Sunday, 4 January 2009

Local Democracy, Economic Development & Construction Bill

Let me begin with some background:

Back on 7th November 2007 Communities Secretary, Hazel Blears - aka The Poisoned Dwarf - published a paper on the communities website headed 'Blears gives green light to sub-regional jobs boost". This unveiled a scheme comprising thirteen sub-regions which were drawing up proposals to boost jobs, transport, investment and housing through greater co-operation. These new plans were called Multi-Area Agreements (MAAs). The publication also stated that "the government is working with each interested area to develop MAAs"; that "sub-regions aim to have all agreed their own MAAs locally and with the Government by June 2008"; and that "MAAs will allow sub-regions to use this innovative new approach across administrative borders". Included in this statement was also "Currently councils have only limited powrs to collaborate effectively on specific transport issues. The Government will explore the scope for extending powers in areas such as regeneration, jobs, skills, housing and environmental protections".

In the 'Notes to Editors' section of the announcement on 7th December 2007, it listed those thirteen areas which were working with the Government on Multi-Area Agreements. These were:

Tyne & Weir: Gateshead, Newcastle, North Tyneside and South Tyneside plus parts of County Durham, South East Northumberland and the Tyne Valley.

Tees Valley: Darlington, Hartlepool, Middlesborough, Redcar & Cleveland and Stockton-on-Tees.

Leeds City Region: Barnsley, Bradford, Calderdale, Kirklees, Leeds, Wakefield, York, North Yorkshire, Selby, Craven and Harrogate.

Hull and Humber Ports: Hull City, East Riding, North East Lincolnshire and North Lincolnshire.

South Yorkshire: Sheffield, Barnsley, Rotherham and Doncaster.

Greater Manchester: Bolton, Bury, Manchester City Council, Oldham, Rochdale, Salford, Tameside, Trafford and Wigan.

Liverpool City Region: Liverpool, Sefton, Knowsley, S. Helens, Wirral and Halton.

Fylde Coast: Blackpool, Lancashire, Fylde and Wyre.

Pennine Lancashire: Blackburn, Lancashire and Burnley, Pendle, Rossendale, Hyndburn and Ribble Valley.

Birmingham, Coventry and Black Country: Birmingham, Solihull, Sandwell, Dudley, Wolverhampton, Walsall, Coventry and Telford & Wrekin.

Partnership for Urban South Hampshire: Portsmouth, Southampton, Hampshire, Eastleigh, Fareham, Gosport, Portsmouth & Havant and parts of the New Forest, Test Valley, Winchester and East Hampshire; along with Hampshire County Council.

Bournemouth, Poole & Dorset: 

West of England: Bristol, Bath and North East Somerset, North Somerset and South Gloucestershire.

An article in today's Sunday Telegraph - Concern over power of new 'super councils' to impose road taxes' - for which there appears no on-line link available, hence my quoting from it, written by Melissa Kite - Deputy Political Editor, states "Congestion Charges and workplace parking fees could be imposed by unelected quangos under proposed laws. Melissa Kite continues "The small print of the Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Bill, which is going through Parliament, gives sweeping powers to new organisations to control transport policy including the ability to levy taxes, the Conservatives said." "Under the terms of the Bill, new 'combined authorities', made up of two or more local authority areas, will be created. They will control economic development, regeneration and transport policy. The authorities will not be directly elected and the Government will decide the rules for appointments to them. In the small print of schedule six of the Bill there are plans for the new authorities to impose 'local charging schemes'".

Needless to say we have a 'sound-bite' from Eric Pickles, Conservative shadow Communities and Local Government spokesman who is quoted as saying "Gordon Brown's response to Labour being kicked out of local councils is to kick elected representatives out of local government. New laws are creating regional quangos which can impose failed government policies from above. An unwelcome constitutional precedent is being set of unelected bodies with the operational powers to impose and vary taxes".

Eric, where were you in November 2007? Asleep on your brief, when the original announcement about MAAs was made? I don't recall any statement by you, or your Party, on this new development at that time.

In the original announcement, Hazel Blears said "Local devolution is no longer a fringe pursuit but now right at the centre of the Government's agenda. The historic shift outlined today will help unleash the potential of local communities, giving them new freedoms in delivering what local people want." And also "For local authorities, it promises the progressive removal of obstacles that prevent them from pursuing their role. And for local communities, it provides the springboard for giving local people more power and control over their communities and their own lives."

Coupled with the Blears' statement is a statement in today's Sunday Telegraph from a spokesman for the Department for Communities and Local Government in which he is quoted as saying "Far from subverting local democracy, this Bill will actually both give local people a greater role in the work of their local authority, and improve the ability of local authorities to promote economic development and support local businesses in these difficult economic times."

Er, if the members of these new MAAs are to be appointed by the Government then they are no different to members of Regional Development Agencies in that they will be neither elected nor accountable to the voter. And that will give "local people more power and control over their communities and their own lives"; and "give local people a greater role in the work of their local authority"?

For those readers not aware of the fact, the reason that the United Kingdom is divided up into 12 'regions' is to conform with the European Union 'NUTS' Scheme. 'NUTS' is from the document 'Nomenclature des unites territoriales statistiques', or in English, 'Nomenclature of territorial units for statistics'.

In summary each of the 12 regions is coded as Level 1. For example, to use the South East Region; South East Region is Area UKJ. That Level 1 area incorporates, as Level 2, Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire which is area UKJ1; Surrey, East and West Sussex form area UKJ2; Hampshire and Isle of Wight form area UKJ3 and Kent forms area UKJ4. I will not bore you with going through each sub-region, but let us look at area UKJ1. Within that area, as Level 3, is Berkshire - UKJ11, Milton Keynes - UKJ12, Buckinghamshire - UKJ13 and Oxfordshire - UKJ14. As you can see there are regions, sub-regions and sub-sub-regions.

To return to the MAAs mentioned earlier, let us now look at how the regionalisation of this country, in relation to the European Union 'NUTS' scheme, is being implemented. Here is the list once again, this time with the regional nomenclature included - see how they all fit into the 'NUTS' scheme?

Region UKC – Level 1 

Tyne & Wear (Level 2 – UKC2):

Gateshead, Newcastle, North  & South Tyneside (Level 3 – UKC22); northern parts of County Durham (UKC21) 

Tees Valley (Level 2 - UKC1):

Darlington (UKC13); Hartlepool UKC11, Middlesborough, Redcar & Cleveland (UKC12);  and Stockton-on-Tees (UKC11). 

Region UKE  - Level 1 

Leeds City Region (UKE4):

Barnsley (UKE31); Bradford (UKE41); Calderdale, Kirklees, Wakefield (UKE43); Leeds, North Yorkshire (UKE42) 

Hull & Humber Ports (UKE1):

Hull City (UKE11); East Riding (UKE12); North & North East Lincolnshire (UKE13) 

South Yorkshire (UKE3):

Sheffield (UKE32); Barnsley, Rotherham & Doncaster (UKE31) 

Region UKD – Level 1: 

Greater Manchester (UKD3):

Bolton, Bury, Oldham, Rochdale,Wigan (UKD32); Manchester City Council, Stockport, Tameside, Trafford (UKD31) 

Liverpool City Region (UKD5):

Liverpool (UKD52); Sefton (UKD53); Knowsley, St. Helens (UKD51) Wirral (UKD54) 

Fylde Coast (UKD4):

Blackpool (UKD42); Lancashire CC (UKD43) 

Pennine Lancashire (UKD4):

Blackburn (UKD41) 

Region UKG – Level 1: 

Birmingham, Coventry & Black Country (UKG3):

Birmingham (UKG31); Solihull (UKG32); Sandwell, Dudley (UKG34); Wolverhampton, Walsall (UKG35); Coventry (UKG33) Telford & Wrekin (UKG21) 

Region UKJ – Level 1: 

Hampshire (UKJ3):

Portsmouth (UKJ31); Southampton (UKJ32); Hampshire CC (UKJ33) 

Region UKK – Level 1: 

Bournemouth, Poole & Dorset (UKK2):

Bournemouth (UKK21); Poole & Dorset (UKK22) 

West of England (UKK1):                                      

Bristol (UKK11); North & North East Somerset, South Gloucestershire (UKK12)

The Bill can be read here and the explanatory notes here.

You will also find that other changes are to be made. For instance, removing the electoral commission’s role in electoral boundary matters through the creation of an independent Boundary Committee for England. So this then creates yet another quango!

The Secretary of State may also make an order, which she no doubt will, to create Economic Prosperity Boards - yet more quangos?

Clause 66 of this new Bill sets up 'Leaders Boards' which will comprise the leaders of the participating authorities in each new MAA. The explanatory notes state "The Leaders’ Board is a means to enable local authorities to act collectively and decisively at regional level". This is, I suspect, to solve a slight problem caused by the abolition of Regional Assemblies. By way of explanation, under the terms of the Maastricht Treaty - signed by a Conservative government - we are committed to the EU principle that regional funding under the Structural and Economic Cohesion Fund must be disbursed via elected regional governments. It is unclear, at present, whether these 'Leaders Boards' will become yet another quango.

It would also appear that the Secretary of State can impose an MAA on an area, whether the authorities in that area want an MAA or not. Section 7, Clause 253 of the explanatory notes states "It gives the Secretary of State the power to direct a nominated local authority (the ‘responsible authority’) to prepare an MAA in consultation with partner authorities and others specified in guidance (which might include persons from the voluntary and community sector and local businesses)".

This Bill will install a form of 'local' government such as we have never known and is, in my opinion, nothing more than compliance with EU requirements. It is going to be extremely interesting to see what reception it gets from MPs when it is debated, coupled with how much interest the media take in the provisions of this Bill and also whether they bother to report the 'EU link' to regionalisation.