Relief as white paper leaves council powers alone

15 Feb 01
Local government leaders are breathing a sigh of relief following publication of the government's long-awaited white paper on the knowledge economy on February 13.

16 February 2001

Predictions that the document would signal an increase in the power and scope of the nine regional development agencies, leading to the sidelining of local authorities, proved to be unfounded.

It was widely expected that RDAs would be given substantial new roles in the areas of planning and transport strategy, but the paper merely recommended an 'integrated approach' to developments in these areas.

This means the current remit of local authorities is unlikely to be affected. Instead, the government is calling on the agencies to work with regional planning and transport bodies in an effort to ensure they provide the necessary infrastructure for economic strategies.

Tony Rich, policy officer with the Local Government Association, said the white paper was 'much weaker' than expected. 'It doesn't really say very much. A lot of it comes across as a restatement of existing policy,' he commented.

But he also sounded a cautionary note, warning that the involvement of RDAs in planning policy could signal the government's determination to remove councils' planning function if they were perceived to be holding up economic growth.

'There is a threat behind all this that if the development of business growth clusters was being held up, the government might give control to RDAs, which we would have a problem with. But at the moment it is just talking about them taking a more proactive role.'

The white paper says that the agencies offer a channel for 'flexible policies to meet the needs of different regions', but it does not address their relations with the regional chambers, set up to scrutinise their activities. Rich said the LGA was 'disappointed' that the question of the RDAs' accountability had not been examined.

'Having strong RDAs and weak chambers does not give balance within the region. There is no effective accountability or scrutiny,' he said. 'The paper underplays the key role of chambers in bringing together a lot of the development work within the region.'

Each agency has been asked to draw up a 'strategy for success', intended to identify ways of improving the skills of local people and fostering business development in the region.


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