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FEATURES - TOOTHLESS WONDER

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The local government white paper's backing of regional government will please its advocates, but the small print re...
The local government white paper's backing of regional government will please its advocates, but the small print reveals regional assemblies will have no powers at all

Advocates of regional government have long assumed it was 'a good thing', whatever its forms or powers.

They felt it would lead to major decentralisation and an extension of democratic control. They assured local government that it would not be under threat, whether through the removal of its functions or by the creation of a new supervisory tier.

The proposals in the white paper, Your region, your choice, fall far short of these hopes. Regional assemblies will have nothing like the powers and responsibilities of the Scottish Parliament or Welsh Assembly, both of which have a legislative role - over primary and secondary law respectively - and administrative and budgetary responsibilities for major services.

The proposed assemblies do nothing to resolve the unbalanced composition of the House of Commons, which allows Scottish MPs to vote on English domestic issues, but prevents English MPs from voting on parallel issues devolved to the Scottish Parliament.

The two major tests of the effectiveness of regional government must be whether the proposals produce significant decentralisation, and whether the functions granted arouse sufficient interest to ensure high electoral turnouts.

At first glance the regional assemblies seem to have a substantial role. Each assembly will be responsible for various strategies covering important topics such as economic development, skills and employment, health improvement, transport, housing and spatial planning.

While this portfolio appears impressive, the responsibilities are only for preparing strategies rather than for taking action. Unless the regional assemblies are given considerable freedom to set their own strategies and to ensure their implementation, they will merely be talking shops. The public will soon realise the assemblies have no real power and turnout will drop.

At the moment the space for regional assemblies to act freely at a strategic level is severely constrained.

The regional economic development strategy, though approved by the assembly, will be prepared by the regional development agency, and will be required to adhere to government guidance. The strategy for employment and skills could well be over-ridden by guidance from The Learning & Skills Council. Funding for arts and sports will be devolved in a manner that protects national strategic priorities.

Time and again the white paper states that regional assemblies can advise, or be consulted by, other bodies.

Over transport the regional assembly will 'advise' the government on the allocation of funding for local transport and can 'make proposals' to the Highways Agency and the Strategic Rail Authority. They can 'request' the minister to 'call in' strategic planning applications and will 'support the development

and implementation of a health improvement

strategy'.

Embedded in the language used in the white paper is an undercurrent of reluctance on the part of central government departments to give regional assemblies any real power.

A dilemma faces those in local government who are advocates of regionalisation. If regional assemblies are given substantial powers to enforce their strategies, they will become supervisory bodies over councils. If they are merely assigned limited overall responsibilities, they are likely to seek greater powers to ensure the implementation of their strategies.

The choice is between a body with strategic responsibilities but no powers of enforcement, or a body with powers to enforce turning into what is effectively a supervisory body. Neither the regional advocates nor the white paper have resolved this dilemma.

The limitations of the proposed responsibilities are clear in the government's failure to fulfil the promised extension of democratic control over quangos. There are few plans for the regional assemblies to appoint members to quango boards, with the exception of the RDA, and the two members that can be appointed to learning and skills councils.

The electorate will no doubt appreciate the powerlessness of the regional assemblies, and turnouts are subsequently likely to beat European elections for the booby prize.

The government's proposals fail to either promote significant decentralisation or establish a viable basis for democratic renewal. Assembly members are likely to recognise this feebleness as quickly as the electorate, and will then press for additional powers - which they are unlikely to obtain from central government. The obvious place to look will then be councils, particularly

if the creation of regional assemblies leads to the abolition of many counties and the reallocation of their functions.

George Jones is a professor of government at the London School of Economics and John Stewart is a professor of local government at Inlogov, University of Birmingham

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