The Regional Problem

Lord Tyler

Matt asked in response to my last post what I thought of the regional structure originally invented by the Conservative Government as economic development areas. These were established on the colonial principle that they would represent central Government in the regions. It seemed to me patently crazy to install bodies whose responsibility was economic development, without giving them power to raise their own cash, and to be accountable to the people in their region. Indeed, Gordon Brown highlighted this necessity recently, saying of the Scottish Parliament “In any other devolved administration in the world, there is usually a financial responsibility that requires not only the spending of money by the administration but also its responsibility to take seriously how it raises money”. I wonder whether he will act to make arrangements in England more satisfactory in this respect!

The Government’s latest idea to solve the ‘regional problem’ is to set up Regional Select Committees and to allocate Regional Ministers. Bluntly, they simply do not get it. Regional Ministers are attached to other Departments too, and largely act as Whitehall’s voice in their region, not vice-versa. And so keen is the Government to maintain control over the proposed Select Committees that it insists there should be a majority of Labour MPs on them all –reflecting the balance of political representation on the floor of the Commons, not in the region – thereby making the whole process impossible to complete. Regions like the South West simply don’t elect enough Labour MPs to staff the committee in this way, and even if every non-Minister were put on it, there would still be a disproportionate representation of the urban areas – Bristol, Plymouth, and so on – over the rural areas that really characterise the region. Unsurprisingly, these Commons Committees are still not in operation, nine months after Mr Brown proposed them.

So this is where the Lords could be useful. A reformed second chamber could provide an effective link between the nations and regions and the UK Parliament, while at the same time overseeing the democratic accountability of devolved administration.

Regional governance in Britain faces a very real problem; there is a case for some strategic authorities that co-ordinate the activities of more than one local authority but where these exist they must be accountable. And they should be created from the bottom-up. If people in Cornwall, Devon and Somerset want to come together on certain issues, and create a Regional Committee (call it an Assembly, if you prefer) of councillors from each County, or hold direct elections, that’s fine. My guess is that Cornwall would leave Devon and Somerset to get on with it, since the emergent Cornwall Council in that part of the world has already gained “sub-region” status from the Government.

At present though, local authorities aren’t at liberty to decide, so the present regional structure is arbitrary; a top-down construction which places Penzance with Tewkesbury, even though the latter is closer to Scotland. What the regions enjoy in extraordinary spending power (£2.3bn this year) they lack in a demos of citizens who identify with their authority. So in the first instance, we must devolve power – financial and managerial – to every level of local government. Town and Parish Councils should respond by meeting in the evening, to ensure that people are not precluded from holding office on behalf of their communities by work commitments.

Sorry to go on so long, but the comments deserved a full response!

6 comments for “The Regional Problem

  1. Matt
    04/04/2008 at 2:13 pm

    Very interesting, thank you.

    In the interest of making progress one small step at a time, is anyone suggesting that the proposed Regional Select Committees be Joint Committees of both Houses? I would imagine that a combination of MPs and Peers could be found for every region which satisfied the tradition of reflecting party balance as well as adequately representing the different urban/rural characteristics of the region. It would also help boost the profile of the Lords.

    Whilst the idea may not be perfect, I can see some value in the concept of Regional Ministers and Select Committees – but it is dependent on how they are established.

    My outline vision: the Regional Minister, preferably a dedicated role, should have an office and small staff based in the Government Office of the region, and the Regional Select Committee (meeting in the region rather than Westminster) should be able to call the Minister to account and scrutinise the spending of the Government Office. It would improve the transparency of the existing regional scructures and bring politics to the regions – hopefully boosting public interest and engagement in our democratic systems.

    The formation and boundaries of the existing regions is a difficult one. Whilst I instinctively like the idea of regions being formed from the bottom-up, it doesn’t necessarily lead to greater efficiency of resource use – more and smaller regional structures, whilst potentially more homogenous and contiguous, would involve more administrative costs. I could probably be persuaded, but I’d be nervous about any large-scale shake-up of government organisation without a clear assessment of the costs and benefits involved.

  2. tom
    04/04/2008 at 2:32 pm

    It’s interesting. I agree with you – regional is a problem. I feel attached to my local identity (Leicester – where I grew up, York – where I was a university student, or Lancaster – where I worked for a few years).

    But I’m not sure I feel a regional identity. (Maybe I just haven’t spent long enough in one place yet?) Which means I feel ambivalent about regional assemblies.

    Like Ladytizzy I feel that regional assemblies would be talking shops. Maybe the current situation – with appointed assemblies is the best.

    Except that each local council should be appointing members – rather than the central government. But maybe this would just mean that each member of the regional assembly would be fighting to get “their share” of the regional pie.

    Umm – no easy answer to wanting a slim and responsive regional assembly that is democratic and people identify with.

  3. ladytizzy
    04/04/2008 at 5:37 pm

    Lord Tyler, dealing with your last point first: holding evening-only meetings would still exclude a lot of people eg shift-workers, those with no transport especially in rural areas, but mainly women who are generally responsible for the family. This could also lead to a decrease in female candidates.

    Instead, isn’t it about time that on-line video and interactive messaging was enabled at all public meetings, with a video archive? It would allow us to see who’s who and how representative they are, perhaps leading to a greater voting turnout, it would enable anyone in the UK to see what goes on and may affect their choice of where to live, it would encourage people to attend and speak at the meetings (so they can see themselves – seriously, it’s a factor) and so we may get a larger pool of candidates.

    I am not as enthused as you are about devolved assemblies. I dislike the politics of, say, free prescriptions in Wales and free education in Scotland to buy votes. If you don’t agree with that, it is a cause of boundary problems, to whit the recent Berwick-upon-Tweed hoo-ha.

    That democracy = electoral rights only is plainly wrong. I’ll leave this particular chad hanging since no doubt the topic will be revisited.

  4. Malty
    06/04/2008 at 7:09 pm

    We have , no more than one hours flying time from the UK, one of Europe’s finest examples of regional government, Germanys Lander system.In a back to back comparison with the UK, as it is at the moment, the best I can say is that it compares exactly with the difference between German and UK manufacturing, we are one million miles away from the German ethos in both areas. It is said that the market capitalisation of one German company (Siemens) is far greater than the entire UK manufacturing sector.
    The difference between the UK local Government services to its “customers” (the very thought of the local ratepayers as customers is totally alien to local government) and Germanys is equally dramatic. The UKs is appalling. It is only when you see what else is out there and what is thrown at us that you reliase how badly we are served, ditto healthcare.
    I am a firm believer in the devolution of responsibility, at the very least to enable centralised power to be held in check.
    Until a total change in the UK civil service mentality is wrought then handing down more responsibility is a waste of time. There is also the major problem of systemic over staffing, who will have the courage to sack at least 25% of the existing workforce, without obscene levels of redundancy ? And why not, why should the civil service have special protection when the rest of the population does not. Until local government is made wholly responsible for the raising of its own monies (and accountability if it gets it wrong, not just a slap on the wrist as happens at present but facing the full consequences of its actions), as in the private sector, then more responsibilty will simply compound the present problems.

    Horse before cart please, totally change the civil service ethos first, then give local government all of the power it needs.

  5. 06/04/2008 at 8:28 pm

    I would like to know what all your pro-EU readers think to the very real prospect of Eurabia? If they would care to read this article and then respond…

    http://www.brusselsjournal.com/node/3153

  6. 10/04/2008 at 4:34 pm

    The constitutional case for Cornwall provides strong arguments for a greater degree of Cornish devolution. This has as yet never been acknowledged. On this basis I would urge a thorough investigation of the distinctive constitutional status of Cornwall: http://petitions.pm.gov.uk/UniqueCornwall/

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