Memorandum by the Centre for Urban and
Regional Development Studies (CURDS) (RG 53)
1. This memorandum has been prepared by
the Centre for Urban and Regional Development Studies (CURDS)
at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne. CURDS is a research
centre specialising in policy-relevant research, and since its
creation in 1977, it has been actively involved in urban and regional
governance issues. CURDS staff engaged in debates concerning English
elected regional assemblies: our staff contributed in various
capacities to three memoranda of evidence in the 2004 ODPM Inquiry
the Draft Regional Assemblies Bill
and have undertaken a range of research for the Office of the
Deputy Prime Minister, among others, on questions of local and
regional governance. We welcome this opportunity to reflect in
a considered way on the future for regional government in England.
2. As London has effective elected regional
government, we limit our comments within this memorandum largely
to the English regions outside London. Since the modern tasks
of national government were introduced during World War I, governments
of all political persuasionLiberal, Conservative and Labourhave
found a regional administrative tier vital for effective service
delivery given England's size and diversity.
There has been regional government of some form for the last 90
years, and we believe that globalisation, European expansion and
increasing human mobility will increase rather than decrease its
value in the future.
3. English regionalisation has been greatly
hindered since its inception by the continuing centralisation
of powers in the British state, and the time is now ripe to directly
address that centralisation. Addressing the UK's longstanding
productivity gap requires effective and responsive regional economic
policies. This logic remains compelling. Delivering the benefits
of regionalisation calls for concerted central government action
to fulfil its claims about flexibility and decentralisation, before
English regional government can evolve from its current complexity
4. From 1998 to the North East referendum
in 2004, central government activities faced pressures to co-ordinate
their activities within common regional boundaries in anticipation
of the future creation of ERAs, in line with the White Paper Modernising
There will be less pressure for government departments for ensuring
any new regional structures are co-terminous with existing regional
arrangements. This is likely to have implications for the effective
accountability of regional Non-Departmental Public Bodies (NDPBs)
and arm's length agencies; they may face less scrutiny of their
activities in terms of individual regions' needs. The most effective
remedy in this situation is a statement by central government
of its vision for particular regions, recognising that different
regional situations produce different regional needs from national
policies. This will allow local and regional stakeholders to continue
to hold national bodies to account.
5. A recurring problem is that similar institutional
arrangements ("one-size-fits-all") are used to deal
with very different regional issues. Every region has a regional
development agency, a regional spatial strategy and an array of
regional NDPBs. As Professor Morgan observed in 2003 to a previous
"Treating unequals equally is hardly a recipe
for promoting equality"
6. The boundaries of the South East region
are inadequate for dealing with its regional spatial and economic
development issues, too remote to deal with local issues in places
as diverse as Thanet, Portsmouth and Buckingham, whilst too fragmented
to provide a sound basis for planning transport, housing and environmental
protection around the London conurbation.
As a result, the recent Sustainable Communities Plan does create
a framework for planning these issues at a Greater South East
scale. At the same time, the current regional boundaries and economic
institutions do indeed have much greater relevance for the economic
needs/especially addressing the regional productivity gap/of the
northern regions. Serious consideration should be given to having
qualitatively different regional institutional arrangements according
those regions' primary needs.
7. A final issue we raise is that since
1994, the regional governance arrangements have been in a permanent
state of flux. From 1997 to 2004, this was arguably because these
arrangements were evolving towards a potential end point (ERAs).
Effective regional and sub-regional accountability requires a
degree of institutional stability and relationships between governmental
tiers. There is a risk that regional challenges are met with institutional
simplification and rationalisation (and temporary paralysis) rather
than concerted leadership and collaboration. There is a danger
that a rush to further ad hoc change and rationalisation will
undermine the effectiveness of existing arrangements before any
attempts have been made to quantify their value. There is a strong
case for the government to clarify its vision for the future of
regional government to provide an end-point towards which regional
partners can work.
8. One feature of the post-1997 regional
governance system has been that regional bodies have predominantly
been granted powers from national bodies best exercised regionally,
or which were already previously regionally exercised. These powers
are those in which there is a clear national interest but in which
different regions have demonstrably different interests and purposes.
The creation of elected regional assemblies was premised upon
"devolution downwards" rather than "regionalisation
upwards" of local authority powers.
Transport is one such powerthe greater South East region's
main transport need is in dealing with commuters into London,
whilst the polycentric nature of the north makes their demands
much more complex to articulate. Regional bodies allow nuanced
differences to be expressed within the competing interests shaping
the overall national policy framework.
9. Indeed, this regional differentiation
has allowed such bodies in some cases to reflect their local partners'
needs more closely than hitherto. Many RDAs use Sub-Regional Partnership
arrangements to plan regeneration spending: Single Regeneration
Budget decisions previously taken regionally by Government Offices
are now taken sub-regionally, closer to affected communities and
individuals. Likewise, RDAs' Single Programme Budget arrangements
allowed development and funding of their priorities, notably identifying
and promoting potential regional excellence. The North West Regional
Development Agency's support for a world-class new Manchester
University demonstrates how regional flexibility and regional
priorities can produce outcomes which strengthen the UK economy
as a whole.
10. The question remains which additional
powers are currently held centrally which can better be exercised
at a regional level, to reflect local diversity within a common
national framework. Local partners can lack capacity to articulate
local investment needs within a broader strategic case related
to this national priority set. We note with interest Treasury
proposals to prepare regional financial allocations for transport,
housing and economic development.
If this proposal is implemented in the spirit of Treasury guidance,
these regional allocations will create more capacity to meet local
partners' needs than passing those powers directly to local partners.
11. We have strong concerns over the capacity
that exists within the regions to exercise genuine choice and
influence over regional policies and priorities. Regional policy
development capacity is largely absent from the English regions
outside London. In Scotland and Wales, even prior to political
devolution, their respective Ministries worked hard to create
effective policy networks involving interest representation with
universities, think-tanks and consultancies responding to this
demand creating effective territorial policy-making networks.
The lack of comparable demand in England for competing views on
significant policy decisions has undermined the effort to build
up coherent regional policy formulation capacity.
12. The lack of policy capacity in the regions
means that there is no clear articulation from regions themselves
of how future governance arrangements might develop in England.
Too frequently the role of regional decision-makers involves little
more than endorsing priorities and strategies of central government,
with at best minimal input to their design, in the hope of accessing
additional resources. Thus regional concepts and policies are
being developed synoptically at the national level without enough
consideration of whether the proposed approaches are the most
sensible way forward for promoting regional convergence in the
light of diverse geographical conditions.
13. There is a discrepancy in the level
of accountability for regional NDPBs. Although many of these bodies
have delimited territorial areas, they are now formally held to
account through their national sponsor Ministries. Only one occasion
has the National Audit Office inquiry directly investigated the
performance of a regional body, namely the RDAs.
This was followed by a Public Accounts Committee Inquiry, but
its focus lay on ODPM and DTI rather than whether these regional
bodies were delivering for their regions.
Parliament should consider carefully its role in delivering regional
accountability for nationally-sponsored bodies, and how the Select
Committee model might hold territorially-focused national bodies
effectively to account.
14. There is very limited regional scrutiny
of these bodies: the existing voluntary Regional Assemblies have
attempted to develop regional scrutiny programmes but are limited
both by funds and policy capacity constraints (cf para 11). It
is likely that regional assemblies are likely to find themselves
increasingly restricted to their statutory roles (eg in spatial
planning), leaving a vacuum in the exercise of the regional public
interest in the scrutiny process, which is too often eclipsed
by a Whitehall view that systematically overlooks regional differences
(cf para 13). This is likely to be a brake on the realisation
of the Treasury's ambitions for more effective devolved decision-making.
15. The concept of the city region has begun
to be discussed as a new system for sub-national governance arrangements.
CURDS undertook work for the Core Cities group since the 1990s
exploring the contribution of city-regions to economic development.
Recently, the concept has generated more commentary rather research,
much of which has been characterised by a confusion and misinterpretation
and contradictory claims rather than clear analysis: rather than
providing a single explanation, this conflates a number of separate
For instance, commentary on city-regions is often supported by
claims about the city-region governance arrangements in other
EU Member States, which on closer inspection prove inaccurate.
This field calls out for careful gathering of evidence and analysis.;
this notwithstanding, a number of observations can safely be made.
16. Clearly, there is value in analyzing
the operation of the city-region as a functional economic area,
especially through travel to work areas developed by CURDS; this
does not necessarily make city-regions an optimal scale at which
to create governance institutions. The Greater London Authority
does not cover the full territorial extent of the London city
region, which as an economic space covers the South East and East
of England, and significant parts of the South West, West Midlands
and East Midlands. Conceiving regional governance on such a scale
is highly problematic: the London city-region contains 20 million
people. There may be value in conceiving city-regions as suitable
scale for inter-local co-ordination of services at the urban level,
like Belgian "inter-communal service providers". But,
there is little evidence, however, that they represent an effective
mechanism for taking key national decisions which can rebalance
the national economic structure and help address the UK's £30
billion productivity gap between North and South.
17. City-regions sit very uneasily with
existing English traditions of sub-national governance. On the
one hand, experience has shown that larger bodies such as the
Scottish regional authorities and the English metropolitan counties
have been criticised for remoteness from their citizens, whilst
governments have often been hostile to large (and potentially
critical) elected authorities. On the other, effective multi-level
governance requires a degree of stability at the different levels,
and creating a new city-regional tier could undermine much of
this stability. Although city-regions are therefore important
economic spaces, the city-region model promoted in some quarters
seems to fail to address the key issue in regional governance,
namely encouraging central government is to live up to its rhetoric
18. The city region focus has implications
for peripheral towns and cities. For instance, the city region
rubric used in The Northern Way omits whole swathes of the north,
especially Cumbria and the northern uplands, from city regions'
This is unsatisfactory: parts of South West Cumbria have similar
kinds of structural problemsand require similar policy
approachesto peripheral areas within city-region zones
(such as East Durham or Central Lancashire). Moreover, some peripheral
towns and cities will do extremely well out of the proposed core
cities arrangements. Chester, Hexham and Harrogate have all fed,
to some extent, on the economic success of their nearby cities
in the last decade. Indeed, such places can be expected to continue
to thrive under whatever governance arrangements emerge.
19. A city-regional approach could tackle
the problems of peripheral towns if it was from very outset based
on a polycentric model. The early drafts of the City-Region Development
Programmes commissioned by the Northern Way suggested each city
region was pursuing its individual aspirations, rather than each
city-region contributing to a polycentric and complementary whole
generally aiming to reduce regional disparities. This could potentially
exacerbate disparities between city-regions.
20. The real peripheral places ignored by
the city-regions concept are poorer places within the city-region
which, for example, completely lack the tools to engage with the
knowledge economy. The city-region conceptinasmuch as it
has an underlying economic modelappears to be based on
a very simple trickledown approach to wealth-generation. There
are unanswered questions concerning whether promoting city regions
in themselves will deal with the problems of multiple deprivation
which afflict communities and local authorities within many regions.
21. There is a clear need for actors across
the English regions to work closely together to tackle economic
disparities. Effective co-operation through collective action
allows large-scale activities to be realised which bring benefits
to all the participants. The Northern Way provides a framework
for this co-operation amongst the three northern regions, and
early business plans suggest that some of their activities are
supporting such strategic actions in the field of transport, regional
science policy and place marketing.
22. However, it is not evident that there
is a compelling logic for northern co-operation in fields such
as skills gaps, promoting entrepreneurship and addressing worklessness.
Whilst there is a role for sharing of best-practise between places,
and worklessness is a problem across the northern regions, it
is unclear why a trans-regional arrangement is required to develop
what are essentially locally delivered training programmes. There
is case for reassessing the policy areas which can benefit significantly
from a pan-regional governance framework aimed at fewer, strategic
23. Moreover, inter-regional co-operation
is necessary but not sufficient to tackle English regional economic
disparities. Recent announcements suggest that the Department
for Transport does not view the strategic transport needs of the
north as a national priority. In those circumstances, even focused
inter-regional effort will only be able to tinker at the margins.
The Northern Way for example is spending £12 million on transport
investments that "meet the north's requirements", whilst
national transport investment is set at £2 billion for the
road network alone for the next three years.
There is a strong case for ensuring that national priorities in
a range of policy fields are more closely aligned with strategic
24. The Government needs to quickly articulate
a clear vision for the future of regional governance and government
in England, but this should build on the progress that has been
made in building a relevant regional tier over the last nine years.
At the momentexcepting Londonno serious consideration
has been given to different arrangements for different places
related to their specific needs. Whilst current regional arrangements
might be overly complex for the southern regions, it is clear
that if the government is serious about tackling complex regional
problems in the north and west of England, the regional tier will
25. The regional tier in England has been
created through an evolutionary process in which capacity has
been built up, as a precursor for the taking of a next evolutionary
step. Currently regional authorities are acquiring strategic powers
for transport, housing and planning. Each of the previous steps
has helped to build up regional policy capacity to better fit
national policy to local requirements, especially in the northern
regions where national policies are frequently out of step with
these local needs. It is clearly worth waiting until these latest
powers have been exercised, and reflecting on what additional
regional governance capacity has been built, before definitive
decisions are taken on the future direction of English regional
26. There needs to be continued central
government support for the regionalisation process. Central government
benefits from an effective regional tier which tailors its own
policies across an economically, culturally and socially diverse
nation. Much more needs to be done at the central level to facilitate
regional working. Socio-economic differences between regions are
not simply the result of market failures, but reflect deep-seated
structural problems. The government needs to match rhetoric on
regional and development and governance with a stronger political
impetus to create a robust system of local and regional government.
Government should recognise that regional differences are not
simple matters, not spatial market failures, but reflect a divergent
reality which has built up over decades. We believe that this
failure by government to progress beyond rhetoric reflects a failure
of political will to shape a regional agenda for national government.
27. Parliament, acting as the principal
scrutiny body for England, might also consider what it can do
to support effective regional governance. There have been no meetings
of the Standing Committee of Regional Affairs in this Parliament,
while the Public Accounts Committee has undertaken a very limited
scrutiny of the regional "quangocracy" in England. MPs
could exercise real powers to hold regional bodies to account.
Without clear political leadership the future for regional government
is likely to comprise an unstructured and piecemeal evolution
which fails to provide a rational framework for sensibly addressing
England's deep-seated regional economic problems.
70 CURDS staff contributed to (in a range of capacities)
to DRAs 12, 26 and 57 in that Inquiry. Back
See Tomaney, J (2005) "Anglo-Scottish relations: a borderland
perspective" Proceedings of the British Academy, 128,
pp 231-248. Back
Cabinet Office (1999) Modernising Government. Cm 4310.
London: TSO. Back
Para 65, Select Committee on Office of the Deputy Prime Minister
(2003) "Reducing Regional Disparities in Prosperity"
9th report of the Select Committee, London: The Stationery
Cochrane, A (2006) "Looking for the South East" in
I Hardill et al (eds) The rise of the English regions,
London: Routledge. Back
Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (2002)
Your region, your choice, London: TSO. Back
HM Treasury, Department of Trade and Industry, Department for
Transport, Office for the Deputy Prime Minister, (2005) Regional
funding allocations: guidance on preparing advice, London: HMSO. Back
HM Treasury (2005) Devolving decision making: 2-Meeting the regional
economic challenge: Increasing regional and local flexibility,
London: The Stationery Office. Back
J Mitchell (2003) Governing Scotland: The Invention of Administrative
Devolution, Houndmills, Macmillan. Back
National Audit Office (2003) English regions: success in the
regions, London: The Stationery Office. Back
National Audit Office (2003) English regions: success in the
regions, London: The Stationery Office; Public Accounts Committee
(2004) Success in the regions, Fifty first report of the Public
Accounts Committee 2003/04, London: TSO. Back
HM Treasury, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, Department
of Trade and Industry (2004) Devolving decision making 2: Meeting
the regional economic challenge: Increasing regional and local
flexibility. March. Back
For critically informed, research based analyses of the city-region
concept see Parr, J B (2005) "Perspectives on the city-region"",
Regional Studies, 35, 5, 555-566; Rodr-«guez-Pose,
A (2005) The City-Region Approach to Economic Development, Report
for the Department of International development, London. DfID.
Gonzalez, S (2005) "The Northern Way: filling an imaginary
geography or a collective voice for the North?" RGS-IBG Annual
Conference, London, 31 August-2 September. Back
Midgley, J & Ward, N (2005) "City regions and rural
areas" in S Hardy et al. Sustainable regions: making regions
work, Seaford: Regional Studies Association pp 22-23. Back
Northern Way (2005) Moving forward: the Northern Way: business
plan 2005-2008, Newcastle: the Northern Way. Back
Department for Transport (2005) Department for Transport autumn
performance report 2005, London: The Stationery Office. Back