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As soon as regional assemblies begin to find their feet, along come their directly elected versions. Nick Triggle c...
As soon as regional assemblies begin to find their feet, along come their directly elected versions. Nick Triggle compares and contrasts

Devolution is well under way in the UK. The Welsh Assembly and Scottish Parliament are a year into their second terms and Ken Livingstone has just won his second mayoral election in London.

After what seems like years of waiting, devolution is beginning for the English regions. In November, north-east residents will be asked whether they want a directly elected regional assembly in what could be the first of eight referendums in each region of England.

The other frontrunners, the north-west and Yorkshire & Humber, had their referendums postponed in a decision which critics suggest was made because both areas were in danger of saying no. The government claims the u-turn was due to concerns about postal voting.

Whatever the truth, the regional break-up of England began shortly after Labour came into power. In December 1997, the government published a white paper proposing that regional development agencies be created to promote each area, with regional chambers scrutinising their work. London, of course, with its soon-to-be-formed London Assembly, was the exception.

Within a couple of years, all the RDAs were up and running and eight regional assemblies were set up, some from the merger of existing chambers and assemblies.

As well as scrutinising the work of RDAs, these assemblies were charged with other roles to develop social, economic and environmental considerations. Over the years they have become voices for the region, presenting Whitehall with a regional view on policy and lobbying for European funding.

But no sooner had they found their feet than the government began forging ahead with directly elected regional assemblies.

Your region, your choice, a white paper published in May 2002, set out the principle of devolution to the eight regions. With the legitimacy of an elected mandate, it was proposed the assemblies would be given more wide-ranging powers to bring government closer to the people.

Many are optimistic about what can be achieved. North West Regional Assembly chief executive Steve Machin believes the regions have been handed a 'once-in-a-generation opportunity'.

'There are sufficient powers and resources to make a difference,' he says. 'If elected assemblies concentrate on increasing jobs, skill levels and improving transport, they can achieve a considerable amount. But if they oppose direction of defence and foreign policy, then people will lose faith in them.'

But Warren Hatter, head of the New Local Government Network's research unit, who is overseeing a study on regional devolution, says many in local government are still sceptical about how much autonomy regional devolution will bring, fearing it is an 'administrative convenience for central government'.

'For directly elected regional assemblies to be truly effective, local government will need to see regional governance as something new - not something being 'sucked up' from the local level,' he says.

Ken Spencer, professor of local policy at Birmingham University's Institute of Local Government Studies, agrees the assemblies have been handed enough powers to make an impact, particularly in housing and economic development.

But he warns they may struggle if no party can win an outright majority: 'You may see a number of assemblies will be hung. That makes it very hard to achieve real progress and consensus.'

So far this has not proved too much of a difficulty in the non-elected assemblies, where decisions can be made through consensus rather than by a vote.

But a lack of overall control has also become a feature of the devolved institutions in Scotland and Wales, both of which have experience of Liberal Democrat and Labour coalition administrations.

The key for Charlie Jeffrey, director of the Devolution & Constitutional Change Programme set up by the Economic & Social Research Council four years ago, is that regional government is only going to work where there is a demand for things to be run differently.

'If you look at the debate in the north-east, people want more powers,' he says. 'But is that true in other areas? It may be the case in Cornwall too, but the south-west would also encompass Gloucestershire and part of Wiltshire, and I am not sure it is the same there.'

Mr Jeffrey is also quick to point out the achievements of existing assemblies. 'Non-elected assemblies certainly have merit,' he says. 'They have brought consistency with planning policy and given the area a voice, but they probably do not have much resonance for residents.'

And Mr Hatter says even now assemblies are able to create a space in which they can have considerable influence, adding: 'That is with limited powers and without the democratic legitimacy.'

Mr Machin, while behind the idea of a referendum in the north-west for a directly elected chamber, is also proud of the achievements of the non-elected cousin.

'The North West Regional Assembly has done much through the scrutiny of RDAs and establishing local authorities as suppliers, purchasers and employers,' he says. 'We have also lobbied for European funding, which helped to win£1.2bn funding for the north-west. '

There is also evidence to suggest devolution has brought benefits elsewhere. The interim Devolution & Constitutional Change Programme findings say devolution has led to substantial policy innovation and opened up real alternatives to policies decided in Westminster.

It notes Scotland has diverged from London by introducing long-term personal care for the elderly and abolishing up-front tuition fees. Wales, it says, has fewer public policies but nonetheless provides free bus travel for pensioners and free school milk for under-sevens.

But the findings, published in February, warns that the public has not been convinced by devolution. Turnout fell by nearly 10% in both Welsh Assembly and Scottish Parliament elections last year. The findings say the elections failed to galvanise voters because there was not enough difference between the parties and disappointment in what had been achieved.

IPPR North research director John Adams believes part of the problem is that too much is expected.

'There is a pressure on them to be different but you don't want them being different just for the sake of it,' he says. 'In Scotland, they have not diverged from England in the ways people imagined. Long-term care for the elderly and tuition fees are one-off examples.

'In Wales they have diverged more. In the health service they have focused less on waiting lists and more on public health issues. But they are being criticised for that now.'

The gap between public expectations and assembly achievements can in part be explained by the mix of powers and responsibilities they have been given.

Out of all the existing and proposed devolved institutions, the Scottish Parliament has been given by far the most power. It has primary legislative powers and control over domestic policy, with Westminster retaining control of foreign, defence and social security issues.

The Welsh Assembly, by contrast, only has secondary legislative powers and can set performance targets but, unlike Scotland, cannot raise taxes.

In London, it differs again. The mayor is not directly responsible for many services but acts as a strategist - setting targets, budgets and plans for the future.

In focus: non-elected v directly elected regional assemblies

Non-elected regional assembly

The South West Regional Assembly was set up in July 2000 with the merging of the South West Regional Planning Conference and the South West Regional Chamber.

Similar to the other seven regional assemblies - not including the London Assembly - SWRA exists mainly to scrutinise the Regional Development Agency and 'to promote the region's economic, social and environmental wellbeing'.

The assembly, which represents nearly five million people, also lobbies Whitehall and Brussels on behalf of the region. It is consulted over major planning developments and oversees a number of regional strategies.

There are 117 assembly members, coming mainly from councils. However, representatives from the national park authorities, business, trade unions, the health service and voluntary sector also sit on the assembly.

The assembly, based at Devon County Hall in Exeter, has a chair and executive committee. Funding comes mainly from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and local government subscriptions.

Directly elected regional assembly

The north-west was expected to be among the first batch of regions to vote on whether it wanted a directly elected regional assembly.

The North West Regional Assembly is now urging the government to commit to a referendum date as soon as possible, but any referendum is likely to be after a general election. This means a directly elected assembly is at least four years away.

If there is a 'yes' vote, anysubsequent assembly would control around£730m from a block grant given by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, but the assembly would also be able to influence around£1bn in spending.

Regional strategies on issues such as economic development, land use and waste would be drawn up.

The assembly would cost£25-£33m a year to run, although£5m will be offset from other regional bodies.

There would be 30-35 assembly members, voted in by a system of proportional representation. One of their first tasks would be to decide where to locate the new assembly.

Policies would be developed and implemented by the leader and cabinet of six, once they have been approved by the assembly.

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