Will the government’s White Paper on regional government actually turn the tide on control freakery in Westminster?

Manchester town hall by night (picture Mike Colvin)

Report from the AGM, 11 May 2002

David Millar opened his introduction by saying he would refer only to Whitehall and not Westminster: MPs are not powerful enough to be control freaks. The proposed new regional assemblies (not executives, he noted) would have power over economic development, planning, housing, transport, public health, culture and tourism, jobs and skills, and waste management. Each would have 25-35 members, would be able to levy a limited tax, and would have borrowing powers, (unlike the Scottish Parliament) but would be subject to centrally-imposed spending limits and capping. The White Paper proposed election to the assemblies by the Additional Member System: 75% of member sot be elected by first-past-the-post, 25% by proportional list. Bundestag elections used the same system but 50-50 between FPTP and proportional lists. Thus 75:25 was insufficiently proportional, in his view.

An important question was what would happen to the existing local authorities. Who will exercise the powers of the existing county councils?

Would this strengthen the control freak tendencies? Five reasons why not:

1. It has recently been admitted that spin doctoring has been overdone
2. Underspending by devolved government so far has not provoked budget clawback by the Treasury
3. Tony Blair might well have learned his lesson and permit regional assemblies to elect their own leaders
4. Partnership governments – coalitions between Labour and the Liberal Democrats – were harder to interfere with
5. The Sewel motion procedure made it easier to smooth the relationship between the centre and the devolved

Two reasons why it might:

1. Will regional assemblies be strong enough to control regional bureaucracies?
2. Labour has such a strong habit of centralised control: will they be able to give it up?

What should Federal Union do?

1. Support the principle of regional government
2. Argue for the widest possible interpretation of the powers of regional assemblies
3. Demand a clear definition of the powers of Whitehall, the regional assemblies, and local authorities
4. Insist on full proportional representation: half should be elected from list, half from constituencies

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