Wallace Mark Wallace of the Taxpayers Alliance urges complete abolition of the Regional Development Agencies

After their initial agreement that “neither of us are Gordon Brown”, the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives have spent the last few days searching for policy areas where they agree in more detail.

Raising the income tax threshold and scrapping ID cards were high on that list, but for some reason abolishing the Regional Development Agencies has yet to feature.

RDAs occupy a slightly odd niche in the policy field. Both the Lib Dems and the Conservatives appear to be naturally opposed to them. Each party has stated time and again its opposition to quangos wherever they can be avoided, and its opposition to spending taxpayers’ money ineffectively and unaccountably.

As TPA research has demonstrated, the RDAs are certainly unaccountable and wasteful. .

Similarly, each party has on several occasions been happy to stand on a public platform to criticise the Agencies, and heavily imply that they would like to see the back of them.

Despite that out and out hostility to RDAs, for some reason both the Yellow and Blue election pitches fell slightly short of pledging their abolition.

Here is the Conservative Manifesto:

“We will give councils and businesses the power to form their own business-led local enterprise partnerships instead of RDAs. Where local councils and businesses want to maintain regionally-based enterprise partnerships, they will be able to.”

And here is the Liberal Democrat pledge:

Reform Regional Development Agencies (RDAs) to focus solely on economic development, removing duplication with other parts of government and allowing substantial budget reductions. Give responsibility for economic development to local authorities. Where existing RDAs have strong local support, they may continue with refocused economic development objectives. Where they do not, they will be scrapped and their functions taken over by local authorities.”

So each went some of the way, but stopped short. Nevertheless the shared specific aim seems to be to introduce a process that would allow RDAs functions and budgets to be taken from them if local
councils agree.

Whilst the specifics of how you work out what “local councils and businesses” want, or whether “existing RDAs have strong local support” or not are as yet unclear, the similarity of policy between the two parties must mean the coalition government will go ahead with it in some form.

Two questions must now be answered, preferably swiftly.

What process will be put in place? Do the councils of a region simple have to demonstrate that a majority of them support the abolition of the RDA? (If so, when can we start gathering signatures?)

What weighting will be given to the opinions of business? The small number of businesses who have been in receipt of direct cash from the RDAs may well be more vocal than the majority to whom they have been utterly useless. (Though I have discussed the issue with a number of businesses who have received RDA grants and would still happily see them abolished).

I’m hopeful that this will be an area in which there will be swift and harmonious action from the coalition. For that matter, when Eric Pickles previously shadowed the post of DCLG he was extremely outspoken in favour of just scrapping the RDAs outright, so maybe they may even just go en masse and straight away.

Judging from the business audience with whom I watched the third Leaders’ Debate – who booed loudly every time Gordon Brown boasted about his policy of Regional Development quangos – they would not be missed. Sharpen up the axe, Mr Pickles!

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