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

Memorandum by The Countryside Agency (RG 81)


  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 their inter-relationships;

    —    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 this risk.

  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 users.

  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 appropriately deployed.

  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 area agreements.

  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 delivery".

  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 at:—Governance/regional—government.asp.

  4  See:

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