Memorandum by UNISON (RG 58)
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
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 Governmenta 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 takefrom 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
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
Taken from "Towards Regional Governmenta
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
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 centreconsistent 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 devolvenot 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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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.