Devolution: A Decade On - Justice Committee Contents

Memorandum submitted by Graham Pearce, Aston University and Sarah Ayres, Bristol University


  1.1  This memorandum draws upon the findings of a recent ESRC study into English regional governance. Since 1997 constitutional arrangements in parts of the UK have been transformed by political devolution. Nonetheless, they have evolved incrementally, leading to an asymmetric set of territorial structures and processes and limited attention has been given to assessing either their effectiveness or their wider impacts for UK government.

  1.2  Consideration about how the government of England, which comprises 85% of the UK's population, should be accommodated within a post-devolution UK is notable by its absence. Labour's early enthusiasm for regional government was conceived as a way of giving England a more influential voice in a devolved UK and decentralising government from Whitehall. The 2004 North East referendum, however, halted plans for elected regional government beyond Greater London. The outcome is that England is now the most centralised of all the large countries in Western Europe and forms the preponderant part of a "lopsided" United Kingdom (Jeffery and Wincott, 2006).

  1.3  The White Paper, Your Region, Your Choice: Revitalising the English Regions asserted that administrative decentralisation "will make the delivery of programmes and policies more efficient and ultimately lead to better outcomes in all regions" (Cabinet Office and DTLR, 2002: 3.14). However, this remains largely untested. The Government's approach to English regionalism has been piecemeal and is characterised by a plethora of region based, government bodies in which no single body has responsibility. Our central argument is that too little attention has been given to the government of England in the process of UK devolution and that current regional institutional structures are both unstable and lack sufficient capacity to secure a coordinated national and regional approach to strategy making and implementation.


  2.1  Combining central control with decentralised decision-making at the regional tier is not new to the UK. It was practiced for many years through the separate territorial departments of UK government for Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. There was no equivalent tradition of administrative devolution or territorial working in the English regions. Prior to 1997, central government was represented in the regions through its network of Government Offices (GOs) that brought together regional officials from the Departments of Employment, Environment, Transport and Trade and Industry. An extensive and bewildering patchwork of government executive bodies, appointed and accountable to ministers was also present, although not all operated on the basis of standard regional boundaries.

  2.2  During its first term Labour's regional reforms were targeted in three key areas. First, as a step towards regional democracy, voluntary Regional Chambers (subsequently restyled "Assemblies") comprising local authority leaders and representatives of other regional economic and social interests were established to perform strategic co-ordination and democratic oversight. Second, Regional Development Agencies (RDAs) were appointed to coordinate regional economic development and regeneration initiatives and improve the regions' competitiveness. Third, the GOs' roles were extended to provide central government with a more coherent presence in the regions. In addition to extending democracy, therefore, Labour's reforms were motivated by a desire for gains in efficiency and policy effectiveness.

  2.3  The English Regions White Paper introduced proposals to further enhance the powers of GOs, RDAs and Assemblies. It also endorsed the creation of Elected Regional Assemblies but electors in the North East referendum rejected this proposition. Despite this setback Whitehall continues to decentralise powers to regions, where it is judged to add value to service delivery and regions have become the locus of much strategic policy making, including economic development, housing, spatial planning, sustainable development, transport and waste.

  2.4  In the absence of regional government it might be expected that attention would be focused on measures to recalibrate the respective roles of central departments and regional institutions to improve the decision-making, strategy co-ordination and delivery capacities of regional governance structures. But devolution has not altered the fundamental nature of Whitehall, England remains formally unorganised as a political institution and there is limited evidence that ministers have fully digested the consequences of increased regionalisation for the machinery of government (Lodge and Mitchell, 2006). Indeed, it is asserted that rather than a measured approach, the pattern of decentralisation in the English regions has had more to do with government departments vying to advance their own separate agendas and the politically driven restructuring of Whitehall departments, prompted by ministerial reshuffles and resignations (Goodwin et al 2005). Awareness of the regional impacts of public sector expenditure decisions also remains deficient; regions are viewed as predominantly uniform and, despite improvements in the statistical base, the evidence underpinning much regional policy development and resource allocation is scant (McLean and McMillan, 2003).

  2.5  The Government can also be also censured for its unwillingness to embrace measures to narrow the pronounced gaps in regional prosperity within England. As the Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA, 2006) observes, England remains the only nation in Western Europe, including Scotland and Wales, without a national spatial framework setting out a coherent vision for the country as a whole, within which strategies can be coordinated both in and between regions.


  3.1  As the main outposts of central government in the regions the Government Offices represent nine Whitehall departments and jointly mange or influence an annual budget of some £6.5 billion. They are also responsible for influencing the formulation of a wide range of regional strategies prepared by regional partners and negotiating and monitoring Local Area Agreements between central and local government. Despite these extensive resources, expectations about the Offices' delivery capacities vary across Whitehall departments and GO officials continue to struggle to integrate separate government initiatives and combine their dual functions of delivering national targets with responding to regional priorities. As the House of Commons Communities and Local Government Committee recently observed, "Although the GOs themselves are expected to work across boundaries, departments within Whitehall have proved very reluctant to work in a similarly joined-up manner" (2007: 16).

  3.2  The Regional Development Agencies are "business-led" organisations and have been accorded special status as the focal point for regional economic development policies. Rather than diverting mobile investment and resources for public infrastructure to less favoured areas RDAs were designated on the premise that prosperity is dependent upon building on the regions' innate competitive capacities. Significantly, they have attracted the support of the Treasury through their anticipated contribution to improving regional productivity and competitiveness. Since 2002 the RDAs' policy remit and budgets have increased (£2.3 billion annually) and, formally, they have been awarded additional discretion over the use of their funding. Nonetheless, the Agencies face challenges arising from Labour's method of combining decentralised structures with traditional forms of Whitehall working. Despite an apparent commitment to "territorial justice", the scale of resources available to RDAs is not sufficient of itself to make a significant impact on regional economic disparities and there is a lack of agreement about their macroeconomic impacts. Indeed, claims that devolution and decentralisation can confer an "economic dividend" by enabling territorial administrations to tailor policies to local needs have been questioned (Rodriguez-Pose and Gill, 2005). Second, notwithstanding Whitehall's ostensible commitment to pursue a more nuanced approach to meet individual regions' needs, RDAs continue to be largely judged on their ability to meet national targets, a process that has acquired a fresh vigour in advance of the 2007 Comprehensive Spending Review. Third, RDAs are responsible for identifying outcomes in policy areas, for example skills and sustainable development, where they have a limited remit. Fourth, ambiguities have arisen around the status of the RDAs' Regional Economic Strategies in relation to other regional strategies. Finally, there are uncertainties about the Agencies' priorities and constant changes in roles, initiatives and bureaucratic complexity are perceived to have had a disruptive impact, leading to "overstretch".

  3.3  Regional Assemblies provide a forum for elected local councillors to come together to discuss regional issues with representatives of the business and the voluntary sectors. They serve average regional populations of 5.2 million, similar to that of Scotland. In addition to scrutinising the RDAs' activities they have acquired responsibilities for drafting Regional Planning and Housing Strategies (formally issued by the DCLG), preparing Regional Sustainable Development Strategies, developing Integrated Regional Strategies which are designed to reduce duplication and promote sustainable development and orchestrating regional inputs to the public expenditure decision-making process. Nonetheless, Assemblies are fragile institutions; they lack political legitimacy, are largely invisible to the general public and have struggled to establish a voice in Whitehall. They also have limited resources (jointly less than £30 million annually) and, given the accumulation of additional tasks, there is a strong impression that they face strategic overload. There also remains confusion about their roles, which can be attributed to the Government's failure to set out a clear plan for the Assemblies following the North-East referendum. Finally, because they lack executive powers, Assemblies must rely upon influence through convoluted linkages with fragmented regional agencies and central government departments to achieve their objectives.

  3.4  Since the 2004 referendum the Government has published a series of reviews commissioned by HM Treasury on land-use planning (Barker), transport (Eddington) and skills (Leitch), which "can be seen as mapping out the terrain on which future approaches to policy and governance between the national and local scales in England will be decided" (Burch et al, 2007: 6). These reviews will lead to the further entrenchment of the "technocratic" approach to English regionalism.

  3.5  The North-East referendum result also prompted a growing interest in "city-regions", as an alternative scale of government through which devolution might be managed. The recent Local Government White Paper (DCLG, 2006) confirmed that city-regional spatial planning is needed to make further progress on sustainable economic development in English cities. However, reflecting the unsettled state of government arrangements in England, the White Paper adopted a permissive approach and made no recommendation about how city-regions might be governed or how they should relate to the broader regions. Rather than being drawn into a choice between cities and regions, "we need both to strengthen the role of regional coordination in policy-making and encourage flexibility to allow all forms of sub-regional partnerships to thrive" (Balls et al, 2006, 6).


  4.1  National objectives continue to overshadow "bottom-up" appeals to adopt a more consistent approach to policy-making and integration in the regions. Indeed, the form of decentralisation is judged too limited to have much impact and measures to enable regional actors to work across organisational boundaries have been incremental. Joining up policies and public expenditure within regions remains problematic and efforts to establish a clear mission and identify critical tasks are frustrated by the abundance of often unrelated priorities and actions identified in regional strategies.

  4.2  Powers and resources are also distributed unevenly between a multiplicity of organisations, which have different cultures, objectives, structures and reporting mechanisms. Current accountability arrangements are judged complex and often opaque. Reliance on partnerships can be seen as undemocratic, adding a further level of complexity, as well as leading to compromise, even blandness, and masking the presence of different and conflicting interests between and within multiple scales of governance.

  4.3  A variety of tools, including Integrated Regional Strategies and Concordats between key regional stakeholders, have assisted in easing inter-organisational tensions and smoothing the most glaring policy inconsistencies and, alongside Treasury motivated "Regional Funding Allocations", offer a potential way forward in linking policies, funding streams and outcomes. However, questions remain about the robustness of regional decision-making processes and their influence on priority setting in Whitehall.

  4.4  National policies lack a spatial dimension, inter-regional economic disparities remain deep-rooted, traditional accountability mechanisms emphasise individual contributions rather than joint outcomes and national targets and funding streams discourage regional discretion and the ownership of strategies. Moreover, despite widespread acceptance of the need to address the cross-cutting themes associated with the "sustainability agenda", decision-making continues to focus upon "trading off", rather than integrating policies.

  4.5  The government of England continues to be arranged predominantly functionally and regional institutions still lack real bite over the use of funding streams. Although New Labour may pay lip-service to the notion of "joined-up" regional working, the harsh reality is that "coordination" is used mainly to provide a plausible justification for business as usual and sub-national partners are left to negotiate with a patchwork of public bodies with very different levels of commitment to the regional tier (Sandford, 2005).


  5.1  For the present the regional agenda is not high on the list of priorities of either national or regional elites and the "safe bet" is that, given Whitehall inertia, central government will continue to pursue its relationships with the regions on a piecemeal, functional basis.

  5.2  Nonetheless, as the last decade has illustrated, devolution is a dynamic process with unpredictable outcomes. Even in England the tentative decentralisation of territorial management has resulted in diverse institutional approaches in different regions. It is conceivable that an accumulation of structures and initiatives could lead the key regional institutions to acquire a tighter community of interests, extend their joint capacities, develop a more integrated approach to managing funding and reach a point where political regionalism replaces functional regionalism. The Assemblies' roles in respect of housing, transport, sustainable development and waste remain underplayed and their scrutiny function could be extended to other public bodies, including the GOs. As part of the Government's pledge to decentralise government functions outside London, GOs could also acquire additional responsibilities including greater freedom over the coordination of resources for cross-cutting policies.

  5.3  Alongside regional stakeholders and local authorities, Whitehall might also be persuaded to adopt a set of shared objectives and targets designed to meet individual regional needs. There are already signs that the ongoing Treasury review of the management of public expenditure to deliver the Government's regional economic performance PSA target could lead to measures to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of existing sub-national structures in England, including greater consistency between strategies and funding streams and increased regional and local flexibility (HM Treasury, 2006).

  5.4  So far, the full effects of devolution have been eased by Labour's dominance and rapid increases in public expenditure that have benefited all parts of the UK. These conditions will not last and, over time, the political and financial impacts of devolution will become more pronounced. The disjointed process of regionalism in England, the limitations of a form of regional governance based upon voluntary partnerships and the failure to provide a regional counterweight to the economic dominance of London and the South East will also become more evident. As Hazell (2006) observes, while by no means inevitable, in the long run there is strong possibility that regional government will return to the political agenda as a potential solution to the unsettled "English question".


Balls, E, Healey, J and Leslie, C (2006) Evolution and devolution in England: How regions strengthen our towns and cities, New Local Government Network, London.

Burch, M, Harding, A and Rees J. (2007) English regions devolution monitoring report January 2007, Constitution Unit, University College, London.

Department for Communities and Local Government. (2006) Strong and prosperous communities: The Local Government White Paper, Stationery Office, London.

Goodwin, M, Jones, M and Jones, R (2005) "Devolution, constitutional change and economic development: Explaining and understanding the new institutional geographies of the British state", Regional Studies, 39, 421-436.

Hazell, R (2006) "The English Question", Publius, 36, 37-56.

HM Treasury. (2006) Terms of reference for the sub-national review of economic development and regeneration, HM Treasury, London.

House of Commons Communities and Local Government Committee. (2007) Is there a future for regional government? Fourth Report (HC—352-I), Stationery Office, London.

Jeffery, C and Wincott, D (2006) "Devolution in the United Kingdom: Statehood and citizenship in transition", Publius, 36, 1, 3-18.

Lodge, G and Mitchell, J (2006), "Whitehall and the government of England", in R Hazell (Ed) The English question, Routledge, London, 96-118.

McLean, I and McMillan, A (2003) "The distribution of public expenditure across the UK regions", Fiscal Studies, 24, 1, 45-72.

Rodriguez-Pose, A and Gill, N (2005) "On the `economic dividend' of devolution", Regional Studies, 39, 4, 405-420.

Sandford, M (2005) Devolution is a process not a policy: The new governance of the English regions, Briefing No 18, ESRC Devolution and Constitutional Change Programme, Edinburgh.

Town and Country Planning Association. (2006) Connecting England—A framework for regional development, TCPA, London.

April 2007

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