Emily Robinson, Researcher, NLGN
The Regional Monitor
There is something very off-putting about the concept of multi-level governance. Complexity can lead to a loss of accountability, transparency and control. If powers and responsibilities are divided between neighbourhood, local, sub-regional, regional, supra-regional and national tiers of government, then who can citizens depend on to solve their problems? And when the strategies of each governance tier (and each individual body) are dependant on those of the others, who do the public hold to account if things go wrong? Complexity in governance arrangements can create space for responsibility to slip through the gaps.
Despite this, the fact remains that not all policy decisions can be taken at either the very local or the very central level. There is a need for something in between and voluntary groupings of neighbouring local authorities cannot be depended upon to provide a stable enough response – nor one that will work in every area of the country.
This leaves us with the option that is already in place: different tiers of government at different spatial levels. And the result of the referendum held in the North East referendum last years means that at least for the foreseeable future, they will also have different levels of accountability. This will only be a problem if we let it be. The key is to make sure that however complex the governmental system, it is both outward-facing and transparent. At the moment, it is neither.
Living with Regions, a new report by the New Local Government Network uses extensive field research to examine the relationships between the different tiers of governance currently operating in the English regions. It found that despite the hard work and commitment of those involved at all levels of the governance system, the institutional structures are getting in the way. When different local and regional bodies are each required to report back to the centre on different targets, the incentives for institutional defensiveness far outweigh those for collaboration.
The best way to overcome this defensiveness is often through politicians. In contrast to civil servants, the best way for politicians to defend their position is to provide a joined up response: an ‘it’s not my patch’ attitude does not go down too well with voters. This is the main reason why London’s system of complex multi-level governance works better than perhaps it should. The political, highly visible, Ken Livingstone has enough personal credibility to paper over the institutional cracks.
Yet, the people of the North East voted No to regional politicians. So where does that leave the rest of the country? There are some ways of achieving joining-up on a non-political basis. For instance, some councils are leading the way in inter-tier collaboration by – at least from the point of view of the citizen – flattening the two-tier District / County structure into one, outward-facing, body. The example featured in NLGN’s report is between Suffolk County Council and Mid-Suffolk District Council but there are others.
This approach may be too extreme for local-regional relationships but that doesn’t mean that they cannot begin to operate in a more collaborative way. A statutory duty to share knowledge and best practice between all regional and local bodies would be a good first step. The idea that ‘knowledge is power’ is common in governance circles. We should challenge the conception that governance bodies need to store up power to defend themselves against one another, rather than pooling it to the benefit of citizens.
However, none of this will count for anything if local authorities continue to see regional governance bodies as an ‘unelected and unaccountable’ nuisance. Yes, they are unelected, but that does not mean that they have to be unaccountable. Without any legitimacy of their own, the regions are now dependent on that of the tiers both above and below them. At the moment they are mainly using that of the centre – as sponsor, monitor and veto-holder. But the indirectly elected Regional Assemblies are a great, underused resource lying open to local government.
By creating high-profile, publicly accountable Cabinet positions of Delegate to the Regional Assembly, local authorities would not only be putting themselves in a much stronger position in terms of being able to influence regional policy making; they would also be using their own mandates to legitimise the regional tier of governance, creating that link with citizens that the referendum result seems to preclude. With such a clear (albeit indirect) mandate, there would also be a case for strengthening the scrutiny capacity of Regional Assemblies to include not just the RDAs but also other bodies operating at regional and sub-regional level.
The more complex the system of governance is, the more we need politicians prepared to navigate it on our behalf. That does not have to mean creating new politicians; it could mean just making better use of the ones we already have.
New Local Government Network
Living with Regions: making multi-governance work is available from NLGN, price £21.25 (inc p&p) from email@example.com or 020 7015 1386. www.nlgn.org.uk/publications