The politics of devolution
The politics of devolution

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The politics of devolution

6.2 English regions

At present, regional government in England is divided between local government and central government agencies. Eight English regions have a tripartite structure with responsibilities and powers divided in each region between the Government Office for the region (GO), the Regional Development Agency (RDA) and the Regional Chamber (most of which have now renamed themselves Regional Assemblies).

The Labour government established Regional Development Agencies (RDAs) in April 1999. The role of the RDAs, appointed by Ministers in London, is limited with primarily strategic functions based around preparing an economic strategy for their region. They are totally dependent on central government for their modest budgets. In terms of their powers, functions and political authority they are much weaker than the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh and Northern Ireland assemblies.

Government Offices for the regions were initially created in 1994 as ‘Integrated Regional Offices’,

bringing together the regional functions of the Departments of Transport, Environment, Employment, and Trade and Industry. Their boundaries were used for Regional Development Agencies for speed and convenience (with the exception of Merseyside, absorbed into the North-West in 1996). The offices were initially conceived of as representatives of the centre in the regions. Policy programmes remained under the sponsorship of individual departments.

(Sandford and McQuail, 2001, p. 30)

Whereas Regional Chambers are

voluntary bodies containing approximately 70 per cent elected local authority representatives and 30 per cent ‘social and economic partners’ (SEPs). All Chambers have now been ‘designated’ by the Secretary of State under the Regional Development Agencies Act 1998, obliging the relevant RDA to ‘take account of their comments on its Regional Economic Development Strategy. This is their sole statutory role.

(Sandford and McQuail, 2001, p. 31)

The devolution process implemented in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland prompted fresh demands for elected assemblies in some English regions. The creation of Constitutional Conventions, inspired by the Scottish Constitutional Convention, in six English regions sought to foster a greater public debate on devolution. The first Constitutional Convention was set up in the north-east in 1998. The north-west and Yorkshire followed in 1999, and the West Midlands, the south-west and the Cornish Constitutional Convention in 2000. In 1999, the Campaign for the English Regions was launched as an umbrella group for the Constitutional Conventions.

David Marquand and John Tomaney (2000) cite four reasons in favour of directly elected regional government in England:

  • a tier of regional government already exists, but it is fragmented and poorly coordinated;

  • too much public policy is designed centrally in ways that do not match local conditions;

  • there is insufficient democratic scrutiny of the state both at a national and a regional level;

  • English politics needs to accommodate greater diversity and pluralism if it is to survive and promote greater participation in elections.

Some of the objections against elected regional assemblies have been considered by Sandford and McQuail (2001). These include:

  • Equity, in regard to maintaining common national standards in health care, education and certain other key services.

  • Risk of failure in the face of the considerable government intervention in setting standards, and the lack of confidence in existing regional structures.

  • Turbulence, depending on the range of functions proposed, the transfer of power could be a complicated and turbulent process with considerable transitional costs.

  • Scepticism about whether there are substantive arguments for change.

  • Vested interests, including inertia, concerning ‘the way in which England's administration, famously centralised, hangs together as a whole, and the weakness of regional identity that is another aspect of inertia’. Whitehall, referring to institutional resistance to change, and Ministers, that points to ‘the extent to which Ministerial rewards and motivation at present turn on their command over functions organised centrally and not territorially’ (Sandford and McQuail, 2001, p. 59).

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