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

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 potential—paragraphs 1-2.1

  2.  WMCC sets out the current position concerning partnership working and governance in the West Midlands Region—paragraphs 3-3.10

  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 "London—or 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 do—arguably 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."

  Neither the NE referendum result or any subsequent event has altered this reality.


  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, or—as in the case of metropolitan city-regions—too 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 transport axis.

  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 metropolitan—requires 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 outflow—stimulating 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 it comments:

    "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 2006)


  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 transport strategies.

  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 dimension—which followed the Conservative Government's creation of the Regional Government Offices—has 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 Association—which remains the most developed within the national Local Government Association. Unlike some other regions—perhaps notably the South East—this 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 region.

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 matters.

  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.


  5.1  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.


  6.1  If an elected second chamber were to become a reality—elected in part or whole on regional lists—it 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 do—arguably 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 regions—and England as a whole—to 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.

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