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

Memorandum by Dr A J Biscoe (RG 22)


  The governments current impasse in creating a regional tier of government in England has resulted from incoherent regions, an unclear definition of what powers the regions would have and the fact that the proposed regions lack political legitimacy.

  Yet, the imperative of an English regional tier of government remains compelling and important in terms of English, UK and European politics.

  A new approach to defining English regions needs to recognise that regions do not need to be symetric, and that a region may be defined in terms of its geographic, economic, political and or cultural coherence. Not all parts of England necessarily need to be part of a region.

  Cornwall & the Isles of Scilly equates to a coherent economic, political and cutural region which recent petitions and opinion polls have strongly indicated that a referendum on a regional tier of government would be winnable.


  The template used for English regional governance to date has been the one originally developed as a format by civil servants in the early 1940s for managing food rationing. They were developed for technical reasons and were never intended to be democratically tested or to survive beyond the period of wartime powers. Those who created them had no regard to economic or geographical coherence. In the majority of cases the wartime regions, when used during the 1960s as a basis for developing regional economic policy and administrative decentralisation, demonstrated that they were unworkable.

  1.  The nine regions tended to lack a focal point having been formed around relatively equal groups of population. This contributed to their perceived lack of political legitimacy. In some cases, the North East for example, it has also underlain the inability of institutions to become established or to develop a sense of cohesiveness which bonds and motivates these regions. For most people and communities in the regions it has been unclear what the purpose of "their" regions is. They have found it difficult to identify with them or to find assured and equitable delivery and participation.

  2.  Lastly, it has been unrealistic to expect that all regions would simultaneously be responsive to the stimulus of taking over identical menus of powers and functions. To some extent this was realised in the mechanism for triggering a referendum, but that merely delayed the onset of a standardised set of institutions and functions; it did not tailor institutions, or encourage them to follow a more evolutionary path.

  3.  In summary, the combination of inappropriate template and lack of political legitimacy has been used to explain the reluctance of the electorate in the NE to vote in favour of a regional tier of government.


  4.  If we are to develop responsive, efficient and enduring regions which take up the reins of measured devolution and contribute positively to both the civic life of the country and to strengthening the national economy, then it is important that the regions have a functional purpose, and that they can command a degree of political legitimacy from their electorate.

  5.  A region needs to be politically legitimate. There needs to be a clear, popular investment into the unit. People need to be willing to accept necessary governance as being in the common interest of the region even when they may, locally, not benefit. This is a clear test of cohesion.

  6.  A strong part of gauging political legitimacy is the expression of a distinctive economic identity. This might derive from a distinctive set of activities, or even from a single activity, or it may derive from a strong mix of activities—some mature, some evolving to take the place of others in decline. The bonding factor will be the willingness of producers and practitioners to be clearly identified in their market-places as deriving from the region in question—a region must be a strong component in branding economic outputs. It is as difficult to manufacture a regional brand as it is to impose democratic legitimacy.

  7.  For regionalism to be successful it is important to clearly state what powers and functions are to be delegated, what the accountability mechanisms will be, and how the situation will be reviewed and developed as time passes. International experience shows that it is not necessary for all regions within a state to be vested with identical powers, or with a standard constitutional relationship to the centre (post-Franco Spain being a case in point). Circumstances and democratic will should play a role in determining the nature and form of delegation.

  8.  Neither is it necessary for all regions to be based upon similar features. A region might be founded upon one or more of the following features: a city, economic, administrative, cultural, identity, infrastructure.

  9.  To achieve a successful devolution to coherent regions which is founded upon a clear democratic accountability we will need to acknowledge and develop a range of regions—city regions, economically coherent regions, rural regions, peripheral regions, small regions, big regions; cultural regions. It follows that some regions will be more than one type of region, and that there will be "regionless" parts of the country.


  10.  Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly offer an example of a ready made new region. Some of its facets include:

    —  IT is a well defined region in administrative terms, with a strong record of sustained high performance in public service delivery and administration.

    —  There is a mounting business case for following such a course.

    —  There have been a number of petitions and opinion polls in recent years that demonstrate strong popular support which complements the political support for developing as a modern, peripheral region.

    —  Strong cross-party political support = all MPs, County Council and district councils.

    —  Objective 1 funds has helped to create a sense of cohesiveness and common purpose.

  11.  Taking into account recent expressions and measurements of opinion it is clear that a referendum in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly would be winnable.

  12.  It would offer the government the opportunity to achieve an early, innovative and well-defined region which could blaze the trail for others. The more qualitative the devolution of powers and functions, the more incisive the reforms of institutions and working practises, the better the model it will provide.

  13.  As a peripheral region which is showing very strong indications of responding positively to developing as an economic region, as the result of the Government's sustained support for the ongoing Structural Funds programme and other public interventions, the establishment of Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly as a region would make excellent functional sense.

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