Public Services Management: Change more than cosmetic under DTI's regional bosses: North-east director with Newcastle roots targets job creation and investment as local priorities

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The Independent Online
WHEN Pamela Denham takes up her new post with the Department of Trade and Industry in April as the Government's senior regional director for the North-east, she will have a personal stake in its success. For Mrs Denham's roots are in Newcastle and the aim of her new job is to see to the prosperity of the area.

Mrs Denham's appointment was one of nine announced in December by John Gummer, Secretary of State for the Environment. The move was part of a commitment in the Government's manifesto to improve the delivery of central government services in the English regions.

Mrs Denham and her colleagues will head the new IROs - Integrated Regional Offices - which bring together the work of the several departments: Environment, Transport, Trade and Industry, Training and Enterprise and the education directorate of the Department of Employment.

The IROs will have their own pooled resources, in the form of 'single regeneration budgets'. Nationally, these will be worth some pounds 14bn for the financial year 1994-5 and pounds 13bn for 1995-6.

Mrs Denham, who was educated in Newcastle before going on to university in London, said she hoped that the creation of the IROs would create an organisation more effective than the sum of its constituent parts.

'Up to now, we have had, alongside the DTI, three other economic departments operating at the regional level,' she explained. 'They all have a similar mission.

'We are bringing them together so that they are all pushing in the same direction.'

Moreover, the new offices should bring decision-making closer to the people it affects. 'What we are trying to do is to get things resolved and decisions taken at the local level, rather than at the Whitehall level. We will be encouraging people to get together and form partnerships,' she said.

However, the impact of the IROs will not be felt until 1995, when the single regeneration budgets come into effect. Funds for the coming financial year have already been allocated to existing projects, but the regional offices will be issuing guidance for bids for 1994-5.

Local authorities, TECs (Training and Enterprise Councils) and other bodies will then be able to apply for central government assistance through the IROs, rather than approaching each government department individually.

The aim is to make the funding decisions more responsive to local needs.

'People in the North-east will see job creation and investment as their main priorities,' said Mrs Denham.

'We are the region with the highest rate of unemployment in Great Britain. That is the main issue for people here, and I feel they will want to see a strong focus on that.'

For the next few months, Mrs Denham will be spending her time raising the profile of the IRO, especially with business and local agencies, and bringing together her staff from each of the separate departments with their different cultures. For many, the switch to an integrated office will be quite a shock.

'Not everybody is used to change,' she said. 'People who are worried don't always work well. I will talk to everybody and listen to their concerns.'

Exactly how the Integrated Regional Offices will work in practice remains to be seen. Critics see their creation as simply an administrative reform. Others, including local businesses, hope the posts will create a more pro-active role for regionally based civil servants.

'People welcome improved co-ordination,' said Mrs Denham. 'The driving force (behind the IROs) was client requests for a central entry point. It will make Whitehall more efficient in the delivery of services. It is an idea that has something in it for everyone: at the end of the day our aim is to increase the prosperity of the region, but initially people who deal with central government - including local authorities or the Northern Development Corporation - will be the first to notice change.'

The difficult task of mediating between the calls for more activism from the senior regional directors and the need for local autonomy was recognised by Sir George Young, Minister of State for Housing and the Inner Cities. 'We are trying to push decision-making down the chain - more towards people living in the regions and slightly less from Whitehall. Having made sure that there is a framework for the single regeneration budget, then we very much wish to leave it for the local people to decide for themselves what their priorities are,' he said.

'I think it is a question of balance - between being pro- active in the sense of awakening interest and alerting people to what the opportunities are, but not being pro-active in the sense of imposing on people a Whitehall vision of how the resources should be spent.

'I think that Pamela Denham has got that balance absolutely right, being in a sense a champion (for her region) but at the same time building up local groups, local connections, strengthening local organisations so that the money is spent on the schemes and the priorities that local people really want.'

But Sir George also feels that the new offices represent a significant change in the way Whitehall works. 'It is much more radical than people outside Whitehall think,' he suggested. 'I think it was seen as administrative tidying up, but actually the changes are going to be quite far-reaching. I think it will change the culture, the way the government manages its business - how it comes to decisions as far as expenditure in the regions is concerned.'

Perhaps that change has already started. In Newcastle, Mrs Denham might not yet be talking the language of devolved government, but the new emphasis is noticeable none the less. 'We will emphasise the local element in decision-taking,' she said. 'We must find the appropriate level for a decision.

'Marketing overseas, for example, is most effective at a regional level. If it comes to individual estates, for example Meadow Well, the appropriate response is to get together all the people whose activities impinge upon it.'

In fact, Pamela Denham's philosophy closely mirrors that of the post-Maastricht European Union. When this is pointed out, she concurs: 'Subsidiarity is very sensible,' she says.

(Photograph omitted)

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