Chris Leslie, Director, NLGN
Following the ‘no’ vote in the north east’s referendum on an elected regional assembly three years ago, a question mark has hung over the way bigger decisions affecting our economy should be made across Yorkshire and the other English regions. Quite rightly, most issues can and should be left to local councils. And other strategic questions are naturally best at national Government level. But there are a few awkward intermediate issues which ought not be in the hands of Ministers, but where individual councils along are too small to lead on their own. Take road and rail investment, for instance. The big inter-city linkages, with their associated land use implications, often present bigger strategic issues that extend beyond one or two local authorities. There is clearly a need for a regional approach to planning and economic development which should supplement the work of local authorities. But what form should this take, given the interregnum on devolution? Should the various Whitehall outposts, quangos and myriad other public agencies with a Yorkshire-wide responsibility be left to get on with their work independently? Could they be coordinated more efficiently? Or should they be held to account more effectively?
First, decision-making in Yorkshire needs clear leadership, so that a wider group of people can know how to influence things and know where the buck stops. I’m sure that the accretion of regional boards, strategies, quangos and Whitehall ‘embassies’ over recent years makes sense from each separate Government department’s point of view. But taking a step back and looking at the bigger picture and cost of this overabundance of institutions, there must surely be a logic for bringing together and rationalising each of these bodies. I would argue that we should build on the best we have so far – the RDAs and in our case Yorkshire Forward – and see some of the wider economic functions on housing, transport and environment eventually rolled into their operations.
Second, we can’t have stronger executive leadership in the English regions unless there is stronger accountability. The existing unelected Regional Assemblies who fulfil the current scrutiny role have around 60% of councillor membership, and they do a decent job, but it is worth reflecting again on whether we could achieve even more robust accountability, more accessible to the public. There are two options for direct election; either an elected regional assembly; or more radically a regional ‘governor’ or mayoral figure, which is in essence the role Ken Livingstone plays in the Greater London region. However, neither of these options is realistically on the cards in Yorkshire. So if accountability and legitimacy isn’t coming via direct election, what are the alternatives? Perhaps we should give Yorkshire’s elected councils a greater say, either in the governing board overseeing regional executive activity, or perhaps joining with MPs in Yorkshire to set the direction of regional decision-making. Rather than creating a new set of politicians, we could use the existing offices of council leaders and MPs to give better democratic oversight over a reformed regional leadership system. There are a series of options available here – where councils could be in the driving seat, or where there is some co-decision making between local leaders and parliamentary representatives. My point is, there are options for strengthening the legitimacy of regional decision-making, and these need to be debated.
Third, Whitehall must now deliver on devolution. Most devolution can flow straight down to local democratic level, but occasionally there are regional issues that would be better decided closer to councils and certainly out of the SW1 postcode. Each department should think about how they could better devolve to regional and local level, and they should make their minds up about whether or not they use the Government Offices who currently operate in each region. Some departments (for example, on planning issues) put the Government Office civil servants to good use, whereas others (education, for instance) use their own separate people in each region. If Whitehall needs a network of ambassadors in each corner of the country that’s fine, but there is confusion about whether these should be ambassadors who listen and represent Whitehall’s views, or whether these are decision-makers acting as a proxy for Ministers. If Ministers find it too hard to let go, even to a regional level, then they should at least consider nominating a regional Ministerial lead so that one person with authority in Whitehall can be pinpointed as the main advocate of a region’s needs within Government.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer has commissioned a ‘Sub National Review of Economic Development and Regeneration’ due to report shortly. At the New Local Government Network we strongly urge its authors to reflect on how better we could design our regional constitutional architecture. Sure, these structural issues should be second order questions, behind what actual policies are pursued across the Yorkshire region. But if we don’t get the basics right – with clear leadership and proper accountability – then we risk confusion reigning and ultimately a lack of progress on the growth and prosperity agenda.