Localism and the Death of the Region? Rhetoric and Practice
The concepts of Localism and City Regions will be taken up in more depth in the next two chapters. Suffice it to say for now that there remains some ambiguity about the meaning and practice of Localism, not only within the Coalition Government. The Coalition's rhetoric was clear: to promote 'decentralization and democratic engagement' by giving new powers to 'local councils, communities, neighbourhoods and individuals' (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, 2010). However, there are contradictions within central government policies in terms of their practices. At the same time as the DCLG was pressing for greater localism in planning through a pilot scheme giving each of seventeen parish councils £20,000 to develop neighbourhood plans to integrate housing and business development (April 2011), the Chancellor of the Exchequer was promoting twenty-one low-tax 'Enterprise Zones', the creation of which would bypass planning systems (summarised in Hetherington, 2011). Even within the DCLG, which was supposed to be driving the Localism agenda, Ministers' actual commitment to the practice of Localism has been questioned in a number of specific examples, as we will see in Chapter 6.
There seems to be something of a further divide in government departmental practices between different Whitehall departments and their Ministers relating to the best way to deliver their functions. Many of those previously regional functions which our respondents thought so important appeared to be centralised. Hence, European Funds (ERDF) and the Resilience function were both initially centralised, the former in Whitehall and the latter in Birmingham. A residual planning function, Planning Casework, remained in Birmingham but was managed by the Planning Inspectorate based in Bristol. At the other extreme, the BIS created 'BIS local'. BIS local offices were based in eight regions (similar but not precisely the same
as the old eight regions of the RDAs and Government Offices). Their function is to liaise with LEPs and local government, provide hard and soft intelligence and act to provide the centre with local intelligence (BIS Local website). The Department of Transport retained its Transport Intelligence function, which was also regionalised, operating from three offices in Birmingham, Leeds and London and covering different regions. The Homes and Communities Agency (HCA) also continued on a regional basis but with a lesser role and fewer staff covering much bigger areas than previously. In addition, there were to be regional specialists for the Big Society and for Ministerial contact.
One might see this as retention of the old eight-region model by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and a move to at least a three-region model – North, South and Midlands – elsewhere, so it does appear to have some aspects of a regional structure, albeit with greatly reduced staffing. So the RDAs' insistence that many nationally led functions typically required an on-the-ground delivery capability (Regional Development Agencies website), which is reflected in our own research findings, may have been taken to heart in some ministries if not others, except that any residual regional element was at most administrative, and in the case of BIS Local, for information gathering on behalf of the centre. What is currently happening to the Local Growth Fund also demonstrates an unwillingness among central Government ministries to devolve control. What was to have been a 'Single' Local Growth Fund has been divided into distinct streams of funding controlled by different Whitehall departments.