CFER believes that it is essential that the regions of England should be able to choose to be represented by elected regional assemblies. We believe that the government’s progress towards The New Constitutional Settlement will not be complete until there is a strong democratically elected voice for each region of England. The growing but largely hidden tier of unaccountable regional bureaucracy has created a widening democratic deficit. Elected regional assemblies will not only fill that gap but will give every chance of better government at the regional level. We are therefore calling for a clear timetable for legislation to enable the regions to move forward. The people in each region know what will work best for them and the government should allow for regional differences in how elected regional government is introduced. We therefore believe that in formulating the legislation the government should listen to each region and respond to the work underway in regions already planning their own democratic future.
The New Constitutional Settlement
The creation of assemblies and parliaments in Scotland, Wales and London has created a new constitutional settlement in the UK. Democracy has been extended by devolution but only to some parts of the UK. Scottish and Welsh citizens now have much more influence over policy that effects their daily lives. They also enjoy a much clearer idea of which part of government is responsible for which decision. That must be good for democracy. Meanwhile the English regions are being left behind.
Individual citizens in English regions have less democratic rights simply because of where the happen to live in the UK – that is neither just nor sustainable in a modern democracy.
The new constitutional arrangements are unfinished and dangerously out of balance. The current situation is unstable with a growth in tension between the English regions and the rest. The legitimate case for more devolution to the English regions must be answered if we are to avoid the development of bitter resentment in the regions caused by the lack of parity with the rest of the UK. The danger is that resentment could turn into a narrow and xenophobic English nationalism. The population of England is too large for an English Parliament to work. A Parliament with 46 million voters doesn’t move power in any meaningful way closer to the people. Devolution to the English regions is the only sensible way to ensure the security of the Union.
This government was elected on a manifesto that left open the promise of elected assemblies for the regions. This remains as one of two of such commitments – out of a total of 177 – on which there has been no action.
A Voice for Each Region
There are significant and profound differences between the English regions. They have distinct identities and culture, and each region has different problems and potentials for development. As a consequence, when central government attempts to make and implement policy to meet the needs of all the English regions they often end up failing them all.
Furthermore regionalism is on the rise, with a growing alienation from Westminster and Whitehall and an increasing demand for regional assemblies. Most of the English regions now have significant devolution campaigns and/or constitutional conventions.
This is no surprise. Many people in the English regions feel their interests are not being taken into account compared to the new enhanced political power of Scotland, Wales and London. Each region must have a voice.
There already exists a growing and hidden tier of bureaucracy in all English regions with significant budgets and powers – administered by central Government Regional Offices, RDA’s, government agencies and quangos.
However, there is no direct democratic accountability in the regions for these civil servants and quangocrats. What little accountability exists is to Whitehall. We are not proposing to create a new tier of government, we simply wish to see this existing tier made democratically accountable to the people of the English regions.
The trend for a regional dimension to public policy is increasing – people are already working out regional solutions to regional problems. More and more, government and large organisations are recognising that it is nonsense to believe that the centre can produce identical solutions for say, the North East and the South West. The reality is different regions have different needs and concerns which are best identified within each region – public policy must take account of this if it is to be effective and efficient.
However, the existing tier of regional government is not up to the job. It is fragmented, wasteful and hidden from public scrutiny. The truth is that our regional governance is in a mess and there is no hope of joined up government in the regions without reform.
The answer is a coherent regional administration directed by a democratically elected assembly with the power and legitimacy to get the regional public services working together.
A modern inclusive regional government will be large enough to be effective, small enough to be responsive.
Democratic accountability will make the new bodies responsive to the real needs of the regions and give tremendous potential for added value.
As we have argued each region is very different, we believe that each region should be allowed to move towards regional government at an appropriate pace. We believe that the government should legislate in the first year of the next Parliament to allow elected assemblies to be set up. Those regions in which significant demand and interest already exists could then move forward with others following when they choose. This multi-speed process has been used successfully in countries such as Spain. It works.
Listening to the Regions
Work is already well advanced in some regions as they prepare their own proposals for democratically elected regional government through inclusive processes such as constitutional conventions. The government must take the views of people expressed through these mechanisms fully into account in formulating enabling legislation. If elected assemblies are rooted in consensus built within each region they will stand the test of time.