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

Memorandum by the Wessex Constitutional Convention (RG 40)

  1.  The Wessex Constitutional Convention[45] is supportive in principle of elected regional assemblies in England. However, our considered view, reflecting the fruits of thirty years' research, is that the present configuration of regions in southern England is neither popular nor practical and that an alternative configuration offers a much stronger prospect of success. This configuration requires:

    (a)   that Cornwall (with the Isles of Scilly) forms a separate region, as advocated by the Cornish Constitutional Convention and supported by the 50,000 signatories of its petition calling for the same;

    (b)   that the South East region be divided three ways: Buckinghamshire to the East of England; Oxfordshire, Berkshire, Hampshire and the Isle of Wight to the South West; the remaining counties to form a continuing South East region;

    (c)   that the enlarged South West be renamed Wessex.

  2.  Arguments for change were set out in a 40-page submission to the ODPM in response to the regional governance White Paper. The submission, The Case for Wessex, was published by the Wessex Constitutional Convention in 2003.[46]

  3.  Accountability, properly understood, must be democratic in character. In a regional context it is therefore only achievable with the creation of elected regional assemblies. The defeat of the White Paper proposals in November 2004 poses a challenge, in that it closes off this option in the short-term. Any attempt to take the process of regionalisation further when there is no prospect of elected assemblies in the foreseeable future is therefore bound to reduce accountability, while doing nothing to enhance the accountability of those services already delivered regionally. We therefore believe that regionalisation should be halted until such time as the debate on accountability is satisfactorily resolved.

  4.  From a Wessex perspective, our objection is geographic as much as democratic. Regionalisation on the basis of the current boundaries is harmful to the territorial integrity of Wessex and to its economic, environmental and social well-being. The reasons for this view are set out in The Case for Wessex.

  5.  The debate needs vision. While regionalisation should be halted, regionalism as a political philosophy now needs to move centre-stage in order that interest in elected assemblies, when it revives, is more constructively and imaginatively channelled. This argument has two elements.

  6.  First, it would be foolish to dismiss the idea of elected assemblies as "dead"; Scottish and Welsh devolution demonstrates the cyclical, perhaps helical nature of the debate. English regionalism has moved from its cultural roots in the 19th century through cycles of administrative regionalism during both world wars, reviving in the 1960's and again in the 1990's, interspersed with periods of reaction. Those periods of reaction need to be better understood. Motives range widely. In one direction there is Whitehall retrenchment to the centre, oblivious to the consequences on the ground. In the other is a resurgent localism, quite rightly resentful at being promised devolution that turns out to be largely centralisation at the expense of local autonomy.

  7.  Second, however, the cultural and administrative traditions have never yet coalesced, outside Scotland and Wales. This remains the key structural weakness of English regionalism. While the military have harnessed extensively the names and symbols of East Anglia, Mercia, Northumbria and Wessex, civilian regions remain devoid of feeling. Official ignorance of real regional history and symbolism appears deliberate, evidenced by widespread waste of public resources on attempts to create disjointed, synthetic identities for the administrative regions. Inviting the public to vote "Yes" to an arbitrary, compass-point region, originally defined for civil defence purposes in 1938, is asking for trouble, even without linking an affirmative outcome to the abolition of 1,000-year old counties.

  8.  The debate that began before the White Paper and largely ended in November 2004 was a debate driven by a fear of failure, a fear that became self-fulfilling. Despite all the warnings, Ministers' leadership of the debate amounted to micro-management, drawing lines, literally, that were not to be crossed. Instead of building a broad consensus, they sought to impose a narrow one. In place of flexibility they preferred brittleness, preventing the public imagination from carrying the debate beyond its crude initial assumptions. They ignored continental experience that there is no fixed size for a viable region, rejecting Cornish claims to regional—or national—status, for reasons that can only be described as circular. Calls for larger regions in the North and Midlands with the capacity to tackle the problems of economic and social decline there were equally rejected. Regional devolution was supposed to be about empowering people in the regions. Yet people were not even trusted to define their own region.

  9.  We look forward to a more inclusive debate as regionalism rises once again to the top of the political agenda. We do not see the regionalist cause triumphant in the lifetime of this Parliament but we do believe that Government must learn lessons now and act to lay firmer foundations for a different approach to regions. In particular, regional governance should be taken out of the hands of the ODPM and placed where it belongs, with the Department for Constitutional Affairs. Elected assemblies must never again be put before the people as little more than glorified municipal committees; their true potential as the building blocks of a federal United Kingdom must be recognised from the start. Names and areas that mean something are fundamental to this.

  10.  It is because we view regionalism as in the long-term a constitutional matter that we cannot endorse a city-region alternative. City-regions are, and have always been, the result of an unholy alliance of large cities keen to extend their territory and their political dominance with a central government machine terrified by the potential of regional democracy to achieve a significant transfer of power out of London. In practice, city-regions amount to no more than a shuffling of the very limited powers already held at local and regional level. City-regionalists sell out for a bag of beans. What they sell is their heritage and that of all around them, as city-regions require the destruction of county identity. In all efforts at constitutional engineering, proper and high weight must be given to people's own perception of their roots and identity, unless government is to become no more than an arid administrative convenience lacking all civic resonance. A wilful and unnecessary destruction of accepted ideas of historic community would gravely impair our future quality of life.

  11.  For the reasons outlined above, we favour an approach that shapes powers to match places, not the other way round. We support greatly increased powers for parish and town councils, provided always that parishes are not forced in the process to combine so as to become second-rate rural districts, an outcome that by silencing the truly local voice would only undermine the purpose of the exercise. We are not convinced that the case for unitary authorities has been made, but where others are convinced we would argue that unitary counties are very much the strongest of the options available, combining strategic capability with long-standing popular identity, while also maximising the `headroom' available for parishes and towns to develop a meaningful and fulfilling role as local champions.

  12.  If unitary authorities are imposed as a precondition of regional government they need to be strong enough to stand up to the regional assembly. Although district-based unitaries may in theory acquire a monopoly of the statutory functions the practical reality is that many of the larger decisions that can at present only be made at county level would gravitate to the assembly; reliance on joint arrangements is an open invitation to this. Particularly if the assemblies' own powers are weak the temptation will be to squeeze the even weaker and fragmented local authority sector rather than attempt the more difficult task of wringing concessions out of Whitehall. Unitary counties would ensure both that all local government functions genuinely stay within local government and that regional assemblies focus on regional issues. In this case, the lack of `headroom' between the county and the region can be turned to good account if it focuses regional attention on looking up, not down for an assembly's powers.

45   See Appendix for background Back

46   ISBN 0-9544667-0-5 Back

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