The Rise and Fall of Regions

As we saw in Chapter 1, the idea of a regional structure of government in England has a long history dating back at least to Lord Redcliffe-Maud's Royal Commission on Local Government (Report of the Royal Commission on Local Government, 1969) and the minority report of the Royal Commission on the Constitution chaired by Lord Kilbrandon (Report of the Royal Commission on the Constitution, 1969–1973). Instead of elected bodies, however, a system of English regional governance was developed first by the Conservatives and then subsequently by Labour, which focused on the implementation of Central Government policy at a regional level and also the allocation of European Union structural funds. Local engagement was always a second order matter. While, as we saw in Chapter 2, many of our interviewees tried to be inclusive, regional stakeholders were made up of many more powerful interest groups than the general public – business and business organisations, voluntary associations, local politicians, faiths, national agencies, environment, the Regional Development Agency (RDA) – so that individual electors were often less regarded.

Chapter 3 demonstrated that any strong sense of regional identification among the public was discouraged by the nature and size of the administrative regions, and this has been blamed in part for the apparent lack of public support for elected Regional Assemblies (Henig, 2002; Roberts and Baker, 2006; Weight, 2002). It was generally thought that the official regions were too large and too diverse to mean a great deal to local people. The one exception was London, which already had a history of a London elected Council and which voted for and gained an elected Assembly and a directly elected Mayor under Labour legislation. At the sub-regional level, some areas, such as East Anglia, Norfolk and especially Cornwall, were spontaneously identified by our interviewees as having distinctive identities, and there is other evidence in the literature to support the existence of these and other such identities, at least in the recent past (Jones and Woolf, 2007; Brace, 1999, Harper-Bill, et al., 2002, Keily, et al., 2000).

Some of our regional and local elite interviewees did want a system which recognised the value of regional and local opinions, and a surprising number of them expressed sadness that the democratic elements of regional government had not been realised. It was felt by several that elected Regional Assemblies would have been the right direction to have gone and would have given a democratic legitimacy to the regional level. However, it was also recognised that to achieve this there would probably need to be a rationalisation of the rest of local government, with probably a whole tier of government disappearing in the interest of cost-
savings. This was possible but unlikely, given the importance placed by national politicians on the support of local councillors in national party elections.

It is unclear to what extent Labour's plans for an English regional and subregional structure could have resolved some of the anomalies between England and the other 'nations', or how these or the new Coalition Government's subregional structure might do so, whether or not Scotland becomes independent following the 2014 referendum. At the UK level, the creation of English Regions gave some comparability in size with Scotland (though not size of economy) and to a much lesser extent with Wales, but without offering them any real political power. Even if Labour had gained popular support for its directly elected Regional Assemblies and been able to create them, the powers on offer were very limited compared to those of the Scottish Parliament. There was felt to be a need for a filter in England between the national and local levels, but as Scotland and Wales continue to seek greater powers, the English regional bodies would probably have become increasingly anomalous as they stood.

The overall picture at the beginning of 2010 was of the then Labour Government seeking to create structures to establish a partnership between central and local government units in a limited decentralisation of power at the regional and sub-regional levels through the creation of Regional Ministers and a system of Parliamentary Regional Committees. The RDAs were found to have been economically worthwhile (PriceWaterhouseCoopers, 2009) with both jobs and businesses created and skills developed in a successful programme bringing together local stakeholders, while the gap between deprived and more prosperous areas had been reduced. However, criticisms of the regional structure remained strong. Many still felt that regional bodies were too much dominated by national government aims and that Government Offices for the Regions and RDAs would need to be more accountable to the people within their own areas (Henig, 2006; Roberts and Baker, 2006). There had also been a shift in government thinking towards greater engagement and activity at a local and community level and recognition of a need to create structures which would stimulate local democracy and power below that of the region. This New Localism has been characterised as a strategy aimed at devolving power and resources away from central control and towards front-line managers, local democratic structures and local consumers and communities, within an agreed framework of national minimum standards and policy priorities (Corry and Stoker, 2002; Corry et al., 2004).

In the run-up to the 2010 General Election, the Conservative Party had wanted to dismantle the RDAs (Spelman and Clarke, March 2010), while Liberal Democrats proposed reforming them as well as abolishing Government Offices for the Regions (Liberal Democrat Party Manifesto, 2010) with the intention of devolving yet more power to local authorities (Liberal -Democrat Policy Briefing, 2009). In the event, the unexpected coalition of these two parties in the new Government of 2010 resulted in an early decision to abolish all institutions of regional governance. So, all three major political parties were moving away from the idea of the Region towards the sub-regional or local level. This was a matter of genuine concern to many of our informants. While there was much criticism of the geography of the existing regions and the details of the system of regional governance and how it operated – especially of the Government Offices for the Regions – many were very clear that there was a level of functions which needed to be carried out at the regional level, whatever institutional framework was devised. Those necessary functions might be summarised under the heading of infrastructure planning or spatial planning and included housing strategy, transport strategy, economic development and regeneration and the environment, especially sustainable development, flood control and waste management; also wind farms and coastal erosion. There was very broad agreement that in a wide range of planning, the Central Government was not to be trusted to make sensible decisions because it lacked the appropriate level of knowledge, and the local level of government often did not have the capacity to make such decisions. Ironically, one of our most wellinformed interviewees told us that 'there is general agreement that regions will not disappear entirely. There are some functions which need doing.'

Most interviewees felt that there were real dangers in being too local. Counties were not large enough for some tasks, and there were doubts about the quality of local political leadership and a lack of a more strategic approach. Those from one county disagreed. They believed that their local political leadership was capable of performing all the necessary functions without regional support. There was, however, general support for the idea of sub-regional developments. Strategic Leaders Boards, which were to have been created by the Labour Government, although again criticised in detail, were thought to have potential, as did the Coalition's 'Local Enterprise Partnerships' (LEPs). There was a value in having an institutional level between the local and the national as a way of protecting the local from London-centric national politics. However, in practice, despite the rhetoric of Localism, many previously regional functions have now reverted to Central Government, so there seems to have been some basis for our informants' fears.

The United Kingdom, England and possible consequences of the Scottish referendum

On 18 September 2014, a referendum will be held on Scottish Independence. Less than one year before that referendum, polls seem to suggest that most Scottish voters remain undecided or have a weak commitment to either side of the debate. This is probably because all the evidence suggests that most Scots actually want greater devolution without independence – an option not currently on offer. In any case, poll results do change and may do so dramatically in the next year. Whatever the result of that referendum, devolution within all areas of the UK will inevitably be affected. The Scottish Conservative Party has already accepted that even without independence, Scotland will require additional powers, including
those of tax-raising. The Welsh are also demanding increased powers for their Assembly. What implications these changes have for England is uncertain. There are no serious plans for an English Parliament, and plans to consider English votes on English matters appear to have been quietly sidelined for the moment. However, if Scotland ends up with some form of what Trench (2012) calls 'DevoMax' but remains within the United Kingdom, debates about structural changes to government in England are bound to be encouraged. Whatever happens at the British national level, it will inevitably impact upon devolution within England. Can sub-regional bodies within Localism continue to relate directly to a remote UK parliament and its central ministries when Scotland and Wales will have substantial powers to develop co-ordinated national/regional strategies of their own?

Precious little thought appears to have been given to this anomalous position of England within the United Kingdom. One possible solution comes from the Local Government Association (LGA), which proposes merging the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG), Department for Transport, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Department for Energy and Climate Change, Department for Culture, Media and Sport and parts of the Home Office into a new Ministry for England (Local Government Association, 2013). Cockell (2013a) told the BBC that 'We don't need endless civil servants in Whitehall.' He goes on to argue that '[most public services] are delivered at local levels – then let those local levels take that responsibility' (Cockell, 2013b). However, whether that could be a genuine Localism is debatable. It would be a largely administrative decentralisation, with the new Ministry somewhat akin to the Scottish or Welsh Offices of old. It would certainly strengthen the local authority voice, but it would remain something far less than the devolved power that even Wales has already. Alternatively, as one of our interviewees suggested, one could certainly abolish the DCLG and transfer at least some of its powers to the local level.

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