Do Regions Matter?

Our regions conference yesterday went with a fizz.    I started the event by proposing ‘five principles for a new debate’:

  1. Regional arrangements should be voluntary and locally self defined – not dictated by the EU or by Whitehall 
  2. 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.
  3. 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.   
  4. Any regional or sub-regional arrangements should be flexible to enable them to evolve over time, according to local needs
  5. 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.

    1. Frederick says:

      Fiddling while Rome burns? how much time is spent working out SNR, talking about restructuring RDAs while the recession goes merrily on. How much civil servant, RDA, local government official time is spent on this while we are in the middle of an economic crisis!

      I can’t believe the debate sometimes – shouldn’t the major topics be about addressing the recession and unemployment?

      Its what you do, and how effective it is, not structures, which matter at the end of the day.

      As for accountability – plenty of local authorities run development companies with business led boards. Not that different to RDAs are they?

      the LSCs are a salutory lesson – restructuring youth learning and training in the middle of a recession whilst the client base doubles. Tming not good.

      And localising business support has been a disaster in Scotland. Small Business Gateway got transferred by the SNP from Scottish Enterprise to local authorities and is much poorer for it.

      And the Welsh Assembly disbanded the WDA and took it into the Welsh Assembly Government machine. Sadly its not the respected agency it once was. Its been decimated.

      Democratic accountability does not equate to effectiveness. Its what you do and how you do it, not which structure it sits in. I see plenty of good local authorities at economic development, but they are outnumbered by the poor ones. And the democractically elected officials are often struggling with the economy brief, especially outside of the cities.

      Lastly – I don’t see one advocate of disbanding RDAs amongst the major business representative organisations. Local authorities face a major credibility gap in this regard.

      The challenges are massive, and I think SNR should be kicked into the long grass until the tories get in.

    2. Dear Andy,

      Interesting this since Bob Neil then hopped on the train to deliver the keynote address at the CLES Summer Summit “Forging resilient Locla Economies” in Manchester (yesterday) and in his speech committed to dismantling the whole regional infra-structure – RDAs and all.

      We were a litte surprised (not least becuase we had numerous regional people in the audience) because we had thought that the Conservative position was
      the one which David Cameron had outlined in Bury in the fallout from the Policy Exchange “burn the North” debate ; that RDAs would remain in some form to demonstrate commitment to regeneration…

      Seems that listening to Douglas at your event had stiffened Bob’s resolve…

      Nicola Headlam

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