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What next for the South West?

This publication outlines the unprecedented reform of public policy, governance and delivery structures happening simultaneously across sectors and at a time of financial constraint. For this publication, each author was asked to reflect on the future prospects and expectations within their sector. Reading across the content, a mixed picture emerges, along with some cross cutting themes.

Economically, we face uncertain times against the backdrop of the European debt crisis. Businesses across the South West will need to be flexible and proactive, broadening their selling points and product ranges. Operating within the emerging Local Economic Partnership (LEP) frameworks may create valuable opportunities, as businesses will need to look to expand their local supply chains and work across wider geographies.

Job creation is expected to be weak in the short-to-medium term. The South West saw significant rises in public sector jobs over the past decade (to 2009), and subsequently has suffered the largest absolute and relative declines in public sector employment (excluding London). The private sector is unlikely to generate enough high value opportunities to make up the short-fall created by those losses in the near future; indeed, we are already seeing the consequences of this, with the rise in levels of unemployment first seen in 2008 being broadly sustained ever since. Particular attention will need to be paid to youth unemployment and the long term unemployed - with increases seen for both over the past year, across all local authority and LEP areas.

Prospects for the economy are central to much of the reporting across this publication; housing affordability remains a key issue for the South West - and the uncertainty of the economic environment will continue to affect the availability of mortgage lending, especially for first time buyers.

Devolution and decentralization is also a key theme across sectors; from the transfer of health and social care functions to local authorities, to neighbourhood planning initiatives, right through to the democratic election of Police Commissioners. Increased devolution, whilst creating flexibility and autonomy, also brings uncertainty - for example, in many areas, housing targets have decreased following the abolition of the Regional Spatial Strategy; but many local authorities are still in the process of reassessing the evidence for their housing targets. A challenge will be to ensure that neighbouring areas attend to their specific local needs, without being constrained by administrative boundaries, but without working to the detriment of their neighbours. Joint Core Strategies continue to operate in many areas, with partnership working unlikely to be relegated altogether.

Further, whilst no planning powers have been given to LEPs, they will be encouraged to have an important strategic role in planning and transport in addition to administering some key funding streams. Whilst public funding remains slim, economic decisions have been made which will impact significantly on the South West. As detailed within the Transport chapter, a number of major schemes outlined prior to the October 2010 budget, have been approved and are going ahead. The Budget 2011 announced that Government would establish Enterprise Zones in LEP areas. Businesses in these small areas will benefit from tax and planning concessions and superfast broadband. Following a competitive bidding process, the total number of zones across England is 24, with two in the South West, in Bristol and Newquay.

By April 2012, 60% of National Lottery funds will be allocated to cultural, heritage and sports activities. With the region’s high quality of environment and diverse cultural assets such investment can only be a positive thing, helping to build on our strengths. With high levels of civic participation and volunteering and a thriving ‘third’ sector, we are well placed to benefit from the Big Society, providing the support is available for those wanting to get involved.

Looking across the region as a whole, we still fare relatively well in difficult times, when compared with other parts of the country. That given, we continue to have pockets of wide-ranging deprivation in some of our urban and more isolated rural areas; and a concern in times of hardship is that inequalities between areas can worsen. An opportunity presented by new partnership working, a fresh approach and a more devolved focus, is that funding and attention may be focussed on those areas most
in need.

We are in a transition period. While some of the policy changes outlined in this document are underway, others are still being consulted upon. While some old structures for decision making, funding and policy delivery have been swept away; new ways of working have yet to bed down or, in some cases, be fully implemented. While there is a clear agenda to encourage local decision making; global events, international political economy, and “the markets” have an impact on local conditions. The full implementation, outcomes and implications of change are yet to be realised, hence this publication could only be titled; The Changing State of the South West.
Evidence in a changing context

The South West Observatory was set up to support evidence-based policy and decision making within, and about, the South West of England. Our regional-level publications, like this one, have always sought to bring out relevant variations at a more local level while providing a context within which to compare this part of the country with the rest. We will continue to support evidence based policy and decision-making at whatever level of geography is appropriate or in demand.

The breakup of Government Offices and the virtual ban on the use of the word ‘regional’ in some government departments has led to inconsistent sub-national monitoring and government department administration boundaries. Some data providers are ceasing to provide statistics at the regional level. Although some organisations continue to work to regional boundaries (eg the Environment Agency), others are waiting to hear the geographies to which they will report (eg Public Health Observatories), whilst others have extended their remit by merging with neighbouring areas (eg Homes and Communities Agency). This presents hurdles for joined up working and for comparative data over time.
As an organisation, our future geographical focus will, in part, be similar to that declared by the ONS in recent months; we will produce regional-level publications in response to need, demand and the release of major datasets (for example, the Indices of Multiple Deprivation). However our activity also reflects the need to understand local geographies side by side. SWO Core Unit and Modules produce standardised reports to support local decision making (for example, SWO’s Local Profiles, refreshed in January 2012, Local Environment Profiles, Public Health Profiles), and increasingly consider new geographies, such as those of LEPs (eg Economy Module LEP area overview and profiles, Skills and Learning LEP reports) where appropriate.

We believe that where existing partnerships and ways of working work, they should continue, and where new partnerships and new ways of working might work better, they should be developed. Our remit has always been to use and promote the best use of evidence in policy and decision making, by drawing upon a network of expertise. This remains the case. With ongoing commitment from old and new partners, SWO will continue to provide insight to help shape, inform and support the new sub-national agenda.

Vinita Nawathe, SWO Managing Director