The news that education secretary Michael Gove intends to appoint eight regional ‘schools chancellors’ will not come as a surprise to students of centralised England.
It was inevitable that academies and free schools would require some sort of sub-national oversight: a single local education authority for England (the Department for Education), based in Sanctuary Buildings, was never going to be a long-term solution.
Eric Pickles may not like regions, but many of his colleagues do. As England moves ever closer to being a single unit of government with 100% of taxes set centrally and virtually all public services controlled from Whitehall, there will be a growing need for regional and sub-regional machinery to handle the plethora of micro-quangos that provide services. The NHS has appointed regional directors to “provide strategic leadership for the NHS Commissioning Board across [each] region”. The business department runs a ‘Regional Growth Fund’. Official statistics are still published on a regional basis.
The Labour Party’s police commission, headed by Lord Stevens, reported on Monday that: “it is difficult, even impossible, to sustain the argument that 43 police forces is the most economic, efficient or effective way to deliver strategic policing support”. There should, the commission recommends, be a much smaller number of forces, or possibly one each for England and for Wales, though with local policing functions being handled by smaller units inside each mega-force.
A single force for England (and separately for Wales) with local sub-divisions would be similar to the arrangement put in place in Scotland in April this year.
The regionalisation of England looks set to get a new lease of life as reforms to education, the NHS and police push towards a smaller number of north-west and East Midlands-scale governance mechanisms.
Indeed, with the emergence of ‘city regions’ and pressures for something similar in counties, it is almost inevitable that a future government will, in the name of efficiency, radically reduce the number of councils in England. Such a reform would doubtless soon be followed by the emergence of regional-local government. England is heading for a form of ‘plural centralism’, with regional agencies responsible for local services. Change is inexorably one way.
Tony Travers, director, Greater London Group, London
School of Economics