Regionalism redefined
1 October, 2007

Chris Leslie, Director, New Local Government Network
Public Servant

It must have been one of the longest acronyms in Government review history; the SNREDR – otherwise known as the Sub-National Review of Economic Development and Regeneration, was launched to an unsuspecting public just before the summer Parliamentary recess. And while constitutional documents like this (for it is, indeed, related to the wider Gordon Brown constitutional reform agenda) are little-noticed in the wider media, it does represent a significant series of proposed changes which will take governance and decision-making in a new direction.

A year ago NLGN published our pamphlet, authored jointly with Ed Balls and John Healey, entitled ‘Evolution and Devolution in England: How regions strengthen our towns and cities’, which set out a new approach to regional governance. Following the ‘no’ vote in the North East of England against an elected regional assembly, there was clearly a need for those who saw a deficit in strategic leadership between the ‘local’ and the ‘national’ levels of government to pause and think again. The Sub National Review represents the conclusions of this period of reflection – advocating an alternative, leaner and more pragmatic architecture for decision-making above a series of local authority boundaries but devolved from the clutch of Whitehall.

There are two striking characteristics at the heart of the Sub National Review. First is the concept that regional decision-making would better progress as a shared endeavour between the two primary poles of the UK constitution; local and national representatives. A fusion between local and national democracy should provide a shared leadership for regional economic development, and a joint accountability over these spatial decisions.

Second, the Sub National Review is honest about the thicket of Whitehall outposts that have accrued since the inception of Government Offices in the mid 1980s, suggesting that the burden of separate policy strategies within each region, built around separate regional agencies and other organisations, is now not optimal.

Instead, there is an opportunity to cut through the mass of separate strategies, draw together key documents into a Single Regional Strategy, and perhaps also rationalise much other activity around a redefined core RDA. With the ever present shadow of the Comprehensive Spending Review, it is unsurprising that the demands of greater efficiency are part of this reform process.

So how will the proposals actually affect decision-making? In the short term, changes at Government and Parliamentary level will be most striking of all. The introduction of Regional Ministers – albeit sharing this portfolio with existing Ministerial posts – has already made an impact in Whitehall. With no set ‘job description’ reports are already coming in of stories telling how certain Regional Ministers have pulled together then leading civil servants in their patch to bash heads together about major road or rail projects that have been languishing in the bureaucratic sidings for far too long.

This sort of ‘grip’ that only a politician with a Ministerial mandate can provide should, in theory at least, catalyse the sub-national level of decision-making into leaner, swifter shape. While there is a clear political advantage to each region now having an additional ‘ally’ around the national table, it can be argued that it is those regions which have felt more distant from the notion of regionalism – East of England, South East and South West perhaps – may gain more than most from a better link to Whitehall’s senior figures. Meanwhile, down the road in the House of Commons, October is likely to see the creation of new Regional Select Committees, though whether they will reflect the political composition of their regions – or the composition of the House as a whole is a key test.

At NLGN we believe that there is also an opportunity here to co-opt Council Leaders onto these select committees, in a similar way that the European Committee of the Regions populate their representatives from councils in each region. Fusing together national and local representatives to scrutinise regional decision-making is the right way forward, and again this will be a key moment for Parliament.

There remains a good deal of unfinished business still to be resolved, however, despite the comprehensive nature of the SNR. Skills issues are to be devolved, but how will councils grapple with these decisions? Single Regional Strategies will declutter the field of multiple agency reports, but how exactly will councils be given powers of ‘sign off’? Autumn will be a busy time, especially for these essentially cross-departmental questions to be resolved.