"Unofficially, some senior officials (in the RDA's) are deeply uneasy (about Elected Regional Assemblies)."
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Devolving key decision making to the regions makes perfect sense to the Treasury. But, in reality, how much power is it willing to relinquish?
Peter Hetherington reports Wednesday August 25, 2004
They are a little-known corner of the public sector, employing 2,000 staff throughout England and boasting a hefty combined budget of £2.2bn next year. The country's nine regional development agencies (RDAs) were launched five years ago as the vanguard of John Prescott's grand plan to devolve power from Whitehall.
Impressed by similar bodies created in Scotland and Wales in the late 1970s, the deputy prime minister was keen for England to catch up with strong, business-led economic drivers capable of creating jobs, clearing derelict land, and working with councils to turn round rundown areas.
In fact, while the agencies are generally chaired by business men and women, the influence of local government is stronger than many imagined, with a cross-current between RDAs and town and county halls. Former council chief executives, and other senior officials, now occupy the main posts in a string of agencies, while at least one former RDA official has moved in the opposite direction.
While working outside the direct control of politicians might have its attractions, the influence of Whitehall - which has set the RDAs a series of demanding targets, from job creation to land reclamation - remains strong. This has turned out to be devolution in name only.
Still, for some, working to a set of Whitehall targets may have seemed preferable to daily meetings with a council leader. That's why a collective shudder went through the ranks of some RDAs at the prospect of being answerable to a new breed of regional politician in elected assemblies; the agencies, after all, would represent a big slice of any future assembly budget.
Officially, the eight RDAs, plus London's agency - which is already answerable to Ken Livingstone's Greater London authority - have no official views about full-blown political devolution to the regions, on the broad model of the GLA.
Unofficially, some senior officials are deeply uneasy.
Many doubtless breathed a sigh of relief when Prescott last month scrapped his plan for referendums in two of the three northern regions this autumn - what he dubbed a "great north vote" - to test the mood for elected assemblies.
Only the 1.9 million electors of the north-east will now take part in an all-postal ballot on November 4.
A "yes" vote could mean elections proper to a 25-member north-east assembly in 2006, after which the regional development agency, known as One North East, would be accountable to regional politicians, some of whom may well question the agency's priorities.
True, regional government might be some way off, but any ambitious RDA official will now have to prepare for the possibility of new political masters - although, in reality, Whitehall will still exert considerable influence in the event of Labour winning a third term (the Conservatives have hitherto been hostile to RDAs, while being strongly opposed to elected assemblies).
For the time being, however, RDAs appear fairly high on Gordon Brown's agenda. Although they seemed to have as many detractors as admirers, the chancellor sees them as a building block for the decentralisation of Whitehall departments, and the possible relocation of 20,000 civil service posts around the country.
The chancellor's recent three-year spending review gave the agencies a few more powers, particularly regarding support for new and existing businesses, as well as an extra £200m for 2005-06.
Terry Hodgkinson, who chairs the Yorkshire agency, known as Yorkshire Forward, and has been closely involved in negotiations with Brown, believes the chancellor has listened to their arguments, "particularly about the need to tackle red tape and bureaucracy".
Privately, RDAs have long complained of being hampered by the "command and control" of Whitehall. Until the last election, they were under the wing of Prescott's former Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions. Subsequently, responsibility for them was transferred to the Department of Trade and Industry, widely seen as a branch office of the Treasury these days. Curiously, Prescott's shrunken department - the grandly-titled Office of the Deputy Prime Minister - contributes the largest element of their budget (more then £1.5bn).
In reality, the regional agenda is being driven by Brown and Prescott. Whatever happens in November's north-east referendum, the deputy prime minister insists that a form of devolution - or, more accurately, "decentralisation" - will move ahead.
Non-elected assemblies, comprising mainly local councillors, have been established already in the eight regions outside London, with full-time secretariats. The south-east assembly, for instance - based in Guildford, in the same building as the south-east RDA - has a staff of 34, including a chief executive and a director of planning and transport. Like the other assemblies, it has responsibility for regional strategic planning and, soon, regional housing strategy through a new board recently established. By 2006, regional planning and housing functions are due to be merged, in line with recommendations from a recent review into the housing market by the economist Kate Barker.
In short, if Labour stays in power and Brown remains a force, a form of regionalism - albeit, closely tied to Whitehall's performance and target culture - will be central to the Treasury's objectives.
Wednesday, August 25, 2004
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