A New Broom? Coalition Policy and the 'Death of the Region'
The Development and Implementation of Coalition Policies
The outcome of the election of May 2010 was a coalition government between the right-wing Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrat Party, which is right-wing on economics but more left-wing on social issues. Some compromises between the two parties' policies on Regional and Local Government Policy were inevitable. A Coalition Agreement (2010) was established between the two ruling parties, setting out their programme of policies for the next five years. This included a proposal 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 with the support of a majority of the MPs for England and Wales. Other constitutional matters included reform of the House of Lords and a reformulation of Parliamentary Constituency boundaries. One of their first acts was to announce that the Regional Parliamentary Select Committees created by Labour would not be re-established in the new Parliament.
The Coalition Government's main ideas on regional governance, presented in a Growth White Paper in October 2010 (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, 2010), were intended to tackle regional economic differences. As early as 2009, the Conservative Party had stated its intention to 'abolish regional planning, revoke all regional spatial strategies (including regional building targets), and repeal the national planning guidance that relates to regional planning' (Conservative Party, 2009). This was repeated in the Conservative Party Manifesto (2010). The Liberal Democrat Party Manifesto (2010), in contrast, intended to circumscribe the role and budgets for Regional Development Agencies (RDAs) but only proposed their abolition where they had been seen to fail. However, once in power, the Coalition Government declared the abolition of all the RDAs, with their work being transferred to as-yet-not-established Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) at the sub-regional level. 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-regional or local level.
Quite early in the new parliament, the Department for Communities and Local Government announced what was intended to be 'a fundamental shift of power from Westminster to people.' As early as 6 July 2010, the Coalition Government revoked all regional strategies under section 79(6) of the Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Act (2009). This meant that not only regional planning but also a number of other key strategies, including Regional
Housing Strategies, Regional Waste Strategies and Regional Transport Strategies, ceased to have effect. Other strategy documents which had been produced in some regions, concerning culture, environment, minerals and skills, were also rescinded. As one of our interviewees described it; 'the word region is a poison as far as they are concerned, and to mention it in departments and in meetings, well, it is as though they never existed' (Regional Development Agency Deputy Director). A Government Structural Reform Plan was published in July 2010, based on an earlier Green Paper (Conservative Party Policy Green Paper, 2010) which spoke specifically of 'removing regional government” and emphasised Localism and the Big Society'. Lord Wei, the chief adviser on the Big Society from 2010– 2013, defined its three chief qualities as letting the people take control, furthering the sense of community in all areas, from rural areas to big cities, and ensuring that the needs of different places are dealt with in different ways. In other words, the intention was to promote 'decentralisation and democratic engagement' and to end the 'era of top-down government' by giving new powers to 'local councils, communities, neighbourhoods and individuals'. The Conservative Party Manifesto also promised support for charities, cooperative societies and local enterprises.
Initially this resulted in two main policy approaches. First, a devolution of power and greater financial autonomy to localities, 'local government' and 'community groups', including a review of local government finance as well as the somewhat nebulous concept of the 'Big Society'. Though based on the Conservative Party Policy Green Paper No 14 it was described by Danny Alexander, a Liberal Democrat member of the Coalition Cabinet, as the most radical decentralisation in recent times (Stratton, et al. 2010) through the removal of budget ring fencing. Furthermore it abolished Regional Spatial Strategies and returned decision-making powers on housing and planning to local councils, including giving councils new powers to stop garden grabbing. There was some concern that 'the abolition of regional planning could cause a drop in housing numbers unless the transition into the new system is carefully managed … [and] … the loss of the regional planning tier would make it harder to coordinate development and infrastructure across council boundaries' (Stothart, 2010, p.1). The National Housing Federation also expressed fears of a major shortage of social housing particularly in the South East (Ramesh, 2010). These fears were subsequently realised.
Other Coalition policies impacted upon regions. The Coalition Government declared that it would abolish the Government Office for London and was minded to abolish the Government Offices for the Region in other areas. It further moved to stop the regionalisation of Fire Services. The proposed reorganisation of the National Health Service (NHS) also had major implications for regions. If NHS Trusts were to be replaced by GP consortiums or private providers, it was feared that a likely impact would be to reduce the scale of area planning of health provision.
The strategy outlined in the Growth White Paper (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, 2010), following the direction for public service reform set by the Spending Review, was supposed to shift power away from central
government to local communities, citizens and independent providers, which included those voluntary or community groups referred to in the Big Society. However, one consequence of placing the emphasis for economic growth at the local decision-making level was that, as the government acknowledged, there would be substantial local variations in the nature and the levels of economic growth achieved, which somewhat contradicted their earlier intention (above) to 'tackle regional economic differences'. In the Foreword, Deputy Prime Minister Clegg elaborated these policy trends: 'We will be bringing an end to the top down initiatives that ignore the varying needs of different areas … creating local enterprise partnerships … [which will] … bring together business and civic leaders to set the strategy – and take the decisions – that will allow their area to prosper
… [by promoting] … private sector growth' (ibid). The Paper also proposed the creation of directly elected Mayors in the 12 largest cities, the introduction of Tax Increment Finance powers and a reform of the planning system to promote 'efficient and dynamic markets, in particular in the supply of land', and so 'help tackle barriers to growth.'
Despite this positive rhetoric about the decentralisation of spending decisions, it became clear very quickly that the budget available to local authorities was to be substantially reduced and that this would have an impact upon their ability to provide even existing services. The Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) was told to make huge immediate savings, with local councils losing £1.165bn (Phillips, 2010). The comprehensive spending review announced on 20 October 2010 actually produced a cut of 7.1 per cent per year, amounting to 27 per cent of local authority spending over the four-year period, most of it front loaded into the first year together with some increase in responsibilities to be carried out.