What are the necessary regional functions which need to be fulfilled?
With the exception of representatives of the county mentioned above, there was general agreement that 'regions will not disappear entirely. There are some functions which need doing' (Regional Partnership CEO). 'Realistically, there must be a regional view … there needs to be a co-ordinating function above the sub-region' (Sub-Regional Administrator). Many others expressed concerns about how adequately local authorities and sub-regional bodies could reflect broader needs without any regional perspective. 'You need to be sure that there is a link between investment in housing and transport and in other infrastructural services
… so that there are synergies between them and that it all makes sense' (Director, Regional Government Office). Similarly, without the region, 'a number of things you would not get done – housing growth – if it were not subject to a degree of regional planning or co-ordination. Transport is the same … and some aspects of economic development' (Regional Government Office CEO). A local politician concurs: 'there is a genuine role for Regional Government. Things like Flood Control, Transport (rail and road networks) both of which need regional planning as
they extend beyond sub-regional boundaries'. A Local Authority CEO also agreed: 'the role of the regional level is to deal with big strategic issues which cannot be tackled at a lower level. Things like: housing, transport, economic planning, waste management, environment, skills.' As a local businessman pointed out 'what are important are economies of scale – you do need this sort of size of region, and the ability to intervene in economic development above the parochial level but below the national level'.
Many of our interviewees were very clear that there was a level of regional functions which needed to be carried out whatever institutional framework was devised. Most necessary functions might be summarised under the heading of 'infrastructure planning' or 'spatial planning, including housing strategy, transport strategy, economic development and regeneration, and the environment, especially sustainable development, flood control and waste management', 'wind farms and coastal erosion'. Concern was also expressed about the 'strength and competence of local political leadership – it is at best patchy and the low confidence which people have in that local leadership'(Regional Director). Examples were given where local authorities had proved incapable of strategic planning in such areas. 'Counties are not remotely big enough for some issues and many facilities – health, education, jobs, even retail – are provided across local authority boundaries' (Regional Director). In one region, for example, a leading businessman complained that the city and the county both had local transport plans but that they were different – 'Well what bloody nonsense!' All the regions studied had some significant areas of land which were primarily agricultural, and agricultural planning was seen as a specific area of economic policy which was more appropriate at the regional level. A similar view was taken by many in regard to skills training. It was recognised that this was an important local authority responsibility, but concern was expressed that economic and social hinterlands (where people worked and commuted from) frequently extended well across local authority boundaries, and industry needed to ensure that appropriate skills training was available where potential workers lived, not just where the industry was physically located.
Of course, there were other functions which were not regarded generally but were of particular importance to certain sectors. A local businessman and arts administrator stressed the regional role of 'cultural oversight of the region': what might be called a 'cultural observatory', so that not everything was organised locally and could serve a wider area. Other sector-specific issues included black and ethnic minority issues, the provision of 'gypsy and travellers' sites' and 'more emphasis in regional government on social inclusion', all of which were felt to be more appropriately dealt with at the regional rather than the local level.
Regions and sub-regions
The Regional Assemblies were replaced by Strategic Leaders' Boards. At the same time there had been experiments into MAAs at a less than regional level. A handful of these were being allowed to develop into City Regions.