or too long, Britain has been a country governed
in the South East, by people living in the South East and,
often, on behalf of the South East.
The creation after 1997 of the Scottish Parliament, Welsh
Assembly and city-wide government in London broke the mould
of the centralised British state. Power really did shift
from the centre in the most significant way since the since
the modern British state came into being.
Of course, devolution has been a bumpy ride for New Labour.
Many thought the success of Ken Livingstone in London and
the decidedly un-New Labour Rhodri Morgan in Wales would
limit the appeal for a further bout of decentralisation.
So June’s announcement that the North West, North
East and Yorkshire and Humber regions will hold referendums
regional government in autumn 2004 is a truly radical step,
especially for a Government all too often criticised for
its very lack of radicalism.
A Labour manifesto pledge, the referendums herald not only
a new way of conducting politics, but an opportunity to improve
social inclusion, economic regeneration,
while providing dynamic, locally-based political leadership.
For critics though, regional government is an obsession
of a narrow provincial political elite, without wider resonance
among the electorate.
What do people in Wirral and Wigan, or Manchester and Morecombe
have in common is the popular refrain?
For a start, having a properly functioning M6 motorway
is as much an issue for people living in Carlisle as it is
for people living in Crewe, and,
indeed, everywhere in between.
But the ability to make our selves heard as a region is
the real prize. For too long there has been a clear need
to have a stronger, collective
when dealing with national audiences, and, increasingly the European
Regional government is not an attack on local government;
neither does it spell a diminution of Westminster’s authority. Instead, regional government
will hoover up the vast array of bodies spending taxpayers’ money without
reference to the people they purport to serve.
The “democratic deficit” is huge: Government Office; Development
Agency; Regional Chamber; Housing Corporation; Learning & Skills Council – all
make decisions and spend money without reference to any elected office in the
region. There is no complaint about their administrative competence, rather
a recognition that a political lead would create more joined-up thinking and
So what about the opposition to regional government? The
Tories remain implacably opposed, having decided to disengage
this major issue. However
the Party’s representatives in the region are sending out
mixed messages. The Tory Leader of Cheshire County Council has
instructed his officers to examine
alternative local government structures, no doubt conscious that
the Boundary Commission will do it for him if he prevaricates.
Time will tell, but perhaps wiser heads in the Tory Party
will realise the sheer absurdity of standing for a election
to a body
are, in principle,
pledged to scrap.
All too characteristically, the Liberal Democrats have complained
that the proposals don’t go far enough and look set
to adopt an “empty chair” policy while resting
their delicate derrieres on the proverbial fence, unwilling
to take a stand on this zero-sum question.
Unfortunately, the real opposition to regional government
comes from within the Labour movement.
The insistence on unitary local government accompanying
any new assembly has miffed public sector unions who see
upheaval that affects their members as inherently bad.
But the trade unions have a critical network and valuable
campaigning skills that ideally need to be employed to support
this once-in-a-lifetime bid – and need to be brought
The most vocal opposition comes from Labour-controlled
Lancashire County Council.
Denis Healy’s maxim that “turkeys don’t
vote for Christmas” sums up their motivation. Their
position is nothing more principled than a straight defence
of the status quo – keeping a handful of councillors
and Chief Officers in a style to which they have become dangerously
accustomed. Regional government can happen, they insist,
ensconced in their ivory tower, but only as long as they
are not affected.
As a way of subverting the debate, some Labour MP’s
and Town Hall leaders favour the so-called “city-region” model.
Its leading proponents include Graham Stringer in Manchester
and George Howarth in Merseyside. But the city-region model,
centred around Manchester and Liverpool holds little appeal
for people living in rural areas like Cumbria or East Lancashire.
City-regions would swallow up neighbouring authorities, increasing
the democratic deficit, but would be too small to tackle
the economic and social problems that affect those cities.
John Prescott and Nick Raynsford deserve credit for devising
a set of proposals that look set to defeat the core arguments
of the naysayers.
A 25-35 member assembly is hardly a gravy train when the
average Metropolitan Council has 60 members. Insisting on
unitary local government, before any move to set up an assembly,
should blow the argument about “another layer of bureaucracy” clean
out of the water. The cost of establishing an assembly should
be absorbed by the considerable economies of scale involved
in pulling disparate regional agencies together.
Regional Government isn’t provincial moaning about
the success of London and the South East. It is, however,
a hard-headed realisation that region’s like the North
West have the capacity to make sensible decisions about the
way they run their affairs, in several key areas, working
in partnership with both local and central government.
A truly historic opportunity to redraw the political map
of England is just twelve months away.