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

Memorandum by Bolton at Home (RG 79)


  There can be no argument over the case for more devolved and transparent decision-making—it is only when the public perceives that important decisions affecting their future are made in secret that they start to doubt the democratic process. The perception is as important as the actuality. Clearly the negative publicity surrounding the proposals for an elected regional assembly proved an insurmountable barrier hindering objective public debate over the merits and the drawbacks of introducing such a democratic forum.

  Any new regional democratic structure needs to be robust enough to deal with serious multi-layered issues that may not always have easy solutions that are met with total consensus approval. But it also needs to be transparent enough for the public and other stakeholders to be able to access and hold those making the choices accountable for their decisions. Such a mix of transparency and robustness is not easy to achieve, especially when such a model has to encompass town, city and regional boundaries; dealing with a comprehensive holistic programme crossing a full range of disciplines.

  The usual means of introducing accountability is for those decision-makers to have to submit themselves to an electoral process. The elected Regional Assembly proposal is the simplest of such democratic models but this does not have much public support at present. It is well worth retaining as a long term option, but for the moment a more gradual incremental approach to achieving accountable regional government is required.

  Here accountability has to be introduced not through the ballot box but through other means, such as performance review (with real customer involvement in the review process) and/or through the appointment of fixed term regional officers (seconded from the participating organisations) whose accountability is rested on achieving a whole range of targets relating to the effectiveness, inclusiveness, and openness of decision-making.

  There is always merit in simplifying things—already such rationalisation is happening with the amalgamation of regional housing and planning boards proposed for later in the year. However, concern needs to be expressed that simplification is not seen as the predominant dynamic within the region and sub-region. A fully comprehensive approach to regional working that involves and/or engages all key stakeholders and the public does not easily fit into a simple formula—the more inclusive the democratic model then the greater the difficulty in making things simple. Clearly, for a robust enough model to emerge there will be inevitable trade-offs between the desire for simplicity and the need for inclusivity/comprehensiveness.


  Bolton is committed to providing locally based services and, wherever possible, delegating decision-making to local forums. In this we are very much in tune with the latest government pronouncements on devolution of powers to the local level. The case for giving local people real choices with direct access to making decisions about issues that affect their lives and their communities would be difficult to challenge. Also, it would provide greater opportunity for a more "bottom-up" approach to strategy development.

  Some may argue that generally people are largely apathetic and disassociated with the democratic processes that shape their lives. Very often low voting percentages in national and local elections are quoted as concrete evidence of this propensity. Under such a view the devolution of powers to a local level would simply introduce an additional tier of decision-making that would have little public support or engagement. At root this view is synonymous with saying that people prefer things to be done for them or decisions to be taken on their behalf; at heart a deeply paternalistic take on society.

  Contrary to this, Bolton believes that it is the very lack of robust and accessible local democratic frameworks for decision-making that fosters low expectation and disassociation. Our view is that real powers should be devolved to local levels; so long as these are exercised through sturdy democratic frameworks that are transparent, representative and are not isolated from the wider local, sub-regional and regional context. We contend that citizens can and do act as mature and knowledgeable contributors to improving their lives and the lives of their community, by making sensible decisions based on context and on experience. Further, that the more an individual is exposed to such democratic processes the better and the more willing they are to engage more fully with issues that effect their own lives and the general welfare of the community they live in.

  Evidence of this in Bolton would be our success in engaging communities through our local neighbourhood strategy, a range of strategic partnerships, and in sharing real power with our customers. An example of the latter is the high proportion of residents who operate within the governing structure of Bolton at Home, Bolton's ALMO.

  It should not be presumed that devolution from regional to local level would not be challenging. Community engagement in real decision making has not got a long history so there is a confidence deficit to make up and a degree of capacity building required. Also, a move from "top-down" to "bottom down" approaches can cause Elected Members, officers, and others considerable anxiety as power shifts can cause seismic disturbances disrupting existing patterns of work and quality of engagement. In Bolton we feel we are well down this road and welcome the potential for even greater devolution of powers.


  Bolton is a strong supporter of the City Region concept and is very active in helping to deliver the Greater Manchester City Region's programme aimed at eradicating the economic gap that has opened up between the north and the rest of England.

  The idea of operating as a single collaborative unit around Manchester, the major city in our area, is very attractive; not least in that our single voice is magnified within such a structure. By establishing common and mutually supportive goals across a range of economic drivers involving a spectrum of stakeholders, we are able to build capacity and sharply focus activity so as to make a serious attempt at growing our economic base.

  The alternative—individual authorities concentrating largely on their own turf having a loose convergence on issues of mutual interest on an ad hoc basis—has long been abandoned in our sub-region as insufficient to meet the demands of the modern sophisticated multi-layered markets in which we operate.

  We believe that the City Region will be the most successful potential conduit for:

    —    Promoting better economic competitiveness and raising productivity levels.

    —    Achieving sufficient capacity to operate within a European and global market.

    —    Developing a strategic overview that links spatial planning, transport, and housing to achieving agreed economic outputs.

    —    Researching different markets (across boundaries) and understanding better their relationship.

    —    Supporting big flagship initiatives, such as the Housing Market Renewal Pathfinders.

    —    Joining things up at different levels and across different boundaries—around a range of expertise.

  The biggest challenges to the City Region (other than delivering its economic programmes) are making them transparent and accessible enough to secure general public acceptance, value and involvement. In addition the differences of opinion, inevitable within such a confederation, need to be resolved in a manner conducive to the best practice in fairness and reasonableness; within a general atmosphere of trust and respect.

  Also some consideration needs to be taken over establishing protocols when City Regions "rub up" against each other within the competitive nature of the economic marketplace. In particular here is the need to consider impacts on the national economy and the UK's relationship to the global market.

  Finally, the establishment of City Regions should not be an excuse for cost cutting and starving the region of national funds. Some of the rationalisation created as a dynamic of forming a City region may result in savings due to eradicating waste and duplication; but this should not overshadow the need for resourcing support to enable ambitious programmes to prosper. Greater efficiencies in line with Gershon recommendations should be an achievable long term outcome but resources are needed now to ensure that the City Region establishes deep roots at a local level in the manner previously outlined.

  Happily, at regional and sub-regional levels, those working in housing already act collaboratively with great effectiveness—so there is a growing expertise in developing and delivering policy that cuts across boundaries in order to meet the wider aims and objectives of the North West.


  The presumption here is that the question is about those areas not included in a City Region rather than those, like Bolton, who are in the City Region and are benefiting but lie outside the actual lead city.

  City Regions are based upon those locations that have the strongest, or potentially the strongest, economies. The assumption is that as these are the main economic drivers within a locality, their growth will favourably impact on a much wider catchment area. This is an assumption; the counter argument is that the growth of the centre could act to exacerbate decline on the periphery. However, the rationale behind City Regions is to increase total inward investment and to grow economic base to meet new demand; not to make other areas weaker. Therefore, growth in any City Region should add to the overall national productivity indicator rather than redistribute economic advantage from the weaker areas.

  Also, such towns and cities are designated as "peripheral" for a reason. They do not meet the potential critical mass for significant economic growth, so that any internal growth would be less likely to significantly "leach out" to a wider area. This is not to say that falling outside a City Region is a ticket to oblivion. Rather the specific needs of towns and cities outside the City Region, where acute, would still need public investment to support regeneration and reverse decline. Therefore, the City Region would not expect to soak up all the investment entering the wider region; rather it is more about establishing the best strategy to maximise the impact of investment.


  The northern situation is unique in that the economic disparity between the region and the rest of the country is so great that the Northern Way is an absolute necessity. The case for the rest of the country is less strong—weaker still within those regions where relative and growing economic strength is a feature. In these areas closer-regional co-operation may be desirable but certainly not essential.

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