Role of regeneration body under the spotlight as Regional Development Agencies' power expands.
Planning minister Lord Falconer has decided to review the role of regeneration body English Partnerships 18 months early.

The move, which comes as concerns mount over the government's failure to deliver its promised regeneration policy, could see the role of the regional development agencies expanded.

EP is already facing uncertainty as its chairman, Alan Cockshaw, has stated that he will not renew his three-year contract.

The body, which was set up in 1993, was originally to be reviewed every five years, but the decision was made to review early in the wake of the general election.

A government spokesperson said the review is timely given Whitehall's post-election shake-up. As a result of the break up of the DETR, EP was put under the umbrella of the newly created DTLR. However, the regeneration body's decentralised cousins, the RDAs, became part of the DTI.

The spokesperson added: "It's time to look at the relationship between EP and the RDAs."

But rumours abound that the review may lead to the RDAs scooping up EP powers, leading it to, as one regeneration source put it, "shut up shop".

EP has been the focus of much controversy. Its Millennium Village schemes in Greenwich and Yorkshire have been dogged by delay and dispute: the Yorkshire village suffered criticism over hold ups in the construction programme and poor consultation with the local community.

Meanwhile, RDAs, the nine bodies established in April 1999 to set up regional economic development strategies, are becoming increasingly autonomous.

As of April next year, the agencies will have more power over their own purse-strings. Previously, the RDAs were tightly budgeted and could only take money from 13 "pots" allocated to specific types of project, such as rural regeneration or inward investment. From April 2002, RDAs will be allocated a single fund which they will be able to spend on whatever they see fit (albeit with certain output targets negotiated with the government). The agencies overall budget is also to be increased to £1.5bn, up from £1.2bn this year.

Derek Mapp, chairman of the East Midlands Development Agency, said there is a need for regeneration policy to change. He said: "The thing is that as RDAs are getting more and more powerful and confident of delivery, there are certain things that don't need to be done nationally."

One example is EP's control over the National Coalfields Programme, introduced in 1996. Through this programme, EP has sought to regenerate the former mining communities shattered by pit closures in the 1980s and 1990s. But Mapp says most of the work in these areas is being done by the RDAs. This means that there is no need for EP to oversee the projects and duplicate the decision-making process.

But EP believes it still has an important role to play. One source close to the body rubbished talk of it being ditched. He said: "EP's position needs to be tidied up before the government spending review next year. A bonus may also be that it will end speculation on EP's future."

Trevor Beattie, EP's corporate strategy director, also favoured an early review. "EP welcomes the proposal to bring forward this review, which was in any case going to happen in 2003," he said. "We think the time is right, given the changes after the general election."

Mapp conceded that there is still a role for EP: "Where EP certainly helps is bringing in nationally-based financiers to invest in the regions."

The source close to EP stressed this argument. "A lot of EP projects are private–public joint ventures. The City does not want to do a deal nine times, as it would have to if RDAs had all of EP's powers."

Urban regeneration expert Chris Brown, chairman of the Igloo Regeneration Fund, suggested there may be a compromise to be had between EP and the RDAs. He described the struggle over regeneration powers as a waste of energy and suggested that allowing EP to reinvest funds from the disposal of its new towns property portfolio into Urban Regeneration Companies would provide better results on the ground.

The rise of the RDA

Eight regional development agencies were set up in April 1999, with the London Development Agency added in 2000, and were partly formed out of the regional activities of English Partnerships. RDAs develop regional economic strategies. ONE North East, for example, owns and manages more than 1000 properties and has regeneration sites in areas such as Northumberland, County Durham and Newcastle. Yorkshire Forward has developed the UK’s first e-campus – a dedicated business environment with wireless, satellite and cable capabilities – at a site in Sheffield.