Guest blog by Kevin Richardson, Local Academy
It is almost a decade since the then coalition government announced it would abolish 9 Regional Development Agencies (RDAs) in England and replace them with what turned out to be 39 Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs). But the political and economic debates, which underpinned that decision, are as relevant today as they were ten years ago. The UK (especially England) remains the most centralised state in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. And not unrelated, because of ever-widening regional disparities of wealth and deprivation, the UK is rooted at the foot of the league table.
The government looks set to publish a new White Paper on Devolution and Local Economic Recovery. It will also reconsider the regional footprint of its major funders of research and innovation as part of a new R&D Place Strategy. HM Treasury is set to establish an ‘economic campus’ in the north of England. Ten years on since the closure of RDAs, it is useful and timely to assess what transferrable lessons could be applied today from some of the practical experiences and positive benefits of the RDAs. What really mattered and what really made a difference?
Clarity of Purpose Mattered. The original purpose of RDAs was to reduce regional disparities through economic development but that was tempered as the legislation progressed under political and departmental pressure to ‘improv(ing) the economic performance of all English regions and reduce the gap in economic growth rates between regions.’ The purpose was therefore not ‘levelling up’.
Real Devolution Mattered. RDAs were given an annual grant funding allocation, top sliced from the budgets of different central departments. This was bundled together into a Single Programme, a nominally flexible budget, which RDAs were then supposedly free to spend on their own regional priorities. But ministers and central departments maintained their own ideas on what they still considered ‘their money’ should be spent on. That tension was evident throughout.
Place Mattered. The most vocal criticism of the RDAs was that they all had similar priorities and they all wanted to lead in the same centres of excellence. Despite regional consultation, Whitehall had the power to reject Regional Economic Strategies, annual Corporate Plans and major projects submitted to it by the RDAs. The government did, however, choose to approve initiatives where they fitted with national strategies. Similarly, the structures and policy frameworks for each RDA were essentially identical and therefore spatially blind.
Scope Mattered. RDAs were nominally given a broad remit of economic development, but a lack of engagement by some central departments and a heavily centralised policy and legislative framework limited their ability to influence other important aspects of more integrated and sustainable development. RDAs had little control or influence over planning, transport, housing, further or higher education, skills, employment programmes, etc.
Scale Mattered. The budgets of most RDAs were far bigger than those of the LEPs that replaced them. Central government made difficult decisions and awarded the biggest allocations of cash to those regions, which needed it the most; there was no need for any quasi-competition. But even the biggest allocations were nowhere near sufficient to have any significant impact when compared to the scale and scope of the long-term structural problems facing those regions. For example, the entire budget of One NorthEast was less than the budgets of all the FE colleges in that region, never mind its 5 universities.
Time Mattered. RDAs were never really that popular in the South and South East of England, where limited relevance, coupled with issues of difficult geographies and identities, contributed towards their eventual demise. But in the North, Midlands and in the South West, they did win over previous critics. Given a choice, some of the biggest sceptics of the RDAs may choose to swap some of the latter-day institutions for previous arrangements. But RDAs were never allowed to settle by government, which off loaded more and more functions onto the regional agencies. Then, in the aftermath of the Global Financial Crisis, under the New Industry New Jobs Agenda, the then Labour government ‘renationalised’ whole swathes of RDA funding (e.g. to set up the Technology Strategy Board, which later became Innovate UK). Despite the short-term timescales, and regular change in functions, the RDAs did, however, seed fertile ground for some important innovation developments, such as the Renewable Energy Centre in Blyth, and the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre in Rotherham.
People Mattered. Many RDA staff were talented, widely-respected and capable of forging strong reputations as sources of valued policy, analysis and evidence. Overall, it was not the quantity of people that really mattered, but their quality.
The current government will not re-establish RDAs, but some form of reorganisation of existing sub national institutions appears to be on the agenda. As part of its thinking, the government should review what worked and what didn’t work for RDAs, as the need to level up the regions of England did not just emerge overnight.