Home Political science Devolution and Localism in England
Most of our interviewees did not believe that their own region had a meaningful regional identity to underpin their regional institutions, though they did allude, with varying degrees of confidence, to the existence of regional identities in other regions. Many felt on stronger ground with sub-regional identities, which might be historically and culturally grounded in a reality or, like Strategic Leaders Boards, tied into a local system of democratic representation. Examples of the sub-regional level ranged from ancient kingdoms, like East Anglia and Mercia, which straddled present county boundaries, to the county and city levels. Respondents from one county in particular were convinced of its distinctiveness and firmly believed that its inhabitants shared the identity of a common historical and cultural view which could underpin its status as a region. The idea that cities had distinct identities was more widely accepted. Of course, levels of internal migration will also affect the extent of sub-regional identity.
The emphasis on sub-regional identity appeared to fit well with New Labour's New Localism and its aim of devolving power towards front-line managers, local democratic structures and local consumers and communities (Corry and Stoker, 2002). The Sub-National Review had led to many of the regional elite giving serious consideration to that level of operation. However, while there was recognition of the need for a constructive debate about local government and subregional institutions of governance, it was still all very new to them and mostly untried when the election was called. Similarly with communities, the White Paper of 2008 (Cm 7427, 2008) and the Sustainable Communities Act (2007) and its amendment (2009) emphasised the importance of community engagement. There is clearly a continuum of scales of identification ranging through regional and sub-regional levels down to towns, neighbourhoods and villages. Many more of our interviewees saw towns, neighbourhoods and villages as the strongest basis for geographical identity, and many had made efforts to engage with people at this level. The problems they identified were that even the sub-region was seen by many as being too small to play an effective role in wider economic or strategic planning, and at the neighbourhood and village level the existing institutions were often seen to be inadequate to the task and frequently unrepresentative of the communities they claimed to serve.
The 2010 Coalition Government has its own form of New Localism. The Coalition Programme for Government (2010, p.11) stated that it would 'promote the radical devolution of power and greater financial autonomy to local government and community groups, abolish Regional Spatial Strategies and return decisionmaking powers on housing and planning to local councils.' In the longer term, it intends to 'give neighbourhoods far more ability to determine the shape of the places in which their inhabitants live'. This suggests that the intention was to return decision-making to the lowest possible level. Neighbourhoods are certainly something with which residents are able to identify. Whether the institutional framework at that level can be sufficiently competent and robust remains to be seen.
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