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


Memorandum by UNISON (RG 58)

BACKGROUND

  UNISON is Britain's largest trade union with over 1.3 million members. Our members are people working in the public services, for private contractors providing public services and the essential utilities. They include frontline staff and managers working full or part time in local authorities, the NHS, the police service, colleges and schools, the electricity, gas and water industries, transport and the voluntary sector.

  As we will highlight below we have had a long tradition of supporting the development of regional government and campaigned for devolution. We are also actively engaged with the whole range of regional institutions and non-departmental bodies that now exist in England. It is from this position of engagement, experience, and expertise that UNISON now comments on the current inquiry, and we would welcome the opportunity for senior regional members, regional secretaries or other senior officers to share their views and experiences with the committee as it receives oral evidence.

1.  UNISON ENGAGEMENT IN THE REGIONAL DEBATE

  UNISON has, for many years, been deeply involved in the debate over the devolution of power from Westminster. Ahead of the 1997 General Election we called for a commitment in the Labour Manifesto, and were an integral part of the "yes" campaigns in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London. UNISON supported the concept of devolution in 1997 not because of political expediency but because it was right for the people of those regions, right for public service delivery, and right for our members. In our view, if the principle of devolution for the Celtic nations and the capital is right, it is also right to consider devolution to our English regions. That is why UNISON also produced a number of documents presenting a positive case for the "yes" campaign in the North East referendum.

  UNISON was also amongst the first unions to undertake a significant piece of work on this agenda when it published Towards Regional Government—a UNISON discussion document (UNISON, 2000). This reflected our position at the forefront of the debate regarding English regions. The document very clearly set out the principles upon which regional government should be established, and the different paths directly elected English regional governance could take—from the powers an assembly would assume, to its size, boundaries, funding sources, and voting systems. Importantly it also discussed the potential relationships between assemblies and local, central and European governments.

2.  THE NEED FOR DEMOCRATIC ACCOUNTABILITY AND STAKEHOLDER INVOLVEMENT IN REGIONAL INSTITUTIONS

  UNISON has always assumed that central to any new regional structure is the principle of stakeholder and social partner involvement. Indeed, so central has been our notion of "stakeholder involvement" in the operation of regional governance that we noted "democratic renewal" as one of the four principles upon which such reforms should be based.

  UNISON believes that the core objectives for directly elected regional assemblies in England should be:

    —  Democratic Renewal  To bridge the "democratic deficit" in the regions, with direct democratic accountability over Government Regional Offices, government agencies, RDAs and other un-elected bodies. Any elected regional assembly should also seek to extend democratic participation, particularly for disadvantaged groups, and promote equal opportunities for all. Active citizenship, transparency and open decision-making should be at the heart of regional government and elected assemblies must be more inclusive and more accessible than existing institutions of government.

  Taken from "Towards Regional Government—a UNISON discussion document" (UNISON, 2000).

  For UNISON, democratic accountability and the ability to respond to the needs and expertise of social partners is a fundamental principal upon which regional assemblies must be built. Without proper structures in place that will enable assemblies or city regions to listen, respond and meet the needs of its residents there will be little justification, and no long-term popular support for such regional institutions. We would ask the committee to consider drawing on our expertise and experience to develop plans for structures that can truly deliver on the aspirations of our regions.

  Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and London each have different arrangements for safeguarding stakeholder involvement. These differing structures have arisen in response to the different constitutional arrangement that currently exists in these parts of the UK and the legacies that they have inherited. It will be invaluable to have an opportunity to share with the committee how these arrangements are working from the union's perspective. Furthermore we are in a unique position with regard to participation in the many initiatives taken by English regional assemblies to engage stakeholders and our own experience within our own union in safeguarding and developing a voice and role for all our members.

3.  FROM REGIONAL TO LOCAL LEVEL

  UNISON believes that the powers of democratic regional governance should be devolved down from the centre rather than moved up from local government. This view is echoed by the LGA which has stated that "should a regional tier of government be proposed, it should be associated with devolution of powers down from the centre—consistent with the principle of subsidiarity".

  We also believe that the development of a positive relationship with local government would be critical to the success of regional governance and that the creation of democratic structures at a regional level would improve both the effectiveness of local government and enhance democratic viability.

  The move towards regional government offers an opportunity for partnership working and would add value in terms of public service delivery and enhance local democratic accountability. When assessing the case for an elected regional assembly the North East Constitutional Convention stated that "because the assembly is concerned with improving the performance and accountability of existing institutions, rather than creating new ones, it has no implications for existing local authorities. Indeed, local authorities would benefit insofar as they would have a single regional authority with which to work in partnership instead of the current multiplicity".

  In addition the Association of London Government has stated that "In London, there are clear safeguards for councils set out in legislation and that it is hoped that the Mayor and Assembly will strengthen the role of the boroughs, especially their capacity to act on a pan-London basis".

  We therefore see an opportunity for regional governance to be a forum that brings authorities together to work more effectively. Such a tier, working in partnership with authorities, can assess appropriate powers to devolve—not only to an individual authority area, but to the sub-regional level as well. As we have seen sub-regional partnerships have developed at pace in London, Scotland and Wales, and we believe that initiatives in other parts on England would be strengthened by an empowered strategic democratic regional body.

  There are clear links between these developments and the vision outlined by Sir Peter Gershon in his final report to the Treasury. Again, while we have concerns about this agenda, we are open to share our views with the committee and the government in order to build a shared vision for the future.

4.  REFORMING LOCAL GOVERNMENT

  UNISON has in the past resisted local government reorganisation on the basis of cost, disruption to service provision and our own member's interest. Yet we are open to and objective and honest debate on the future vision for local government, and are willing to weigh-up the costs and benefits that a major re-organisation will produce.

  It is a much stated and obvious fact that England-wide re-organisation of local government would impact differently in different regions. Most urban areas are covered by unitary authorities and there is only one county council left in Yorkshire and Humber. However, in the South East, South West and Eastern region country councils are more dominant. The North East Constitutional Convention argues that a case remains for two-tier authorities in sparsely populated areas, and that the North East could proceed to regional government without any alteration to the structure of local government.

  At present the two-tier system covers 272 local authorities and it is estimated to take at least two to three years to complete a full reorganisation. The cost of reorganisation for the whole of Shire England could rise to over £1 billion (the local Government Commission for England estimated a cost of £780 million in 1993), which may present difficulties in respect of Labour's manifesto pledge that regional government would not involve any additional public expenditure.

  The Government has yet to enter the debate on the role of local government under a new regional government structure, and we await the Lyons review recommendations in the summer as a useful contribution to this debate. If we are to accept the potential benefits of reorganisation the government does need to provide a realistic assessment of the costs involved and a clear and reasonable strategy for managing change in the wider context of all the other requirements it expects from local authorities.

5.  FROM REGIONAL ASSEMBLIES TO CITY REGIONS

  While we monitor with interest the debate on city regions we have not yet been convinced that many of our fears regarding regional assemblies will not simply be transposed into the new debate.

In particular we are concerned at:

1.  Conceding a debate about local government reform being a precondition of regional reform

  This argument is based on the assumption that creating democratic regional institutions is actually creating a "new" tier of government. This is demonstrably not true. Regional government already exists through the hundreds of unaccountable organisations currently spending billions of pounds of public money and having a significant influence over public policy.

2.  Cities dominating their hinterland and driving roughshod over the will of suburban and rural areas

  One of the major concerns of county councils and rural areas regarding previous plans for assemblies was that they would be dominated by the large metropolitan areas. It seems that these concerns have been totally ignored in the current debate where resources are even more likely to be "sucked-in" to the regional centre where debates will be dictated by metropolitan concerns.

3.  How will other organisations respond to a new "regional" map?

  Regional boundaries have been stable for some time now, and we question the value of re-opening the boundary debate when there can never be a universal consensus. In addition, with the stability of boundaries we have seen more and more organisations either move, or plan to move, towards co-terminosity with the Government Office borders. We question the cost and disruption re-opening this debate will have on future regional coordination and partnership working.

4.  What will happen to areas either not naturally included in a city region, or areas where there may be more than one city to which they are linked?

  While this is a question posed by the committee UNISON has raised the same concerns publicly, and is yet to receive a satisfactory answer.

5.  Why does the government think city regions are preferable to regional assemblies?

  While there has been a growing body of academic writing, and few think pieces by Ministers, there is yet to be a clearly stated case for why city regions are a better alternative to regional assemblies. We do not wish to invest time, effort and goodwill into a vision that is simply derived from the failure to win the argument for elected regional assemblies. If any democratic structure is to be endorsed by the public we need a strong and powerful case to be presented as soon as possible.

6.  CONCLUSION

  While we accept the result of the North East referendum on an elected Regional Assembly in 2004 as the democratic will of the electorate we continue to invest our resources into engaging with regional institutions and play an active role in the debate over the future of regional governance in England. We were disappointed that people rejected the idea of an elected assembly on the basis of arguments that were pessimistic, business orientated and premised on the falsehood that the proposals would create a "new" tier of government.

  It is unquestionable that the result has not held back the tide of regional government. A significant tier of regional governance exists, and indeed, it continues to grow as the government devolve more power and resources to regional Government Offices, quangos and non-departmental bodies. We believe that while these institutions spend billions of pounds and have a profound influence over public services they must become democratically accountable to service users and the public. They must also have a genuine commitment to consult and involve all the social and economic stakeholders. Therefore, we look forward to working with Parliament, Government, social and economic stakeholder groups, our members and the wider public in developing a vision that provides efficient, effective and accountable regional governance.



 
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