The Sub-National Review

Ippr have recently published a discussion paper on the Sub-National Review (SNR).  Useful as both a summary and a prompt for further thought and action, the paper outlines the objectives of the SNR, and outlines positive and negative aspects of the decentralisation policy.

The SNR follows a global trend towards decentralisation, and a national move towards regionalisation.  It was originally published in July 2007, but has been under consultation and review since, and is currently being finalised.  It derives from a multiplicity of consultations, in which stakeholders at all levels of government (local, regional and national), have questioned the complicated and often unaccountable policies and procedures that have guided regional development and regeneration.  The SNR is an attempt to deal with these issues, devolving decision making and responsibility for local development to ‘the most appropriate level’

Whilst this is a positive step, the SNR fails to outline or commit to many of the underlying processes that will ensure effective implementation of the strategy.  Ippr’s paper provides recommendations to counteract this.

The VCS is at particular risk from this review, as:

‘It will no longer have the opportunity to engage in the regional planning process through the Regional Assembly and no clear alternative has been offered’

Whilst it may be useful to read the paper itself, I have summarised the main points below:


The need for reform

Meeting governmental objectives

In an uncertain economic environment, the Government will find it increasingly hard to ‘improve the economic performance of all English regions and reduce the gap in economic growth between regions’ as promised in its Public Service Agreement.  The SNR offers a better likelihood for this objective to be met.

Decision-making at an ‘appropriate level’

For regional economic and social development this is likely to be regional or sub-regional, as decisions relating to this impact on the lives of citizens, and vary widely between different areas.

Overall risks of the SNR



There are currently only two levels of legitimacy in England and Wales; Westminster and the local authorities.  With the proposed changes, it is unclear where accountability will lie.

Effective government

Reforms at regional level are ongoing (there are new Regional Ministers and a proposed regional select committee in the House of Commons, but Regional Assemblies are being abolished and regional Development Agencies are having their roles dramatically redefined) and as yet the exact format is uncertain.  This may impact on the effectiveness of the proposed reforms.


The proposed changes

The main focus of the SNR is the redistribution of powers.  This has its own inherent risks, as do some of the specific proposals, as illustrated below:


Redistribution of powers

Devolving decision making from national to regional and local level entails a significant redistribution of powers:

  • Regional assemblies (RAs) are being dissolved
  • Regional development agencies (RDAs) are having their roles expanded and redefined, becoming responsible for regional economic and social development
  • Regional Economic Strategy (RES) and Regional Spatial Strategy (RSS) are being merged into the Integrated Regional Strategy (IRS)
  • Local authorities will have enhanced control over the performance of sub regional quasi-governmental institutions via a local authorities leaders forum (the ‘Forum’)


In order for this to succeed, central governmental structures need to evolve to support these changes.  Decentralisation cuts across many different departments within government.  The SNR however, offers no recommendations or indications that any supportive structures are to be redefined or instituted.


To properly support the redistribution of power, Ippr suggest the following:

  • A single coordination centre at the national level
  • Flexible and co-ordinated administrative structures, processes and mechanisms of delivery
  • A ‘mirror’ SNR for national government outlining how government will change to manage changing sub-national governance structures.
  • Statutory sub-regional arrangements to ensure coordinated decisions


Decisions taken and implemented at the ‘most appropriate level’

This is a positive move; however, there is concern about how serious the government agenda on this is.  They have retained the right to amend the strategy document even after it has been approved by the RDAs and Local Leaders Forums. 


  • There is a concern that all that will happen is that Government will encourage local authorities to bring their priorities to the national level, only for them to be rejected.
  • A lack of engagement of key local stakeholders


  • A single negotiations framework, where key national, regional and local stakeholders approve the final strategy.
  • A duty to engage with local stakeholders


Local authorities’ leaders forum (the ‘Forum’)

This depends on the capacity of the local authority, and needs therefore a framework in which to work with local expert capacity.  The SNR offers an opportunity for the Government to approve the regional strategy if there is no agreement between the members.  This obviously has its own inherent risks.


  • A lack of capacity and support to develop and implement the local economic assessment duty
  • Lack of tools and resources to take forward economic priorities
  • Limited resources under current and next spending review for local authorities limiting the ability to develop the skills necessary to implement the above strategies
  • Government will step in with their own agenda if there is no ‘agreement’
  • Striving for consensus will result in continuation of ‘lowest common denominator’ strategies


  • Flexibility – allowing the precise arrangements for the forum to be determined by each region
  • A minimum standard for the forum - offering developmental guidelines
  • Government recognises that none agreement does not equate to failure; debate and disagreement are inherent parts of any political process.


Integrated Regional Strategy (IRS)

RDAs will become the key strategic stakeholders for the IRS after the dissolution of the Regional Assemblies (by 2010).  This is a massive expansion of responsibility and will require a new skill set for the RDAs, as well as restructuring, as they now have responsibility for social as well as economic development and regeneration.


  • Existing expertise and practice, as well as the simplified performance evaluation system may neglect social regeneration
  • Key regional stakeholders may find it hard to engage


  • Recognition of, and support in developing social regeneration strategy
  • Governmental commitment to, and a programme of, actions preparing stakeholders, in particular VCOs for more proactive and substantial engagement in regional, sub-regional and local strategic planning.


Regional Governance

New proposals related to regional governance are unclear and reference to them within the SNR is vague.  This includes:

  • Regional Ministers
  • Regional Select Committees


The above parties become ‘just another voice of Whitehall in the region’


  • Refinement and clarification of the exact roles and responsibilities of the above bodies
  • Government offices in the region providing a neutral evaluation of the capacity of local authorities or groups of local authorities

The SNR offers a new structure that many feel will have positive outcomes for England.  However, until the finalised document is published, it is unclear exactly what format these changes will take, and what support the government will offer to ensure its effective implementation.  Its success will vary between the regions, but the above risks will be felt by all.  Some of the regions have already started the reformation process (for example the North-West has already dissolved its RA), whilst others are waiting for the finalised review before taking any action.  The review will affect VCOs in different ways, but is certainly something to begin planning for, if you are not already doing so.  Asking your organisation the following questions might help start the planning process:

  • How do you think the sub-national review will affect the region you work in?
  • How will the influence of the VCS alter once the RA is dissolved?
  • Are there other ways for your organisation or the VCS in your region to influence local and regional planning?  How can you access these?
  • Are there other organisations with strong regional links that you can work with to ensure your voice is heard?

Mark Crowe has been writing about the SNR on his pages.  Why not read his views and add your own?

Last updated at 17:57 Mon 12/Apr/10.
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As mentioned above, work on the new Integrated regional strategy for the North West has begun. The first step has been to assess the regional evidence base and a consultation on this is underway.

The themes, around which Voluntary Sector North West (VSNW) is seeking evidence of the potential contribution of the voluntary and community sector, are:
Business (including Enterprise, regional sectors, and innovation);
Skills and Employment;
Planning, Housing and Infrastructure;
People and Communities;
plus Rural/places.

Suggestions welcome.

One concern, not mentioned above, is that should the Community Empowerment, Housing and Economic Regeneration Bill (yes, SNR + Community Empowerment white paper) get through the next session of Parliament, the regional strategy will, under current proposals, be responsible to Whitehall through the Department for Better Enterprise and Regulatory Reform.

Despite some excellent work by BERR aimed at reducing regulatory burdens placed on voluntary and community sector groups, this department has not – in the manner of most other government departments – formally addressed its relationship to the VCS. It has not for example had the chance to engage in the Third Sector public service delivery action plan (including action 5 which looks at encouraging third sector involvement in regional and sub-regional commissioning).

Following up on the positive words from the Rt Hon Secretary of State John Hutton (in particular ACEVO’s spring conference speech), has been the recent publication of the Public Services Industry Review which has some familiar but crucial recommendations.

There are some very interesting comments and suggestions in the IPPR , but one of the key issues is the assertion that the SNR has given lots of power to Local Authorities. I attended the West Mids Regional Assembly AGM a few months ago: the feeling was very much that LA Members were being stripped of their powers, and they felt a lot of resentment that their democratic mandate was being undermined, as far as they were concerned. There seems to be a perception or reality gap somewhere …

I’m glad IPPR has picked up on the fact the VCS has been left nowhere in the SNR, although I think the sector can stress supportive statements from Government in other places eg Third Sector Review, Compact developments, and – within the West Mids – the RDA’s Regional Economic Strategy openly attributes 20% of the £10bn gap between national and regional GVA to social disadvantage. Although the RES does not go as far as to mention the VCS, the sector can and should be pressing the case that it is best placed to work to narrow the socio-economic gap.

Caroline's picture


Third Sector Foresight

In September, local futures and the LGA held an event on Place shaping and the Sub-National review. Although I didn’t attend the event, I have since read the presentations, and they raise some interesting points regarding local infrastructure and capacity. Worth a look at for anyone more interested in the topic in general.

Megan 's picture


Third Sector Foresight

The 2009 Budget announces

“…new pilot city-region arrangements for Greater Manchester and Leeds, building on the Government’s recent economic reforms through the Sub-National Review. The pilot city-regions will benefit from the stronger integration of planning, housing, transport, regeneration, employment and skills programmes, increasing their ability to drive sustainable growth and economic development.”

Changes to tiers of government/governance always mean that new relationships have to be built and work has to be done to ensure the sector’s voice is heard in the right places. The sector currently already struggles to navigate the growing number of complex partnerships.

For more info about the 2009 budget see here

As Megan says the relationships between the VCS and public sector in the regions are being affected by the sub-national review. These will vary from region to region. In particular the cycle of relationship building undertaken by public agencies whenever they go through any kind of restructuring means that the VCS will have to wait until the public bodies have sorted the relationships with each other before they can engage with the VCS.

More particularly, the implementation of the Review of Sub-national Economic Development and Regeneration (to give the full title) has brought about changes in regional structures that will have longer lasting impacts than the disruption of relations between sectors. The first is the wider range of strategic responsibilities to be taken in by the Regional Development Agencies (RDAs) these include Housing, Transport, Spatial Planing and additional controls over Work and Skills as well as Regeneration.
The second is the shift of focus/ responsibility for the delivery of economic development activity from the RDA to local authorities. This has reconfigured the regional relationships from a balance between the RDA, the Government Office and the Regional Assembly to bi-lateral arrangement between the RDA (with strengthened representation from local authorities on their boards) and the regional local association of local authorities.
The third difference is that there is no longer a formal regional role for the VCS (as there used to be through the Regional Assembly Social Envronment and Economic partners group) in regional decision making.

The VCS can take advantage of the injunctions to the RDAs to engage partners and stakeholders. The main opportunity will be in organising intelligence and evidence to go into the Integrated Regional Strategy which will replace the Regional Economic Strategy (RES) and the Regional Spatial Strategy (RSS) which will be developed up to March 2010.

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