All change for regions

The role and purpose of regional development agencies will need a thorough overhaul if they are to maintain the standard of recent advances in strategic planning, argues Ben Kochan.

The promotion of regional development agencies (RDAs) as guardians of single strategies for their regions will require radical changes to make them locally accountable and fit to take on broader responsibilities beyond economic development.

The move, proposed in this summer's sub-national review of economic development and regeneration (Planning, 20 July, p1), will require effective regional and sub-regional bodies to call RDAs to account once regional assemblies are abolished. Their selection as regional planning bodies has taken some by surprise. But according to Centre for Cities director Dermot Finch, they offer the most attractive option to the government.

"The proposed arrangements are second best but the RDAs and their strategies have established pole position, particularly given the government's economic priorities, even though they do not have a statutory role," says Finch. "The assemblies lack credibility because they were set up on the premise that they would form the basis of directly elected regional government."

Finch wonders whether every region needs an assembly. In those such as the North East, he reasons, the government found effective bodies that can represent local authorities and are in effect duplicating the assembly's role. The arrangements coming forward through regional select committees and regional ministers (see panel) could be flexible enough to tackle different circumstances in different regions.

Professor Alan Harding of the University of Manchester's institute for political and economic governance suggests that the assemblies have not won many friends among local authorities. "The level of representation and interest taken by many councils is not particularly high," he says.

But Keith Mitchell, chairman of both the South East England Regional Assembly (SEERA) and the English Regions Network (ERN), suggests that the squabbles between assemblies and ministers over housing targets are behind their abolition. SEERA's target was recently dismissed as "bonkers" by housing and planning minister Yvette Cooper, who clearly sees it as an impediment to pushing through higher figures.

- Problems likely to persist after handover

These issues are unlikely to go away when regional planning responsibilities are passed to the RDAs, Mitchell warns. He sees no reason to suppose that the South East England Development Agency (SEEDA) will find it any easier to secure support for higher house building levels. Under the shake-out, he notes, it will have to deal directly with the local authorities.

When the RDAs were set up in 1999, they took over English Partnerships' land holdings and some of its regional staff, some Countryside Agency functions and some DTI inward investment responsibilities. They were given an explicit remit to increase the economic competitiveness of their regions, in line with a central government target to reduce regional economic disparities.

Since then they have acquired training and business support roles. While four places on each agency's board are reserved for local authority leaders, the chairman has to be from the private sector. Their annual budget has grown, starting with the single regeneration budget previously managed by the government regional offices. Their collective spending now runs at more than £2.2 billion a year.

Harding believes the RDAs will have to change radically to take on the spatial planning function. He argues that a wall will be required between spatial strategy issues and economic development functions. "The economic functions must sit within the spatial strategy, rather than allowing economic issues to dominate," he maintains.

Responsibility for the RDAs has always been contested at national level between the DTI and the successive departments responsible for planning and regeneration. While former deputy prime minister John Prescott was the driving force behind the agencies' formation and his department contributed the majority of their funds, they were accountable to the DTI.

According to the sub-national review, the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform will retain lead responsibility. John Glasson, associate dean at Oxford Brookes University, argues that things must change if RDAs are to be given wider responsibilities. "If the RDAs take on the planning function, they must recognise its role in balancing economic, social and environmental objectives," he urges.

Glasson emphasises that the RDAs will have to work to much longer timescales. "Regional economic strategies have a life of ten years, but much of their activity is in allocating funds on three-year funding cycles," he observes. "Regional spatial strategies (RSSs) cover 15 years or more."

Harding believes the RDAs will also need to change their approach in delivering programmes. While the agencies are now working more closely with sub-regional partnerships, he predicts that they will be expected to delegate functions to a broader mix of partners. "The RDAs must be prepared to allow others to deliver," he argues.

RDAs will also have to improve their accountability and engagement with local stakeholders. As quangos accountable to Whitehall, they have sometimes appeared secretive. ERN director Kate Docherty accepts that they have opened up lately. Even so, the National Audit Office has highlighted the need for greater transparency in decision-making and better integration of project processes in independent performance assessments.

Some critics fear that the agencies may find it difficult to match the quality of regional planning achieved by the assemblies. Glasson is a strong supporter of the statutory RSS process. Despite very limited resources, he argues, the assemblies have managed to create more integrated strategies than hitherto. He hopes that their defenders will mount a stronger case for their retention, or at least put forward alternative ideas.

"The past five years have been very significant for regional planning, which is set to become an increasingly crucial activity as issues about housing growth and infrastructure provision become even more important," he says. "All kinds of initiatives have been taken on issues such as climate change, transport, implementation of strategies, conformity of local plans and social exclusion."

- Joint working encouraged among councils

They have also promoted co-operation between councils. Glasson chaired the sustainability appraisal group for the Black Country Study, part of the West Midlands RSS review, in which the four local authorities worked together to produce a plan that stood up to scrutiny by the examination-in-public panel.

The DCLG's latest monitoring report, produced by Arup last year, echoes Glasson's view. "The evidence base is much better than anything that has gone previously," it notes. "It has been important to assemblies dealing with the politics of growth in housing provision." This applies particularly to the East of England and the South East, "where accommodation of new housing to meet growth area targets has required a degree of political deal-making".

The relationship between the RDAs and the assemblies has improved over the years. While the debate over housing numbers in the South East has garnered massive publicity, SEEDA and SEERA have actually been working quite closely together on preparing an implementation plan for the revised South East Plan.

The RDAs' approach to regional planning is at a very early stage. One NorthEast planning manager Andy Groves says it is possible that the agency would produce a series of local development framework-style documents with a core strategy and thematic policy statements, some of which could be updated more frequently. "The economy is changing more rapidly than the built environment," he maintains.

Some commentators have questioned the RDAs' capacity to take on the planning function. Tom Warburton, One NorthEast's head of environment and infrastructure, points out that the RDA already has planners on its staff, not least to make input into the RSS. More are likely to be recruited during the switch to the updated system by 2010.

Mitchell foresees a difficult transitional period, raising concerns that the assemblies will start to shed staff just as difficult talks get under way about boundaries and consultation processes. He also fears that agencies answerable directly to ministers are unlikely to resist having higher housing targets foisted on them. CALLED TO ACCOUNT

The landscape could be radically changed by regional select committees and regional ministers, who have already been appointed. But as yet there is little detail about their roles.

The New Local Government Network believes the restructuring offers councils an opportunity for direct input into regional planning. Shortly after the sub-national review appeared, the network published a series of papers setting out the potential.

Director Chris Leslie suggests that the reforms encourage local authorities to group together to make an input on regional and national issues. In his view, they can play a key role on regional select committees, especially if council leaders are co-opted onto them.

Leslie argues that the select committees should have powers to call ministers to appear before them and to scrutinise regional development agencies. "Such a hybrid arrangement could create a fusion between national and local elected representatives that would revolutionise the way that regional decision-making is overseen," he believes.

In a recent letter to the DCLG, South East England Regional Assembly chairman Keith Mitchell argued that true accountability means councils being collectively able to initiate, make an input, steer and agree or reject the whole of the single regional strategy, not simply its spatial element.

The government has issued an open invitation to regional assemblies and local authorities to come forward with ideas about how the regional and sub-regional landscape might operate. Local government minister John Healey is urging councils to actively develop revised arrangements rather than waiting to see what transpires.

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