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Government Minister Richard Caborn MP issues a rallying call

Government Minister Richard Caborn MP issues a rallying call for Regional Government at a Fabian Conference in York
18 November 2000

Talk today about democratic renewal, constitutional change and the devolution of power to the English regions.

Want to set out the arguments as to why I believe the radical programme of constitutional change we embarked on in 1997 is incomplete without an answer to the so-called English Question.

And to share with you some thoughts as to what the next steps might be if the Party is at all serious about delivering on its outstanding manifesto commitment to allow people to decide in a referendum whether they want directly elected regional government.

History of Regional Government

That Manifesto was not something the Party dreamt up at the last minute as a counter-weight to the Scottish Constitutional Convention and our proposals for devolution in Scotland and Wales.

It was in fact a central plank in our campaign at the time to clean up politics and reverse 18 years of Tory centralisation and rule by diktat from SW1.

Of course the debate about democratic government for the English regions has an even long history. Here in Yorkshire you could trace it back to the war of the roses and even before that.

I first took an interest in the so-called English question back in the late 1970s when the last Labour government teamed up with the Liberals to piece together the rather messy referendum on Scottish devolution – which as you know was defeated by the peculiar anomaly of counting those who didn’t vote as no votes.

The devolution debate has certainly not been confined to the Labour benches or to the Welsh and Scot Nats.

The Liberals were then, and still are, keen advocates of regional assemblies.

The Tories today might be vehemently against, but back in the 1960s you had young turks like Ken Clarke writing pamphlets supporting the idea of regional government. (Regional Government Oct 1968)

Even as late as 1992 high Tories like Lord Hailsham – Thatcher’s long serving Lord Chancellor – said in his book on the constitution that “decentralisation of powers from the centre to regional assemblies in England ought to do something to counter the top-heaviness and over centralisation of government”. (On the Constitution 1992)

Interestingly, Hailsham argued that regional government is one of the more positive constitutional options, but added that “it is the greatest pity that its feasibility shows every sign of being controversial between the parties, and that my party has come out so strongly against it”.

Kinnock of course was less than an enthusiast and I had somewhat of a rough ride as his shadow spokesman at the time on regional policy .

John Smith as you all know took a rather different view and felt strongly about constitutional reform and the need to modernise our political system.

John Prescott, who has throughout his political career argued for elected regional assemblies, was inspired by John Smith’s commitment to the devolution agenda. It was in fact under Prescott as deputy leader in 1995 that the Party first put forward a firm set of proposals to set up regional assemblies where people wanted them.

Prescott also established the Regional Policy Commission under the chairmanship of the former EU Commissioner, Bruce Millan.

The report of that Commission showed just how much the Tories had failed the regions. That report had a big influence on Party policy at the time and played an important part in helping in shaping the RDA White Paper and RDA Bill.

So, the point I really want to make in setting the scene is that the debate inside and outside the Party on the so-called English Question is not new, and neither is it just a Labour Party matter.

What is different today though, is that we have a Labour Government which as the Prime Minister said at Question Time a fortnight ago, is willing to give powers back to the regions if people want it.

Since 1997

There is no doubt that since May 1997 there has been a transformation in the constitutional make up of this country and an unprecedented devolution of power away from Whitehall.

We have delivered what we said we would in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London.

And, we have through the RDAs and related policies and programmes taken on the challenge of bridging the so-called regional economic deficit.

We have also embarked on a major local government reform programme, beefed up the regional planning system, strengthened the role of the Government Regional Offices under a new Regional Coordination Unit, and helped set up voluntary local authority led Regional Chambers in every region outside London.

On top of that we have begun to reform the House of Lords and resurrected the Parliamentary Committee on the English Regions.

By any measure we have achieved a great deal in only three years.

However, whilst we have made real progress in addressing the regional prosperity gap both within and between regions and there is unquestionably a much stronger commitment by government departments to the regional economic development agenda, we have in my view reached a hiatus in regard to taking forward proposals for directly elected regional assemblies.

I think this view is shared by the Constitutional Conventions in the North East and North West and by the Campaign for regional assemblies here in Yorkshire.

Whilst they have done some excellent work in their respective regions, they are now wanting to see some signal from Government as to what they should do next.

Why we need regional assemblies

I think that a year ago you could argue that the Government was in danger of suffering from constitutional indigestion and that quite rightly we had to concentrate our energies on the wealth creation agenda.

We were right to target resources to those areas, like South Yorkshire, which has one of the lowest GDP per capitas in the country. And it is right that we continue to do that if we are to make all the regions fire on all cylinders.

That said, I don’t accept that there is a trade-off between regional economic policy and all that goes with the talk of a north-south divide and the Party’s commitment to regional government.

Indeed, I would argue that we would be better placed to reduce regional disparities if regional policy itself was driven more by the regions and shaped by the people in the regions who often feel disadvantaged and powerless compared to other parts of the country.

Regions need effective co-ordination and a clear voice in order to promote economic development, and that in my view is best achieved through regional assemblies.

The case for the regions having their own voice and powers to improve the co-ordination and efficiency of policies at the regional level is one argument for elected assemblies.

But, I also believe that regional government will not only add value and improve the quality of decision making, but critically make for better and more responsive government by providing democratic scrutiny and accountability.

(culture change – regions used to having things done for them/RDA change in mindset and marrying of cultures)

National Policy Commission

When the Party met in Exeter in June to discuss the National Policy Commission document on regional government the point about bridging the democratic deficit and devolving power down to let people shape their own future was made time and time again.

The London election I believe brought home to some delegates the fact that the other English regions had been overlooked. There was also a greater sense of confidence among proponents of regional government that the political mood for change in the regions has intensified.

The Policy Commission document spelt out a new role for the regions and was endorsed at Party conference. What it called for was a move to regional government as soon as practicable where there is clear demand for it, and for Government to publish a green or white paper setting out the possible options.

What are the Options?

The Party then is 100% behind the principle of regional government as means to achieving democratic renewal and better government.

But, support for regional government must as, John Prescott has said, rest on what it delivers not on the mere fact of its creation.

If it is perceived as merely a reinvented tier of local government or conversely as means of stripping powers away locally elected politician, I don’t believe it would do justice to the manifesto.

It must be for the people to decide in a referendum whether they want regional government. As we have done in Scotland, Wales and in London, where we introduced enabling legislation early on to give people a choice.

That still begs the question of what functions and powers people would be voting for.

And, indeed whether all regions should have the same powers at the same time or whether some regions could have regional government whilst other are without.

The constitutional conventions and other bodies such as the Regional Policy Forum and the Constitution Unit looked in some detail at the models on offer and have put forward various adaptations of the Welsh and London arrangements.

International Experience

The fact is there are no constitutional blueprints which we can lift off the shelf, either here in the UK or from elsewhere in Europe.

This was brought home to me when I read through the Government’s recently published review of international models of regional government.

That report – which is well worth a read – shows that not only is the UK a late comer to the regional devolution agenda, but that there are a myriad of different models on offer and each with their own distinctive flavour and historical roots.

Different countries have devolved different powers to different regions in different ways.

What the report concluded from this is that an evolutionary and incremental approach to regionalism and regional governance is more the norm, than the exception.

Moreover, when you look at the European experience you see the formation of regional structures of government as a process of change with its own dynamic, rather than a distinct one-off event.

An asymmetrical model with a wide diversity of political institutions introduced at different time, for different purposes and with different powers may be complex and drawn out, but it is what makes up the body politic in most EU states.

Of course there are differences in the way power has been devolved in unitary states like Greece where the transfer of powers has been primary at the county level and Sweden where powers have been moved up from the very local level to elected regional bodies.

For the federal states, such as Italy, there has been a consistent strengthening of the regional tier for over 20 years. That again differs from the German and Austrian models where the Lander exist by right and have wide ranging powers and autonomy.

The more you look the more you see evolution not revolution. In Belgium, for example, significant powers were devolved to the regions after 1993. Similarly in France and Spain decentralisation has been on-going throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

There is no reason in my view why in England regional government could not be phased in with different rates of devolution in different places, with perhaps some regions adopting more powers over time than others.

(This is in fact what is already happening – 5 models of governance in UK)

Critical Mass

I also believe that you must consult as widely as you can on what choice of functions people want, and on the size and type of assembly.

It is not for Government or the Town Hall for that matter to dictate the scope of functions and powers on a one-size fits all basis.

That said, I believe you have to start with a certain critical mass of functions and responsibilities, not least to mobilise public support. I believe it is Government’s job to set the framework and consult on the most feasible options in a Green Paper and from there to construct the necessary legislation.

(this is what we did with RDAs…)

City Mayors

Some critics of regional government argue that the Government would be better placed to abandon the regional agenda and in its place push for city regions led by city mayors.

This argument was in fashion in some quarters before Ken’s election in London, but I think has lost its momentum since.

Let me say that first London is in itself unique. Its population is that of Scotland and Wales combined. And its GDP per head is significantly higher than both.

Moreover, the GLA Act is constituted on the basis of a directly elected mayor and an elected assembly.

The assembly part has an obvious cross-over with regional government, but the idea of an elected city mayor, or even a cluster of city mayors, for the whole of a region makes little sense to me.

I think elected mayors can play an important part in the revitalisation of local democracy and modernisation of local government. But, I can’t see how city mayors could emerge with the best will in the world as leaders of city regions.

Leaving aside how a city mayor would deal with regional bodies such as RDAs and regional planning, I don’t think it would be right or feasible for one or two cities in a region to speak on behalf of other cities, let alone the rural areas beyond the city boundaries.

I very much share Hilary Armstrong’s view that city mayors can co-exist and work alongside regional structures. The two are not mutually exclusive.

This is in fact the sentiment behind yesterday’s Urban White Paper which stressed the fact that the fate of most of our towns and cities is tied to that of the region as a whole.


The coming months are a crucial time for the Party as we prepare ourselves for the next general election.

What we must do in my view is take a clear decision on what we want to put in the manifesto in terms of carrying forward our programme of democratic renewal in England.

But we need to do more than that. I believe as a Party we have to put the case and give people a chance to give their views on what form of regional government they prefer.

We can do that by publishing a green paper before the election and engaging people in the regions in a full and open debate on the options.

As I have said we should not presume that the single approach will be right for every region or that we have to have regional government for all regions at once.

If the people of Yorkshire and Humberside decide in a referendum that they want regional government then they should play an active part in making it happen.

To leave the question of whether or not any particular region is entitled to hold a referendum open ended is in my view a step back from the manifesto commitment we gave at the last election.

To leave the English question open ended in that way leaves us vulnerable not only to Tory attack, but also to criticism from within our own ranks. The Tories, who have no seats in Scotland or Wales, have nothing to lose in playing the English nationalism card – especially in the marginal seats where the north-south issue is being talked up by the regional media.

(Hague Oxford speech where he pledged that the Tories would change the constitution to give English votes on English laws – “this would be one of our first priorities …try to ignore the West Lothian question or bottle it up could turn into a dangerous English nationalism that could threaten the future of the UK”) Finally, I would like to say that the opportunity for the Party to change the way we are governed in this country does not offer itself up very often.

It is therefore not only important that we encourage people in the regions to seize the moment and think about what directly elected regional assemblies can offer, but also to open up the debate nationally.

The debate within regions is essential, but I believe we have to raise our sights and put the regional agenda in the bigger picture about the future of the Union and how a modern regional government structure can complement what we are seeking to achieve with both our programme for the reform of Parliament and our reforms of local government.

The regional genie I believe is out of the constitutional bottle and at some point we are going to have to work through what that means in terms of democratic legitimacy and good government for the country as a whole.

My view, and I will finish on this, is that we have a window of opportunity now to test public option and to engage people on what the next steps ought to be in the form of a green paper.