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Statistics should be free from political interference

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During the past parliament, the Department for Communities & Local Government abolished regions, even as statistical units.

The former secretary of state decided his department should kill off any tables of data presented on the basis of the former government office ‘regions’. The UK Statistics Authority chided DCLG for doing this, but to no avail.

The 2015 edition of Local Government Financial Statistics uses the word ‘region’ once, while its 2009 edition used the word 94 times. Does this matter?  Well actually, yes.

DCLG’s published data are generally ‘National Statistics’ and as such should be free from political interference. Allowing ministers to change how they present tables and then to resist UKSA’s standards is not good.

Moreover, the key tables of local government expenditure are now damaged by alterations in definition and accounting rules from year to year. The presentation of tables also changes for no particular reason. 

The Office for National Statistics continues, as do other government departments, to publish many regional data. ONS has recently produced an article and some basic data about ‘city regions’. It also publishes ‘sub-regional’ analyses about ‘NUTS2’ areas, which are generally different from both regions and local enterprise partnerships.

Thus official bodies now produce statistics about at least four geographies above the level of local councils: regions, NUTS2, LEPs and city regions.  

Some authorities are in more than one LEP. A number of LEPs include districts from more than one region. Some emerging city regions house more than one LEP. Some LEPs will, inevitably, be reconstituted.

Greater Manchester, helpfully, has a LEP which consists only of the 10 districts in Greater Manchester. Again, does this all matter?

Administrative tidiness should not be a goal, particularly in a country with the curious geography of Britain. But there is a problem when shifting government fashion makes it impossible to undertake consistent analysis of economic and social change.

City regions, Cornwall-style ‘county regions’ and other variably determined places are becoming the basis of a form of English ‘devolution’. As this change occurs, it is important that we have statistics based on both old and new geographies.

ONS, more than any other institution, is responsible for ensuring continuity, comprehensibility and political distance from the process.

Tony Travers, director, Greater London Group, London School of Economics     

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