There's widespread opposition amongst regional assembllies to transfering their planning powers to regeional development agencies. The south east regional assembly explains its view.
Government started its intended major overhaul of the regional landscape more than a year ago but we are still awaiting confirmation on the way forward. Whatever the outcome – it is clear that local democracy must continue to play a lead role in regional decision making.
Proposals to transfer strategic planning, housing and transport powers from councillor-led regional assemblies to unelected regional development agencies have faced united opposition from all parties on the South East England Regional Assembly. We have a number of fundamental concerns:
• Democratic accountability: We oppose the transfer of strategic planning to unelected Government quangos and the dramatic reduction in local accountability this entails. Instead we want to see counties, unitary and district councils collectively given responsibility for preparing the new integrated regional strategy. Failing that, the South East’s new Regional Development Agency (RDA) board should predominantly comprise nominees from local government alongside central Government appointees, in a ‘shared agency’.
• Sustainable development: Government proposals place too much emphasis on economic targets. There is an urgent need to ensure strategic planning gives equal priority to economic, environmental and social wellbeing.
• Resources: Whoever ultimately undertakes regional planning body functions in future, we need a guarantee that adequate Government funding will continue. In the South East it costs around £3.1 million a year to undertake this role. Any transfer of responsibilities without resources threaten the quality of regional planning.
Without the involvement of local councillors, accountability to the region and its communities on major planning decisions are far too weak.
Without the open and transparent involvement of local councillors, accountability to the region and its communities on major planning decisions are far too weak. They are seriously insufficient given the significance of regional planning, which demands far stronger transparency, scrutiny and accountability in future. Our views are reinforced by a recent survey commissioned through Ipsos MORI, which asked south east residents who they thought should be involved in setting regional priorities and taking regional decisions on large scale planning, housing and transport developments. Results show a clear preference for priority setting and decision making to be led by accountable local councillors.
While local authority representatives were clearly residents’ first choice to be involved in setting regional priorities – chosen by 73% – there was also support for other groups. Some 60% wanted to see community representatives involved, while 38% mentioned local business representatives, 34% mentioned environmental groups and 24% mentioned the voluntary sector. This emphasises the need for formal arrangements for stakeholder involvement in the future.
The desire for accountability is clarified further by residents’ views on who should hold ultimate responsibility for regional decision making. Again, local councillors were first choice with 41% support, followed by central government with 35% support. Much further down the scale were civil servants working for a government appointed regional organisation (9% support).
However, the question of regional diversity is vital – each region must be able to choose a solution that best fits its requirements. For the south east it is essential that we manage growth sustainably with adequate investment in transport, schools, water supplies and energy which is at the heart of the region’s south east plan.
Paul Carter is chair of the South East Regional Assembly