Headlines: January 6th, 1998

The move towards regional government has started and regional decision making is a big issue for 1998. The votes in favour of the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly attracted great attention, but the devolution initiative that will affect most people in the UK is the proposed setting up of nine Regional Development Agencies.The initiative is the first step towards directly elected regional government in England. As a further move in this direction the Government will encourage the formation of voluntary Regional Chambers to bring together elected representatives from local authorities and other regional partners. The RDAs will be required to consult the Chambers on their corporate plans and generally be open to their scrutiny.

John Prescott, Deputy Prime Minister in describing the purpose of the Agencies said: “One of the key tasks of the RDAs will be to develop and implement a Regional Economic Strategy, working with regional interests, such as local authorities, TECs, business and voluntary groups. But they will have an executive role too. They will have the powers and funds to advance economic development and regeneration and will act as a regional focus for the delivery of programmes on skills and business support.”

The Agencies are due to come into operation in April 1999 and the work done in the next 15 months will determine how successfully they perform. The main difficulty is that the paper on which the agencies are to be planned in not blank. It is already full of bodies seeking to achieve variants of the aims set out in the Bill. These bodies, which include local authorities, Government regional offices, Urban Regeneration Agency, Development Commission, Rural Commission (of the Local Government Association), TECs and various voluntary bodies. This organisational picture was described by the Audit Commission as ‘a patchwork quilt’. Before the RDAs can get to grips with striving to fulfil the aims set out in the Bill, they will have to tackle the task of devising strategies that harmonise with the long term intentions of other bodies who have different missions and quite separate sources of funding. The key issue is ‘how to get everyone facing in the same direction and singing from the same hymn sheet’.

The move towards regional government and the way it is being approached is causing concern among bodies already in the field. The Local Government Association has pointed out that although the RDAs will consult the Regional Chambers, they are not required to work within their broader regional strategies. Another concern is the possible loss of local authority functions. The White Paper seeks to allay this fear by making it clear that it is not the intention to take powers or resources away from local authorities, or to down play the contribution of other local partners.

The make-up of the RDA boards, which will be ‘business led’, is also a contentious issue. The greatest challenge will be securing the support and commitment of disparate bodies to coherent strategies for regeneration. The LGA is questioning whether the skills and competencies developed in the business culture are the most appropriate for this task.

There is also unease that a ‘business led’ approach could lead to a decline in the influence of existing bodies. Councillor Alison Clish-Green, chair of the Rural Commission said: “It is crucial that reform does not mean the loss of high quality rural research, advice and advocacy which the Rural Development Commission has provided at national level for many years”.

The Bill, of necessity, provides no answers for many of the long standing questions and it also creates new uncertainties. What is certain is that it is stimulating new thinking on major issues of governance.