The value of a regional level of governance
While there was much criticism of the geography of the existing regions and the system of regional governance and how it operated, genuine concern was expressed that all major national political parties, in varying degrees, appeared to be moving away from the idea of a regional level of governance. What could replace it? One regional political leader argued that he wanted to keep a regional structure because 'England lacks a sort of balance to Whitehall, whereas Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland definitely have that balance … There is a huge defect in the Government of England which will not be seen to by doing away with regions.' As another said, 'Wales is better governed by an Assembly than it was directly from Whitehall' (regional politician) so why not England? This might be seen as a plea for some form of English parliament. 'There needs to be a filter between the UK level and the local. That filter could, of course, be at the English national level or at the regional level' (Regional Government Office CEO).
However, regional elites were, for the most part, very aware of practical realities and liked to deal in the possible rather than the ideal. They were aware that regional policy arose as a balance to devolution of powers to Scotland and Wales, and their focus was upon ensuring that regional and local needs were recognised within the structure. Someone involved in the business community and regional arts had a very undiplomatic take on this: 'Central Government is scared of the regional, and the more local the emphasis, the bigger the centre could get! … If you don't have something at a regional level you end up with smaller and smaller groups to deal with issues and so build up a huge central structure to manage them. So it is useful to have something at a regional level to cut down on the national level – which always means London. The idea of closing down the regional structures would be bizarre.'
If the present structure was seen to be too dominated by national agendas, there were other concerns about political initiatives which would move decision making towards the local. 'I am genuinely worried if there is a change of government that we will see a shift away from regional governance to a tight localist agenda … if you start looking at everything in a local way it will be a NIMBY's charter … the strategic approach that you need for a regionalist agenda would be lost' (national
and regional politician). Another politician active at the regional and local levels asked: 'who else [if not the region] would take on the responsibility of arguing with Government about the amount of total funding that should come from the Exchequer to the region?'
It was clear that many believed that some functions were necessary, and this view was echoed elsewhere. 'I am a great believer in the principle of subsidiarity. Therefore we should only do at regional level what needs to be done there' (local politician). So, 'you could change the precise definitions of the geography of the region but you do need something at regional geographical level to provide coherent policy at a level much higher than that of the County' (Regional Administrator). Even the most sceptical of Local Authority CEOs accepted that while 'Regions don't work here … [because] … it is so disparate … regions will not disappear entirely. There are some functions that need doing. There is a need to strike a balance between national and sub-national levels.'
The only exceptions to this view all came from interviewees from one county in one of the regions studied. This county claimed to have a distinct local identity and culture and had aspirations to take on some of the mantle of a region. 'If we are talking about this region then I would say, do away with it … First of all, the region is my County' (local businessman). However, he added, 'in doing away with it, strengthen what would now be considered the sub-regional.' The local authority which would carry this burden was also upbeat. 'I think that we are big enough to run our own affairs … without too much help from a regional tier … there are two regions really. An official administrative region which is vast, and the County which thinks of itself as distinctive and has a very long and honourable history … I don't think that being part of the region has helped us' (Local Authority CEO). However, this view was not shared by others elsewhere in the same region, some of whom made disparaging remarks about people wanting to cut off the county.