Is there a Role for English Regional Governance?
The Decline of the Region as a Focus of Strategic Policy Making
By 2010, all major political parties were questioning the strength of their commitment to the region. In 2007, the then Labour Government published a Constitutional Green Paper (July 2007) which claimed to continue its pursuit of greater devolution for England but turned its interest from the regional to the sub-regional level. The Review of Sub-National Economic Development and Regeneration (SNR) (July 2007) recommended that new powers and incentives be given to local authorities to enable them to pursue local prosperity, economic growth and regeneration, as well as to tackle social deprivation and inequality. The non-elected Regional Assemblies were all abolished by 31 March 2010, to be replaced by Regional Strategic Leaders' Boards drawn primarily from local authorities. There had also been a movement towards the formation of voluntary partnerships between local authorities, known as Multi-Area Agreements (MAAs), to cooperate on issues and services crossing local boundaries such as transport, housing and the environment. The first of these MAAs was established in 2007. The Labour Government saw this as a possible precursor to 'City regions' somewhat on the French model, though they were slow to act: Manchester, the first city region to be established under a Combined City Authority, did not formally come into being until after the Labour Government had left office.
A report of the Communities and Local Government Select Committee (May 2009) on 'The Balance of Power: central and local government' called for 'a substantial change in the balance of power' and argued for 'greater parliamentary oversight' of the relationship which, it argued, could strengthen both local and national democracy. At the regional level this led to the creation of Regional Ministers and Parliamentary Select Committees for the Regions. However, neither the Conservative nor the Liberal Democrat parties would agree to provide members for these, so by default they failed in their primary aim of giving democratic legitimacy to the regions in the absence of elected assemblies.
The Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties also wanted major changes to regional policies and structures, but they were far more antithe regional level of governance than was Labour. The Conservatives wanted to dismantle the regional level altogether. A letter written by Caroline Spelman and Ken Clarke (2010) dated March 2010 stated that they would scrap all of England's Regional Development Agencies (RDAs) in their current form and replace them with partnerships of local authorities working across 'real economic areas'. These Local Enterprise
Partnerships (LEPs), as they would come to be known, would 'reflect natural economic areas' – largely sub-regions, although some councils could decide that the new economic area would mirror the borders of the present region. One big difference between these LEPs and the Labour government's arrangements was that 'at least fifty per cent of the boards of the new partnerships will be representatives from local commerce and industry, and a leading local business person would chair each new partnership'. At the same time, like Labour, central government would be re-establishing 'clear national leadership for key business policies'. Indeed, the Conservative Party policy appeared to be that only the Government Offices would remain at regional level, and these would be driving national policies.
Liberal Democrats proposed the reform of RDAs and the abolition of Government Offices for the Regions (Liberal Democrat Party Manifesto, 2010) with the intention of devolving yet more power to local authorities (Lib-Dem Policy Briefing, 2009). Unlike the Conservatives, they argued that greater localism would be created through a revision and bolstering of existing local authority structures and the scrapping of central government inspection regimes on local councils (Liberal Democrat Party Manifesto, 2010). They also advocated the creation of locally elected Police Authorities and Health Boards.
The outcome of the election of May 2010 was, of course, a coalition government between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, so some compromises in Government Regional and Local Government Policy were inevitable. A Coalition Agreement (2010) was established between the two ruling parties. This agreed, at the behest of the Liberal Democrats, to establish a Commission to consider some aspects of the English Question, at least to the extent that they would consider whether legislation referring to England and Wales should only be passed if a majority of MPs in England and Wales supported it. They also announced that the Regional Parliamentary Select Committees created by the Labour Government would not be re-established in the new Parliament.
The Coalition's main ideas were to be presented in a White Paper of October 2010 (Cm 7961) to 'tackle regional economic differences', but they did declare the immediate abolition of the RDAs and the transfer of their work to the LEPs, which were not yet established. This led to statements of support for the work of RDAs from several quarters, but to no avail. It was clear that the focus was shifting from the region to the sub-region or local authority level.