Administrative decentralization in England

It was not until 1994 that Government Offices for the Regions in England were set up by the then Conservative Government. These were designed to integrate several different government functions as they were implemented in each region. They were established to be the offices of central government operating in the regions and, in particular, to meet the requirement for a regional tier to receive European Union structural funds. Subsequently, their role was expanded to include the co-ordination of government policy across all departments as applied to the regions and to the delivery of Public Service Agreements. They also played a role in the negotiation of Local Area Agreements with local authorities. They were therefore examples of administrative decentralization, although in their role in coordinating the application of diverse and potentially contradictory central Government policies they had the potential to have some political impact on policy implementation.

Then, in 1996 the Millan Report of the Regional Policy Commission endorsed the creation of Regional Development Agencies (RDAs) to carry out economic development at the regional level. Regional chambers consisting of local government councillors were also set up for the purpose of scrutiny and consultation. The creation of RDAs was perhaps the most significant development in regional governance. By 1999, there were eight RDAs in England with oversight by the Department of Trade and Industry, having Boards of Directors drawn from both local government and the private sector. One more was created for Greater London from 2000, accountable to London's newly-elected Mayor. Their role was to develop and implement regional economic strategies. After some persuasion, the European Union agreed to them taking over a role in the distribution of Structural Funds (HMSO, March 2003). These regional quasi-autonomous nongovernmental organisations (quangos) have been seen until recently as important tools of central government in regional economic development and regeneration, and they worked in parallel with the Government Offices for the Regions. Their remit was subsequently extended to include rural affairs, tourism, transport, Business Link and the Small Business Service. As such, they had a potentially significant impact upon government structural projects and regional economic development. There were also separate regional authorities for the National Health Service and for water supply and drainage. It was not until the change of government in 2010 that this approach ceased.

English regional government

As well as decentralization of some powers to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland there was also a desire to reduce the domination of central power in English government through proposals to devolve certain central functions to elected English regional authorities as a democratic counterpart to the Regional Offices of Government. A White Paper of 2002 entitled 'Your region your choice:
revitalising the English Regions' (Cm 5511) pointed out that English regions were 'virtually the only regions within the EU which do not have some form of democratic governance' and recommended elected Assemblies for the English Regions and a unitary structure for local authorities. The Labour Government decided to put these proposals to a series of referenda and the first was held in 2004 in the North East Region. It was believed that this was an area of strong regional pride. The result, however, was a resounding defeat—on a substantial turnout of 48 per cent, 78 per cent voted against and only 22 per cent for the proposal. What is more, this appears to have been not an isolated expression of views. Opinion surveys in England by British Social Attitudes in the period 1999–2008 found that fewer than one-quarter of those surveyed wanted to see elected Assemblies in their region. Indeed, public opinion surveys showed a steady decline in support for Regional Assemblies from 26 per cent in 2003 to 12 per cent in 2011 (Ormston, 2012). The only exception was the Greater London region, which gained its own elected authority and directly elected mayor in 2000 (Bax, 2002).

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the government decided not to go ahead with any further referenda, and plans for further directly elected Regional Assemblies were dropped. Subsequent reflection and analysis suggests that the negative reaction to elected Regional Assemblies arose as much from distrust of 'more politicians' than active rejection of the idea of regional government per se, though the limited functions and powers proposed for the Assemblies and their likely cost may also have contributed (Harding et al., 2006). Instead, Regional Assemblies consisting of appointed members were set up, made up of 70 per cent local government councillors and 30 per cent from business, industry and other local interests. These were intended to consult with and scrutinise the work of the RDAs. They lasted until the dying days of the Labour Government but remained unpopular and were replaced in April 2010 by Regional Strategic Leaders' Boards drawn from local authorities.

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