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!