web analytics

Empowering the Regions

Dr John Tomaney is a senior lecturer at the Centre for Urban and Regional Development Studies, University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Michelle Mitchell is head of Parliamentary Affairs at Charter88


The future stability of a devolved Britain depends on successfully answering the English question. The process of devolution has left England untouched within an unbalanced constitutional settlement. To date, the English have shown a benign indifference to the issue of devolution. But in the long run, the attention of the English people will be increasingly drawn to advantages accruing to Scotland and Wales under devolution.

The modernisation of the UK’s constitution must not exclude England. It must be a central component of the Government’s vision of a modern and fair democracy. If the Government is truly committed to devolution and the modernisation of the British state, it must honour its 1997 Manifesto commitment and draw up legislation to allow regional referendums on English regional government. It must also make the establishment of democratically elected regional government a key commitment in its 2002 General Election Manifesto.

After lying dormant, the debate on the English question has been resurrected by renewed calls for an English Parliament. How we answer the English question could have a fundamental effect on the future stability of the Union. William Hague’s proposal that only English MPs vote on English matters signals the emergence of the Conservatives as an English nationalist party. The creation of an English Parliament would not contribute to a stable constitutional settlement. The relative size of England, in terms of population and wealth, would ensure that the former would continue to dominate the UK. More importantly, from the viewpoint of the regions, an English Parliament would represent another form of centralisation. On this basis there is good reason to doubt the sustainability of any England-wide solution to governance of England or even to the West Lothian Question.

Regional government is the solution to the English question. There is already a growing hidden and unaccountable tier of English regional government. This undertakes many important government tasks and spends large sums of money with little account to the people of the regions themselves. The creation of Regional Development Agencies (RDAs) extends this tier of government. But while RDAs represent a modest advance in the creation of more integrated economic development in the regions, they offer no devolution of democratic power.

There is a strong case for regional democratic control in four key areas of public policy: economic development; environment and infrastructure; employment and training; culture, sports and tourism. Central government activity is significant in these areas but important policy decisions are made without reference to regional accountability. The challenge facing the Government is to modernise and democratise this tier of regional government.

English regionalism is on the rise despite little encouragement from Westminster and Whitehall. This new regionalism emphasises the importance of a coherent regional dimension of public policy, but it goes further and, in some cases such as the North East, amounts to a programme of radical political change based on extending and modernising the democratic system. The Government should respond to, and encourage these developments as an antidote to the ‘little Englander’ mentality.

The Government appears at best undecided – at worst confused and divided – on the future shape of English regional government. Regions should be encouraged to find their own models of regional democracy. The North East Constitutional Convention is elaborating one such model, which other regions could follow. It proposes a variation of the Welsh model: PR elections, cabinet style of government with powerful scrutinising committees. Tony Blair described the National Assembly as a means of elucidating ‘Welsh solutions for Welsh problems’. The English regions, too, need institutions matched to the scale and nature of the problems they face.


1. The hole in the middle

England is hardly mentioned in the devolution legislation, and yet England is, in many respects, the key to the success of devolution (Bogdanor, 1999: 265).

To become a modern democracy we need meaningful local accountability. We need councils with autonomy on local issues and services. And, above all, we need the devolved government for Scotland and Wales extended to the English regions (Charter88, 1999).

The creation of devolved governments in Scotland, Wales and, potentially, Northern Ireland is perhaps the most significant domestic achievement of the Labour Government. Striking images of people celebrating the birth of their new democratic institutions in Cardiff and Edinburgh reaffirmed the view that the way in which we ‘do’ politics in the U.K. has changed forever. However, people in Sunderland or Solihull have been mere spectators at the devolution celebrations. The English have had little to celebrate. The governance of England represents a gaping hole at the centre of the Government’s devolution programme.

The Government has paid little attention to the needs of England and, more especially, its regions. As a first step to devolving power within England the Government has established ten Regional Development Agencies (RDAs). Each RDA has a board of directors selected from within its respective region. These boards, however, are answerable to civil servants and ministers in London. The Government has also encouraged the formation of ‘regional chambers’, primarily from local authority associations, but incorporating interest groups such as business, unions, and voluntary organisations. But these organisations are only consultative, have no statutory basis or direct powers and therefore are very weak compared to the institutions created in Scotland and Wales.

These initiatives are welcome but they do not go far enough. The English regions must be allowed to develop powerful, open and democratic systems of government. The English regions need the space to create their own social and economic strategies every bit as much as Scotland and Wales.

A policy vacuum has been allowed to emerge in relation to the governance of England. The Conservatives have attempted to fill this vacuum by raising the standard of English nationalism. This strategy has the potential to threaten the cohesion of the Union and the interests of the English regions.

The Government can no longer sit on the fence. It must take action. Firstly, it must honour its manifesto commitment and draw up legislation to allow referendums on English regional government [1]. Secondly, the establishment of democratically elected English regional government must be made a key commitment in Labour’s 2002 General Election manifesto. By placing the modernisation of English governance at the centre of its vision for a modern and fair democracy in the second term, the Government can extend its commitment to devolution and modernisation of the British state.

2. The English question

More attention than ever is being paid to the English question, and justifiably so. How we answer the English question will have fundamental effects on the future stability of the Union. It will say a lot about how British people think about their country and the way it is projected in the world. But it is not just the Scottish and Welsh who need to understand devolution: the English need to get to grips with it too.

The governance of England is increasingly problematic. Even prior to devolution, both Scotland and Wales benefited from the presence of Secretaries of State arguing their respective national cases in Cabinet. At the same time, Scotland and Wales benefit from over-representation of Members of Parliament in the House of Commons. Both, but especially Scotland, benefit from a higher level of public expenditure per head, a result partly of the operation of the Barnett Formula (described below). Now the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly will be able to determine their own expenditure priorities, perhaps gaining further advantages in the attraction of new industry and additional resources from the UK government and the EU. In relation to any future changes in these policy areas, especially expected revisions to the Barnett Formula, these devolved administrations will carry great weight compared to the disadvantaged regions of England. In addition, Scotland has as yet unused tax-raising power. These advantages will not go unnoticed in England, especially in those parts of country that already feel remote and out of touch from the centres of political power.

The Conservatives and the English question

William Hague has recently attempted to address the English question. In fact, few actions he will undertake as Conservative leader will matter as much because how we answer the English question could have a fundamental effect on the stability of the Union. In a speech to the Centre for Policy Studies, sounding more like an English Tory leader and less like a British Conservative one, he argued, ‘The people of England now find themselves governed by political institutions that are manifestly unfair to them’ (Hague, 1999). This unfairness, he argues, reflects the fact that England is ‘under-represented’ in Parliament and that the English ‘do not have an exclusive say over English laws’. Hague describes these injustices as a ‘ticking time-bomb’ under the British constitution and warns about English nationalism whilst sounding as if he were celebrating it. While rejecting calls from his own party to establish an English Parliament, he proposes that only English MPs should be allowed to vote on English legislation. Or, as Hague puts it: English votes for English laws.

Hague’s proposal not only looks like a dangerous flirtation with English nationalism, but it is confused and problematic. Firstly, cutting non-English MPs out of most parliamentary business would undermine the House of Commons. It would meet only for foreign affairs and broad economic debates. But in practice, it would prove difficult to define what might constitute an ‘English Bill’. Secondly, Hague’s proposal overlooks the fact that Scottish and Welsh MPs will continue to have a real interest in English legislation because of one key issue: finance. Levels of public expenditure in Scotland and Wales, because of the operation of the Barnett Formula, will continue to be determined by expenditure levels in England. The Barnett Formula does not determine the overall size of budgets, but provides that, where comparable, changes to programmes in England result in equivalent changes in the budgets of the territorial departments calculated on the basis of population shares. Therefore, virtually all ‘English’ issues involving public expenditure are likely to have implications for Scotland and Wales. For instance, if a Westminster government decided to increase or decrease expenditure on health this would have knock-on effects on the Scottish block.

Hague, moreover, has specifically committed a future Conservative government to the abolition of the recently created Regional Development Agencies. In a speech to the Local Government Association Annual Conference in Harrogate, John Redwood warned potential recruits of the new RDAs: ‘I say to anyone thinking of working for them, only take a two-year contract’ (quoted in The Journal, [Newcastle] 8th July 1999). Redwood also committed the Conservatives to the abolition of the Government Offices for the Regions (GORs), which they created in 1994 in order to improve the co-ordination and integration of policy delivery in the regions. The Conservatives instead promise to strengthen local government. But this approach is fundamentally misguided. First, given recent history, the Conservatives will struggle to present themselves as born-again champions of local government. In any event, local authorities themselves have increasingly joined together to have a bigger voice in many of the debates that concern them. The idea that the voice of Alnwick District Council will have the same weight in Whitehall as the First Minister in Scotland is not credible. Second, and probably more importantly, the Conservatives fail to take into account the growing interest in regional government outside the South East.

The fallacy of the English question

The creation of an English Parliament is likely to threaten the stability of the Union. For this reason an England-wide solution to governance of England is unsustainable. England would dominate the rest of the UK because of its size in terms of population and wealth. More importantly, from the viewpoint of regions outside of the South East, an English Parliament would represent another form of centralisation. Liberal Democrat Leader, Charles Kennedy MP, made the point well in a recent speech:

If an English Parliament was established at Westminster, as it surely would be, would the people of Newcastle or Cornwall really feel that there is any less remote than the current UK Parliament? Within England, there are serious concerns in areas such as the North East and South West that the current Westminster Parliament treats these areas as peripheral. The regions of England are not bothered about Scots and others voting on English matters – they are far more concerned about decisions being taken in a faraway place which seems to know nothing about huge swathes of England. An English Parliament would do little to meet these regional concerns (Kennedy 1999).

Significant regional inequalities exist within England. Currently only two English regions (London and the South East) exceed the European average GDP per head. Beyond this there are marked inequalities in terms of levels of health, educational attainment and housing conditions, as well as access to employment.

These inequalities have evolved over a long period and are the product of complex and varied patterns of economic restructuring. While the South East has developed as an international service centre, the peripheral regions have seen their primary and manufacturing industries decline. While London and the South East struggle with the consequences of too much growth, regions like the North East struggle with the consequences of too little. There is little doubt that the persistence of these regional inequalities helps to underpin the ‘sense of neglect’ outside the South East identified by the Bishop of Liverpool [2]. The furore over the Governor of the Bank of England’s comments in 1998 about the impact of high interest rates on northern job losses, being ‘a price worth paying’ to dampen inflation in the south are powerful testimony to the sense of neglect felt outside the South East. Even without the pressure from Scotland and Wales there would be a strong case for decentralisation within England.

At the same time there is considerable evidence that, over time, the Whitehall preference for ‘one size fits all’ policy solutions has often exacerbated local difficulties. The notion that civil servants in London can produce identical solutions for Cornwall and Merseyside beggars common sense, yet this is the underlying principle upon which public policy in England is based. Devolution of political power to the regions would allow the search for ‘regional solutions for regional problems’, in the way that Tony Blair described the advantages of a Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly. For instance, agriculture may be in crisis throughout the UK, but the scale and nature of the crisis varies by region. Hill farmers in the northern uplands face different problems from those of arable farmers in southern England. Yet all of these problems are dealt with from Whitehall. By contrast, agriculture is a key policy domain of the Welsh Assembly. A region like the North East of England faces rural development issues more akin to those of Scotland than the Home Counties yet has little autonomy to fashion locally appropriate policies. The training needs of Merseyside are probably the diametric opposite of Berkshire’s, yet the same legislation covers both.

The English regions, although they are not nations, face basically the same ‘democratic deficits’ as Scotland and Wales. The Government ought to understand this only too well. Prior to the last election Labour’s document, A Choice for England, painted a clear picture of the problems facing the English regions. It described how the Conservatives, despite their public opposition to regionalism, had gone about strengthening and extending a democratically ‘invisible’ regional state in England. Regional government dispenses public largesse without direct regional accountability, notably in the form of integrated Government Offices of the Regions, but also in the form of quangos that operate on a regional level. Specifically, the document rejected the argument that regional government represented another layer of bureaucracy, arguing that this was already in place. Instead, it identified a lack of policy co-ordination and a yawning ‘democratic deficit’ which required urgent redress. All of this was underpinned by declamations about the over-centralised nature of British politics and the inefficiencies that this breeds. The Labour Government in its campaigning for a Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly argued that over-centralisation of government led to inefficiency and misguided policy making. Yet these arguments equally apply to England where the problems of centralisation are, if anything, greater than in Scotland or Wales.

3. English regional governance

A web of existing regional structures and institutions already exists and provides the basis for democratically elected English regional government. The challenge facing the Government is to modernise and democratise regional structures that are already in place.

Government Offices of the Regions

At the heart of regional governance in England are the Government Offices of the Regions. At the time of their creation in 1994, the then (Conservative) Secretary of State John Gummer described the advantages of the GORs thus:

For the first time there will be coterminous regions for the Departments, and that is vital to the change. It always seemed ridiculous to me that different Departments had different regions. That made any sort of planning almost impossible (quoted in Bogdanor, 1999: 269).

These GORs bring together into a single operation the regional activities of the Department for Education and Employment, the Department of Trade and Industry and the Department for Environment, Transport and the Regions. Most GORs also contain staff from the Home Office and Department of Culture, Media and Sport. As such, they provide the source of administrative authority for a range of central government activity in the regions [3].

Currently GORs exist to manage programmes on behalf of their parent Departments in Whitehall, ‘to support and facilitate linkages between partners and programmes, and to inform the development of Departments’ policies from a regional perspective’. But the GORs are failing to meet even their currently limited declared objectives; there are too many lines of accountability, and funding, which makes it difficult to co-ordinate activity effectively. The Government recognises the problem: the Cabinet Office’s Performance and Innovation Unit (the Government’s ‘joined up policy’ think-tank) is examining the operation of central government activity at the regional level, in order to achieve greater integration and reducing duplication of effort. Louise Ellman, Labour MP for Riverside and chair of the PLP regional government group, however, identifies a key difficulty: ‘There could be reluctance from Whitehall who fear a loss of power. The Government should address this concern and see that all regional economies need to develop in the national interest [4].’ The Whitehall turf wars surrounding the creation of Regional Development Agencies (RDAs) demonstrate that the civil service has a powerful interest in ensuring that devolution to the English regions is frustrated. The Government would require clarity of purpose and determination to overcome these vested interests and implement meaningful regional government.

Regional Development Agencies

The creation of the RDAs has been heralded as a major new development in the governance of the English regions, at least as far as economic development is concerned. The intention is that RDAs will bring much-needed policy co-ordination and a space for new approaches to economic regeneration. But the White Paper on RDAs stressed these should be ‘business-led’. The business-dominated boards of RDAs are accountable to the Secretary of State. The Government’s approach to RDAs has been widely questioned not least by a number of Parliamentary Select Committee reports that criticised the Government for not giving RDAs enough powers, failing to make the relationship between RDAs and GORs clear and failing to make clear how RDAs will be accountable to any future regional Chambers. Observers have noted that without a unified budget with a power to raise funds and control over key areas such as skills and training – which are critical to economic development – the autonomy, flexibility and effectiveness of RDAs will be limited (Harding et al, forthcoming; House of Commons, 1997, 1998; see also Constitution Unit, 1996).

The Government has encouraged the formation of regional Chambers representing (predominantly) local authority interests (together with some representation of the social partners). The principal task of these Chambers is to scrutinise the activities of the RDA boards. But the chambers will find it difficult to influence the Whitehall machinery because they lack real power or democratic legitimacy. By far the most important lines of RDA accountability are to Whitehall; the only way the views of the Chambers can impact on the RDAs, other than by persuasion, is through a directive by the Secretary of State (Harding et al, forthcoming). Thus, while the creation of RDAs may represent a modest advance in the creation of more integrated economic development in the regions, to date they involve little devolution of political power (Whitehead 1999).

The Quango State

Even if regional government in England is largely invisible to the citizen, it is still more extensive than the institutions of economic development. One of the most superficial arguments levelled against the case for regional government is that it would result in the creation of a new ‘tier of bureaucracy’. Figure 1, however, demonstrates some aspects of the governance of one English region, the North East, based on a mapping of the equivalent powers exercised by the Welsh Assembly. The arrowhead lines on the map illustrate broad patterns of funding and accountability. It shows an extensive tier of regional government already exists, although one without direct lines of democratic accountability to the people it serves.

At the heart of government in the region is the Government Office for the North East (GONE) and also the recently created RDA (called ‘One North East’). But alongside these are various other quangos and agencies concerned with important aspects of life in the region. Not all the agencies active on behalf of central government in the region have regional boundaries that are coterminous with those of GONE and One North East, although there is a general trend within Government now to promote coterminosity which should be advanced further. There is a strong case for regional democratic control in four distinct areas (see Figure 1) where central government activity is significant.

These are:

1. economic development;

2. environment and infrastructure;

3. employment, education and training;

4. culture, sport and tourism.

These activities typically form the core responsibilities of regional governments in many Member States of the EU and other States around the world with devolved systems of government [5]. They should form the core activities of English regional government. By creating regional government the Government will also stand a better chance of overcoming fragmentation and achieving its ambition of ‘joined-up’ government and the regional and local levels.

4. The rise of English regionalism

Labour’s 1997 Election Manifesto stated that ‘in time’ the party would introduce legislation to allow people, region by region, to decide in referendums whether they wanted elected regional government. According to recent press reports, instead of embracing the regional agenda, the Government has lost what little enthusiasm it had for the notion of English regionalism. However, the issue of regional government, and the wider governance of England, cannot be dealt with by ignoring it. English regionalism is a rising force to which the Government will be compelled to find a response.

The evolution of English regionalism

The English regions have been creating political institutions for some time. Given how inhospitable the English political culture is to regionalism, these developments are all the more noteworthy. For example, local authority associations exist in each of the English regions. These are voluntary groupings of local authorities with an interest in regional governance matters as well as issues such as land use planning, economic development, transportation and the regional impact of European integration. These associations have developed from different bases and have evolved in relation to local priorities and concerns, but have increasingly been concerned with the general question of regional governance. Indeed, they now form the basis of the voluntary regional Chambers that are expected to monitor the activities of Regional Development Agencies. In turn, the various local authority associations have formed ‘ERA’, the ‘English Regional Association’, to provide a forum for discussion of areas of common interest.

Civic campaigns in support of regional devolution have emerged alongside the development of regional political institutions. The first of these was the Campaign for a Northern Assembly (CNA) established in 1992 in Newcastle. Among the CNA’s activities was the publication in 1994 in the regional press of a declaration in support of regional government. Several hundred signatures, including the entire Northern Group of Labour MPs, supported the declaration. The CNA repeated the exercise in November 1997 with the publication of the ‘Declaration for the North’, this time in the New Statesman (14th November, p4). The Declaration welcomed the creation of a Scottish Parliament, but called for the Government to bring forward plans for a North East Assembly. Again the Declaration was supported by large sections of the Labour establishment.

Similar campaigns have been subsequently established in Yorkshire and the West Midlands. The campaign for Yorkshire Democracy was launched on 17th March 1999. The coalition of trade unions, local politicians and voluntary sector organisations led by the Archbishop of York calls for directly elected regional government for Yorkshire and the Humber. The campaign’s ‘Claim of Right’ asserts the right of the people of Yorkshire and Humber to determine their own domestic affairs, should it be their settled will to do so. It supports the creation of the Yorkshire and Humber Regional Chamber and Regional Development Agency and calls upon the Government to bring forward legislation for accountable and representative regional government in Yorkshire and Humber at the earliest opportunity. These regional campaigns have recently formed the Campaign for the English Regions, designed to co-ordinate and extend the efforts in the individual regions.

A further development, again pioneered in the North East, has been the establishment in England of constitutional conventions, inspired by the Scottish approach. The North East Constitutional Convention, chaired by the Bishop of Durham, was established in April 1999. It set itself the task of agreeing a scheme for an elected assembly and ensuring the widest possible agreement on the scheme. A recent House of Commons early day motion (EDM 847 of Session 1988/9), sponsored by Fraser Kemp MP, was supported by the majority of Labour backbenchers in the region. Regional government is a daily news story in regional press in the North East. Indeed, the editors of the main morning papers are members of the Convention steering group. The work of the Convention continues and some of its thinking is reported below in section 5. A constitutional convention has also been established in North West England this time under the Bishop of Liverpool. At this stage in the North West, the aim of the Convention is a more general examination of the appropriate constitutional arrangements for the region; it seems probable that the conclusions it draws will not be too dissimilar to those reached in the North East.

Few attempts have been made to measure opinion in the English regions. A recent Mori poll published in The Economist (26th March 1999) on attitudes towards regional government did find majorities in favour in London (60 against 21), the North East (51: 29), the West Midlands (46: 37), the South West (47: 39), the East Midlands (40: 35) and the Eastern region (43: 42). Opinion was divided in Yorkshire and Humber (42 for and against), with majorities against the idea in the South East (47 opposed: 37 in favour) and North West (44: 42). While more consistent records of opinion are required, not least to measure the impact of the newly formed campaigns and conventions, disinterested metropolitan opinion formers are well advised to take into account the new regional agenda that is developing in many parts of England. So, too, should the Government.

5. Outline of regional democracy: a model for English regional government

Given the amount of attention the Government devoted to developing coherent devolution proposals for Scotland and Wales, it is astonishing how little thought appears to have been given, let alone agreement achieved on, the future shape of elected English regional government. Whitehall and Westminster are waiting to see what happens in the regions. Some regions are beginning to respond to this challenge and are developing coherent and organic models of regional government.

In the North East where a Constitutional Convention has been established some ideas are beginning to be advanced on the shape of regional government. Although the Convention’s work is not complete, it has clarified some issues and suggested some important questions relating to the operation of English regional government. It presents the elements of a coherent model for the North East, but in doing so raises issues for all regions.

The North East proposals emerge from a particular context. The debate there has been fuelled by the reality of a Welsh Assembly and Scottish Parliament (in a region that is geographically – and probably socially and culturally – closer to Scotland than London). The debate in the North East, especially within the Labour Party, is 20 years old. The North East has long regarded both Scotland and Wales as competitors for investment and resources. There is wide recognition that, while public expenditure per head is much higher in Wales, and especially Scotland, on most measures of need, the North East is the most disadvantaged region in England. A palpable fear of being ‘left behind’ underpins the debate in the North East. The North East is a region with a strong sense of its own identity and a socio-economic profile similar to that of Wales. Partly for these reasons the Convention has paid close attention to the Welsh model of devolution and has investigated how far it could be implemented in the North East. At the same time, political opinion has tended to be sceptical about the advantages of the proposed Greater London Assembly (GLA) as a model for the North East. While the GLA model represents a constitutional innovation, insofar as it introduces the concept of the directly elected mayor, it is more difficult to view it as a form of devolution. The GLA will take over few central government activities, will not have a single block grant and most of its actions will be subject to the veto of the Secretary of State. For instance, welcoming the publication of the North East Convention’s interim report, Jim Cousins MP pointed to the difficulties of persuading the electorate in the North East to vote for an institution that only had the powers of a London Assembly saying: ‘I do not think the people of the region would vote for a lettuce leaf’ (The Journal [Newcastle] 31st July 1999).

Those in favour of regional government want to break away from the old styles of governing. There is widespread recognition that the Westminster style of politics just does not work effectively. Similarly, there is little desire to see the local government experience writ large. The Labour Party dominates both the national and local political arenas in the region. As much as anything else, the Convention reflects a desire for greater diversity in regional politics. The new democratic innovations of the Scottish Parliament and the practical attempts to create an open, modern and inclusive form of government are undoubtedly an inspiration in this regard. Yet it is only the Labour Party in the North East, as the dominate party in the region, who can deliver democratic change. It is a massive challenge to the party in the North East. It has a responsibility to extract a fair democratic settlement for the North East from Government – even at the risk of a rising electoral challenge in the short term.

The Convention’s interim report recognises that for many the test of whether an assembly is a genuinely new and inclusive institution is whether it is elected by a system of proportional representation (PR). The Convention recognises that a regional assembly elected by first-past-the-post would continue to produce a one party state in the North East and so many groups would be unwilling to support a regional assembly without some form of PR. Alan Beith MP, Deputy Leader of the Liberal Democrats, has highlighted this point:

There is no way that a regional assembly could command confidence unless it has a fair system of election. It was recognised in Scotland that a Parliament elected by first-past-the post would be dominated by one party from one area. That is not the basis for setting up an assembly that needs to command public support [6].

A regional assembly has to be appropriately equipped to address the challenges it faces. The size of the assembly is linked to the range of functions it is expected to exercise. The proposed London Assembly is small (25 members) because it has few powers to exercise (and most of the powers it does have are lodged with the separately elected Mayor). The Welsh Assembly has a membership of 60, reflecting the choice of cabinet-style government and the wider range of powers it exercises. The North East Convention suggests that a cabinet style of government, with powerful scrutinising committees, would suit the needs of the North East: it would produce clear political leadership for the region while ensuring inclusiveness. It estimates that an assembly of around 50 members would be necessary to support this model.

The Government Office for the North East has an estimated expenditure for 1999/2000 of £300 million in order to discharge these activities – this is the hidden apparatus of regional government described earlier. The Convention suggests that any credible model of real devolution would place GONE at the centre of a North East Executive. Indeed, it would be difficult to present any model that did not make GONE answerable to an elected assembly as representing a form of devolution at all. But the Convention identifies a range of other powers that could come under the control of a regional assembly. Together these represent a core of responsibilities over which, the Convention suggests, a regional assembly could have the power to make secondary legislation along the lines of the Welsh Assembly (see Figure 1). The ability of an assembly to act effectively, though, would be enhanced by a general power competence. It is acknowledged that such a system of regional government could only work effectively if it were financed by a single block grant, bringing together the range of existing funding streams that supports the myriad of Government activities in the region.

The Convention identifies a role for a devolved regional government to represent the North East (alongside Scotland and Wales) in Europe, the proposed British-Irish Council and in new national forums such as a reformed House of Lords. It identifies a strong case for proceeding to a regional assembly without any alteration to the structure of local government in the North East. It notes that most people in the region live in areas governed by unitary local authorities. This argument might be more difficult to make elsewhere.

A number of principles are adopted by the Convention designed to promote an elected assembly that embodies and reflects power-sharing between the people of the North East, assembly members and a future North East government. It contends that any North East government should be accountable to a North East Assembly and, in turn, these should be clearly accountable to the people of the region. A North East Assembly should be accessible, open, responsive, and develop procedures which make possible a participative approach to the development, consideration and scrutiny of policy and legislation. The North East assembly should recognise in its operation and its appointments the need to promote equal opportunities for all.

The North East Constitutional Convention presents the outline of one model of regional democracy for the English regions. The region could be a pilot for devolved government, as the Labour Party itself appeared to propose in the early 1990s. However, the model adopted there need not be the only one. In the North East the debate is relatively advanced and heavily influenced by developments in Scotland and Wales, but this is not true of all parts of the UK. A model that is appropriate for the North East may not be appropriate for other parts of England. It is likely, therefore, that any system of English regional government will be asymmetrical in nature. There is no fundamental reason why this needs to be a problem. Asymmetry has always been a feature of the governance of the United Kingdom and is built into the emerging pattern of devolution in Britain. In fact, asymmetry is a feature that could hold the Union together. International experience suggests that uniformity is not always the best way forward. Nations such as Spain have successfully adopted asymmetrical devolution, with some regions starting later on the road to regional government than others.

6. Conclusion: answering the English question

The Government argued that devolution would strengthen the Union. But an England that constantly worries about Scottish privileges in particular will play into the hands of those who argue that the days of the Union are over. Scottish Labour in particular ought to take note. A resolution of the English question, then, is critical to the achievement of a stable constitutional settlement in a devolved Britain. But the size of England, and its internal social, economic, political and cultural diversity means that this cannot be achieved on an England-wide scale. Increasingly, England’s diversity has found expression both in the creation of a hidden apparatus of regional government and a rising regional consciousness. Supporters of regional devolution do not merely want political power, they aspire to the ‘new ways of doing politics’ represented by the thinking of the Scottish Constitutional Convention and others. Despite the vested interests opposed to it, English regionalism is on the political agenda to stay.

To date, despite its commitment to devolution, the Labour Government has neglected the English question. This position is unsustainable in the long run. The Government must give a firm lead on this issue. Regions like the North East, where the debate is advanced, should be given leadership by the Government. Labour did not stand by as a disinterested observer in Scotland and Wales. In these cases Labour saw the future of the Union at stake and presented itself as the party of devolution in order to save the Union. It should do the same in the English regions.


Bogdanor, V. (1990). Devolution in the United Kingdom. Oxford:OPUS.

Constitution Unit (1996).Regional Government in England. Regional Chambers and Regional Development Agencies London:Faculty of Laws, University College London.

ERA (1998). Regional Working in England: a policy statement and survey of the English Regional Association. (URL:http://www.somerset.gov.uk/era/).

Hague, W (1999).Strengthening the Union After Devolution Speech to the Centre for Policy Studies, London, 15 July. (URL:http://www.cps.org.uk/)

Harding, A., Wilks-Heeg, S., and Hutchins, M., (forthcoming). ” Regional Development Agencies and English Regionalisation: the question of accountability” Environment and Planning C: Government and Policy.

House of Commons (1997). Regional Development Agencies. Report of the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee. HC415. London:The Stationery Office.

House of Commons (1998). The relationaship Between TECs and the Proposed Regional Development Agencies. Report of the Education and Employment Committee. HC 265. London: The Stationery Office.

Kennedy C. (1999).The British QuestionSpeech to the Scottish Council Foundation, Edinburgh 30 June.(URL:http://www.charleskennedy.org.uk/).

Whitehead, A. (1999).”From regional development to regional devolution”, in Dungey, J. and Newman, I. (Eds). The New Regional Agenda. London: Local Government Information Unit.
[1] Of the 177 manifesto commitments made by the Labour Party in 1997, 75 have been kept in full and 100 are being implemented. Of the two yet to be timetabled one includes legislation on referendums on regional government. See Making Britain Better. 1st May 1999. (available from the Labour Party, Millbank Tower, Millbank, London, SW1P 4GT)

[2] William Hague’s speech to the Centre for Policy Studies on 14 July 1999 drew a swift retort from the Bishop of Liverpool, chair of the North West Constitutional Convention. In a letter to The Times (21 July 1999) the Bishop drew attention to the dangers of fuelling the sense of political neglect felt in the North West and predicting that this would intensify a ‘politics of resentment’ outside the ‘favoured Home Counties’. Outside of the South East, it is this issue, rather than public disquiet about the West Lothian Question, which is likely to be the most important issue.

[3] GORs are, not yet, territorial departments on the Welsh or Scottish models, although they could evolve in that direction. They do have important responsibilities in relation to managing contacts with Training and Enterprise Councils, strategic planning, transport and European funding and so on.

[4] Interview with the authors, 3 May 1999

[5] The European context is an important on. In many English regions, the European Commission is an important provider of matched funds for economic development. In theory, this gives the regions space to develop their own economic development strategies. But research undertaken in the past for the House of Commons Trade and Industry Committee in 1995, showed that central government had the major role in shaping these ‘regional strategies’ to its own purposes. This can be seen as providing further evidence of how Whitehall’s heavy hand limits local initiative. For instance, in many parts of England there is much mileage in terms of economic development, in developing direct strategic relationships with other European regions. Some regions are already attempting to do this, but more could be achieved if the regions had a greater degree of autonomy.

[6] Evidence to the North East Constitutional Convention Inquiry, 2 July 1999