Your region: your choice – revitalising the English regions

Antony Gormley's 'Angel of the North' (picture Andy Wright)

A response by Federal Union to the government’s White Paper, 30 August 2002

SUMMARY OF RESPONSES

References are to paragraphs of the Federal Union Paper

A. Federal Union is of opinion that the White Paper fails to give English regions “the opportunity to develop coherent strategical approaches which have strengthened regional and national performance” (para. 1.2);

B. The government’s proposals lack sufficient federal elements to realise the full economic potential of the English regions (para. 1.3);

C. The government should have had the courage to advance further and faster towards an economic and representative structure for the regions which, through wider powers, would enable them by economic advance to contribute more to the British economy (para. 2.3);

D. An opportunity to endow the English regional assemblies with effective decision-making powers has been missed. The principal role of the assemblies appears to be to influence government and to co-ordinate the work of official and non-official bodies (para.3.4);

E. A structured relationship between assemblies and local councils is vital to public acceptance and the successful administration of the devolution of power to English regions (para. 4.2);

F. Federal Union supports the government’s proposal to adopt the Additional Member System for election to assemblies, but urges certain improvements (para. 5.1), viz: –

F.1 the proportion of constituency to list members of an assembly should be 50:50 (para. 6.1).

F.2 the East, South East and South West regions should be sub-divided into sub-regions for the purpose of electing list members (para. 7.2).

F.3 by using “open” lists, electors should be able to secure the election of a candidate placed low by a party on its list (para. 8.1).

F.4 the proposal of a threshold of 5% for election from a list of a member of a party is an intrusive restriction on full and proper representation and should be abandoned (para. 8.2).

G. To secure adequate representation on assembly committees of both party members and independent members, Federal Union urges the government to create assemblies, in the six regions with a population of over 5 million, of 40 members and of 30 members in the two smaller regions (para. 9.2);

H. Assembly committees should be responsible for maintaining relations with the local authorities in the region (para. 10.2);

I. The government should continue to study the development of federal systems in Member States of the European Union and elsewhere, so as to apply in the UK those federal principles and practice which have contributed to democracy, good governance and prosperity in federal states (para. 11.2).

YOUR REGION, YOUR CHOICE

Response to the White Paper on English Regions by Federal Union

1. Introduction

1.1 The Committee of Federal Union welcomes the opportunity to respond to the government’s White Paper on the English regions. In particular it welcomes the government’s acceptance that proposals to strengthen the English regions “make sense within a wider European context”, and also its admission that these regions –
“are now virtually the only regions in Europe which do not enjoy some form of regional democracy or some form of regional representation” (para.3.12).

1.2 But while the government recognise that Germany, Spain and Italy “have given their regions the opportunity to develop coherent strategic approaches which have strengthened regional and national performance”, Federal Union is of opinion that the White Paper fails to provide this opportunity in England. Thus the crowning disappointment of the White Paper is that its analysis of the present state of the English regions and their needs is not matched by proposals bold or swift enough to offer a future for them prosperous enough to match the German Laender or the Autonomous Communities in Spain.

1.3 In short, the government’s proposals lack sufficient federal elements to realise the full economic potential of the English regions. Such elements should include adequate powers of tax-raising and of independent decision-making, the support of a regional civil service owing allegiance to the regional executive, and a negotiated and structured agreement setting out the respective functions of central government, the regional executive and the regional assembly.

2. Elements of a federal structure

2.1 Yet it would be churlish not to welcome some federal characteristics in the government’s proposals. The form of devolution of powers to the English regions is one of “asymmetrical” or “differentiated” devolution, also called “variable geometry”. This is a prominent feature of the federal structure in Canada, and also in neo-federal Spain.

2.2 Decision-taking is decentralised to some extent, although insufficiently, and participation by stake-holders is sought after. Openness and accountability are imported, following the prescriptions of the Scottish Constitutional Convention and the key principles adopted by the Scottish Parliament. Finally, the regional assemblies are to be endowed with borrowing powers to fund capital expenditure, subject to limits imposed by Whitehall.

2.3 Welcome though these forerunners of a federal system are, Federal Union takes the view that the government should have had the courage to advance further and faster towards an economic and representative structure for the regions which, through wider powers, would enable them by economic advance to contribute more to their own development, as well as to the British economy.

3. Assemblies’ powers of decision

3.1 The responsibilities of the regional assemblies are set out in Annex 1 of this paper. But in all too few instances can assemblies actually exercise a power of decision. Each assembly will have complete responsibility for its Regional Development Agency and will have limited financial resources for housing, tourism and regeneration (para. 4.16).

3.2 In the field of housing, assemblies will allocate support for capital investment between councils; and they will allocate Rail Passenger Partnership grants, currently within the decision of the Strategy Rail Authority (para. 4.38).

3.3 Assemblies “will fund, sponsor and lead the regional cultural consortium”, (para. 4.40), and will fund the arts and sports of a regional character (para. 4.42). They will also fund the regional tourist programme, non-national museums and the upkeep of English Heritage sites (para. 4.44). Finally, regional strategies for bio-diversity will be prepared and implemented by regional assemblies.

3.4 While these powers of decision are clearly diverse, they do not compare with those granted to the Scottish Parliament or the Northern Ireland Assembly, much less to the Spanish Autonomous Communities. Federal Union takes the view that an opportunity to endow the English regional assemblies with effective decision-making powers has been missed. The principal role of the assemblies appears to be to influence government and to co-ordinate the work of official and non-official bodies. The government should set the objective of advancing to a federal system, giving powers to the assemblies over health and education, transport and the environment.

3.5 English regional assemblies should, as the Campaign for the English Regions proposes in its Newsletter of July 2002, have a formal role in scrutinising the key quangos in the region, and should have the power to hold the Government Office in the region to account. Private Finance initiatives (Public-Private Partnerships) should also be brought under the effective oversight of the assemblies.

3.6 A further improvement to the White Paper proposals would be to reaffirm the right of regional executives and assemblies to appeal to the European institutions against a UK government decision on European Union policy or practice which discriminated against the region or, in the view of its institutions, acted to their disadvantage.

3.7 Summing up this section on the powers of assemblies, Federal Union is of the opinion that, consonant with a widening and deepening of the powers of assemblies, the number of their members should be increased (see sections 9 and 10 infra).

4. Relations between Assemblies and Local Councils

4.1 One of the keys to acceptance of a regional assembly is said to be the degree to which its functions will or will not impinge upon those of existing local councils. This is an area of devolution still plagued with uncertainty in Scotland. The White Paper states that “functions are generally not being taken from local government, which will continue to focus on local service delivery and community leadership” (para.4.2), but little further explanation is offered. In effect, proposals are lacking, but are essential for a structured relationship between assemblies and local councils, such as exist in the German Laender, the Autonomous Communities in Spain and of course in the United States. Federal Union takes the view that such a relationship is vital to the success of the devolution of power to the English regions, as all the ingredients of conflict between City Regions, councils and regional assemblies exist in the White Paper.

5. Electoral System for Assemblies

5.1 Federal Union accepts the government’s proposal to adopt the Additional Member System (AMS) for elected regional assemblies, but urges certain improvements. These can be summarised as the need to :

5.1.1 balance 50% assembly members elected in constituencies with 50% elected from lists;

5.1.2 divide the regions with larger areas into sub-regions, each electing a list;

5.1.3 provide for “open” lists, where the elector can vary the order of candidates set by parties;

5.1.4 abandon the proposal for a “threshold” of 5% of the vote for party representation from a list.

6. Achieving more representative assemblies: proportion of list members

6.1 The Scotland Act 1998 provided for 73 “constituency” Members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs) and 56 “List” MSPs, giving a 57% to 43% division. This contrasts with the AMS system used for elections to the Bundestag, where the proportion is 50 : 50. The Scottish system may be accounted sufficiently proportional, but the government’s proposals for the English regions are certainly not, even if similar to the proportion in the National Assembly for Wales. Federal Union is of opinion that the proportion of constituency to list members should be 50 : 50.

6.2 If it be argued that an increased number of list members would cause confusion as to the functions exercised by list and constituency members, this is certainly not the case in Germany as academic studies have shown. There have been some teething troubles in Scotland after only 3 years of the Parliament there, but they are not significant. In the view of Federal Union, the advantage lies therefore with a 50 : 50 proportion of constituency to list members.

7. Achieving more representative assemblies: sub-regional lists

7.1 The Scotland Act 1998 laid down that Scotland, with a population of 5 million, should be divided into 8 regions for the purpose of electing MSPs, these regions being the former Euro-constituencies. This sub-division of the territory results in slightly reduced proportionality, but that should be offset by a 50 : 50 proportion, by “open” lists and by abandoning the concept of a 5% threshold.

7.2 Federal Union points out that, for example, the East England region comprises 19,000 square kilometres, and stretches from Norwich to Southend-on-Sea to Watford; the South East region, with the same area, stretches from Margate to Southampton to Banbury; while the South West, with 23,000 square kilometres, extends from Bournemouth to Penzance to Cheltenham. These are large and diverse areas which should be sub-divided into sub-regions for the purpose of electing list members, with the aim of nurturing local loyalties and connections: Federal Union favours this change.

8. Achieving more representative assemblies: open lists and the threshold

8.1 The White Paper seeks, by way of the electoral system, to “promote inclusiveness” (para. 6.8), and to ensure that each assembly is “broadly representative of the votes cast” (para. 6.11). Federal Union is convinced that these two desirable outcomes can only be achieved by using open lists, where the electors’ votes can secure the election of an individual candidate placed far down a party list. However democratic the procedure a party uses to decide the order of a list (and few parties have yet achieved an acceptably open procedure), Federal Union is of opinion that electors should be able to secure the election of a candidate placed low by a party on its list, as in several Continental states.

8.2 Even though the Greater London Authority elections are subject to a 5% threshold to secure the election of a member of any party from votes cast for a list, Federal Union believes that this is an intrusive restriction on full and proper representation, and should be abandoned. The 5% threshold was only adopted for elections to the Bundestag to prevent the multiplication of parties, which contributed much to the fall of the Weimar Republic in the 1920s and 1930s. In addition, it militates against the election of independent candidates.

9. Number of assembly members

9.1 The White Paper proposes that assemblies should have between 25 and 35 members. The functions proposed for the English regions are roughly analogous to those exercised by the Welsh Assembly, where 60 members represent a population of 3.5 million. Only the North East region, with a population of 2.6 million, is smaller than Wales. An even more extreme example is the Northern Ireland Assembly, in which 108 Members represent 1.5 million people. Even though Northern Ireland is something of a special case, it points up the need for more assembly members in England.

9.2 The government proposes that the assemblies should set up committees for the purposes of consultation and scrutiny, and that each assembly should elect a Presiding Officer, a leader and 5 other “cabinet members”. In an assembly of 25, 7 members would thus be ineligible to serve on back-bench committees, leaving 18 members to serve on them (para.7.6). If each assembly were to set up four committees related to its functions (e.g., Economic development and planning, Skills and employment, Transport and tourism, and Housing, health and waste), each committee would have only 4 or 5 members. Federal Union is convinced that this number is inadequate to man an effective committee and to secure adequate representation of both party members and independent members, much less the diversity of urban and rural communities in each region. It therefore urges the government to create assemblies, in the six regions with a population of over 5 million, of 40 members, and of 30 members in the two smaller regions of East Midlands and North East.

10. Scrutiny functions of assembly committees

10.1 The government envisages scrutiny committees being concerned with either “post-event enquiry” (like the Commons Public Accounts Committee) or acting as “a sounding board or a source of ideas and other views as policy is developed” (para. 7.5). Committees would also hold the executive to account and probe specific policy areas (para. 7.6). All the more reason, in the view of Federal Union, to create assemblies of 40 members (or 30), as proposed above, so as to ensure that these committees have the powers and resources to fulfil these demanding tasks. In addition, assemblies must have power to call to account the civil servants who are administering regional services. To enable this to happen, all such civil servants should serve the region directly, thus ceasing to owe loyalty to central government.

10.2 Federal Union sees the committees operating by making policy proposals, including the allocation of resources therefor, and seeking the opinions of stakeholders and the public. The proposals, revised as necessary, would then be put after debate to the assembly’s executive, which would take decisions. After implementation of the decisions, the assembly committees would engage in post hoc scrutiny of the efficacy of the policies and their execution. Committees should also, in the opinion of Federal Union, be responsible for maintaining relations between each assembly, and the local authorities in its region, something for which the White Paper makes no provision. Committees should also be the channel between stakeholders and the assemblies.

11. Conclusion

11.1 This paper is largely devoted to proposing practical improvements to the government’s scheme for regional devolution in England, which is the purpose of a response to a consultation. It should conclude on an equally positive but more general note. On the one hand, Federal Union welcomes the government’s proposals as a first step towards a fuller devolution of power to the English regions. It considers that the re-establishment of the Scottish Parliament and the Northern Ireland Assembly, and the creation of the National Assembly for Wales have shown that devolution of power which includes – particularly in the Scottish case – federal elements, has already contributed to the better governance of these parts of the United Kingdom and will further contribute.

11.2 Federal Union therefore urges the government to continue to study the development of federal systems in Member States of the European Union and elsewhere, particularly in Australia and Canada, so as to apply where appropriate in the UK those federal principles and practice which have contributed to democracy, good governance and local economic development in federal states.

ANNEX 1

Box 4.1: Regional strategies for an elected assembly
An elected assembly will be responsible for regional strategies dealing with the following issues:

sustainable development – which will set out how their approach in the region works within the context of the Government’s commitment to pursue policies that encompass economic, social and environmental objectives and achieve stable and sustainable growth, and how regional activities will contribute to the achievement of sustainable development in the UK and support action at local level;

economic development – which will address issues such as attracting inward investment, improving productivity and the conditions for enterprise, and ensuring that all parts of the region benefit from economic growth;

skills and employment – which will set out how an assembly and its partners will improve the skills of the workforce and ensure that everybody has access to job opportunities;

spatial planning – which will address the broad location of major development proposals, integrate demands for land use across the region, outline specific regional or sub-regional policies, and provide a basis for hard strategic choices;

transport – which will spell out plans to address congestion, improve public transport and road links, and ensure that the transport system supports sustainable economic growth;

waste – which will set targets and indicators for regional waste management capacity and disposal, including for the recycling and recovery of waste, in order to promote sustainable waste management, waste minimisation and alternatives to landfill;

housing – which will deal with all aspects of the housing market and social housing in the region, covering privately-owned housing as well as social housing provided by local authorities and registered social landlords;

health improvement – setting out a long-term public health strategy, which assemblies will agree with the relevant Regional Directors of Public Health;

culture (including tourism) – which will explain how an assembly plans to improve access to cultural and sporting facilities, and develop the tourist industry; and

biodiversity – which will provide a strategic framework for the work undertaken by regional and local biodiversity partnerships in conserving biological diversity and the sustainable use of biological resources.

These strategies will replace the strategies currently being produced for each region, of which details are given in annex D.

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