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What next for local tourism structures?

Philip Cooke looks at the changing face of England's Regional Development Agencies

The abolition, in 2010, of England’s nine Regional Development Agencies disrupted England’s Regional Tourist Board network, breaking up a structure that has only been partially replaced by a mixture of LEPs and smaller destination management organisations and raising, once again, the possible introduction of the Visitor and Convention Bureaux system that works so well in other parts of the world, notably the USA and Canada.

Public sector support for tourism in the UK began to crumble in 2009/10 after the most severe global recession since the 1930s, forcing the UK government to bail out insolvent banks and building societies, thus creating a huge hole in our public sector accounts.

Before 2010, Regional Development Agencies (RDAs) and Regional Tourist Boards (RTBs) were at the heart of England’s economic development, regeneration and tourism structures and the RTBs were especially valued as the media-savvy champions of regional identity, regional branding and even regional pride and self-belief.

But, the size of the nine RDAs was to lead to their downfall. In 2009, they were each receiving some £200m - £250m pa in direct government grants and employing around 250 professional staff, thus attracting the attention of a beleaguered Chancellor of the Exchequer searching for savings in the midst of an unprecedented financial crisis.

New structures emerge

English regions were de-powered and reduced in number from nine to five and somewhat prosaically re-named as the East of England, North West England, Central England, South East England including London, and South West England regions. 

Facing up to this new situation, VisitBritain now stresses the key role that is to be played by sub-regional Destination Management Organisations (DMOs) led by Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) like Manchester and Dorset Chambers of Trade (e.g. Herefordshire and Lincoln), Community Interest Companies (e.g. New Forest and Leominster) and a growing number of Business Improvement Districts.

VisitBritain emphasises that, where appropriate, LEPs should be delivering sub-regional tourism marketing and business support as well as securing inward investment for tourism-related infrastructure projects, in partnership with other DMOs, local authorities and business communities.

‘Regionalism’ seems to be a fading concept and today’s LEPs are very much market-facing organisations that are not restricted, or shaped, by rigid political or geographical structures. 

Bureau tax

Many local councils  are no longer able to employ specialism development officers  but local authorities considering the introduction of a visitor or bed tax to fund tourism activities and operations include Oxford, Camden, Bath, Westminster, Birmingham, Edinburgh, Brighton and Cornwall.