The Attack on Regionalism
Government Offices for the Regions
Although the original announcement referred only to the abolition of the London Regional Government Office, in fact Government Offices for the Region were the first to go. Their abolition had been Liberal Democrat Party policy (Liberal Democrat Manifesto, 2010), but no one had anticipated that they might be in power, so this was something of a surprise to our interviewees who were working in them. 'We weren't expecting closure. The Conservative manifesto said that the London Government Office would be closed but there was no mention of any others' (Regional Government Office CEO). Indeed, initially there had been some speculation that Government Offices for the Regions might pick up some of the work lost by the proposed abolition of the RDAs. Whilst closure looked possible from July, it was not until September 2010 that the first central department (Department for Education) pulled out of the Regional Government Offices,
and complete closure was not fully confirmed until the following November. Yet, they were supposed to cease to function by the end of March 2011. As a result, 'Government Departments were caught on the hop really. It was only the DCLG and its Minister, Eric Pickles who wanted them abolished and actually other departments had to fall in behind that, some of them very reluctantly indeed' (Regional Government Office CEO).
Although many staff continued stoically to perform their tasks, the speed of the closures very quickly undermined their work. There had been about 1800 staff in total working in regional offices when the Coalition Government came to power, but only about 250–300 posts were to remain. The size of the staff of Regional Government Offices had led to criticisms of their excessive bureaucracy, but the immediate consequence was that the vast majority of staff time was taken up in considering their options (retirement or transfer or redundancy) and the process of applying for the handful of posts remaining. All of our interviewees stressed the professional commitment of their staff in maintaining activities and trying to sustain staff morale, but the actions of government ministers did not help. 'We knew we were at risk (but) that isn't the same as hearing it live and it isn't the same as reading in the press what Ministers think of Offices' own staff. That wasn't very pleasant for a lot of us' (Regional Government Office CEO).
Demise of the Regional Development Agencies
The assault upon regional policies was clearly stated in the Conservative Party Manifesto (2010) and was very firmly driven by the Communities and Local Government department led by Eric Pickles. Vince Cable (Minister for Business Industry and Skills), on behalf of the other half of the Coalition, stated in a speech in Parliament on 3 June 2010 that he did 'understand the importance of RDAs, which of course will be changed but in a way that makes them more effective,' adding that 'several parts of the country were especially vulnerable' (Cable, 2010). He also claimed that while the intention was to 'replace RDAs with Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) and to bring together business and local authorities to establish local accountability, where they enjoy clear public support, the partnerships may take a similar form to existing RDAs' (Cable, 2010). This was in line with the Liberal Democrat Party Manifesto commitment. However, in practice, when the North East Region applied to be a single regional size LEP, its bid was undermined by government encouragement to Tees Valley to develop their own separate LEP, thus clearly distinguishing 'old' regions from 'new' LEPS.
The process of abolishing the RDAs was finally concluded in Section 30 of the Public Bodies Act (2011) and was originally supposed to be completed by March 2011. But, as our interviewees pointed out, in practice this was wishful thinking on the part of central government. No new investments were allowed, but closing existing projects proved more difficult. 'Some people in central government don't have any concept of how long things take to happen. The idea that there is some minister who dreams up the idea, “Oh let's have a science park in wherever” and
expects one to be there. It isn't like that. Actually understanding the process of economic development, of putting together partners, sorting out the investors, assembling the land, master planning and going through due process – all of those things take years' (Regional Development Agency Deputy Director). One RDA claimed that it had been urged to break existing contracts with local businesses in order to meet the government's time frame but eventually persuaded the DCLG that the impact on local businesses would be too severe and was eventually allowed to manage-down its portfolio up to March 2012 instead.