A New Local Government Network (NLGN) report identifies options for redesigning regional governance and suggests establishing ‘RDA-plus Regional Executive Agencies’, held to greater account locally and nationally, in order to provide stronger regional leadership. Following the ‘no’ vote in the 2004 north east referendum on an elected regional assembly the future of regional governance has been questioned.
The NLGN report, Redesigning Regionalism: leadership and accountability in England’s regions, argues that a regional dimension in public policy is crucial in drawing down powers from Whitehall and giving local government a stronger lead over otherwise ‘quangoised’ responsibilities. It sets out a number of options for reform, including the merging of different regional policy strategies and considering Ministerial regional portfolios to scrutinise the work of regional bodies. Its main conclusions are:
- Regional Development Agencies have been successful and could be enhanced if also given leadership responsibility as ‘Regional Executive Agencies’ for other policy areas currently managed separately in the regions, for instance, environmental, spatial planning and housing;
- Stronger leadership by these ‘Regional Executive Agencies’ would only be possible if there was a simultaneous improvement in accountability and scrutiny, perhaps involving local authority leaders and regional MPs in a number of different governance options
- Local authorities could have greater sway over regional decisions, perhaps with powers to ‘call in’ or delay decisions;
- The currently separate Regional Economic Strategies and Regional Spatial Strategies should be united and brought together;
- Whitehall should further reform the Government Office network in the regions, passing more powers to the enhanced ‘Regional Executive Agencies’
- Parliamentarians could be more closely involved in governing and scrutinising regional decisions;
- ‘Regional Ministers’ could be appointed if devolution from Whitehall to regional and local leadership is regarded as too big a step straight away; and
- The existing Regional Assemblies must rise to the challenge of retaining the full confidence of local government leadership, which is crucial for their success.
The report’s author, Chris Leslie, Director of NLGN argues that:
“While the institutional structures for regional decisions should be a second order issue, the fact remains that clarifying both the leadership and accountability in England’s regions is unfinished business. The successful regional co-ordination of public policy can make a major impact on the conditions for growth, so it is right that the debate about the future of regional governance in England continues to evolve. We recognise that the Government has determinedly devolved powers to the Regional Development Agencies (RDAs) who have worked well and made great strides in securing investment for skills, transport priorities and industrial innovation, but we also recognise there are constraints which remain to be tackled.”
“In many regions the leadership of the Regional Development Agencies could be built upon through enhancing their role and functions, perhaps creating a single RDA-plus style ‘Regional Executive Agency’ (REA) which draws together more of the currently disparate regional activities spread across several separate bodies at present. In order to achieve this, we suggest the transfer of certain functions from Government Offices to a more accountable REA, and that the Comprehensive Spending Review considers whether activities currently led by Whitehall departmental outposts in each region could be better led if integrated into a Regional Executive Agency”.