Strategic Leaders' Boards
The Strategic Leaders' Boards and Economic Prosperity Boards of local authorities created by the outgoing Labour Government as a result of the SNR were not really given the opportunity to try their hands before the election. One Regional Government Office CEO was very optimistic about them: 'I would like to see the Strategic Leaders' Board as a focus of what you might call regional governance, instigating real dialogues across the region around issues like housing development and climate change … I think the Strategic Leaders' Boards will be really quite an effective mouthpiece at the regional level.' However, they only came into being officially on 1 April 2010, and the election which the Labour Party lost took place on 6 May. Some had been meeting in shadow form for some time, so that 'the new Regional Leaders' Group seems to have bedded down very quickly. I am feeling quite positive about it' (Regional Minister). Others had hardly had time to discuss their format before the election brought into question their future and had clearly had limited public impact. As one prominent local and usually well-informed businessman told us, 'I've never heard of them'.
There appear to have been two immediate problems with the structure of Strategic Leaders' Boards. One issue recognised by many of our interviewees was the size of these bodies. Since they were Boards of the 'leaders of local authorities', all local authorities wanted a voice. In one case this amounted to a membership of 52 people – clearly 'not a size realistic for a decision making or leadership body' (Sub-Regional Director); 'A structure of 52 local Authorities … just doesn't make sense … [especially] … at a time of rapidly diminishing public expenditure' (Regional Government Office CEO). Others echoed this theme. 'The structure was created when there was funding available for projects. There is now a new economic situation' (Local Authority Director). So it was anticipated that a core decision-making group would arise. In one case an internal structure was well advanced. 'The Regional Leaders' Board has been established and there is an agreed regional strategic partnership plus Development and Innovation Programmes as well as an effective Regional Development Agency so the new system should work well' (local politician). However, the nature of the internal structures raised particular issues of representation in two-tier councils. How much say might District Councils reasonably expect to have? A local politician worried that 'there will be a democratic deficit. There will be no representativeness in it. First past the post followed by first past the post creates an in-built exclusion of minorities' (local politician).
There was a second issue of representation. As one supporter of the arrangements exclaimed, 'they will provide greater coherence and a stronger voice for local government. However, they do also need a stakeholders' voice' (Regional Development Agency CEO). The 3rd Sector itself was very worried that 'there is currently no requirement by Government for Community Stakeholders … issues like inclusion and diversity do not seem to be there … they could disappear from view' (3rd Sector CEO); 'Both Leaders' Boards and private industry are driving
this story … but it would not necessarily strengthen the needs of localities within that. Civil society and the democratic deficit, if it is not included in a robust way, could be badly served' (3rd Sector CEO). But then he added: 'there is a democratic deficit in local government as well' (3rd Sector CEO).
Similar issues arise in the case of the Conservatives' proposals now adopted by the Coalition for LEPs. Indeed, since these are intended to be even more dominated by the business sector, the 3rd Sector are even more likely to be excluded.