Memorandum by The Countryside Agency (RG
1. For more than a decade, successive attempts
at reform of regional and local government have been substantial
and costly failures. But reform is needed: we must learn from
the past and, next time, get it right. City regions make sense
as economic drivers but they do not offer a comprehensive alternative
to the model of governance previously offered by elected regional
assemblies. There is a real risk that their development will threaten
rural economies and weaken the democratic voice of rural communities.
There is a strong case for reforming local government structures,
built on the principle of subsidiarity: locating functions at
the most local level consistent with effectiveness.
2. The Countryside Agency is a Non Departmental
Public Body, with a national perspective on the needs of rural
communities. It works to exert positive influence nationally,
regionally and often very locally. Its role in advocating best
practice also involves international engagement.1
3. With the current emphasis on urban policy,
and city regions in particular, the Agency is concerned to ensure
that rural needs are given due attention.
4. We welcome the Select Committee's inquiry
into issues relating to regional government, including:
the potential for increasing
the accountability of decision-making at the regional and sub-regional
level, and the need to simplify existing arrangements;
the potential for devolution
of powers from regional to local level;
the effectiveness of current
arrangements for managing services at the various levels, and
the potential for new arrangements,
particularly the establishment of city regions;
the impact which new regional
and sub-regional arrangements, such as the city regions, might
have upon peripheral towns and cities; and
the desirability of closer inter-regional
co-operation (as in the Northern Way) to tackle economic disparities.
5. For more than a decade, attempts at changes
in regional and local government arrangements in England have
been characterised by failure, and on a significant scale. A few
exceptions do nothing to soften this bold conclusion. The perceived
success of some new unitary local authorities and of the London
Mayor only emphasises our failure to make structural reform more
universal and coherent. Rural areas in particular have been left
with structures seen by many as outdated.
6. This rather stark track record means
that we must not allow the policy vacuum left by the lost vision
of elected regional assemblies simply to be filled by the next,
partially relevant good idea. The notion of city regions presents
7. Rather, we need to think carefully about
underlying principles, and to learn from our experience and from
best practice elsewhere.
8. Some years ago2 the Prime Minister set
out his key principles of public service, relevant now to this
matter. They are:
common, national service standards;
devolution and decentralisation
of decision making;
flexibility, responding to local
needs and priorities; and
choice for consumers and service
9. These have been reflected in much of
the subsequent debate about service modernisation. Other relevant
policies include the joint HMT/DTI/ODPM Public Service Agreement
target to reduce regional disparities in economic growth and the
work by Sir Michael Lyons to transfer civil service functions
out of London. But the picture these ideas offer is still incomplete.
10. The missing element is a hard analysis
of governmental functions and the level at which they are most
11. The expanded remit of a further review
by Sir Michael Lyons is addressing these matters. In September
2005 the Deputy Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer
agreed with Sir Michael that he would extend his work to consider
the future role and functions of local government, as well as
and prior to making recommendations on local government funding.
Sir Michael's independent inquiry will now:
consider the current and emerging
strategic role of local government in the context of national
and local priorities for local services; and the implications
of this for accountability;
review how the Government's
agenda for devolution and decentralisation, together with changes
in decision making and funding, could improve local services,
their responsiveness to users, and efficiency;
in the light of the above, consider
in particular: how improved accountability, clearer central-local
relationships, or other interventions could help to manage pressures
on local services; and changes to the funding system which will
support improved local services.
12. England is very far from unique in
considering this matter, but a key difference has been the absence
of a serious approach to subsidiarity. This requires both a rational,
coherent analysis of which functions are best deployed at what
scale, and a presumption in favour of location at the smallest,
most local level.
13. It is important, though, to recognise
that this debate is not just about regional and local government.
We cannot fully understand these and their context without a similarly
incisive appraisal of central government functions, again from
the standpoint of subsidiarity. Robust pursuit of this principle
is essential if we are to manage the centralising tendencies of
government and the variable pattern which has emerged across Whitehall:
recently evident, for example, in uneven engagement with local
14. Moreover, effective joint functioning
of different scales of government requires an appraisal of skills
and career patterns. Others have proposed a common career structure
and this idea merits very serious consideration.
15. The idea of city regions has a sound
policy and evidence base, emerging from experience here and in
the United States, Europe and Asia. Cities are very important
economic drivers and this needs to be recognised in how they are
planned and resourced, and through a range of interventions such
as encouragement of cooperation between universities and business.
But this is a model which is essentially economic. It has implications
for governance, but it is very dangerous to assume that the notion
of city regions is a ready replacement for elected regional assemblies.
Perhaps the city region concept could be part of a successful
and broader model of devolved government, but it should not be
the starting point.
16. Neither should we automatically draw
a relationship between the idea of city government and the idea
of concentrated decision making through a mayoral system. Again,
this may be relevant but we should not make the assumption.
17. Some of the Government's current thinking
derives from recent European history and the ascendancy of prominent
regional cities. But it is extremely important to recognise that
these (notably in France and Germany) have been part of explicit
national strategies to reduce economic and governmental centralism,
to build strong regional structures, and to invest heavily in
transport and other infrastructure. European city regions without
that context might look very different.
18. Our conclusion is that city regions
should be driven through economic logic but should not be allowed
to drive the debate about devolved administration. This needs
to be set within a holistic view of subsidiarity.
19. There is a real risk that the idea of
city regions together with greater devolution itself could lead
to a weakening of the position of rural areas, market towns and
smaller cities. The focus on urban centres rather than geographical
regions may pose particular threats to communities on the periphery
of England or on regional boundaries.
20. In fact within a balanced and well organised
regional structure the contribution which rural communities could
make is considerable. This extends beyond the obvious assets of
rural areas such as landscape, food, leisure, and tourism to issues
such as the travel and migration patterns of people and businesses,
and the impacts of technology on working patterns. Of course many
rural areas benefit from real prosperity, often strongly linked
to urban economies through commuting.
21. But while some rural areas and economies
will link effectively with city regions, others are likely to
remain separate and remote. This poses considerable challenges
relating to low pay, low productivity, low skills, and reliance
on narrow and declining economic sectors. These will remain numerically
minor interests within some regions but collectively they have
significance in economic, social, environmental and political
terms. There is a strong case for a national focus from Government,
across departments,on addressing the needs of these economies,
albeit via regional and local delivery.
22. We also need to give rural areas adequate
political rank within a devolved structure and to tailor structures
of government to their particular needs. Earlier debate about
sub-regional local government has tended to degenerate into an
argument between counties and districts, resulting from an absence
of strategy and principle in national policy.
23. When our Board visited the North East
to consider the rural aspects of regional government in October
2003 we concluded that unitary local government structures had
some strong merits.3
24. We also felt that any moves towards
unitary local authorities would also be an excellent opportunity
to enhance and invest in further developing the role of town and
parish councils. MORI opinion polling published by the Boundary
Committee as part of their work in the North East4 showed that
people in both Northumberland and County Durham "identify
most strongly with their local neighbourhood/village and their
town/nearest town. They show less identity with the administrative
areas of the two-tier councils. This is not an unusual finding,
as people generally identify with the immediate area where they
have made their home, rather than a large geographical area".
MORI's qualitative research also concluded that in Northumberland
and County Durham "participants were typically not overly
concerned with concepts of current district council or county
council boundaries . . . being more concerned with effective service
25. But this strong case for localism needs
to be reconciled with the need for adequate capacity to develop
and implement strategy and service provision. Increasingly this
requires an ability to engage with regional strategy development,
including spatial planning, economic development, housing and
a growing list of other themes. Work in recent years has demonstrated
the value of the regional scale in understanding housing markets,
travel to work patterns and other matters previously obscured
by traditional local authority boundaries and roles.
26. We need a pattern of local government
which can effectively complement this strategic scale, without
replicating or competing with it. Arguably local authorities could
build capacity through drawing on effective regional resources,
in turn offering genuinely local perspectives and experience in
delivery. We need also to ensure adequate capacities within rural
LSPs, within town and parish councils, and the voluntary and community
sectors and their support bodies. From a specifically rural standpoint,
we need also to ensure that we understand how best to address
the needs of these communities through clarifying and harnessing
the work of local authorities, LSPs, Regional Rural Affairs Forums,
Regional Development Agencies, Government Offices and other key
players. The Countryside Agency and, in future, the Commission
for Rural Communities will work hard to support their work and
to help to give it national focus and impact.
26. We cannot afford to repeat the failures
of the past decade or so. We should adopt a more holistic approach
based on clear principles. We should not be seduced by the idea
that city regions offer a ready alternative to the model of governance
previously offered by elected regional assemblies.
REFERENCES 1 The
Natural England and Rural Communities Bill currently before Parliament
proposes to establish, from the existing Countryside Agency, firstly
the Commission for Rural Communities and secondly (together with
English Nature and the Rural Development Service), Natural England.
The Landscape Access and Recreation operating division of the
Countryside Agency will be forming part of the new Natural England
body. The remit of Natural England will be to ensure that the
natural environment is conserved, enhanced and managed for the
benefit of present and future generations. The Commission for
Rural Communities was established on 1 April 2005 as an operating
division of the Countryside Agency. It provides independent advice
to Government and others and ensures that policies reflect the
real needs of people living and working in rural England, with
a particular focus on tackling disadvantage. The Commission has
three key functions: (i) Rural advocate: the voice for rural people,
businesses and communities; (ii) Expertadviser: giving evidence-based,
objective advice to government and others; and (iii) Independent
watchdog: monitoring and reporting on the delivery of policies
nationally, regionally and locally.
2 Prime Minister's speech on Public Services
Reform, 25 January 2002.
3 See A rural commentary report on Regional
and Local Government in the North East. Also See also the research
undertaken for us by PricewaterhouseCoopers, "The characteristics
of successful rural unitary authorities". Both are available
4 See: http://www.boundarycommittee.org.uk/our-work/MoriOpinionResearch.cfm