All talk, no action

28 Jul 06
TONY TRAVERS | Regions with local government, or city-regions with neighbourhoods?

Regions with local government, or city-regions with neighbourhoods?

This appears to be the choice of options posed by competing ministers in their recent statements about the future of England’s system of governance. In particular, there now appear to be distinct and competing views about whether regions or city-regions are the way forward.

This week, Ed Balls and John Healey, respectively economic secretary and financial secretary to the Treasury, published a New Local Government Network paper, Evolution and devolution in England: How regions strengthen our towns and cities. In it, they argue that the regional level of government offers the most promising way ahead for securing a range of social, economic and political objectives.

More challengingly, the Treasury duo state: ‘We are very sceptical’ about recent proposals to promote ‘city-region-wide elected mayors as an alternative to regional decision-making — with powers and resources diverted from the regional development agencies’. Coming from such an exalted pair, so close to the chancellor, it is easy to see this explicit put-down of a Number 10 policy as having long-term meaning.

In Tony Blair’s letter to new Communities and Local Government Secretary Ruth Kelly in May, he stated: ‘I would like to see a radical, devolutionary white paper and subsequent Bill, with more powers for local neighbourhoods and new models of accountability and leadership, including mayors.’

Picking up on the PM’s enthusiasm at the recent Core Cities conference in Bristol, Kelly said: ‘Getting governance over the right spatial area is essential… some key decisions need to be taken across the city-region. Indeed, empirical research across European Union cities suggests that a better fit between administrative boundaries and the real, underlying economic geography strengthens economic performance across the city-region.’

The Balls-Healey axis wants to strengthen RDAs and underpin them with regional ‘grand committees’ of Parliament to provide a greater degree of accountability. There is a strong ‘no town left behind’ flavour to their enthusiasm for RDAs.

They evidently worry that city-regional leaders would further burnish the centres of, say, Manchester and Birmingham to the detriment of, say, Wigan or Walsall. RDAs are seen as vehicles to spread the state’s resources evenly across the whole of a region rather than concentrating it in the cities. Existing councils should, under this model, be strengthened.

Quite how the rest of us are supposed to ‘read’ this ministerial policy spat is hard to guess. The language of ‘variable geometry’ — code for ad hoc change in different places — will help Kelly cover up the evident differences between different parts of Whitehall. In theory, it would be feasible to have city-regional mayors in some places, while not reducing the role of the local RDA. Doubtless, a partnership could be evolved.

It would theoretically be possible to have governance at five different levels in the north of England — the Northern Way (combining the three northern regional development agencies); region (eg, Yorkshire & Humberside); ex-metropolitan county (eg, West Yorkshire); city (eg, Leeds); and neighbourhood. Transport, police and fire services are already run across the old met county area, approximating to a ‘city-region’. Everyone can have what they want.

But, as the Department for Communities and Local Government prepares the local government white paper to be published this autumn, it will surely be necessary to give councils, appointed bodies and central departments a clue as to the favoured (or most likely) form of devolved governance to be adopted. After all, there have to be institutions to provide public services and mechanisms to hold such institutions to account. Britain’s tangled policy-making process, stretched out over many years, should eventually reach a conclusion. Otherwise, public providers (and their customers) live in a permanent state of near-reform. One possibility, of course, would be to say nothing was going to happen. At least that would have the benefits of honesty and completeness.

But no. The most likely outcome is that the government will use the white paper to seek advice on a series of vaguely couched options. Nothing will be ruled out. Institutions outside government will be consulted on so many options that decision-making will prove difficult. More policy papers and negotiation will be required.

Until, that is, a government decides to devolve power once and for all. No recent proposals, from senior Labour or Conservative figures, seem willing to consider purposeful steps away from centralisation. Here, unfortunately, there is determination and consistency — to stay where we are. Perhaps this is the key message from the continuing debate about city-regions, cities and regions.

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