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Conclusions

The overall picture at the beginning of 2010 was of a government seeking to create structures which would relate to the English regions by bringing together a partnership of central and local government units in acceptable decentralisation of power, especially economic power, at the regional and sub-regional levels of governance. The regional development process which had developed was assessed and evaluated for its impact on regional economies in a report of March 2009 (Price Waterhouse Coopers, 2009). This report considered that the RDAs had
mostly generated economic benefits which exceeded their costs, although there had been some variation between the projects concerned. Both jobs and businesses had been created and skills developed in a successful programme bringing together local stakeholders, while the gap between deprived and more prosperous areas had been reduced. However, public criticisms of the regional structure remained strong. Many still felt that the process of regional authority and administration had remained too much within the powers of national government, which dominated it through top-down targets. If regional government in the English regions was to be successful, it was argued, the Regional Government Offices (RGOs) and the RDAs needed to be accountable to the people in their areas (Henig, 2006; Roberts and Baker, 2006). Despite this, the Regional Assemblies remained unpopular with the public and were eventually abolished just before the election in 2010.

There had also been a shift in thinking towards community activity at local level and the need to create structures which would stimulate local democracy and power below that of the region. The White Paper of 2008 on 'Communities in Control: real people real power' stressed the need to empower people so that 'democracy becomes not a system of occasional voting or an imperfect method of selecting who governs us, but something which infuses our way of life.' Its proposals for greater empowerment concentrated on the local and neighbourhood level, and it appeared to replace the earlier attempts to stimulate democratic activity at the regional level through Regional Assemblies. This 'New Localism' has been characterised as a strategy aimed at devolving power and resources away from central control and towards front-line managers, local democratic structures and local consumers and communities, within an agreed framework of national minimum standards and policy priorities (Corry and Stoker, 2002; Corry et al., 2004). It was advocated by Alan Milburn and the Think Tank New Local Government Network in particular.

Even so, the region as a distinct level of governance seemed so securely fixed within political thinking that in 2008 Bradbury and Le Gales felt able to argue that: 'Gone are the days when the view could still go relatively unchallenged that the UK was a unitary and centralised state, mostly homogeneous and integrated despite minor territorial differences … devolution and regionalization have comprehensively underlined the need to take the UK's stateless nations and regions seriously' (Bradbury and Le Gales, 2008, p. 217). Whilst still true of Europe as a whole, more recent experience shows that this was not to be the case for England. Everything was to change with the 'new broom' of 2010.

However, first we want to look at the views of our interviewees from the regional and local elites on the value and functions of the regional level of governance. These interviews were conducted in 2009/2010.


 
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