Criticism of Institutional Engagement
There were some serious criticisms of the ways in which communities were engaged and the competence of the institutional structures responsible for doing this. 'Everyone talks a common language about devolving down to the lowest level
… but the reality is that not everything is best done at the local level' (Regional Director). There are two issues here. First, are parish and town councils really seen to represent the communities with which their electorate identifies? We were told that 'Parish Councils … have for decades been pushed aside … and [they]
are not very democratic. There are often no elections' (national politician); 'there are very few contested elections at parish level – it is less than 30 per cent' (Local authority CEO). Another asked: 'What gives communities and parishes real control? Do people have any sense that they can influence their local authority?' (Regional Government Office CEO). Finally, from a national politician: 'I think it is pretty pathetic really. What stake do people really have in the people who are serving them?'
Secondly, there is a question of 'the strength and competence of local political leadership. It is at best patchy and the low confidence which people have in local leadership leads to disempowerment' (Regional Director). Whilst some examples of good town and parish councils were offered: 'I have a personal view on Parish Councillors which is that Parish Councils and Town Councils are the home of some of the least able, least capable bunch of people I have ever met in my life and the idea of giving them more powers scares me witless … the less influence they have the better' (local businessman).
Stakeholders and Democrats
The system of regional governance begun by the Conservatives and developed by the last Labour Government was primarily developed to receive and allocate European Union structural funds and to co-ordinate the implementation of central government policy, especially regional economic development and regeneration in parallel with the Government Offices for the Regions. For some key players, 'local engagement is a second order thing' (Regional Administrator). Another complained of poor communication: 'The business community is a stakeholder [but] it is a challenge because I can never get them to [attend] a second meeting' (local businessman engaged in regional activity). The problem as seen by business is that 'the reality is that meetings are conducted in public-sector-speak. They speak a different language and business people find that highly aggravating' (local businessman).
One big difficulty is that 'local communities and local economies don't fit local authority boundaries … It just doesn't fit!' (local businessman engaged in regional activity). Whilst many in the regional elite try to be inclusive, 'my idea of a regional community is made up of key players – local politicians, national figures, stakeholders, faiths, the RDA … stakeholders include business and business organisations, voluntary associations, local politicians, faiths, national agencies, environment' (Regional Director). In reality there are many more powerful stakeholders than the general public so that there is a danger that the electors become an afterthought: 'I have partnerships with pretty much everyone … very wide … with business and business organisations, voluntary organisations, the University, hospital, local business community including retailers [pause] … with the electors as well' (local politician). Even some of the 3rd Sector respondents complained of being ignored. 'I was a Board member but then I resigned from the Board because it was totally tokenistic' (3rd Sector CEO).