Where next for the Regions agenda?
1 May, 2005

Emily Robinson, Researcher, NLGN
Public Service Director

Six months on from the death-by-referendum of the regional dream and nothing much has changed. The English regions remain firmly in place, governed by exactly the same collection of agencies, assemblies and consortia as before. The relationships between these different bodies and the other tiers of government are examined in Living with Regions: making multi-level governance work – a new report from the New Local Government Network’s Research Unit.

Some kind of governance at a regional level seems to be inevitable. Even ardent opponents of regionalism tend to agree that it makes sense to take certain policy decisions at a higher spatial level than the local authority – although they would prefer it if these decisions could be taken without the need for another level of government. The question is: what sort of regional structures do we need and how can we make them publicly accountable?

It seems that we have four options: abolish formal regional government altogether; stick with the status quo; adapt the structures we already have; or reorganise completely.

In terms of the first option, many local authorities believe that voluntary partnerships amongst themselves can satisfy the need for decision-making on a regional scale. In many cases this works very well. However, as we all know, working relationships between neighbouring authorities are often not as harmonious as they could be. Even where there is no outright animosity, institutional inertia can get in the way of joining up. Sometimes an external body at a higher spatial level is needed to provide both the impetus and the support to enable these relationships to develop.

The current regional bodies are very good at providing this kind of support. For instance, many Regional Development Agencies (RDAs) have chosen to channel their resources through sub-regional groupings and cross-boundary regeneration zones. One officer from a local authority who participated in NLGN’s research said: “We have always known it makes sense [to work with neighbouring local authorities] but there was no real need to before”. This should not be about regional bodies dictating to local authorities, rather it is about finding an appropriate spatial level at which to take different decisions, facilitate partnership working and manage delivery.

The principal draw-back with RDAs is their lack of visible public accountability. Now that the regions are not likely to accrue any legitimacy of their own, they will have to depend on that of the other two tiers, either through formal accountability to Whitehall, or through the indirectly elected members of the Regional Assemblies. This throws up an absolutely fundamental question: do we see the regional tier as an arm of central government; or as an aggregation of local interests?

At the moment, both local authorities and regional bodies are very much the agents of the centre, with no real link between them. Both receive most of their money and targets straight from Whitehall. If we choose to see regions as an aggregation of their localities, it should then be local authorities that take responsibility for financing and monitoring them (ideally this would be part of a wider reform of the balance of funding). But if we see the regions as part of a chain of command that extends from Whitehall down to the Town Hall, it would make sense to channel funds and targets downwards, through the regional tier.

The default position would be to carry on as we are now. But given that the regional assembly is the only political body at regional level and that it has so much potential to become the regional core, it seems to me that local authorities should grasp this opportunity with both hands. They could use their elected mandates to legitimise the entire regional tier and challenge the status quo.

The North East referendum result was widely interpreted as a vote against politicians. This may well be true. But many of the trade-offs which regional bodies are asked to make – particularly in terms of planning and development – should not be handled by a tier that is not accountable in some way to its citizens. Despite the fact that voters in the North East gave a resounding ‘No’ to the idea of regional politicians, many of the arguments against Elected Regional Assemblies centred on “unwanted bureaucracy” and the “quango state”. Of course, the bureaucracy and the quangos are still there, it is just that they remain free of direct democratic control.

People are not opposed to the idea of democracy. Rather, they seem to have stopped believing that this has any link to elected politicians. So the referendum result should not be taken as giving us carte blanche to proceed with little further regard to the democratic agenda. Neither should we ignore it. The correct response should not be to give up on elected representatives altogether, but to use the ones we already have in order to rebuild the links between accountability and democracy; and between people and politics.

It would be eminently possible to adapt the existing regional setup and make it more democratically accountable. All the ingredients are already there. For instance, the existing Regional Assembly are primarily composed of elected members of local authorities but they are seriously underused and often do not play the political role of link between locality and region that is expected of them. This role could be developed into a high profile, publicly accountable cabinet position: ‘Delegate to the Regional Assembly’. These councillors would then have a clear mandate to scrutinise not only the RDAs but also other regional and sub-regional agencies, on behalf of their collected localities. The collective public accountability of these delegates to their individual localities could create a regional assembly strong enough to command the attention of the other regional agencies. This is not as powerful a prospect as directly elected assembly members. But it would be a way to harness the type of public engagement, institutional dynamism and clear accountability that sometimes only elected politicians can bring.

The final option would be to re-organise completely. Ministers have recently begun to talk again about the possibility of city regions. This deserves careful consideration and NLGN has launched a City Regions Commission to do just that.

In the past, the city region has been viewed almost exclusively as a vehicle for economic growth: by focussing on building the economic power of the city, it is possible to create a strong economic climate that will advantage the hinterlands as well. Contrasts were drawn between failing British cities and thriving European city regions. The Core Cities agenda is linked to this but widens the net to include culture as well: channelling regeneration money into cities will create vibrant cultural centres at the heart of a wider geographical area.

But the move towards economic and cultural city regions is not necessarily connected to any attempts to address the democratic deficit in the English regions. For example, the Northern Way is based on a city regions approach to the North of the country, but it is organised along the more established regional basis of North East, North West, and Yorkshire and the Humber. And without directly elected government at regional level, whatever political accountability it has, is drawn upwards from its constituent localities or downwards from central government.

This is worrying. If money is to be focussed in some places at the expense of others, then it needs to happen in a clear and democratic fashion. It is not enough to hope that the current structures of accountability can absorb new patterns of governance. For safety’s sake, the working assumption should be that they probably cannot.

The most obvious way of using city regions to generate a greater level of public accountability would be a rearrangement of local government, with directly elected mayors sitting above local authorities, in the model of Greater London. Obviously the city model is not applicable right across the country. There are many places (particularly in the South) where the existing county structure is more appropriate. But there is no reason why similar powers could not be given to ‘county regions’ as to city regions.

The key to all of this is direct, transparent accountability. Greater London has much the same level of bureaucracy as in the other regions (albeit with greater powers) but the single figure of the directly elected mayor is seen to cut through all of that. London is also a unit that, largely, makes sense. The more complex the system of governance is, the more we need politicians prepared to navigate it on our behalf.

Whatever happens to the English regions, the structures of elected politics must change with them. That does not have to mean creating new politicians; it could mean just making better use of the ones we already have.

Living with Regions: making multi-level governance work is available from NLGN, price £21.25 (inc p&p) from info@nlgn.org.uk or 020 7015 1386. www.nlgn.org.uk/publications