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Monday, 14 May, 2001, 10:25 GMT

English regional devolution

Should the English regions be given an elected regional voice in the wake of devolution in Scotland and Wales?


BACKGROUND

Does England need regional government?

Do the people want it? The debate over a strong voice for England's regions has been raging for years.

Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have witnessed the transfer of varying amounts of power from Whitehall to the nations. But supporters of regional devolution, including the Campaign for the English Regions (CFER), say that English voters have less political clout than any of their European counterparts.

Does this mean English democracy is streamlined or undemocratic?

Regional devolutionists say that areas such as the North East and the South West are being consistently denied a fair voice at home - and an increasingly vital presence in Europe.

And they argue that without changes, English resentment at the devolved powers enjoyed by Wales and Scotland will grow.

Opponents of the idea of regional assemblies, most notably the Conservative Party, say they would add another costly tier of government and take power away from local authorities - breaking historic ties between the communities and locally-elected servants of the people.

EUROPEAN COMPARISONS

All European nations have a degree of regional government, though the strength of these bodies varies.


EU regionalism

  • FRANCE: 22 regions, no legislative power
  • GERMANY: 16 regions, strong executive powers
  • ITALY: 20 regions, extensive economic role
  • SPAIN: 17 regions, allowed great autonomy
    Spain has some of the most devolved and autonomous regional government in the world.

    In contrast, France has regions that are larger than English counties but a powerful central government and executive in Paris.

    Germany is perhaps the most interesting model of strong regional government - not least because British civil servants had a large role in devising it after the Second World War.

    Power was deliberately devolved to strong regional "Lander" states in their own right - reflecting historical divides within Germany and creating a balance between the centre and the regions.

    German legislators say this allows individual states to set regional policy - but also to influence central government through their dominance of the federal parliament's upper chamber.

    The system has proved popular - and has been credited with ensuring that the spoils of economic success are better distributed.

    But critics say the system gives too much power to the regions and has led to states acting too easily against legitimate federal government policy proposals for the past 50 years.


    PROPOSALS FOR ENGLAND

    Labour pledged to introduce a network of elected bodies in the English regions in the run-up to the 1992 general election. The proposal was dropped following the party's defeat.


    What are the RDAs? The Regional Development Agencies co-ordinate economic policy for an entire region and are expected to deal with regeneration issues to ensure that government money is fairly and equally distributed in England
    The 1997 manifesto made a slightly different promise.

    This time, the party would allow those in the English regions to have a vote on whether they wanted a regional assembly.

    The party appeared to suggest that it was willing to experiment with regional government if it could be shown to be less dependent on traditional party politics and more on strong figures who could bring together all elements of a community.

    But Labour did not bring forward any legislation in government.

    It did deliver on devolution for the nations and for London - but England received only regional development agencies charged with promoting economic regeneration in their area.

    Each is managed by a board of business leaders, trade unionists and local politicians, largely appointed by and answerable to ministers.

    Since last year, each board has been scrutinised by a regional "chamber" of councillors, trade unions, business leaders, educationalists and representatives of the voluntary sector.

    Regionalists want these chambers to become the new tier of elected government. But they also complain that these bodies lack proper resources and statutory powers.

    The Campaign for the English Regions says the chambers have "a limited impact" but do nothing to solve the larger problem of one-size-fits-all policy making.

    CFER says there are two pressing issues.

    Firstly, it says that England is losing millions in potential European grants because regions cannot lobby Brussels. The European Commission prefers working on regional solutions, which means it needs to be able to speak to a regional body, says the campaign.

    Secondly, the RDAs and shadow chambers do not address a democratic deficit, according to CFER, whereby significant policy and spending decisions are taken by unelected bodies whose members are appointed by ministers.


    FUTURE PROSPECTS

    Labour's interest in regionalism had appeared to be on the wane, not least because Downing Street says the prime minister has found no interest in the subject in his own constituency.

    Tony Blair said in March 2000 that regionalism was a low priority - though critics said this was entirely due to the Labour Party's internal row over who would stand for mayor of London.


    " We are entering an era in which national government, instead of directing, enables powerful regional and local initiatives to work, where Britain becomes as it should be - a Britain of nations and regions "
    Gordon Brown, Jan 2000

    His deputy, Environment Secretary John Prescott, has remained an enthusiast.

    But perhaps most importantly, Chancellor Gordon Brown appears to be showing a growing enthusiasm for the subject.

    In a speech in January this year, he said there was evidence that leadership in the UK could come just as much from the regions as from London.

    He suggested that as RDAs and devolution took root, the UK would increasingly become a state of "nations and regions where there are many and not just one centre of initiative and energy for our country".

    This, he suggested, could come from more regional accountability as central government took on a new role as an enabler of others.


    OPPOSITION PARTIES

    Only the Liberal Democrats have made a firm pledge to set up regional assemblies with tax-varying powers.

    Their environment spokesman, Don Foster, said such grassroots government would "democratise... bureaucratic quangos" in the regions, bringing them "under the scrutiny of elected government".

    His party has criticised Labour's "piecemeal" approach and accused it of tightening Whitehall's grip on local government.

    For the Conservatives, there is simply no case for regional government. The party remains consistently opposed to regional assemblies, predicting that regionalism would further divide the United Kingdom.

    The party has proposed strengthening local authorities by creating "free councils" with greater autonomy from Whitehall.

    But Charter 88, the constitutional reform pressure group, says that assemblies would not produce more bureaucracy. Instead, they would lead to democratic control over decisions already being taken by un-elected officials.

    And it argues that assemblies would solve the infamous "West Lothian question" of why should a Scottish MP be allowed to vote on English matters at Westminster while English MPs were denied any power over Scottish affairs.



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