RDAs: approaching the end

Over the next 12 months, England's regional development agencies will be wound up. Adam Branson investigates how the laying off of staff is being handled

Kate Harkus/Alamy illustration
Kate Harkus/Alamy illustration

The Conservatives' pre-election attitude to regional development agencies - Labour's flagship vehicles for promoting economic growth - was never in doubt. The intensity of the shadow cabinet's dislike of the agencies varied depending on personality, with then shadow business secretary Kenneth Clarke saying that they were "no longer affordable", while then shadow communities secretary Eric Pickles stated rather more bluntly that he wanted to see RDAs "go the way of Anne Boleyn".

However, despite the inconclusive general election result, the formation of the coalition Government and Liberal Democrat business secretary Vince Cable's hints that the agencies might be retained in northern England, their future always seemed in doubt. In March 2010, a letter to Conservative MPs from Clarke and Caroline Spelman, Pickles' successor as shadow communities secretary, finally confirmed their abolition. We're now just 12 months away from the formal abolition of the agencies and their wind-up is well under way. Most of the RDAs have already made redundancies, albeit on a voluntary basis at this stage, with the London Development Agency (LDA) the most advanced in its redundancy programme.

According to a spokesman for the agency, around 190 staff - or 59 per cent of its workforce - will have been made redundant by the end of this month. The LDA's regeneration work and funding responsibilities are due to be transferred to the Greater London Authority (GLA) from late April onwards, according to papers presented to the authority's board earlier this month. As a result, at least 50 of the remaining staff will be transferred to the GLA in the next few months, the spokesman says.

Elsewhere, several RDAs, including One North East, the North West Regional Development Agency (NWDA) and Yorkshire Forward, confirm that they are in the middle of programmes of both voluntary and compulsory redundancies. Most RDAs say that the majority of their staff will have left by September or October, with only a core team remaining to deal with the sale or transfer of remaining assets and the accountancy involved in closing any organisation with a multimillion pound turnover. Simon Hooton, a director at consultancy Regeneris who has advised the NWDA for a number of years, says this means that there is only a limited window remaining in which to make use of the RDAs' skills and experience. "By September, they're going to be moribund organisations," he says. "They won't really be doing anything."

According to Lyn Fenton, a regeneration consultant with experience of working closely with regional development agencies in both London and the North West, the real pain for RDA staff looking to find new jobs in planning or regeneration has yet to be felt. "We're just at the beginning of major culls, so the brain drain is a trickle at the moment, but it will soon turn into a spring flood," she says. "Most of the RDAs I know are still working through the process of first looking for volunteers for redundancy before moving on to the next stage of compulsory redundancy. But it takes time due to the level of consultation and amount of transparency required."

Fenton says that RDA employees who have already left have probably done so because they were able to line up another opportunity quickly or were close enough to retirement to make voluntary redundancy an attractive option. However, she says the future looks less rosy for staff who are set to lose their jobs over the coming months. "This is at a time when there are no jobs in planning," she says. "I don't think it's at all clear where these people will go, especially the young and relatively inexperienced. The private sector is hardly going through a boom in these areas."

While the Government is in the process of abolishing the RDAs' role in regional spatial planning, the coalition expects their economic development responsibilities to be taken up by the new public-private local enterprise partnerships (LEPs). However, it is unlikely that many current RDA staff will find employment with LEPs. Firstly, most of the partnerships are still in the process of deciding exactly what they should do and how they should do it. "The LEPs are forming," says Atam Verdi, a director at consultancy Aspinall Verdi. "But there's no clarity about their constituency. Each LEP will make a decision on what staffing it will need and I am sure that will vary significantly across the country. Some will have a modest headcount, while others will be better resourced. That picture still hasn't emerged."

What's more, with no direct funding from either the Department for Communities and Local Government or the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills - the RDAs' sponsor departments - the local authorities in each partnership will have to find the money to pay for new positions from their existing budgets, if indeed they decide to directly employ anybody at all. According to one RDA employee currently going through the redundancy process: "It's possible that some jobs will be created at LEPs. But the difficulty is that they're local authority-led and councils will be looking to put their own people into any jobs that are created because they're having to make cutbacks as well. They'll try to find jobs for their own people in the partnerships if possible."

The problem for many RDA staff isn't just that there are far fewer relevant positions out there as a result of the tough economic situation and the coalition Government's policies, it's also that there is no longer a natural home for many of their skills. Staff from the agencies, as well as RDA-sponsored organisations such as urban regeneration companies, have operated at the interface between the public and private sectors. But Simon Hooton of Regeneris warns that councils are unlikely to start recruiting such specialists. "Your average local authority's economic development or planning team doesn't have those sorts of skills at its disposal. They've not needed to have them over the last ten years because RDAs and other agencies have been there playing that role," he says. "When the local government cuts wash through, planning and regeneration departments will have even less capacity than at present to do their core day job before they start to worry about extra work such as dealing commercially with the private sector."

The same is true, says Hooton, of RDA staff who have built up specialist knowledge over the years on topics such as European Commission state aid rules and procurement regulation. "RDAs have provided local partners with technical advice on legal issues, state aid, contracting and procurement," he says. "Despite creating frustrations and being accused of being overly bureaucratic and sometimes overly prescriptive or restrictive, these are essential elements of the economic development armoury."

The dismantling of the RDAs may be well advanced, but it is still unclear where many of their staff will find new employment. Not only is this distressing for the individuals involved, but it is also clear that the planning, economic development and regeneration sectors risk losing specialist skills built up over more than a decade.

First-hand accounts: two RDA workers facing redundancy

"Most will take the voluntary route"

We received formal notification of being at risk of redundancy earlier this year and this was published alongside some information about the voluntary and compulsory redundancy schemes. What's happening is that everybody is having a consultation meeting with an assistant director to agree a date to leave. If you don't accept the voluntary redundancy terms this time around you'll be served with a compulsory redundancy notice.

Few people will leave under the compulsory scheme because you get three months pay in lieu of notice if you take voluntary redundancy. If you decide to take compulsory redundancy you have to work your three-month notice period to get paid for it. That will keep down the compulsory redundancy figures.

A moving on team has been established to give advice and help on CVs, interviews and hunting for other positions. They've helped encourage placements with partnership organisations. But we haven't had that long to sort this out. We were told last summer that we were shutting down, but it was only after a few months that it became clear that no transfer jobs would be available within the civil service.

"I'm looking at related options like academic work"

I head up the research and intelligence functions at my RDA. In my region, we've known for a long time that if there were a change of Government it was highly likely that we'd be abolished. We were quite ready for that decision, but it was still a bit of a shock when it was formally announced in the emergency Budget in June. We were then left in limbo and staff morale plummeted during the summer. It's been a muddled, unclear process.

I've got to say that the RDA has been very flexible in terms of the voluntary redundancy scheme, allowing people to leave pretty much when they want. The management has really been very good. They've provided us with individual training budgets - which are not huge but are enough to provide you with a decent training course - and they've put on lunchtime workshops to help with CVs and presentation skills. They've been very well organised in terms of training. They've been very clear about the process and about the draft terms of redundancy. The RDA has done all it can to be open with staff and to keep us as informed as possible.

I have to look at doing other things now. But there are just so few jobs. No councils are taking on people like me because what I do is quite specialised and I'm quite senior. It's difficult because local government is one of the only areas with any budget worth talking about, but they've got budget cuts of their own to deal with. It's not just that we're losing our jobs, we're also seeing people in economic development teams at councils getting made redundant. Because economic development is a non-statutory function, it gets cut. I'm looking at options to do something different but still related, such as academic work.

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