assemblies is an advisory one and the final decision on the content of the documents rests with the Secretary of State.

The effectiveness of current arrangements for managing services at various levels and their inter-relationship

  11.  Building upon the work at the regional level, being led by Regional Assemblies, Regional Development Agencies and Government Offices, to identify aligned housing, transport and economic development spending priorities, regions are focussing increased attention on mechanisms to achieve co-ordinated service delivery such as multi agency delivery groups. Whilst Regional Assemblies operate at a strategic policy level and do not have a direct role in service provision they are concerned with implementation and through their extensive partnership working can do much to facilitate and encourage service delivery.

  12.  A substantial amount of regional working is informed and co-ordinated at the sub regional level. All RSS have been informed by sub regional studies whilst consideration of sub regional housing markets underpins Regional Housing Strategies. Sub regional working is equally embedded in Regional Development Agencies and Government Offices working practices.

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

  13.  As noted at the outset of this submission governance arrangements comprise a complex web of institutions operating at the regional level.

  14.  The ERN recognises the increasing evidence for, and importance of, core cities and other urban centres as key drivers of regional and economic competitiveness. The ERN supports city-sub regional partnership working within existing regional structures. The Network would strongly support and encourage the participation of city-region representatives in the Regional Assembly in order to influence/inform the national/regional context' for successful sub-regional development.

  15.  Emerging Government policy should be clear that city-regions and Regional Assemblies are complimentary and that there is an interdependence between them. An Assembly is concerned with the social, economic and environmental well being of the whole of the region whilst a city-region is concerned with a sub regional area and not all geographical areas of a region fall naturally into a city-region.

  16.  City-regions are not islands. To ensure coherent strategic development across regions, ERN believes that city-regions must be developed within the existing regional strategic context and thereby conform to key regional documents including the Regional Spatial, Transport, Economic and Housing Strategies, the Regional Sustainable Development Framework, Integrated Regional Strategy and Regional Funding Allocations Advice.

  17.  A one size fits all approach is not appropriate and thus emerging Government policy on city-regions needs to take account of regional variations and in doing so enable regions to develop their own potential.

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

  18.  The ERN proposes that small-medium sized cities can also be important drivers of "regional" competitiveness, for example, in the Greater South East where London has the most profound economic influence. This being the case it is important that any discussion takes account of regional variations and that the city-regions debate incorporates all regions including some smaller and medium sized cities that do not necessarily fit with the "core city" concept which has informed much of the debate so far.

  19.  The city-region agenda raises a number of challenges, not least for those areas that do not naturally fall within a city-region. Building upon point16. the Government needs to ensure that its policies address both the urban and rural agenda.

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

  20.  There are policy issues that are inter-regional in scope and require a coordinated approach Where such commonality of objectives exists there can be clear and tangible benefits to close inter-regional co-operation to tackle economic disparities. Examples of inter-regional co-operation include:

    —    In the case of the Northern Way for example key issues requiring a cross regional approach include a Northern Airports Strategy, critical transport infrastructure networks and science policy. In order to meet the Government's target of closing the economic output gap between the northern English regions and the rest of the UK there is a strong case for policy analysis and strategy formulation for these critical inter-regional policy issues to take place at a pan northern scale.

    —    From the perspective of tackling economic disparities in the South West two key areas that can be influenced by inter-regional co-operation relate to transport infrastructure and spatial planning. The South West has worked closely with Wales and the South West on the Multi-Modal Study and continues to work with across-regional boundaries on the development of the Regional Spatial Strategy. A current priority is working with the South East and East of England on the implications of the construction of Crossrail on the economies of our respective regions. Nevertheless, the SWRA considers working cross-regional boundaries is an opportunity that regional players collectively need to do more of.

    —    A further example of inter-regional working is the Milton Keynes and South Midlands growth area which is a collaboration between the South East, East of England and the East Midlands regional organisations including the Regional Assemblies, Government Offices and Development Agencies to promote the significant increase in the establishment of homes to relieve South East and London housing pressures

    —    In the North West region a framework for greater cross-border co-operation and development between North East Wales and West Cheshire has been published by a partnership including the Regional Assembly, the Welsh Assembly Government and Welsh Development Agency.

    —    The two Midlands Regional Development Agencies are leading the development of Smart Growth: Midlands Way, together with the Regional Assemblies, Government Offices and City-Regions (currently the West Midlands Metropolitan Districts and the East Midlands Three Cities). Currently there is a brief for further work aimed at developing the existing strategic framework set out for Midlands Way and to identify opportunities for the East and West Midlands and the top end of South East (Milton Keynes South Midlands) to work together.

  21.  Particularly so in the case of the Northern Way, the Government has been outwardly very supportive of this inter—regional initiative. The regions concerned are keen to ensure that this support is backed up by real Government commitment to delivering the strategy.

  22.  In the context of increasing global competitiveness, it is clear that regions will need not simply to collaborate with one another within the UK but look to solutions to tackle economic disparities and other issues such as the environment and transport with neighbours in Europe and beyond.


  23.  The regional agenda has moved on since the outcome of the referendum on an elected regional assembly in the North East. Regional governance arrangements continue to evolve. For example, Regional Assemblies are preparing to assume responsibility for Regional Housing Boards later this year and as part of the Regional Funding Allocations process, for the first time, a regional transport allocation has been identified. ERN urges the Committee to take full account of this developing agenda and to focus its attention on the ability of regional governance arrangements to address the economic, social and environmental wellbeing of regions.

  24.  ERN considers that city-regions can be an effective mechanism for harnessing regional economic growth. Developed within the wider regional context provided by the Regional Spatial, Transport, Economic and Housing Strategies, the Regional Sustainable Development Framework, Integrated Regional Strategy and Regional Funding Allocations Advice, city-regions have the potential to make a significant contribution to economic development at a regional and national level.

  25.  The Government needs to provide clarity on the roles and responsibilities at the regional, sub regional and local level. The present web of strategies and working arrangements is complex and as a consequence at times results in uncertainty and confusion. ERN believes that further functions could appropriately be devolved from the centre to the regional level and in particular to Regional Assemblies given their inclusive nature and their unique ability to bring democratic accountability to regional level working.

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