Memorandum by Councillor Chris Foote-Wood,
Vice Chair, North East Assembly (RG 21)
1. In view of my long and close involvement
in regional matters, I would like to give evidence to the Inquiry.
2. I have been involved in local and regional
government in the North East for most of my adult life, starting
as a student engineer in Newcastle upon Tyne in 1959. I have worked
for various local authorities, and on government schemes, as an
engineer and surveyor. I have been a local councillor since 1967,
at different times a member of an Urban District, District, County
and a Parish Council. I was Leader of Wear Valley District Council
for six years and Chairman of Dene Valley Parish Council for four
years. Over the years I have had many meetings with government
ministers and senior civil servants at national and regional level.
I have also been a member of a number of regional bodies, such
as Northern Arts and the Northern Sports Council. In the 1980s
I was on the steering committee that set up what is now Anec (Association
of North East Councils).
3. I was a long-serving committee member
of the Campaign for a North East Assembly, and was on the executive
bodies of the North East Constitutional Convention, the Campaign
for the English Regions and the Yes for the North East Campaign.
I have seen and heard all the arguments, for and against a directly-elected
regional assembly, at first hand. I have also visited the Scottish
Parliament and the Welsh Assembly on several occasions and seen
how they work.
4. Following the decisive "No"
vote in the referendum of November 2004, I have sought to make
the indirectly-elected North East Assembly as effective as possible,
given its limited powers, budget and staffing. I have been Leader
of the Liberal Democrat Group on the Assembly since its inception
in 1999. I am currently Vice Chair of the Assembly, representing
the Minority Parties, and also Vice Chair of the Assembly's Scrutiny
5. Despite the efforts over the last 50
years of both Conservative and Labour governments, both committed
to regional development, the North East continues to lag behind
the rest of the UK in most economic, health and social criteria.
The gap is growing. Clearly, the present system is not working.
6. The government is committed to reducing
regional inequalities. It therefore follows that, as the North
East is in the worst position of any region, it should be given
extra help over and above the rest of the UK. There is now an
overwhelming argument for a "Barnett Formula" for the
North East and other poorer regions, just as, over 30 years ago,
there was justification for the original Barnett Formula to give
additional help to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The Barnett
Formula has undoubtedly been a success, as Scotland, Wales and
Northern Ireland have now overtaken the North East.
7. I would make an even stronger argument
for co-ordinated government spending within the region. It is
not so much a matter of getting extra cash, as much as that would
be welcome, but if we were able to apply the current levels of
government expenditure in the region in a more efficient, co-ordinated
and concentrated way, the North East would start to catch up with
the rest of the UK instead of falling further and further behind.
8. It is clearly an error for government
to treat every region in exactly the same way. The South East
is getting more and more overcrowded and overheated, causing increasing
environmental and human problems as well as being fundamentally
damaging to the UK's long-term economic interests.
9. This can be seen in regional housing
allocations. At the same time that government is following a policy
of demolition and restriction of housing growth in the North,
the government is seeking to expand housing numbers in the South.
In both North and South, the local democratic elements, councils
and regional assemblies, are opposed to government policy in this
field. Surely it makes sense for government to restrict new housing
growth in the overcrowded South, while allowing and indeed encouraging
additional housing growth in the North?
10. Houses and jobs go together, so to make
sense of my proposed change of housing policy, government must
do much more to transfer jobs, both government and private, from
London to the regions.
11. Likewise, housing and industrial development
have an inevitable impact on the transport structure. It is essential
that all these decisions are brought together under one over-arching
body which is democratically accountable to the people of the
region, and has the powers to make effective decisions.
12. Regional Government exists and has existing
for many decades. Decisions on a significant proportion of public
spending in each region are made by a vast number of regional
bodies, almost all appointed by central government, and each one
independent of the other. In my book, "North East England,
Land of 100 Quangos", which I published in 2002, I listed
a total of 174 regional and sub-regional bodies in the North East
which disburse public funds. Of these, over 100 are fully-fledged
regional Quangos, appointed by government and responsible to government
ministers. A recent BBC television programme identified 106 of
these major Quangos in the North East alone. No-one knows exactly
how many Quangos there are in North East, let alone in the UK.
13. This present, long-established system
of regional government in England is expensive, inefficient and
lacking in local democratic accountability. Each Quango has its
own bureaucracy and its own policy. No government minister can
possibly "micro-manage" each of the English regions.
The whole point of devolving decisions to regional level is to
make them more efficient, more co-ordinated and more attuned to
local conditions. It is self-evident that the present system does
not achieve this. The decision to make all Quangos in Scotland
and Wales (bar one) directly accountable to the Scottish Parliament
and Welsh Assembly has, in my view, been a major factor in the
effectiveness of these two new democratic bodies.
14. Three things are needed to make regional
government work: much better co-ordination of decision-making
at regional level, a single body with the powers to implement
strategic decisions, and a far greater degree of local democratic
15. Initiatives such as the recent North
East Economic Summit, which I attended, are welcome, but seem
to me to add to the confusion rather than clarify it. Just how
much more research needs to be done, and how many more reports
written? We know what the problems are. What we need is the power
to tackle them. There is still no mechanism for co-ordinated decision
making at regional level.
16. The recent revelations about the Highways
Agency in refusing or delaying development plans illustrate the
problems of having such a fragmented system. The North East Assembly
is the regional planning body, yet its decisions can all too readily
be countermanded by a body (the Highways Agency) over which it
has no influence whatsoever. If the North East is to move from
80% of the UK average in economic terms, to 90%, 60,000 jobs will
need to be created. It is idle to imagine that 60,000 new jobs
can be created without massive further investment in the transport
structure, road and rail, even if all possible "green travel"
arrangements are brought in. It simply does not make sense for
one arm of government (One North East) to be promoting economic
development, while at the same time another arm of government
(the Highways Agency) is blocking it. One agency is applying the
accelerator, another the brakesimultaneously. This situation
makes a mockery of the concept of "joined-up government"
to which we all aspire.
17. Similarly, the Regional Transport Board
(of which I have direct experience) has been handicapped by only
being able to consider roads and not railways. Yet if the government's
policies green growth and encouraging less private car use, which
are to be applauded, are to mean anything, decisions on road and
rail must be integrated.
18. The government has recognised that co-ordinated
decision-making is crucial. It did so in the 2002 White Paper
on Regional Government, and in its recent decisions to merge regional
Housing, Transport and Planning under a single body, the regional
assembly. While this is very welcome, without the accompanying
powers and the ability to determine where money is spent, bringing
these policy areas together under the Regional Assembly will not
be effective as the Assembly will still not have the powers to
implement its decisions.
19. One of the major roles of the North
East Assembly is to "scrutinise" the regional development
agency, One North East. While ONE is obliged to consider what
the Assembly has to say, it has no obligation whatsoever to accept
20. I am not advocating some sort of vast,
regional bureaucracy which attempts to manage every aspect of
the regional economy etc. Most of the Quangos are doing useful
work which would still have to be done regardless of the command
structure. What I am advocating is a single "umbrella"
organisation with the powers to make integrated strategic decisions
for the regionthe broad pictureand identify major
developments with a regional impact. The simplest way to do this
is for the Assembly (if that is truly to be what it was intended
to be) to have the power to approve the budgets and business plans
of all the Quangos in the region, as now happens in Scotland and
Wales. This would give the Assembly the "tools to do the
job", without creating a new bureaucracy. Some post-holders
would transfer from the Quangos to the Assembly, but the Assembly
would remain a relatively small, streamlined body concerned with
21. At the same time, I would expect to
see a large reduction in the number of Quango Board members, which
I estimate to be in the region of 1,500 in the North East. With
strategic decision-making in the hands of a single, over-arching
body, there would not be the need for "public representation"
in the form of Board members appointed by government for every
Quango. In any case, the appointment of regional Quango Board
members by government ministers is profoundly undemocratic. To
the best of my knowledge, only one of the region's approximate
1,500 Quango appointees is a Liberal Democrat (recently appointed),
despite the LibDems being the second largest party in the region,
both in terms of elected councillors and total vote at the last
22. The main benefit of having a single
decision-making body would be to streamline decision-making and
avoid duplication, mutually-adverse and counter-productive decisions,
and the present waste of time, effort and money with each of the
region's 100-plus Quangos trying to make sense of the confusing
"spider's web" of communication paths. The numbers of
regional reports and regional strategy documents would be reducedeach
regional report would be part of a whole, a truly integrated regional
strategy as was envisaged in the 2002 White Paper.
23. Potential for increasing accountability
of decision-making at regional and sub-regional level: at regional
level, this could only be done by the Regional Assemblies, as
they are the only regional bodies with a democratic mandate and
representation from the wider community. At sub-regional level,
in the case of the North East this is already in place with four
sub-regions covering the whole of the region.
24. Potential for devolution of powers from
regional to local level: this would only make sense in the context
of abolishing the present "two-tier" system of local
government and having all-Unitary authorities. Having been a member
of both County and District Councils, I can vouch for the inefficiency
of the two-tier system and the confusion it causes in the minds
of the public. The sooner it is abolished the better.
25. Effectiveness of current arrangements
for managing services: I do not see regional government as the
right level to "manage services", except where it can
be shown that a regional service will be better. If it is determined
that the Police and Fire & Rescue services, for example, are
best run at regional level, I would not wish to see any single
regional body running them directly. Rather, the single regional
body should have power over strategic planning decisions, with
separate democratic arrangements for each service. With Health,
for example, recognising that the North East has some of the worst
health factors in the UK, it would make sense for the single regional
body to agree overall priorities while not being involved in service
delivery and management.
26. The potential for new arrangements:
27. City Regions: while I agree that the
cities can and should be "engines for growth" and I
fully support the efforts of cities to revitalise their inner
city areas, I would caution against setting up "yet another
tier" of City Regions. Not only would this clash with existing
and future overall regional arrangements, it would tend to concentrate
resources within the cities at the expense of the rest of the
region. Cities already have a built-in advantage through having
concentrated populations and the consequent economies of scale,
as opposed to the difficulties of sparsely-populated areas (of
which I have had a great deal of experience). With most funding
being on a "per capita" basis, the rural and semi-rural
areas need their own additional, dedicated sources of funding.
28. Peripheral town and cities: dealt with
29. The desirability of closer inter-regional
co-operation: this should be done, but only in those areas where
it makes sense. For example, in trade and economic development
abroad, it does not make sense for each region to "do its
own thing." I am all for sharing resources in promoting the
regions in the EU and in the wider world. On centres of excellence,
it is simply not possible for every region to have one of every
kind: it makes sense for two or more regions to join together
in promoting these rare and expensive, but very necessary, beacons
for the future.
30. The Northern Way: as someone who has
always striven to make things work, as well as promoting better
arrangements, I find too much rhetoric, much of it unhelpful,
in the "Northern Way". In particular, talk of a "Linear
City" from coast to coast, a highly dubious "social
engineering" concept with hugely damaging environmental and