Memorandum by the West Midlands Constitutional
Convention (WMCC) (RG 18)
1. WMCC argues that regionalisation is continuing
and will continue in response to genuine governance, economic
and public service needs and that directly elected regional government
remains necessary if regions are to meet their full potentialparagraphs
2. WMCC sets out the current position concerning
partnership working and governance in the West Midlands Regionparagraphs
3. The Committee's five key questions are
addressed at paragraphs 4-6
While not rejecting the concept of city-regions
(paragraphs 4.10-4.15) WMCC notes the problems of:
a) the likely fragmentation of current region-wide
Regional Assembly partnerships by new city-region structures;
b) the potential for division between the
region's conurbation and the shire sub-regions;
c) the relative weakness of a structure
with no direct democratic legitimacy or accountability.
4. The WMCC argues for a fresh approach
to tackling the democratic deficit at regional level via reform
of the House of Lords and the vesting of regional powers in regionally
elected Members of the Second Chamber (paragraphs 6.1-6.2). This
approach could both fill the democratic vacuum in the regions
and bring new clarity to England's constitutional position in
the post 1997 devolved United Kingdom.
The Constitutional Convention's 2004 submission
to the Committee's inquiry into the Regional Assemblies' Bill,
took "Londonor Local?" as its theme. In doing
so we underlined our support for measures that, first and foremost,
sought to address the democratic deficit in current devolved arrangements
for the English regions. The West Midlands Constitutional Convention
summarised its case for regional devolution as follows:
1.1 "WMCC welcomes ||| much in the Draft
Bill. It is a sensible starting point in the organic development
of the process of English devolution. The Government is to be
congratulated on coming this far in proposing to shift our over
centralised system of Government away from, what The Scotsman
newspaper has called, the "metrovincialism" of London
and the Westminster village. If properly developed, the Government's
devolution plans have the capacity to create a new, more meaningful
form of localism with productive regional partnerships providing
better local services in tandem with both local and national government.
1.2 With its 5.3 million people at the diverse
heart of England, the West Midlands Region stands ready to do
more for itself, its economy and its people. In an increasingly
complex society London Government needs to concentrate on what
it is best suited to doarguably managing the economy, defending
the nation in the wider world and responding to global social,
scientific and political change. It should set the national framework
but increasingly work in partnership with strategic Elected Regional
Assemblies to ensure service delivery in transport, health, planning
and other major strategic services. London micromanagement of
public services does not work; Scotland and Wales offer alternative
and increasingly successful models of diversity within a national
Neither the NE referendum result or any subsequent
event has altered this reality.
2. THE ENGLISH
2.1 English government continues to operate
imperfectly given the gap between London based (and SE orientated)
central government and under-powered, geographically constrained
local government. The missing connection is a strategic layer
of democratically accountable regional government, big enough
to act for millions of people in major public service provision
(eg transport services), but with the potential to be much closer
to local/regional communities.
3.1 Non-elected (or indirectly elected)
structures are likely to be too weak to co-ordinate varying regional
interests, oras in the case of metropolitan city-regionstoo
narrowly drawn to benefit diverse urban/rural regions like the
West Midlands. This is not to dismiss or attack local partnership
arrangements. Those promoted in the West Midlands by the WM Local
Government Association (WMLGA), the Metropolitan Joint Committee
and the unelected regional assembly (WMRA), offer opportunities
for voluntary regional policy co-ordination. At the same time,
useful as their work is, these partnerships lack both power and
a direct democratic mandate to make key decisions in the interests
of the wider region.
3.2 Only certain quangos (notably the RDA,
Advantage West Midlands) have the power to deliver for voters
across the wider region. Yet no elector can determine who serves
on such bodies. In transport provision the inner urban core of
the West Midlands region benefits greatly from the operation of
the WM Passenger Transport Executive (WMPTE) and its operational
arm, CENTRO. Yet, while not a quango, its (indirectly) elected
members are drawn only from the seven metropolitan boroughs in
the region's urban core, leaving fast developing shire areas and
cities outside its service area; let alone the 300,000 people
of the North Staffs urban sub-region centred on Stoke-on-Trent.
This is despite the fact that the regional travel to work area
has long since expanded beyond the seven metropolitan boroughs
that cluster around the Wolverhampton/Birmingham/Coventry north-south
3.4 If nothing else, the good governance
of the wider West Midlands requires a region-wide transport authority
embracing all 18 metropolitan, county and unitary councils currently
charged with "strategic" transport planning. The present
arrangements were a great leap forward in 1974, when the forerunner
organisations of today's WMPTE/CENTRO were created, complemented
by the elected West Midlands County Council as the strategic authority
for the conurbation. Today the whole region -shire and metropolitanrequires
a new overarching body with the power to plan and promote economic
and transport developments on an appropriate scale. Extending
the CENTRO model suffers however from lack of public understanding
of the relationship between the provision of this key service
and the elected local councils concerned.
3.5 In its January 2006 submission to the
Government concerning Regional Funding Allocations (RFAs), the
current Regional Assembly's Transport Partnership observes:
3.6 "The West Midlands is not a homogeneous
region. It is diverse physically and culturally and its settlement
pattern varies from intensely developed in Major Urban Areas to
some of the most remote and sparsely populated parts of England.
At its heart, Birmingham aspires to be a World Class city, its
core having been transformed in the past 25 years.
3.7 The last 50 years has seen an increasing
outflow of population from the conurbations to the Shire Counties.
The cities have been hollowed out, while services and house prices
have been put under great pressure in rural areas. A fundamental
policy shift has been made in the Regional Spatial Strategy (RSS)
to reverse this outflowstimulating an Urban Renaissance
through improved housing, access, employment and services. As
a counterpoint, meeting local needs will be the focus of a Rural
Renaissance through the provision of affordable housing and better
access to services and jobs". (WMRA Regional Funding Allocation
Submission, January 2006)
3.8 Noting the diversity of this urban/rural
region of 5.3 millions the West Midlands Regional Assembly has
identified the above Urban and Rural Renaissance strategies as
two of its five strategic aims. The others are:
"Modernising/diversifying the economy and
creating a dynamic business base;
Upskilling the Region's workforce;
Promoting the Region's competitiveness and assets
in a national and global setting".
(West Midlands Regional Assembly RFA submission)
3.9 It is difficult to see how these objectives
can be pursued with appropriate rigour in the absence of a suitably
empowered region-wide structure promoting and joining-up major
work on their delivery and taking key investment decisions on
the basis of accountability to regional voters. Nor, under present
governance arrangements can as much attention as necessary be
paid to the wider social and cultural needs of the region and
the contribution of such intangible assets to future prosperity
and community well-being. Recognising the interdependence between
the urban core and surrounding shire areas is another essential
element in promoting both regional economic prosperity and social
cohesion. A region-wide governance approach offers opportunities
to maximise the tax and other resourcing available for investment
in the West Midlands. It may also offer opportunities for promoting
more sustainable economic and environmental approaches to the
provision of goods and services.
3.10 In its submission to the Regional Funding
Allocations process the Assembly's Regional Transport Partnership
tellingly notes the severe limits of current arrangements when
"The RFA for transport includes capital
funding for major schemes in Local Transport Plans and major Highways
Agency schemes. It does not include other major expenditure, for
example on rail, which is critical in the successful integration
of the economic development, housing and transport strategies."
(Executive Summary, WMRA RFA submission January
4. FILLING THE
If current regional arrangements are a pale
shadow of what is needed, what steps can be taken towards improvement?
The WMCC welcomes the Committee's inquiry and paraphrasing the
inquiry questions, responds as follows:
4.1 Question 1: What potential exists
for increasing the accountability of decision-making at the regional
and sub-regional level, and to simplify existing arrangements?
4.2 Real accountability depends ultimately
on some directly elected level of authority for the region or
sub-region concerned. Other arrangement (eg joint boards) will
have less legitimacy and will have greater difficulty in developing
a regional perspective, given local loyalties. At the same time,
while no substitute for a directly elected strategic voice (and
financially under-powered), the Passenger Transport Executive
model has functioned reasonably successfully in the delivery of
4.3 Vesting more powers in local authorities
on a pooled joint board basis offers better (if still indirect)
connection with voters, but risks returning to a 19th century
plethora of local boards. A simpler solution would be to restructure
existing Regional Assemblies around an executive board of councillors,
with the wider Assembly acting as a scrutiny/oversight body. More
power could be vested in Regional Assembly executive boards accordingly,
based upon the indirect elected mandate of the councillors concerned.
In the West Midlands region this has the advantage of building
upon the existing (and continuing) regionalisation process. It
also avoids the potential fragmentation arising from city-regions
and service-specific joint boards. For reasons given earlier these
arrangements are, however, no substitute for a directly elected
tier of regional representation with a region-wide focus.
4.4 Question 2: What is the potential
for devolution of powers from regional to local level?
4.5 Is this the key issue? The complexity
and scale of regions like the West Midlands demands a region-wide
spatial, transport, planning, economic and housing strategy focused
by one body. The point is to make this pre-existing (and necessary)
tier of government democratic, by election on a region-wide basis.
4.6 On the whole local authorities have
lost powers to central Government rather than to regions. In education,
social care and above all in financial autonomy, central government
has substantially increased its control of local councils. Regional
strategic and economic powers need to be increased by devolution
from the centre (pace Wales), while at the same time central government
should restore to local councils the ability to take local decisions
on key local services. This requires the rebalancing of the central-local
tax and funding system.
4.7 Question 3: How effective are current
arrangements for managing services at the various levels, and
what is their inter-relationship?
4.8 Since 1997 the Government's recognition
of the regional dimensionwhich followed the Conservative
Government's creation of the Regional Government Officeshas
offered those councils wishing to work together an improved regional
framework for co-operation. In the West Midlands regional co-operative
arrangements are highly developed. This region was the first to
create a fully financed regional Local Government Associationwhich
remains the most developed within the national Local Government
Association. Unlike some other regionsperhaps notably the
South Eastthis has fostered a positive environment for
regional co-operation across a range of public and private sector
bodies. This is evidenced, for example, by the signing of the
first Regional Concordat some four years ago and important practical
public/private sector initiatives such as the West Midlands in
Europe Brussels office.
4.9 Successful as these institutions are,
they remain voluntary associations or initiatives. What is lacking
is an authoritative elected voice for the region, with financial
and other legal powers to co-ordinate the major infrastructure,
transport, social, cultural and investment needs of the whole
4.10 Question 4: What is the potential
for new arrangements, particularly the establishment of city regions?
4.11 The wider West Midlands region is not
naturally a city-region. Indeed, the only geographical city-region
in England is London. Other English official regions are a mixture
of urban and shire areas. Accordingly, the city-region model will
only be appropriate to parts of the West Midlands. It cannot address
the needs of a diverse rural/urban region unless the whole region
is so designated.
4.12 This is not to reject the city-region
concept entirely. Given English local government suffers from
over-control from Whitehall, any measure giving even a selection
of local councils greater local power is welcome. WMCC understands
the local proposal is to empower perhaps the Wolverhampton/Birmingham/Coventry
conurbation (ie the West Midlands County) plus North Staffordshire/Stoke
on Trent, as two city-regions within the West Midlands region.
While this would offer new resourcing and planning powers for
those sub-regions (covering perhaps three millions of the regional
population), these benefits would presumably not extend to the
county areas of Staffordshire, Shropshire, Warwickshire, Herefordshire
and Worcestershire. The omission is startling given the connectivity
of these sub-regions with the West Midlands' urban core, their
population of some 2.5 million West Midlanders and the number
of economic and population growth points within them.
4.13 Question 5: What might be the impact
of new regional and sub-regional arrangements, such as the city
regions, upon peripheral towns and cities, plus consideration
of the desirability of closer inter-regional co-operation (as
in the Northern Way) to tackle economic disparities?
4.14 In the West Midlands region the current
Government Office Region is the logical planning unit for strategic
services such as transport, spatial planning, fire and police.
As stated above, areas outside the city-region(s) would escape
effective integration into necessary strategies. If it is argued
that they might form cross border partnerships with the city-region,
this risks replacing the existing single regional partnership
framework of the West Midlands Regional Assembly with a plethora
of sub-regional arrangements. If current regional powers remain
too weak to effectively plan key strategies, the answer is not
to fragment existing arrangements but to empower them.
4.15 If, because of the NE vote, the Government
feels Regional Assemblies cannot be elected, then the Government
should seek to vest existing and expanded regional powers (including
tax powers) within reformed Parliamentary arrangements (see later).
Adding city-regions to current regional arrangements brings a
further layer of activity in potential conflict with wider regional
planning need. Establishing city-regions while abolishing the
existing Regional Assembly partnership would leave non-city-region
areas (covering millions of people) largely unrepresented in regional
4.16 Loose, centrally-run arrangements such
as the Midlands Way are not likely to prove a substitute for current
arrangements. While the need for cross border regional co-operation
is recognised, in the West Midlands the Midlands Way is largely
seen as a Government after thought following the launch of the
Northern Way. When first mooted, concern was expressed locally
that the concept risked diverting effort from Regional Assembly
strategies and weakening the West Midlands regional economic and
planning focus for no clear benefits.
5. MEETING THE
5.1 WMCC argues that its region needs not
more sub-regional structures but a suitably empowered regional
authority directly accountable to the people of the West Midlands
region. As regional government is essentially a matter of redefining
central-regional relationships (rather than reforming local government),
the Government might address the need for a democratically accountable
tier of regional authority as part of its continued commitment
to full reform of the House of Lords.
6. A WEST MIDLANDS
6.1 If an elected second chamber were to
become a realityelected in part or whole on regional listsit
would be feasible to vest certain strategic regional powers (region
by region) in those elected to represent their region in the reformed
second chamber. A Regional Authority of say 10-25 West Midlands'
Members of the Second Chamber could constitute a directly accountable
body in which regional planning, transport, tax and other strategic
decisions could be vested.
6.2 Clearly many of the existing region-wide
partnership arrangements could continue to function as either
advisory or scrutiny bodies to an elected Regional Authority.
The proposal thus builds upon the strong traditions of regional
co-operation existing within the wider West Midlands, rather than
duplicating or supplanting them.
7.1 In making its original case for devolution
to the English regions to the Committee's earlier Inquiry, the
West Midlands Constitutional Convention stated:
"With its 5.3 million people at the diverse
heart of England, the West Midlands Region stands ready to do
more for itself, its economy and its people.
In an increasingly complex society London Government
needs to concentrate on what it is best suited to doarguably
managing the economy, defending the nation in the wider world
and responding to global social, scientific and political change.
It should set the national framework but increasingly work in
partnership with strategic Elected Regional Assemblies to ensure
service delivery in transport, health, planning and other major
strategic services. London micromanagement of public services
does not work; Scotland and Wales offer alternative and increasingly
successful models of diversity within a national UK framework."
(London Or Local? WMCC October 2005)
7.2 None of these practical reasons for
local democratic control of our region have disappeared. The proposal
for a new type of elected Regional Authority rooted in a reformed
Second Chamber offers a new way to connect the English regionsand
England as a wholeto the UK Parliament. It could also offer
a practical mechanism to embed England in the emerging pattern
of devolved UK government for the 21st century.