Building a future for all
National policy forum report to Labour conference 2000
Chapter on Environment, transport and the regions, pp66-68
Labour’s key objectives:
Empowering local people and revitalising local democracy.
Modernising local government structures making it more representative.
Decentralising power to the English regions and strengthening regional policy.
Delivering quality local services.
Labour’s key strategic objectives need good governance in the locality. On its own, central government simply cannot deliver these. Good governance in the locality can ensure:
the development of balanced and sustained economic growth
the social inclusion of all
better access to public services
a developed civic society
Governance in the locality, which is genuinely in touch with people’s aspirations, will achieve these goals. This will only be achieved if local government is modernised.
Labour wants to see modernised government at all levels — and more-visible local leadership with more powers to respond to the needs of their communities. Tackling social exclusion and regenerating local communities will only be sustainable if local people are empowered to improve their neighbourhoods.
Labour also wants to see more representative government at all levels. Labour believes in the centrality of elected representatives in the planning and scrutiny of public services alongside the involvement of users of services and other social partners. In order to better reflect the population at large, there need to be more women, people from ethnic communities, and younger people involved. There should be better and more consistent training to encourage new councillors, and to help people remain as councillors.
Modern local and regional governance has a unique role to play in meeting Labour’s strategic goals. The new Labour government has begun to make these changes and has created new relationships at local and regional level. Labour recognises that local authorities are in the best position to provide accountable, democratically-elected civic leadership. They should be seen not merely as agents of central government policy, but as partners of central government together with the private and community sectors. Labour values diversity and the capacity of local councils to innovate.
Under the Tories many regions experienced severe economic decline and the wealth gap between and within regions widened.
A new role for the regions
Labour’s commitment to devolution and empowering the regions is in marked contrast to the centralising, top-down policies of the previous Tory government. Since the election Labour has established a Scottish Parliament, Welsh National Assembly, Northern Ireland Assembly, integrated regional policy into a new merged department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions with a minister for the regions, established Regional Development Agencies (RDAs) in London and the eight English regions, a Mayor and Assembly for London, reformed regional planning, improved the co-ordination of regional policy and strengthened the network of government offices in the regions, and designated voluntary regional chambers in every English region outside London.
Labour’s first concern has been to address the regional economic deficit inherited from the Tories. The RDAs have begun that task and are working with the key regional players — the business sector, trade unions, local authorities, the education sector, government offices and voluntary sector — to improve economic performance and enhance regional competitiveness.
[RDAs are also discussed in the ‘Regenerating Britain’ chapter.]
Labour also remains committed to empowering the English regions, and in many parts of the country the Labour movement has played an active role in securing regional support for directly elected regional assemblies. The regional chambers and regional constitutional conventions, RDAs and other regional organisations have helped build up the voice of the regions and enhanced regional identities. We will continue to build on this and seek to ensure that the English regions are not disadvantaged compared to other parts of the country.
Despite devolution in Scotland and Wales, Britain remains the only large state in the EU with no comprehensive structure of regional government. We strongly believe that:
decentralised government is better government
government power exercised at regional level should be responsive to the people of that region
regions need their own voice to get the best out of Europe
regions need effective co-ordination in order to promote economic development
democratic regional structures must be based on consent and develop at the pace most appropriate to each region
new powers assumed by regional government should principally be, by devolution, downwards from the centre.
Devolving power can not only provide greater autonomy and accountability at regional level, but also enable better strategic planning and joined-up policy delivery. Labour believes that regional governance should not be about more government, but better government — and should be inclusive and extend democratic participation.
The Labour Party 1997 election manifesto recognised that demand for directly elected regional government varies and said that only where clear popular consent is established will arrangements be made for directly elected regional assemblies.
In many parts of the country Labour has played an active role in securing regional support for directly elected regional assemblies. The Regional Chambers and regional constitutional conventions, RDAs and other regional organisations have helped build the voice of the regions and enhance regional identities.
Labour recognises the legitimate aspirations of the English regions and believes that the essential next step for those regions which wish to do so should be facilitated towards fully fledged directly elected regional authorities which could help renew democracy, modernise the constitution and empower citizens.
Those with reservations about regional assemblies have stated that careful consideration will need to be given to ensuring that elected assemblies do not create additional tiers of bureaucracy; to the responsibilities, powers, size and type of assembly; to the appropriate test of public consent; to the type of voting system; and to the relationship between assemblies and the other democratic institutions, including local government and Westminster.
Labour intends, as soon as practicable, to move to directly elected regional government where and when there is a clear demand for it. The way forward will include proposals to:
request that the existing regional assemblies and chambers, working closely with the regional partners, develop detailed proposals for elected assemblies in their respective regions;
publish a Government Green or White Paper on regional governance.
Development of regional governance structures should not result in adding a new tier of government to the English system and would require a move to a predominantly unitary system of local government as presently exists in Scotland and Wales.