Could English Regions or Sub-regions be Re-invented?
Regions, the EU and banking
While Henig (2006) still argues for a regional solution to both economic development and democratic representation, it seems unlikely that any future government will, in the near future, move to the reinvention of RDAs and Regional Government Offices, never mind elected Regional Assemblies. Nevertheless, Regional Structures continue to be important in much of Europe. They first came together in the Council of European Municipalities and Regions founded in 1951 from 55 associations in 40 European countries. The European Union now has an Assembly of 250 members, which is designated as an independent network of regional authorities, as well as a Committee of the Regions representing regional
interests. The EU Regional Development Fund exists to finance projects of regional importance – examples in England include the Eden Project in Cornwall and the SW England Competitiveness Region comprising Bristol, Bath and North Somerset. There is also an EU Assembly of European Regions, which was set up in 1987 to include 47 regions from the EU countries. Each of these regions has an elected Assembly with working committees on economy and regional development, social policy and public health and education. Regional structures have developed between banks and enterprises in several European countries as part of projects to promote economic development. Thus, Germany's Chambers of Commerce have come together in some regions to share knowledge and promote market products and the regional banks make loans to industry. In France there are 22 Regional Chambers of Commerce which coordinate the work of the local Chambers and which manage airports and ports.
The German regional system was praised by the Labour Party Leader of the Opposition in a key policy speech in March 2013 to the British Chambers of Commerce, in which he argued for a regional banking system serving every region of the country, with each bank having a mission to serve only its own region (Wintour, 2013). The speech was based on a report by the Labour Party Small Business Task Force (2013) which recommended the creation of a banking system reflecting the German Sparkässen in order to regenerate local small and medium enterprises. 'We are not suggesting the wholesale transplant of an identical Sparkässen structure. The challenge is to bring the key principles to life in a British context. The prize is worth the challenge: no other measure will provide a better solution to one of the biggest issues facing small business' (Wintour, 2013). The Labour Party is being encouraged by various sympathetic think tanks and pressure groups to consider devolving powers to the sub -national level. The most important of these will probably be the independent growth review by Andrew Adonis which was launched in July 2013 but will not report until some time in 2014 (Adonis, 2014).
Despite the Coalition Government's insistence that regions are dead, as we have argued in earlier chapters, some parts of government continued to find value in a regional level of organisation. A few ministries, in particular the Ministry for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), have kept a local point of contact, albeit for the purpose of collecting local information rather than policy delivery. In 2012 Lord Heseltine, the former Conservative Party Government Minister, produced a report which praised the work of the UK Regional Growth Fund and of regional and local Chambers of Commerce in France and Germany (Heseltine, 2012). The Treasury and the BIS published their joint response to this report in March 2013 in which it accepted most but not all of the recommendations (Treasury and BIS, 2013) The government's press statement promised to 'reverse excessive centralisation, freeing local areas from Whitehall control and giving businesses and local leaders the power and the funding to do what they need to achieve their potential' (Treasury and BIS, 2013). Elsewhere, even stronger attempts are being made to encourage government to take the regions seriously again. An Institute of Public Policy Research report (IPPR North, 2012) argued that national economic growth requires regional policies and institutions to drive it. It advocated the creation of a regional Innovations Council, a regional Investment and Trade Board and a regional Transport Board to co-ordinate and plan economic activity. At the national level it recommended the creation of a National Investment Bank with a ring-fenced regional allocation of funds based on population and economic potential and the decentralisation of housing finance. In terms of governance, it advocated an extension of the Combined City Authority model but with more direct democratic accountability through the 'creation of directly elected “metro mayors” across LEP areas alongside suitably named rural alternatives' (IPPR North, 2012). In addition, it called for an annual regional Leadership Convention and Leaders Summit in order to plan and coordinate regional activity.