What Might Happen Next?
Treisman (2007) argues that it is possible to distinguish different types of decentralisation. He identifies multi-level or multi-tier governance, administrative decentralisation, political decentralisation and fiscal decentralisation. These distinctions are not altogether clear in the political debate between the UK political parties. The original regional structure initiated by the Conservative Government, and developed by Labour, began as an administrative decentralisation. The Labour Government of 1997– 2010 conferred real powers of devolution to the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh and Northern Ireland Assemblies, and the proposals for English Regional Assemblies also included some degree of political devolution. Powers have subsequently been extended somewhat for Scotland and Wales but not for England. There are now calls for greater fiscal decentralisation to Scotland and Wales and the possibility of Scottish independence (Scottish Government, 2013). The Labour Government had also begun to develop an agenda of 'new localism' (Balls, 2002) which referenced multi-level governance, though in practice not a great deal had happened on the ground.
The rhetoric of the present Coalition Government is for greater political and fiscal decentralisation below the regional level to City Regions, LEPs, Local Government and 'Communities'. However, the reality seems to be something else. While the local level is being given greater powers in principle, cuts in their income and limitations on their tax raising powers mean that in reality they are reducing the services and service levels they can continue to offer. While this may make the rhetoric confusing on the surface, it is clear that both the Conservative Party and the 'Orange Book' Liberal Democrats (Laws and Marshall, 2004) who dominate the cabinet are both enthusiastic for a smaller state, so decentralisation of fiscal and political powers goes hand in hand with the reduction in the size of the local state (Bennet, 1990). At the same time, the ambiguities surrounding community involvement remain. While the idea of a 'Big Society' taking up voluntarily work was seen as an attractive solution within a smaller state, in reality, government cuts have impacted heavily on those 3rd Sector organisations best placed to offer voluntary workers the support they need to be effective.
Although the Coalition Government appears, belatedly, to be in the process of developing a growth strategy through regional (sub-regional) growth, it believes in 'small government' and so is determined that economic growth will be generated predominantly from the private sector itself. While there have been and will continue to be various government funding initiatives to be bid for, the amount of such funding is severely limited by wider economic circumstances. The creation of City Regions and LEPs are attempts to encourage co-operation between business and local authorities, with the aim of their making substantial contributions to the self-funding of economic development. Yet, there is to be no required consistency of size, structure or operation for any of these, and some are already experiencing internal conflicts. No doubt some will be successful, but what of others, and what are the consequences of failure?
The Labour Party has already indicated its own view of the value of regional funding for growth, which seems not unlike that of the Conservative Lord Heseltine (Heseltine, 2012). What is not clear yet is the meaning of the term 'region'. Is this a reference to City Regions and LEPs? Could it be coalitions of LEPs representing economic power closer to that of City Regions? The development of a kind of City Deal for less urban LEPs could make this a possibility. Or might it mean the reinvention of something like the RDAs? It seems clear from the report by PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PriceWaterhouseCoopers Regional Development Agency, 2009) that, despite the views of the Coalition Government, RDAs were generally fairly successful in helping to generate regional economies. Could there be a return to something similar?