Time for a Change – the North East Constitutional Convention come forward with a credible and strong model for devolution in the North East
The Case for a New North East Assembly
Report of the North East Constitutional Convention
1 The work of the Convention
2 Key Issues
3 The Case for democratic renewal
4 What difference could regional government make
5 A model of regional government
The governance of the United Kingdom has been altered forever. The North East cannot afford the luxury of standing aside from this. Inaction is not an option. The creation of an elected North East Assembly, however, presents us with great opportunities to improve the efficiency of governance, make it more accountable and in the process strengthen the region’s voice.
The ability of regions to speak with a clear and democratically legitimate voice will prove increasingly critical to regional well being in a changing world. Improving the transparency and public accountability of existing regional institutions is critical to improving the performance of those bodies and ensuring the adopt strategies that are suited to the region’s needs.
Our model of regional government is based on a number of key principles. First, active citizenship and open decision-making should be at the heart of regional government from the beginning. Second, it involves taking over an existing layer of government and making it accountable to the people of the region. As a result policy-making will be less fragmented, more transparent and of a better quality.
regional government would set the strategic policy framework for planning, economic development, transport and infrastructure, training, arts and culture and would exert influence over health and education and have powers of secondary legislation over some of these areas.
However, this policy would be set in partnership with a Civic Forum comprising representatives of civil society in the region, although the Assembly itself would be democratically accountable for the policies of the regional government.
The existing Government Office for the North East would provide the executive secretariat for the Assembly and Civic Forum with policy delivered through specialist executive agencies.
Delivery of integrated policy (or “joined-up” government) would require the Assembly to have access to a single block grant from central government.
This model involves no new public appointments and reduces potential reorganisation of agencies to the minimum. Rather, it should be possible to significantly reduce the number of un-elected appointees running quangos in the region. But this model substantially increases democratic accountability. The size of the Assembly is matched to the functions it undertakes, comprising perhaps 30-40 members – enough to staff powerful committees and ensure political balance.
The Assembly would not deliver policies directly, but be centrally concerned with policy development, ‘joined-up’ government reflecting regional priorities.
Because the Assembly is concerned with improving the performance and accountability of existing institutions, rather than creating new ones, it has no implications for existing local authorities. Indeed under this model local authorities would benefit insofar as they would have a single regional authority with which to work in partnership instead of the current multiplicity.
This is a model of regional government that is both credible and strong and we commend it to the people of the North East.
1. The work of the Convention
1.1 The North East Constitutional Convention first met in April 1999, with Bishop Michael Turnbull in the chair. It set itself the task, by the end of the year, of proposing a model of regional government that is both credible and capable of generating wide support in the region. To date this has involved a wide range of activities that are listed in Annex 1. Our work is the latest chapter in a long history of debate about the case for an elected North East Assembly. The major political parties, the trade unions, the local authority association have all held the ambition of an elected regional assembly.
1.2 In undertaking its task the Convention was responding to the challenge set down by the new Labour government. The belated modernisation of the constitution of the United Kingdom has been a key theme of the government’s first term. Notably, the government has initiated a widespread and radical devolution of political power to some parts of the United Kingdom. But, as far as regional government for England is concerned, the government has said that it will bring forward referendums only in those regions that can demonstrate a demand for change. The work of the Convention is both a reflection of the growing support for regional government for the North East, and one effort to demonstrate that demand.
1.3 On the advice of government ministers the initial work of the Convention paid great attention to existing models of devolved government in the United Kingdom and beyond. Some of this work was reported in our interim report, which contains more detailed information than we have included. More generally, our proposals here are based on an awareness of the government’s wider agenda for ‘modernising government’. But our work has also been influenced by what we perceive as the characteristic problems of the North East, to which we will turn later.
1.4 The question of regional government has been raised for many years in the North East. However, the work of the Convention probably represents the most sustained, thorough and widest examination of the issue ever conducted in the region. As we hope to show below, we have identified and clarified a number of very important issues. Nevertheless, we recognise that there is still further detailed work to be done and the Convention will continue to contribute to this. As such this report is mainly concerned with establishing a set of principles upon which a credible model of regional government must be based, although we recognise major points of principle cannot always be separated from points of policy detail.
2. Key issues
2.1 The case for regional government rests on answering a number of key questions.
How will devolved government lead to the improved social and economic well being of the region?
How will an elected Assembly lead to improved governance?
Can we ensure that an elected Assembly represents a new departure for the region, while not simply adding an additional tier of remote and unresponsive government?
2.2 We believe we have gone some way to answering these questions. Three sets of issues arise from our work to date. First, there is a growing disenchantment with the way we are governed. This is evidenced by a whole set of indicators, including election turnouts and polling evidence of public attitudes. While this situation is not unique to the North East, as we argue below, the problem in this region is distinctive and severe.
2.3 Second, there is wide agreement that the North East is a region with a characteristic history and identity and these deserve respect. Moreover, the region has distinctive contemporary needs and aspirations that are widely felt to be under-represented in our highly centralised political system. In particular, too often the North East finds itself firmly at the bottom of most lists of social and economic indicators. While the concerns of the public, in some respects, are the same everywhere — to see improved health, education and employment, low crime rates and a stable economy — the North East has distinctive problems in each of these areas and this now is increasingly recognised. Recent events, for instance, have highlighted the way that the region’s relative dependence on manufacturing results in economic conditions distinct from, say, the South East.
2.4 Finally, over time, a series of governments already have created institutions to address regional needs. This reflects the reality that in a modern state, many social and economic policies are best delivered at the regional level. However, as we showed in our previous report, this regional tier of government in England is lacking in transparency, and not directly accountable to the citizens it purports to serve (Figure 1). These are issues that must be addressed if the governance of the region is to be modernised.
2.5 We believe that each of the issues outlined above is best tackled through the creation of a directly elected regional government. First, we believe the North East requires a genuine democratic renewal of its body politic. And we believe the creation of new elected regional government could be the stimulus for this (see section 3). Second, given the region’s distinctive problems, we believe that a directly-elected Assembly open to the influence of the citizen, will address the democratic deficit and, to adapt a phrase of Tony Blair, could provide ‘North East solutions for North East problems’, far better than civil servants in London. The feeling that the concerns of the North East are remote from national politicians is a real and debilitating one. Third, we stress the degree to which a tier of regional government already exists in the North East. But this system of governance is fragmented and, as a result, is inimical to the achievement of ‘joined-up government’ and could have a real impact on the region’s underlying social and economic problems (see section 4).
3. The case for democratic renewal
3.1 A feature of the deliberations of the Convention since April 1999 year has been a particular concern with the issue of extending democratic participation in the political system. Perhaps more than any other issue, this has enthused those who have participated in our considerations. It has become clear to us that unless this issue is addressed, any proposals for regional government are unlikely to win wide support. Moreover, modernisation of the region’s political culture, to make it more modern, open and inclusive, must occur alongside the creation of an elected Assembly, with the latter a catalyst for the former. Without this, the governance of the region is unlikely to be improved. To this extent, extended democratic participation is not an end in itself, but is mechanism for more informed policy-making.
3.2 The nature of the problem is revealed by an examination of the position of women in North East politics. It is estimated that 25 per cent of local councillors in the North East are women — significantly below the national average. Only 17 per cent of members of the new indirectly elected regional Assembly are women. In order, therefore, to address the gross under-representation of women in the region’s political life, any new institution would need to be organised very differently to existing political institutions. Indeed, the creation of an elected Assembly ought to provide an opportunity to substantially increase the political representation of women.
3.3 One of the striking features of the new Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly is that they have both achieved a breakthrough in the representation of women. In Scotland women represent 37.2 per cent of MSPs. While this is still short of parity, it contrasts favourably with the picture elsewhere (only 16.7 per cent of Scottish MPs and 22 per cent of Scottish councillors are women). Moreover, research suggests when the women’s representation crosses a 30 per cent threshold this significantly increases the ability of women to influence decision-making.
3.4 A number of factors produced this result. Research, and the Scottish and Welsh experiences, suggest that proportional voting systems tend to produce better representation of women. In addition, in Scotland and Wales, the political parties, under the influence of Constitutional Convention, ensured the selection of a high proportion of women candidates. In addition, the Parliament’s operating procedures are designed with principles of equal opportunities, power sharing, accountability and wide participation at its centre and mechanisms have been instituted to monitor their implementation. Although these are early days for the Parliament these innovations are likely to have a major impact on its method of work and hold out the promise that they will stimulate further change in Scottish society. For instance a Women’s Consultative Forum has been established in order to co-ordinate the input of women’s groups into the work of the Parliament.
3.5 This experience has a number of lessons for the North East. First if we are serious about changing the political culture in the region, we must examine the operation of the voting system. Whatever the merits of the debate about electoral reform for the House of Commons, it is doubtful whether wide agreement could be achieved for an elected regional Assembly if it failed to incorporate electoral system in which votes cast bore a closer proportion to seats won. It could also have a big impact on the representation of women. The detail of electoral systems is significant because it can have implications for the size and structure of an assembly, but the more important is acceptance of the principle of a more inclusive electoral system.
3.6 Any directly elected regional Assembly ought to be firmly founded on a desire to open up the process of government to far wider democratic participation. Disadvantaged groups, in particular, need to feel the system is open to their influence. A lesson arising from debates on the new devolved government is that, whatever the intrinsic merits of a system of fair votes, this is unlikely in itself to change the relationship between those who govern and those who are governed. For instance, despite the breakthrough in women’s representation achieved in the Scottish Parliament, not a single MSP from an ethnic minority background was elected. In the North East, the indirectly elected Assembly contains only one ethnic minority representative. Yet, ethnic minority communities find themselves among the most disadvantaged in the region.
3.7 There is little doubt that ethnic minority groups in the North East feel that their distinctive needs and concerns are not currently being adequately addressed. This sense of alienation extends to many groups, such as those with disabilities and young people. It especially affects our economically dispossessed communities. For this reason, there is wide agreement on the need for better, more direct and continuing contacts between politicians, political institutions and the wider society. In Northern Ireland, for instance, the planned devolved Assembly is firmly constituted on statutory duties to safeguard citizenship rights and to extend participation in the decision-making process to groups currently excluded from it.
3.8 One innovation adopted in Scotland and Northern Ireland is the concept of the Civic Forum. In both these places the aim of the Forums is to open up and improve the policy-making process rather than to replace the role of elected representatives. They create a mechanism for on-going consultation and partnership between politicians and citizens. The Scottish Civic Forum already has 600 member organisations drawn from all parts of Scottish society. All are committed to working with the Parliament and the Scottish Executive. The case for North East Civic Forum to work alongside an elected Assembly seems persuasive. The creation of a civic forum does not preclude the use of other mechanisms such as citizen’s juries and deliberative polling, but moves us beyond a reliance on the focus group.
3.9 As part of its mission to extend participation, a North East Assembly, as a brand new institution, would be well-placed to exploit the possibilities of the new information and communication technologies from the outset. This would have a number of advantages. First, it could give concrete expression to the region’s aspiration to be at the forefront of the information revolution. The Assembly would be a beacon for other organisations in the region and, indeed, for organisations elsewhere, highlighting the potential of the new technologies to extend democratic participation, while ensuring ways of including those at risk of marginalisation in the information age. In particular, a generation of young people is emerging who are attracted to and are at ease with these new technologies. By being designed from the outset around these new technologies may be one way of reconnecting young people in the region with their democratic institutions.
3.10 In sum, we envisage an Assembly that empowers to communities to participate confidently in the policy-making process. Active citizenship and open decision-making should be at the heart of regional government from the beginning. A regional assembly then could signal a new and closer relationship between government and the citizen and contribute to the broader revitalisation of our democracy.
4. What difference could regional government make?
4.1 There are two major differences an elected regional assembly could make for the people of the North East. First it would strengthen the voice of the region in the corridors of power in London, Brussels and beyond. The creation of a Scottish Parliament and Welsh and (hopefully) Northern Ireland Assemblies and soon a London Mayor and Assembly will add to the already powerful status of these places and highlights further political deficit faced by the North East. In the new devolved Britain and in an integrated European Union, the ability of regions to speak with a clear and democratically legitimate voice will prove increasingly critical to regional well being. Ahead of us are important political debates over resources and influence. In most large member states of the EU this lesson has already been learned and devolved regional government is reality. Following devolution to Scotland and Wales, only England remains as the exception to the rule and this situation is to the grave disadvantage of the North East.
4.2 The creation of Regional Development Agencies (RDAs) represents an advance insofar as it brings together previously separate economic development activities. But, as we have already demonstrated (Figure 1) the system of regional governance remains fragmented. The current settlement between the Government Office for the North East, the Assembly/Chamber and the RDA, lacks transparency and makes for a divided regional voice. The RDAs, on the whole, have recognised their work cannot be successful without a meaningful partnership with other sectors. However, they have no proper relationship with other key sectors (health is a good example) because they lack the political authority to develop them. This is a recipe for tension and a lack of cohesion as policy is formed in horizontal lines emanating from London.
4.3 The ability of existing regional agencies to match their policies to the conditions of the North East is fatally constrained by the fact that they are accountable to central government. The multiplicity of agencies means that ‘strategic’ governance in the region often occurs in an uncoordinated fashion. Attempts to achieve co-ordination generally occur in an ad hoc way, rather than systematically, as evidenced by the proliferation of ‘action zones’.
4.4 In addition, the lack of transparency and inaccessibility of these processes to the general public is highly damaging. It is a source of the perception that central government is remote and that local councils are relatively powerless. It is not enough for the opponents of regional government to say that ‘the public’ is interested in ‘bread and butter’ issues, not institutions. The improved performance of these regional-level institutions is central to these bread and butter issues. Improving the transparency and public accountability of these institutions is central to improving their performance and ensuring they adopt strategies that are suited to the region’s needs. This improved performance and sense of regional ownership will create the conditions for better addressing the day to day needs of the region.
4.5 Most social and economic issues are inter-related and the policy responses to them only have a chance of success if they are integrated across different domains. Levels of education attainment affect levels of economic performance, which in turn are related to levels of health and well being. In the North East these issues come together in distinctive ways and require regionally designed responses. Across the EU, and indeed in many other states, democratically elected regional governments play a critical role in marshalling political and other resources behind regional economic strategies. As a general rule, EU states with strong systems of regional government are those that have avoided deep regional inequalities, or show themselves adept at dealing innovatively with regional economic problems when they arise.
4.6 Modern Spain provides a compelling example of the potential benefits of devolution. Previously highly centralised under the Franco regime, Spain has radically decentralised. Regions are able to draw down powers from a tariff on offer from the central government. Most regions have used these powers to frame their own economic development strategies and many have achieved remarkable results. A number of Spanish regions now have levels of income per head in excess of the North East — a situation unthinkable only a few years ago.
4.7 The experience elsewhere demonstrates that the region, not the nation-state or the locality, is the appropriate scale at which to develop strategies and ensure they are integrated and implemented across policy domains. It also demonstrates the dangers to the North East of being left behind in Europe if it does not follow the same path.
5. A model of regional government
5.1 Figure 2 outlines a model of strategic regional government. This model is appropriate to the context of the North East. It would take over responsibility for planning, economic development, transport and infrastructure, training, arts and culture and exert influence over health and education. In this model the task of an elected Assembly would be to set the strategic framework for the region in the main policy fields identified in Figure 1. The directly elected Assembly has ultimate responsibility for setting the strategic policy framework for the development of the region. However, this policy is set in partnership with a Civic Forum comprising representatives of civil society in the region. The Assembly is likely to conduct most of its policy development work through strong committees, in close consultation with the Civic Forum and other bodies, to produce policies whose detail has been thoroughly investigated by specialists and lay people. The Assembly itself would, be firmly constituted around principles of civic inclusion and would ensure consistency across policy domains. The elected Assembly would, of course, in the final analysis be democratically accountable for the policies of the regional government.
5.2 The existing Government Office for the North East provides the executive secretariat for the Assembly and Forum. Delivery of policy is by specialist executive agencies by means of regional public service agreements (PSAs). These are the means by the tasks of the agencies are set and the mechanism by they are held to account. The Assembly and Forum can also oversee and seek to influence other policy domains over which are critical to regional life, but which, initially at least, there appear to be obstacles to the agreement of PSAs (e.g. health). There remains a good case for an elected Assembly to have some powers of secondary legislation over specified areas. Delivery of integrated policy across policy domains would require the Assembly to have access to a single block grant from central government and, in order to promote flexibility and responsibility, possibly its own financial resources, although initially this would involve no powers of direct taxation.
5.3 This model involves no new public appointments and reduces potential reorganisation of agencies to the minimum. Rather, it should be possible to significantly reduce the number of un-elected appointees running quangos in the region. But this model substantially increases democratic accountability. The size of an Assembly would be matched to the functions it would undertake, comprising perhaps 30-40 members — enough to staff powerful committees and ensure political balance. Such an Assembly would be smaller than the Welsh Assembly, and current regional bodies and local authorities. It would not deliver policies directly, but be centrally concerned with policy development, ‘joined-up government’ and ensuring that arms-length agencies genuinely reflect regional — as opposed to Whitehall — priorities. Because the Assembly is concerned with improving the performance and accountability of existing institutions, rather than creating new ones, it has no implications for existing local authorities. Indeed under this model local authorities would benefit insofar as they would have a single regional authority with which to work in partnership instead of the current multiplicity. Local authorities would no doubt continue with their own modernisation agenda in response to the Labour government’s requirements.
5.4 The governance of the United Kingdom has been altered forever. The North East cannot afford the luxury of standing aside from this. Inaction is not an option. The creation of an elected North East Assembly, however, presents us with great opportunities. We have sought to demonstrate these through a model of elected regional government that is both credible and strong. We commend it to the people of the North East.