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


Memorandum by Dorset County Council's Cabinet (RG 80)

1.  EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

  1.1  There should be as few layers of government as possible.

  1.2  The establishment of sub-national/regional government should take account of all the following criteria:

    (a)  regional government should be established only where it would have a clear role that would add value in terms of subsidiarity, accountability and efficiency;

    (b)  the establishment of any regional government should be considered together with the review of local government;

    (c)  the boundaries of regions should be defined having regard to economic and social geography, history and culture.

  1.3  Dorset County Council's Cabinet considers that a system of county-sized unitary authorities would best meet these criteria rather than an additional layer of sub-national government at regional level.

  1.4  We see no potential for increasing accountability at the regional level. Reducing the role of the regional layer would assist in this respect and help simplify existing arrangements.

  1.5  We strongly urge a return to local authorities of powers that have been removed from them to regional level, particularly in relation to strategic land use and transportation planning and housing.

  1.6  We consider current regional arrangements ineffective in managing services and would again press for these to be the responsibility of new large unitary authorities.

  1.7  We support co-operation between areas with common interests—current regional boundaries create artificial boundaries that have no place in reality. We also support a consistent and complimentary policy approach between regions.

2.  INTRODUCTION

  2.1  Dorset County Council's Cabinet welcomes the opportunity to submit evidence to the Committee on the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister regarding the future of regional government.

  2.2  In drawing up its evidence, we have assumed that the Committee is prepared to consider from first principles whether regional government is appropriate and desirable, rather than starting from the premise that the current regional arrangements will continue and evolve.

3.  CRITERIA FOR THE ESTABLISHMENT OF REGIONAL GOVERNMENT

  3.1  We believe that there should be as few layers of government as possible. The more layers there are, the more expensive governance becomes and the more need there is for time-consuming co-ordination.

  3.2  We believe that the consideration of the establishment of regional government must take account of the following three criteria.

Criterion 1: Regional government should be established only where it would have a clear role that would add value in terms of subsidiarity, local accountability and efficiency

  3.3  Role: We believe that any regional entity might play a useful role by:

    —    coordinating and promoting the interests of the area to central Government;

    —    agreeing strategic objectives for the region; and

    —    achieving the sustainable development of the region.

  However, should local government be reorganised, with the creation of unitary authorities, county-sized unitaries would be more appropriate to achieve these objectives, particularly taking account of the other criteria below. Where considerations covering wider areas are appropriate, this should be achieved through partnership working.

  3.4  Subsidiarity: we would support the devolution of powers from central to regional level, if the exercising of those powers met the criteria of greater local accountability and efficiency. The Council would strongly resist the drawing up of local authority powers to the regional level, unless it could be demonstrated that the regional level was able to act more strategically and efficiently, while retaining the degree of accountability currently exercised by local government.

  3.5  Local accountability: We strongly support local accountability, and any regional entity should be accountable to those elected locally. Both the Government and the main opposition party are currently emphasising the need to base governance on as local a level as possible. The larger the unit of government, the more remote the decision-making processes become. Our experience is that many people feel regions to be too remote. The result is disempowerment rather than empowerment.

  3.6  Efficiency: larger units of government may be able to achieve economies of scale and provide services more efficiently. However, at the same time, lack of local connectivity and increased bureaucracy may counterbalance these potential efficiencies. Further, if regional government is introduced as an additional layer of government, it is difficult to see how it will reduce overall costs to the public purse.

Criterion 2: The establishment of any regional government should be considered together with the review of local government

  3.7  The Government is currently reviewing the role and financing of local government. It has also indicated that it may consider the further restructuring of local government. These considerations should be considered together with the future of regional government, so that a coherent and consistent form of sub-national government is established. Unfortunately, previous attempts at local government reorganisation have resulted in a confusing local government system in England. Further, the current regional arrangements do not sit comfortably with the current structure of local government. It is time the situation was resolved.

Criterion 3: The boundaries of regions should be defined having regard to economic and social geography, history and culture

  3.8  The consultation seems premised on using the current Government office areas for regional governance. We suggest that this is not the best way forward.

  3.9  Areas need to be of sufficient size to be able to promote themselves and to gain recognition of their needs in competition with the needs of others. This requires a minimum level of population and resources.

  3.10  However, the viability of any regional governance depends on whether the regions being used actually have any basis and meaning. The current regions are based on the convenient administrative arrangements for Government Office areas, but do not reflect the local realities of identity, patterns of movement, economic geography or any of the other criteria commonly used to determine sensible boundaries.

CONCLUSIONS

  3.11  Reviewing these criteria, we do not believe that sub-national government at the scale of regions as currently defined would be the best way forward. County-sized unitaries would offer a better alternative. They would have the following benefits:

    —    they would be sufficiently large to be able to coordinate and promote the interests of their areas to central Government, and to accept devolved responsibilities from central Government;

    —    they would be sufficiently small to establish commonly owned objectives for their areas and to be locally accountable, offering local people real influence on decision-making and capable of relating to local community arrangements;

    —    they would have the strategic capacity to deliver the sustainable development of their areas;

    —    they would be able to use economies of scale without being remote from local intelligence and without introducing additional bureaucracy;

    —    they would be a single tier of sub-national government, be established in the (possible) next round of local government reorganisation and result in a coherent and consistent pattern of sub-national government;

    —    their boundaries could be defined by meaningful geographies, not necessarily based on existing local government boundaries.

  3.12  Where considerations covering wider areas were needed, these could be dealt with through partnership arrangements with neighbouring authorities.

  3.13  Whatever arrangements come into place, it is essential that the powers and responsibilities of sub-national government should be clearly defined. These need to be enshrined in legislation so that powers cannot be arbitrarily removed from local areas as they have been in the past.

Specific Issues Raised by the ODPM Parliamentary Committee

4.  THE POTENTIAL FOR INCREASING THE ACCOUNTABILITY OF DECISION-MAKING AT THE REGIONAL AND SUB-REGIONAL LEVEL, AND THE NEED TO SIMPLIFY EXISTING ARRANGEMENTS

  4.1  Current regional assemblies/chambers add little to democratic accountability. The time that local authority members of the Assembly are able to devote to Assembly meetings is understandably limited, particularly taking account of existing duties and the long travel distances to Assembly meetings. Further, because of distance, they do not enjoy the day-to-day relationships with Assembly officers that exist in local authorities. Their influence is therefore much more limited. This means that Regional Assembly officers enjoy far greater freedom in developing policy than they would at national or local levels. They appear to be unduly influenced by Government Office and the Regional Development Agency, neither of which are accountable locally, and do not give sufficient weight to the views of local authorities and representatives of local organisations and interests. Further, consultation events are stage-managed, and cannot be viewed as real engagement.

  4.2  Nevertheless, given the significance and implications of decisions that are made at regional level, local authority members and officers do spend considerable amounts of time attending meetings. These events offer little added value to what has already been done at local level. Indeed, much of their time is spent heading off decisions that could cause significant damage locally.

  4.3  The solution, as suggested above, is to scrap regional bodies, create unitary authorities and enhance the power of more local forms of governance through making these of a sufficiently large size to be able to carry out the functions currently undertaken at regional level. Also, as suggested above, unitary councils should be free to join together where they feel that certain areas of work can be done more effectively on a larger scale.

  4.4  We believe that the existing and proposed regionalization of fire and police services serve to complicate, rather than simplify, the means and accountability of delivery at the local level.

  4.5  Using the proposed system of unitary authorities, it would be clearer where responsibilities lay and who was accountable. The system would be much simpler and a lot cheaper both in terms of absolute cost and the cost of time and money spent by local councils in taking part in unnecessary meetings with no added value.

5.  THE POTENTIAL FOR DEVOLUTION OF POWERS FROM REGIONAL TO LOCAL LEVEL

  5.1  There are a plethora of regional bodies or bodies with a regional structure. Their responsibilities include strategic land use and transportation planning (regional planning bodies), economic development (regional development agencies), housing (regional housing bodies), tourism, sustainable development, culture, education and health. Government offices enforce Government policy in the regions and administer some funding streams, particularly in relation to economic development and European funds.

  5.2  In recent years has been a proliferation of regional activity. Some of this activity—particularly that seeking to integrate strategic direction and investment—has been admirable. However, some has been wasteful and/or drawn powers away from the local level. Substantial energy and resources have been devoted to the development of regional strategies, but many of these are at a level of generality to have little meaning locally or in terms of service delivery. It is doubtful whether the cost of this activity is justified.

  5.3  A recent symposium of local authority chief executives in the South West, convened on behalf of the ODPM, identified a worrying proliferation of regional bodies. Focussed consultation with the chief executives indicated that there was no effective co-ordination between agencies, a lack of information on what each did and a lack of ability to influence agencies' policies, activities and outputs. A project has been established to try to improve the situation.

  5.4  The loss of responsibilities from local authorities in relation to strategic planning, transportation and housing to the regional level has so far proved far from beneficial. Further comment on this is provided in the section below on "the effectiveness of current arrangements". We believe responsibilities for these activities should be restored to the proposed county-sized unitary local authorities described earlier. Among the other advantages of this course of action would be the re-establishment of local accountability and the empowerment of local people.

6.  THE EFFECTIVENESS OF CURRENT ARRANGEMENTS FOR MANAGING SERVICES AT THE VARIOUS LEVELS, AND THEIR INTER-RELATIONSHIPS

  6.1  We have severe misgivings about the current regional governance arrangements. In our experience, the arrangements have:

    —    drawn away powers from local authorities (particularly with regard to strategic planning, transportation and housing);

    —    distanced people from decision-makers, rather than improved accountability;

    —    imposed additional resource requirements and costs (funding, member and officer time, bureaucracy);

    —    added to the complexity of the administration of funding streams;

    —    been based on artificial areas that have no basis in the real world.

  6.2  The Council has invested significant amounts of member and officer time in assisting the Assembly in its duties. However, much of this time is devoted to educating Assembly officers and members from other parts of the region about local areas and the policy history of those areas. Because of the size and nature of the region and the constituency of the Assembly (with many competing geographical and sectoral interests), it is difficult to influence decisions to the benefit of local areas.

  6.3  A study carried out in 2003 of the experience of Dorset County Council officers and members of regional bodies showed that many issues were being addressed at regional level which were already being fully addressed at local level. The added value of regional work was unclear. The time spent in meetings was substantial and to this had to be added the time to respond to consultations (responses which in many cases were completely ignored), make bids for funding and maintain regional contacts. There were particular issues with economic development and spatial planning. It was difficult to influence the Regional Development Agency and the Regional Assembly.

  6.4  The experience in developing the Regional Spatial Strategy for the South West has shown that there is little local accountability and reflection of local interests. There has been little opportunity for local consultation. This reflects not only the difficulty of holding effective engagement in such a large area, but the unrealistic timetables developed by the ODPM for the production of Regional Spatial Strategies. The Council has received unfavourable comment from the public on the lack of opportunity for engagement.

  6.5  There remains considerable complexity with regard to funding streams. The Haskins Report highlighted the complexity of funding from Defra, and Dorset County Council has been pleased to be a pilot Rural Pathfinder authority. Its work in this respect has highlighted that the streamlining of funding from one Government department is only a start, and that other funding streams are needed to fully address common objectives. The simplification and local ownership of these streams is critical to effective delivery and local accountability.

  6.6  The South West does not meet the criteria outlined earlier for meaningful sub-national governance. It has no coherence and no commonality of interests. There is no joint cultural heritage. There are no common patterns of activity. Indeed, its landside boundaries cut across such areas, and ignore the reality of the linkages that exist. The regional work on spatial planning and the economy, for example, does not properly recognise the links between the Bournemouth/Poole conurbation and South Hampshire/the South East.

  6.7  The current multi-layered system adds complexity, confusion, duplication and cost to what, with fewer layers of governance, could be simple, efficient, effective and accountable.

7.  THE POTENTIAL FOR NEW ARRANGEMENTS, PARTICULARLY THE ESTABLISHMENT OF CITY REGIONS

  7.1  We would not support a system of regional, city region and local government. The aim should be to provide a single tier of sub-national governance, whether to govern cities or other areas. As outlined earlier, we suggest that what is needed is a new level of more strategic unitary councils with the freedom to work together jointly where this provides added value. The new authorities would have responsibility for public services in their areas and the resources and powers now held by regional bodies. This system, in effect, would provide regional as well as local governance and the enhanced powers would mean greater devolution to below national level had been achieved.

  7.2  Unitary authorities should be based on County or city identities and with a sufficient population, eg a minimum 400,000 to 500,000 people, to undertake strategic and promotional roles and provide leadership. We would want to take a progressive view of these arrangements, in order that the new unitary system was fit for purpose in the twenty-first century.

  7.3  A new system to ensure that sufficient resources were available to carry out the full role of the authority would then be needed. More financial freedoms to work with developers, borrow money, etc are needed. Dorset was a pilot area for Local Area Agreements and the Defra Rural Pathfinder. It is too early to report with certainty the advantages of these approaches, but they are expected to deliver improved local delivery, pooled based area funding for combined national and local priorities, improved performance management, local accountability and joined up service delivery.

8.  THE IMPACT WHICH NEW REGIONAL AND SUB-REGIONAL ARRANGEMENTS, SUCH AS THE CITY REGIONS, MIGHT HAVE UPON PERIPHERAL TOWNS AND CITIES

  8.1  We reiterate that we would not support a system of regional, city region and local government, but we promote a single tier of sub-national governance.

  8.2  The impact of unitary city government on peripheral towns and cities, and, indeed, other rural areas will depend on the selection and definition of boundaries. We recognise the merits of planning for cities and their hinterlands as economic and social entities. Indeed, prior to the last round of local government reorganisation, Dorset County Council was responsible for the strategic planning and economic development of the second largest conurbation in the South West (Bournemouth/Poole/Christchurch—population over 400,000). We therefore speak from experience. We also recognise calls for such areas to be granted more control over the resources needed to secure their potential.

  8.3  Current proposals which appear to focus on the Core Cities are incompatible with our proposals. We would support the New Local Government Network suggestion that smaller urban areas should also be treated in the same way, as should other unitary authorities.

9.  THE DESIRABILITY OF CLOSER INTER-REGIONAL CO-OPERATION (AS IN THE NORTHERN WAY) TO TACKLE ECONOMIC DISPARITIES

  9.1  Local areas need to have the freedom to decide where they want to work jointly with adjacent authorities rather than being constrained by the boundaries of artificially created regions. As an example, in some areas of work, Dorset, particularly the eastern part of the county, with Bournemouth and Poole, works more logically with the South East and a new system of governance as suggested here would allow and facilitate this.

  9.2  In its strategic planning and economic development work, the County Council has for many years encouraged a more coherent approach to cross-border working. Government offices appear reluctant to pursue complementary cross-border and inter-regional agendas. The Council has been disappointed that for many years the approach to regional planning in the South East has been out of step with the approach in the South West.





 
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