The Views of Regional Elites
We first interviewed our interviewees in the months immediately before the May 2010 General Election, so they were, for the most part, well aware of the Labour Government's changing policy and the proposals being developed by the other parties. What none of them expected was the outcome of the election – a coalition government. Our regional elites included representatives drawn from national/regional politicians, regional/local politicians, local politicians, Chief
Executives/Deputy CEOs of Regional Government Offices, Chief Executives/ Deputies of Regional Development Agencies, Chief Executives/Directors of Local Authorities, Chairs of Multi-Area Agreements and other local authority partnerships, local businessmen active at a regional level and Chief Executives of Third Sector Organisations with some engagement with regional bodies. They were drawn from three separate and distinctive English regions.
The meaning of region
The regions had been created as administrative conveniences, and this was reflected in the regional elites' views of their own regions. 'The English regions are generally just administrative units' (CEO of a Government Office for the region). 'There is no great sense of regional identity … One can politely describe it as an administrative district' (local businessman). There were seen to be two practical problems: the sheer size of each region, and the diversity within each region. As one leading regional politician told us: 'I do think the region is incredibly large. It is also spread so wide and is a funny shape and size'. Even the CEOs of Government Offices were conscious that their regions lacked coherence. 'They are so big that there aren't many apart from London that have a unified coherence' (CEO of a Government Office for the region). 'The region is geographically quite diverse
… so there is no regional identity. Many parts are still rural … there are former coalfields, some parts are industrialised, others look to London. It also has some areas of poverty' (CEO of a Government Office for the region). 'The region doesn't hang together well … They don't have history, depth, uniform character' (Regional Administrator). Or, as yet another Government Office representative said: 'The region is characterised in terms of its lack of homogeneity … some would argue that it doesn't really exist as a region at all'. At the same time, another Regional Administrator argued that: 'people say that the region has less identity. Probably not true … but it is the aims that are key. What are important are the economies of scale
– you do need this sort of size of region, and the ability to intervene in economic development above the local parochial level but below the national level.'
There appear to have been two separate concerns about the implications of this. One was a sadness that the democratic elements of regional government had largely disappeared. As one senior regional politician argued, the Prescott proposals for elected assemblies were the right direction to go and would have given some democratic legitimacy to the regional level. However, as someone else observed, the Prescott proposals as they stood were never going to be accepted. 'I am in favour of regional government … so long as it was given almost federal powers as the States are in the USA and in some areas of France and Germany. Certainly when we are dealing with international investment stuff it would be helpful. We would be masters of our own destiny and not forever fighting other regions for resources each time, as opposed to an initial handout of “the pot”. However, it would need to be 'a Prescott-type thing … but a successful one' (local administrator). Furthermore, in order to achieve a regional level of genuinely democratic government there would need to be a major reform of local government, with probably a whole tier of local government disappearing. This was clear from the rejection of the Regional Assembly in the North East, where it was felt that one of the contributing factors was that people didn't want even more politicians. Or, as one interviewee said, 'the whole two-tier thing is crazy!' In other words, it would mean the creation of Unitary Authorities and the removal of the lower tier of local government. This was such a massive undertaking that it was felt unlikely to happen in the near future, despite there being a number of politicians and local authority administrators who thought a move to Unitary Councils was desirable on other grounds. 'Two tier levels of local government is a waste of time and money. They are inefficient and turn people off. Unitary authorities are the future' (Regional Administrator). Even then, current unitary authorities were seen by some to be too small. Rather than base them on current county boundaries, it was argued, base them on 'logical areas of half a million people and relate [them] to areas in which people operate – where they work and travel to and from work' (Regional Administrator).
The present structure of regional government was also seen to be far too topdown and so not conducive to the recognition of regional and local opinions. One national/regional politician asked in exasperation: 'What stake do people really have in the people who are serving them? I would like to see a much more radical reform which would try and devolve services down to local levels'. This sounds a bit like Localism, and he certainly preferred a much more bottom-up approach but 'quite frankly, we don't have the processes to do it … and you would have to get rid of one tier of local government.'
The Government Offices for the Regions came in for particular criticism from all sides. First of all, they were criticised for being a creature of central government. As one interviewee told us, 'My primary role is to express the wishes of the relevant Government Ministers'. So, the Government Offices were seen as 'like His Master's Voice' (Local Authority CEO); 'a distribution mechanism for Central Government' (Local Authority Director); their 'primary role is as a conduit for national policy' (3rd Sector CEO). The Regional Government Offices we spoke to insisted that they did their best to act as a two way conduit between the national and local level. However, for many of the regional elites, this was not seen to be the case. 'Government Offices are interesting bodies … they are there to pass messages from on high down to the region. I am not convinced when the government says that part of the role is to pass messages to regions, … they are there to police departmental spending at a local level' (Regional Minister).
Secondly, the Government Offices were seen as 'victims of their own apparent power which is not the same as actual power. They are creatures of central government and their ability to follow through on local aspirations is dependent on central government funding' (3rd Sector CEO). Indeed, one local politician questioned whether this top-down approach was now economically sustainable. He argued that as long as central Government had substantial funds to distribute, a centralist agenda was sustainable however unpopular it was at the local level,
but Government would no longer have the funds, nor would it be able to afford 'to accumulate the kind of mechanisms of delivery that it has had in the past.' Even then their internal structure was criticised. The Offices needed to be 'staffed by a totally different breed of civil servant' (Local Authority CEO) and organised internally in a very different way. 'The Government Offices are structured so that they have nine different areas [corresponding to the nine central government departments they represent] and they are funded in silos …' (local businessman with regional involvement).
Certainly, as another local government CEO said: 'There needs to be a constructive debate about structures at local government, sub-regional and regional levels to decide what should rest where in terms of strategic decisions'.