Our regions conference yesterday went with a fizz. I started the event by proposing ‘five principles for a new debate’:
- Regional arrangements should be voluntary and locally self defined – not dictated by the EU or by Whitehall
- Democracy and accountability of regions should be vested in local government, accountable to the people through locally elected Councillors. Only they will have the power to establish regional and sub regional arrangements, disband or evolve them, and they should determine the priorities.
- The test of whether regional and sub-regional government should exist and what its purpose it, it whether it is more efficient and effective at achieving things than local councils acting alone, or central government.
- Any regional or sub-regional arrangements should be flexible to enable them to evolve over time, according to local needs
- The economic role of regional arrangements is the key, particularly in the recession.
Rosie Winterton was our opening keynote, giving her first major speech since becoming Minister for Local Government and Regional Economic Coordination. Rosie was emphatic in saying that regions do matter, giving lots of anecdotal evidence, and citing an independent study (PWC) that found that every pound spent by RDAs generates an extra £4.50 for the region’s economy. She also announced new funding streams. Here is the key passage from her speech:
“Over the past decade this government has significantly strengthened the role of regional and local economic leadership, but if councils feel they need more powers and support because of the downturn I will look at what more we can do.
“Economic development needs to be the core business of councils, working in partnership with RDAs. That is why I am reopening our business growth fund with £100m so that councils who help their local businesses prosper and their region grow economically can make all the difference to how quickly we thrive after the recession.
“And Regional Improvement & Efficiency Partnerships (RIEPs) are a council’s self-help shop when they need to make that big financial saving to reinvest back into improving their local services or keeping local council tax levels down. That’s why we are investing another £68m in them this year.”
Bob Neil, the Shadow Local Government Minister, made clear the Conservatives determination to strip out regional structures, which they see as unaccountable and inefficient. He stopped short of saying that RDAs will be abolished, but there will be significant reform of them. Douglas Carswell MP, author of the bestselling book advocating radical localism – ‘The Plan: twelve months to renew Britain’ – took a harder line, saying there is no need for any regional infrastructure. Lord Hanningfield, Leader of Essex, and Conservative front bench lead on RDAs in the House of Lords, suggested that the regions and sub-regions could survive, where there is a case for them, as ‘Economic Prosperity Boards’. In making it clear that he sees no reason for Essex to engage in regional structures in the East of England, he acknowledged that in some areas, particularly in the Northern Regions, there may be more rationale and support for regional structures to be maintained.
There were many other interesting contributions to the day, which are reflected in our ‘Do Regions Matter’ collection of essays, edited by my colleague Andrew Collinge. I am hoping we can get it online asap and I will update this post with a link to it.