Monday, July 03, 2006

London model is the Government's way forward on the regions

Published in the Newcastle Journal 1 July June 2006. Different versions were also published in the North West Enquirer, Derby Evening Telegraph and Lincolnshire Echo.

Ever since the people of the North-East voted by a margin of 4-1 to reject its proposals for an elected assembly, the Government has been unsure where to go next with the regional devolution agenda.

Some have argued that pressure for regional government will eventually revive, given that the undemocratic structure of regional quangos remains in place and unreformed.

There is, to my mind, a certain intellectual logic to this, but politically speaking it is inconceivable that the issue could recur within the next decade or so.

Even the Liberal Democrats have now abandoned their long-standing support for elected regional assemblies, and it would take a brave – or foolhardy – government to resurrect the plan.

Which is where the whole concept of “City Regions” comes in. Ministers recognise that there is a need to devolve power, and in a way that encourages indigenous economic development - but how?

Last Monday, new Communities and Local Government Secretary Ruth Kelly gave us the first glimpses of her, or more properly Tony Blair’s thinking on the issue.

It would be too easy to mock the multiple press releases which accompanied Ms Kelly’s speech to the Core Cities conference in Bristol in which she set out her ideas.

Newcastle is apparently to become the “Turin of the North,” Manchester is likened to “Barcelona,” while poor old Liverpool has to make do with becoming the “Rotterdam of the North-West.”

But the important thing about Monday’s speech was not the rather inane parallels drawn with European cities but those drawn with another British city – London.

For Ms Kelly made clear that the model for the future of English regional devolution will be that of London, in which a directly elected Mayor sits atop a single-tier local government structure comprising 32 boroughs.

She said: “Getting governance over the right spatial area is essential. Many of these challenges cut across local authority areas, suggesting that some key decisions need to be taken across the city-region.”

And, citing the London example she added: “Strong leadership is vital to this success. Few doubt that these successes depended in no small part on the Mayor, and with leadership comes clear accountability so citizens know who to praise and who to blame.”

The clear implication of this is that Newcastle should have an elected Mayor covering not just the area of Newcastle City Council, but also that of the other local authorities on Tyneside – and possibly even Wearside too.

Ms Kelly was keen to stress in her speech that there will be no single model imposed from above, but also made clear that the greater the powers vested in them, the greater would be the need for a directly elected, locally accountable leader.

So what to make of it? Well, I have said before that the introduction of city regions would raise profound democratic issues, and so it would.

For starters, there is absolutely no evidence thus far that the concept is any more popular with the people of the North-East than an elected assembly was.

Two issues arise in particular. First, the question of whether people living in the local authority areas affected would actually want to be part of a city region, and second, whether they would want an elected mayor with the power to override their own local councils.

Attitudes to elected mayors have varied in the North-East. North Tyneside, Hartlepool and Middlesbrough voted to have one, but there was much less support for the idea in Sunderland and practically none in Newcastle.

A Newcastle city region would, at least in part, be a reincarnation of the old Tyne and Wear County Council abolished by Margaret Thatcher in 1986.

It did some useful work, but its demise was largely unlamented and did not lead to the sort of popular campaign for the restoration of conurbation-wide governance that London witnessed.

That said, there appears to be more backing for the city region concept among local authority leaders on in Tyne and Wear than might generally be expected.

Sunderland’s assistant chief executive Peter Chapman has said, for instance: “I we push ourselves as a Tyne and Wear city region, we're going to go a lot further than if we're Newcastle or Gateshead or Sunderland.”

Newcastle council leader John Shipley agrees, saying: “The concept of the city region is the direction we should now be pursuing.”

But their backing appears to go only as far as joint working arrangements on issues such as transport and regeneration, not the introduction of mayoral or other new local governmental structures.

Ultimately the case for city regions rests on two arguments. First, that they streamline local decision-making and accountability. Second, that they can be far more effective than local councils in the role of economic drivers.

City regions, in other words, can not only correct the imbalances between local and national democracy but the imbalances between regional economies.

From New Labour’s point of view, its great merit as a strategy for tackling the North-South divide is that it would rely on indigenous growth,

This would absolve the Government of the need to make the sort of politically controversial spending transfers from London that it has already made clear it will not contemplate.

But the biggest difficulty with any reorganization of local government structures is that they take years to implement.

As one political blogger commented this week: “So time consuming is the process of changing the rules of the game that it could be Ruth Kelly is not the minister managing such changes, nor even Labour the party initiating them.”

Such is the current state of British politics that, in any case, the result of any referendum is likely to be distorted by the Government’s growing unpopularity – as indeed the regional assembly vote was.

City regions may be Mr Blair’s baby – but it will be almost certainly be down to Labour’s next leader to decide whether they really are a vote winner.

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