Select Committee on Office of the Deputy Prime Minister: Housing, Planning, Local Government and the Regions Written Evidence

Memorandum by New Northern Future (RG 91)


  The 2004 Regions White Paper set out a good proposal to improve regional government, but it was decisively rejected by the voters of North East England.

  Nevertheless the need remains for reform of the present system, to deliver stronger leadership and joined up government action, all properly democratically accountable and publicly scrutinised. The paper makes three suggestions:

    —    Get Whitehall and Westminster out of London into the regions;

    —    Create a new, fit-for-purpose structure for the North;

    —    Go forward with city regions, empowered to provide strong strategic leadership and lead a revival of civic participation.

  The scenario for the North of England conjured up by this paper—of strong Mayors of Greater Manchester, Greater Liverpool and so on dealing directly with a powerful Secretary of State for the North of England may be the stuff of nightmares for a Whitehall mandarin, but would ensure that the North has the political structure to ensure that it can deliver its full potential in the 21st century.


  The 2004 Regions White Paper's elected regional assembly proposal was a good response to the need to develop strategic regional leadership, with proper democratic accountability via directly elected representatives. Although the powers proposed to be devolved from central government to the regional assembly were few, more could have been transferred over time, as the assemblies became established. The clear three tier structure (central government—strategic regional assembly—service-delivering unitary local authority) was a neat one. However, as a proposal, it was decisively rejected by the electorate of North East England in the November 2004 referendum.

  Nevertheless, there remains an urgent need for "joined-up" strategic action at the regional level across areas of social, economic and environmental policy if we are to make effective progress towards the sustainable society and economy we want and must create.

  If voters are reluctant to invest in new elected regional leaders to wield powers devolved from central government, then those powers will have to remain with central government departments and the quangos (eg the RDAs) accountable to them. The following proposals for central government at the regional level are suggested:

    (a)  Central government department decision-making affecting English regions should be physically located in those regions. One option might be for powers on planning, housing, local government, transport, environment, and economic development to be consolidated within a strengthened government regional office, headed by a Minister. His/her title might be, for example, "Minister for Sustainable Development in the West Midlands", and he/she and the senior officials would be based in that region for at least part of the time.

    (b)  In the case of the three northern regions, the establishment of a "Northern Office" (similar in concept to the pre-1999 devolution Welsh Office), combining the activities of key spending departments, and with a Secretary of State and headquarters staff physically located in the North, could be considered. We envisage strong Mayors of Greater Manchester, Greater Liverpool and so on dealing directly with a powerful Secretary of State for the North of England. This may be the stuff of nightmares for a Whitehall mandarin, but would provide a political structure fit for purpose to deliver the "Northern Way".

    (c)  Hand in hand with more power to be exercised at the regional level should be better and more high-profile scrutiny of decisions being made and spending undertaken. If voters are reluctant to invest in new directly-elected regional representatives, then it is suggested that Westminster MPs are the best people to deliver this. MPs of all parties should hold high profile meetings both at Westminster and in the region to examine how government across departments is performing for the region. This might be an informal arrangement, or, in the context of suggestions (a) or (b) above, it might be in the form of a formal Commons committee that could summoning Ministers to high-profile sessions held in the region to account for their performance.


  The restoration of a "city region" strategic authority serving the main conurbations (reviving the 1974-85 metropolitan counties, Avon, Cleveland and perhaps other areas) is supported, in the context of the North East referendum result, as the best available means now of getting better leadership and strategic action in those key areas. The London Mayoralty shows what can be achieved when a structure allowing for clear and accountable leadership is created (even if the term "Mayor" may not be thought appropriate for the leader of some of the areas eg West Yorkshire).

  In transport planning, powers over a re-regulated bus network and the strategic road network, plus strategic planning and development control are required, as the Mayor has in London. However there are some potential pitfalls that need to be borne in mind:

    (a)  Big districts will have to be prepared to give up power to the city-region leadership—for example, over implementation of bus lanes on strategic roads, or for the planning of major regeneration schemes. It is no good setting up a new city-region leadership only to see it being undermined by the big councils within it.

    (b)  City regions do not obviate the need for a regional tier to spatial planning—the metropolitan county boundaries are underfit to the real functional economic regions. Also, their coverage is not comprehensive—freestanding unitaries will be left out of the structure. Therefore, a four tier structure (nation—planning region—city region/county—district) will have to remain. This is sub-optimal compared to the three tier structure rejected by the North East's voters (nation—elected region—unitary districts), but will have to be made to work as best it can pending more radical reform.


  New Northern Future is an organisation that was gearing up to be a factor in the referendum on an elected regional assembly for the North West, which was then cancelled. Its priority now is to see what devolution can be salvaged from the North East referendum result, so that the North can achieve the revival in civic leadership it needs to thrive in the 21st century.

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