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Home arrow Political science arrow Devolution and Localism in England

From regional government to regional governance

Although elected regional government never materialised after the North East Region referendum was defeated, attempts at democratic control continued to be pursued at the parliamentary level. The failure to establish a democratic form of regional government in England led to a considerable rethink and a plethora of government studies on British/English governance. The constitutional framework, the forms of government and the participation of citizens were all aspects of these enquiries. However, one set of reports commissioned by the Economic and Social Science Research Council (ESRC) on 'Devolution and Constitutional Change' in 2006 concluded that the English seemed content with continued centralised government from Westminster, although they had accepted and supported the Greater London Authority as a city region.

In 2007 a major White Paper on 'The Governance of Britain' was published and can be seen as part of the development of national economic policies. New
ministerial posts for each of the English regions would be 'responsible for providing a clear sense of strategic direction for their region [but] Regional Ministers also give citizens a voice in central government, ensuring that government policy takes account of the differing needs of the nine English regions' (Governance of Britain, 2007, p.37). It would be their responsibility to implement policies of the 11 central government departments in their areas, particularly in relation to economic development. The White Paper also recommended the establishment of nine regional select committees of Parliament to facilitate the scrutiny of regional policies and so introduce a further democratic element.

Government Ministers were appointed for each of the English regions, with responsibility for the planning and direction of economic policy in their areas. In 2008 a Council of Regional Ministers was set up to assess joint issues, while Regional Economic Councils of ministers and the relevant stakeholders in business and industry were empowered to assess and discuss regional economies. Shortly afterwards, Parliament agreed to the establishment of eight Regional Select Committees, one for each of the eight regions, with representation for political parties according to their parliamentary representation. These were quickly followed by a parallel development of eight Regional Grand Committees on which all regional MPs were to be represented. A Council of Regional Ministers was also to report to the National Economic Council chaired by the Prime Minister. However, both opposition parties, for different reasons, declined to provide representatives to the Select Committees, which rather undermined their credibility. These changing and complicated arrangements for sub-national government may be contrasted with those for the other UK 'nations'. In reality, there was an 'absence of devolution of political power for the English regions other than London' (Blick, 2009, p.16).

Reform of English local government and city regions

Another focus of the Labour Government was the local government system. As early as 2002, Ed Balls, a leading Labour politician, made a speech in which he argued against the 'chaotic centralism' of their approach and instead called for 'constrained discretion' (Balls, 2002). A White Paper of 2006 on 'Strong and Prosperous Communities' had set out a choice of what were thought to be stronger leadership structures for local authorities, with either a directly elected Mayor (as in Greater London), or a directly elected Executive of Councillors, or a leader elected by councillors for a four-year period. However, it wasn't just local government that was the concern but also the sub-regional level. This led to the creation of Multi-Area Agreements (MAAs), which allowed groups of local authorities to coordinate the planning and delivery of services such as transport, housing and the environment, which cut across local boundaries. The first MAAs were established in 2007 between neighbouring towns and cities in England to provide a framework for economic planning at the local level, and by 2008 seven MAAs had been agreed for Greater Manchester, Tees Valley, South Yorkshire, Leeds City, Tyne
and Wear, urban South Hampshire and Bournemouth, and Poole in Dorset. They were followed in 2009 by Merseyside, Pennine, Lancashire and Leicestershire, and seven more MAAs followed shortly afterwards. The creation of MAAs was part of a movement to draw together more than one city for the purposes of planning, housing and economic development as the best possible framework for improved economic performance. They were seen as the precursors of a move to establish city regions, following the example in France where they have existed since legislation of 1966, as the best spatial level for local development. In France they permit the joint working of communes (municipalities) in metropolitan areas (Loughlin and Mazey, 1995).

AReport of a Parliamentary Select Committee of 2007 which examined existing structures of regional governance found that city regions were the single emerging policy with the potential to provide a credible alternative to the then current arrangements, particularly for the determination of strategy in regions or subregions on environment, planning and transport. It noted that further development of city-regions might lead to the demise of the government's RDAs, but the Commons Committee thought that the city-region option should be 'properly explored' and backed by 'powers and resources'. The Select Committee's report also recommended that more powers be given to Regional Assemblies for scrutiny of the work of RDAs.

The first city regions in England chosen by the government in April 2009 were Manchester and Leeds. Each brought together a number of neighbouring authorities and included a substantial population—the Greater Manchester area has

9.6 million people, and 11 million within 50 miles of the city, and the Leeds region includes 3 million and extends to the cities of Bradford, Harrogate and York. Their agreements included important power-sharing arrangements intended to realise the best outcomes in policy delivery where there were many participating authorities (Larkin and Marshall, 2008). In 2009, five further areas bid for City Region status (Hayman, 2009), but in the end the then-government only agreed to the creation of two new ones in large metropolitan areas. Other, informal relationships also developed at the regional level between local authorities, the private sector and voluntary agencies in 13 Local Strategic Partnerships in a 'Total Place' approach (HM Treasury, 2010)

 
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