Kevin Meagher is a former head of communications at Advantage West Midlands
The poor benighted Regional Development Agencies took yet another blow to the solar plexus in Tuesday’s budget. Already reeling from a £300 million funding cut, buried away on page 31 of the Budget Report was a commitment to see them “abolished.”
While it is hardly news that the Conservatives have what borders on a pathological hatred of anything with the word ‘region’ in the title, this unequivocal language is harder than that used by business secretary Vince Cable earlier this month, when he merely talked about “reordering” RDAs.
So why all this hostility?
Philosophically, the Conservatives see RDAs as a Trojan horse for wider regionalism, which they abhor in their marrow. Despite themselves setting up Government Offices in the regions in 1994, their instincts remain resolutely centralist.
But RDAs have not exactly helped themselves. A spate of major presentational own goals over the years have had a corrosive effect on their collective reputations. For too long, complacent RDA chiefs simply refused to understand that the very concept of their existence was a moot point in British politics. They are big spending quangos that have never developed a political consensus that they are ‘a good thing’.
Indeed, from within the RDAs themselves there is a real sense of frustration that some of their number have let the side down and have simply not been politically nimble-footed enough in countering accusations of largesse. The $50k chauffeur bill that former SEEDA chairman, Jim Braithwaite, amassed was a memorable case in point. And only last week, David Cameron criticised the North West Development Agency for running an office in California.
RDAs have undoubtedly failed to fight their case effectively – both in a Whitehall jungle jealous of their autonomy – and in Westminster where their champions outside Brownite ministerial ranks were few.
At the regional level, too, there has not been enough emphasis on building their brand – ensuring their role as playmaker and paymaster in thousands of worthy projects was properly appreciated in order to burnish their reputations. In contrast, the canny European Commission insists on its branding emblazoning anything it has been involved in.
Also, bureaucratic jealousy between agencies has often got in the way of mutual interest. RDAs have not been effective in working collaboratively to create a collective narrative about why their work is so vital. The RDA Secretariat, set up to assist with cross-cutting efforts, has been a paper tiger from the start.
Yet, despite their bickering and lack of political nous, RDAs have a good story to tell. Last year a report from PwC found that every £1 spent by the RDAs, saw a return of £4.50 ploughed back into regional economies. The report also found that, from 2002 to 2007, the nine RDAs together created or safeguarded 472,900 jobs; created 17,900 firms and supported 90,600 more; improved the skills of 403,500 people; and remediated more than 800ha of land.
In addition to these rosy metrics, RDAs have successfully led on responses to major economic calamities like the collapse of Rover and clearing up the mess caused by the foot and mouth outbreak in Cumbria.
But as the National Audit Office pointed out in March, some of the metholology underpinning these achievements is open to question, arguing there needed to be tougher evaluation to enable them to better target funding in the future.
So can RDAs save their necks? Well they have few supporters at court. And despite his more emollient tone of recent weeks, Vince Cable has vacillated wildly on the future of RDAs. In a paper for the Reform think tank last year he pledged to scrap them in their entirety.
The next stage in their protracted trial is a White Paper promised for later this summer outlining reforms that will see them transformed into Local Economic Partnerships. The exact form ‘Son of RDA’ will take is up in the air as Cable has said:
“the changes depend very much on the reaction of local business and local authorities.” He even suggested “the partnerships may take a similar form to existing RDAs.”
This is hardly the language of “abolition”. What seems to be emerging is a decision to reprieve the RDAs in the north and midlands, albeit with a tighter remit and a new name. This was underlined by George Osborne’s welcome decision to green-light Northern transport projects, against the run of play, in Tuesday’s budget.
RDAs should use this chink of light as a final opportunity to try and shape their destiny. They need to move rapidly to mobilise their many partners and supporters to herald their substantial achievements. And given their boards contain numerous well-connected Tories and business figures, RDAs are guilty of having woefully under-employed their own resources for the purposes of self-preservation.
Their previous response to criticism has been to assume the foetal position in the face of ill-informed criticism in the hope this will save them further grief. They are now reaping the results of this futile approach.
Instead of rolling over, they should be indignant that the good work they carry out has been so casually traduced. But they also need to fight for the concept of regional economic development, pointing out the flaws in either centralising their functions, or allowing them to be devolved to nebulous ‘city-regions’ or squabbling local authorities.
This ‘Goldilocks option’ – with regions neither too remote, nor too local – may not be the most inspiring message to sell, but it has the advantage of being a solid pragmatic argument.
And against a backdrop of sluggish growth, high unemployment and years of deep spending cuts, even an unfriendly government may still listen to a pragmatic suggestion.