The UK’s regional development agencies (RDAs) are bracing for possible elimination – or almost-certain restructuring at the least – if the Conservative Party comes to power in parliamentary elections in 2010 as widely predicted.

The Tories have mooted plans to do away with the agencies that promote inward investment into English regions, though no concrete proposals have been confirmed. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, a Tory MP who is shadow minister for international trade and development, caused a firestorm at the West Midlands Economic Forum at Aston Business School in Birmingham in October by calling the RDA system “hugely wasteful” and advocating strengthening the national agency UK Trade and Investment instead while delegating economic development and planning activities down to local councils.

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The audience – made up of local government officials, business representatives, academics and Advantage West Midlands (AWM) staff – was apoplectic; especially when Mr Clifton-Brown continued to say that the London RDA would likely stay intact. AWM chairman Brendan Connor shot back that the Tory idea was “pure lunacy”

and said that the role of RDAs should become more rather than less important in facing regional economic challenges. “If we would have had 5% of the support given to the banking sector, imagine what we could have achieved,” he said. “We firmly believe the evidence suggests if you properly focus interventions into regional economies you can demonstrate benefits. Our track record needs to be recognised and supported.”

John Hemming, a Liberal Democrat MP and shadow minister for the West Midlands, said his party’s policy would be “not to abolish the RDAs but to create a tier of elected regional government to bring to account and control the RDAs”, as lack of proper accountability is one of the Tories’ key objections to the current structure.

Also speaking at the event, Jack Straw, a Labour Party MP and cabinet secretary, called the Tory policy “ill thought-through”, saying: “RDAs perform an indispensable function”.

“The question I have for the Conservative party is: what would they put in the RDAs’ place?” he added.

Business director Norman Price, a former board member of AWM who continues to chair the Regional Finance Forum on behalf of the agency, argued: “RDA or no RDA, we need to keep some of [the funding power] in the region because we cannot trust Whitehall to know what it takes to run a business.”

Courtney Fingar