CM: How important a step are the Regional Development Agencies in the move towards elected regional assemblies?
RL: Let’s break the question of regional government into two parts: what powers should be exercised at a regional level, and how those regional powers should be exercised. The development of RDAs is clear evidence that there exists a genuine set of issues where policy at the regional level makes sense. In that sense, the RDAs are a very important step, demonstrating this point and bringing together the people who are needed to make it work. The question of moving to elected regional government rather than appointed RDAs requires a different kind of leap, but
a demonstration of the extent of the power that is now exercised by regional quangoes is important. To create elected regional government increasingly will not add new regional bureaucracy but will apply democratic principles to the regional bureaucracy that already exists.
Stephen Dorrell once said that he could not think of a problem faced by his constituents to which the solution was an East Midlands assembly. These days, there is the problem of bringing democratic accountability to bear on the East Midlands regional bureaucracy. For this, an East Midlands assembly would be ideal.
CM: Is the regional genie now out of the bottle?
RL: I think so. It will be hard to roll back the understanding that there are issues that can best be dealt with on a regional basis. It is not only in England that this is the case: most European countries are going through the same experience.
CM: How quickly do you think regions will be to embrace this idea?
RL: The first regional governments might be up and running in a few years. That might seem like a long time, but this kind of constitutional reform has been long-awaited so I am willing to be patient for a while longer.
CM: Are regional elected assemblies and directly elected mayors mutually exclusive in practical terms?
RL: No. Let’s go back to the two questions of which powers should be exercised at which level, and how those powers should be exercised at any particular level. It would be perfectly possible to have elected regional assemblies to deal with regional issues and directly elected mayors to deal with local issues. The two proposals are attempting to deal with different perceived problems. The difficulty with the proposal for directly elected mayors is that, in my view, it does not address the problem of over-centralisation in this country. I think that a major reason for public uninterest in politics is not because politics is not personalised enough but because it is too distant. Personalised national politics is not as relevant as local politics. If local politics were actually able to take the crucial local decisions, the relative attractiveness of mayors or committee-based local executives would become unimportant. Look at London. We have a mayor now, but he doesn’t have the powers necessary to make a difference to London life.
Because the case for regional government addresses the level at which political accountability lies – regionally, rather than via a civil servant’s boss in Whitehall – I think it is a rather more interesting proposal and much more likely to revitalise our democratic and political life. Maybe mayors can help too, but on a much smaller scale.
The questions were put by Chris Mason, freelance journalist, who may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, on 30 April 2002. The answers are those of Richard Laming and not necessarily those of Federal Union. Richard Laming may be contacted at email@example.com