Perspectives on reforms to English sub-national government

International Journal of Public Sector Management

ISSN: 0951-3558

Article publication date: 2 October 2009



Pearce, G. (2009), "Perspectives on reforms to English sub-national government", International Journal of Public Sector Management, Vol. 22 No. 7.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2009, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Perspectives on reforms to English sub-national government

Article Type: Guest editorial From: International Journal of Public Sector Management, Volume 22, Issue 7

Recalibrating central-local relationships

A recurrent theme in the government of many European states is that the “dispersion of governance across multiple jurisdictions is both more efficient than and normatively superior to central state monopoly” (Marks and Hooghe, 2004, p. 16). This reflects several influences. The first is that over recent decades those functions that were once the sole responsibility of central governments have “spun away” to be administered at either sub-national or European levels. Second, neo-liberal orthodoxy asserts that increased globalisation has reduced the capacity of states to intervene to secure spatially equitable levels of economic development and that sub-national actors should play an active role in promoting the “endogenous” economic capacities of their territories. Third, there have been growing “bottom-up” pressures on European governments to acknowledge the sense of distinctiveness felt by territorial communities, for example the Basque Country, Brittany, Flanders, and Northern Italy, based on cultural and linguistic, minority nationalisms and economic differences and demands for greater autonomy (Jeffery, 2008; Guibernau, 2007; Loughlin, 2007).

New Labour’s ambivalence to regional government in England

Compared with many other large European states government in the UK has commonly been depicted as highly centralised. Indeed, it was not until the late 1990s that the incoming Labour Government adopted a programme of political decentralisation or “devolution” that acknowledged the distinct territorial interests of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. These devolution settlements represented a tangible shift in constitutional structures that have become increasingly embedded, eased by a period of increased public expenditure and Labour Party dominance in mainland Britain. Nonetheless, the reforms left the UK with an asymmetric government system in that England, where most of the UK population lives, was left out of the “quasi-federal” process. England remains governed by the UK Government and Parliament, including Ministers and MPs who do not represent England and whose own constituents come under devolved governments. This has bequeathed a series of unanswered questions about the place of England in the Union and possible solutions, which include calls for the establishment of a separate English Parliament, English votes for English laws, or the transfer of powers to the English regions as a way of easing Whitehall’s dominance. As Hazell (2006) observes, “England is the gaping hole in the devolution settlement” and while some commentators believe that devolution can indefinitely be confined to the Celtic fringe, others believe that “devolution will not be complete, and the settlement will not stabilize, until the ‘English question’ is solved” (Hazell, 2006, p.38).

Throughout its period in office New Labour’s approach to the reform of English government has been deeply ambivalent. During its first term it sought to address the issue of over-centralisation by creating an elected, city-wide administration for Greater London. However, a manifesto commitment to test public support for elected regional government in the remaining eight regions beyond the Capital was not delivered. Rather, reforms at the regional level focused on extending the process of administrative decentralisation, which was promoted as a way of building greater freedom and flexibility into national policy delivery. This included appointing business-led regional development agencies (RDAs), bolstering the roles of the Government’s offices (GOs) in the regions and supporting the creation of unelected regional assemblies comprising representatives from local authorities and other economic and social interests to provide a semblance of regional democracy. It was not until New Labour’s second term in 2004 that the Government agreed to hold a referendum on elected regional government in the North East of England. The outcome, however, was a comprehensive public rejection of the case for regional government, leading to plans for further referendums being discarded. The limitations of the reforms combined with public antipathy to an “extra” tier of government and a period of sustained economic growth and increased public expenditure effectively diluted the case for regional autonomy.

Technocratic regionalism

Despite this rebuff, the process of administrative or technocratic regionalism continued to evolve, albeit in a haphazard and chaotic fashion in which individual Whitehall departments sought to retain a pivotal role. The vacuum left by the referendum result also encouraged local authorities, especially some larger urban authorities, to assert that they should play a more prominent role in managing issues such as economic development, housing, planning and transport, especially when working across sub-regions (HM Treasury et al., 2006; ODPM, 2006). Nonetheless, despite ministerial rhetoric in favour of greater account being taken of local needs and circumstances, Whitehall remained cautious about such claims. More significant were pressures from the Treasury, led by Gordon Brown, which had already begun to demonstrate interest in measures to reduce the entrenched economic divide between prosperous London and the South East and the poorer northern regions. There was, however, no desire to return to the “classical era” of regional policy in which Government sought to redistribute economic activity through central measures (Sykes and Shaw, 2008; Morgan, 2006). New Labour remained wedded to market forces as a necessary prerequisite for a viable national economy. It rejected the need for a spatial development framework for England, of the kind being developed elsewhere in the UK and in Europe and there was no intention that the economies of the poorer regions should be boosted at the cost of restraining growth in the prosperous “mega-region” of London and South East England (John et al., 2005). Nor was the Government willing to review the formula used to determine the allocation of elements of public expenditure between the different parts of the UK which, it is asserted, is unfair to England’s less favoured regions (Webb, 2007).

This market orientated agenda was reflected in Budget 2006, which announced that the 2007 Comprehensive Spending Review would be informed by a Review of Sub-national Economic Development and Regeneration (SNR) policies and administration to consider how to strengthen the economic performance of England’s regions and cities. Immediately following Brown’s appointment as Prime Minister, the SNR was published (HM Treasury et al., 2007). It offered a comprehensive account of current institutional arrangements and a set of proposed reforms. These included giving local authorities more incentives to promote economic development and neighbourhood renewal and encouraging them to pool resources through sub-regional working arrangements. Second, the regional tier would be streamlined by abolishing the unelected regional assemblies and RDAs made responsible for preparing, in consultation with local authorities, new “single regional strategies” (SRSs), setting out each region’s economic, environmental and social objectives. Third, RDAs should be given a clear focus on increasing economic growth. Finally, Whitehall’s role in supporting and coordinating economic development and neighbourhood renewal should be strengthened at all spatial levels.

In March 2008 the Government published further guidance on the reforms in Prosperous Places: Taking forward the Review of Sub-national Economic Development and Regeneration and associated documents and invited views on how they should be implemented (DCLG and DBERR, 2008a). It provoked some 500 responses, a measure of the salience attached to the proposals across both public and private sectors. The impending economic recession also added import to the reforms. Broadly speaking, in its response to the consultation in November 2008 the Government was able to point to strong support for its proposals for new single, “integrated” strategies in each region to secure closer alignment between economic and spatial planning and provide a vital means of prioritising regional activities to achieve economic development and regeneration (DCLG and DBERR, 2008b). Equally, the consultation revealed widespread anxieties within local government about the transfer of the regional planning function to RDAs, prompting an about turn in Whitehall involving a commitment to RDAs and new local authority leaders’ boards in each region being made jointly responsibility for drafting, implementing and monitoring the delivery of the strategies. There was also widespread backing for local authorities to have a new duty to carry out economic assessments of their areas to act as building blocks for the new strategies and for greater sub-regional cooperation between local authorities, especially in economic development. Given the desire for “light touch” SRSs and the assumption that RDAs should delegate much of their budgets to local authorities, the SNR could be seen as a signal for local authorities to extend their economic development remit. Furthermore, in some quarters the SNR was applauded for championing the delivery of economic growth and streamlining the process of regional strategy making and business support.

Conversely, the reforms were censured on the grounds that they would achieve neither decentralisation nor a reduction in spatial inequalities. As Turok (2008, p. 164) observed, “the SNR was set up partly to find the ‘right’ spatial level for economic regeneration policy, but it is ultimately ambivalent about this”. Although giving succour to sub-regional “multi-area agreements” and “economic prosperity boards”, the Government’s commitment to new local authority structures appear half-hearted and doubts have emerged about the capacity of such sub-national institutions to take on powers from above or for local authorities to work effectively together (Burch et al., 2008). Making RDAs – business-led, government-funded agencies – responsible for preparing SRSs, albeit as a shared endeavour with local authorities, was also seen by some as evidence of increased centralisation (Marshall, 2008). Moreover, that RDA performance should principally be judged against a single over-arching economic growth target, rather than broader quality of life measures, continued to attract criticism. Furthermore, by focusing upon intra-regional issues, the SNR was rebuked for failing to address the fundamental economic inequalities between the English regions.

The SNR and its related documents provide a snap shot of recent government deliberations, which were subsequently reflected in proposals contained in the Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Bill (Great Britain Parliament House of Lords, 2008). They are not, however, the sum of the Government’s reforms at the sub-national level. In 2007, as a component in wider constitutional reforms, Ministerial portfolio holders were appointed for each English region, to take questions in Parliament on the work of regional bodies and on regional strategies, represent their areas and take a key role in bringing together local services and the different arms of government in the regions (Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor, 2007). As part of the Government’s response to the deepening economic recession in Autumn 2008 their role was enhanced by the appointment of a Council of Regional Ministers to inform the newly created cross-departmental National Economic Council on the implications of the economic downturn for the regions. Furthermore, in 2008 Parliament agreed proposals for regional select committees to provide a linkage between national and regional scrutiny (House of Commons, 2008). Regional stakeholders have also recently been engaged in preparing a second round of Regional Funding Advice, informing the Government on how it can best utilise future regional funding allocations for housing, economic development and transport (HM Treasury et al., 2008).

The contribution of the articles

In bringing the subsequent articles together, this issue of the IJPSM focuses on examining these reforms in the context of the Labour Government’s record on regional policy. The first article is written by Martin Burch, Alan Harding and James Rees who provide a graphic account of New Labour’s vacillating approach to regional policy through an examination of recent changes in the spatial economic geography of the UK. They demonstrate that despite government targets to address the mainly North-South divide in city-region economies and recent improvements in the economic performance of some provincial city-regions, the rest of the country has lagged further and further behind the London “super-region”. They judge that the SNR and the 2007 Comprehensive Spending Review provide a degree of clarity as to the Government’s intentions to cater for the perceived needs of London and the South East and that stronger city-regional governance in provincial England may emerge. Nonetheless, they also suggest that because the SNR approach was permissive and decentralist, in that policy design and delivery is largely to be left to sub-national bodies particularly local authorities and RDAs, the potential outcomes are unpredictable.

Looking forward, they conclude that the precedence placed by central government on London’s contribution as a global centre for financial and business services to national wealth creation will continue, even if the consequence is significant inter-territorial inequity in economic conditions and the disposition of public resources. Nonetheless, in the less propitious economic circumstances that the UK now faces, the conviction that the market should be dominant in allocating resources and that reliance on London’s economic growth will continue to be the main-stay of national wealth-creation can no longer be relied on. Indeed, the authors assert that should the economic downturn become entrenched, the likelihood is that regional inequalities will increase leading, potentially, to greater politicisation of the issue and the prospect of demands by English provincial city-region coalitions for the devolution of greater powers and resources and a rebalancing of spending flows across the UK.

In their article Sarah Ayres and Ian Stafford draw on a series of recent interviews with civil servants to provide an insightful account of the wrangling around SNR that took place in Whitehall. They conclude that while the impetus for reform was ostensibly about providing regions and local authorities with enhanced autonomy in reality it was dominated by a Treasury-driven agenda to enhance economic productivity. These ambiguities were reflected in the very significant differences of opinion that emerged across Whitehall departments about the scope and direction that reforms should take. This confirms that the path of regionalism in England continues to be a highly politicised game and reflects deep rooted departmental positions, cultures and legacies, but is also underpinned by a constant unwillingness in Whitehall department to “let go”. Indeed, the authors conclude that while the SNR and its outcomes offer the prospect of enhanced local government powers through greater sub-regional collaboration, they provides few clues about how the regional democratic deficit is to be addressed.

In exploring the path of the reforms and their potential implications Graham Pearce and John Mawson observe that the SNR is but the latest in a set of measures seemingly devised to deliver a more coherent approach to policy making and implementation in the English regions. They confirm that in the absence of a genuine political commitment to regionalism, territorial rescaling continues to be the outcome of serendipity, the product of both “top down” and “bottom up” influences. Nonetheless, there are few signs of accountability being removed from Whitehall. Indeed, the likely effect of the SNR and its ensuing reforms will be to further embed England’s ingrained tradition of centralisation and the continuance of a fragmented and chaotic system of regional governance.

They also observe discernable ambiguities between the language of the SNR, the Government’s consultation, Prosperous Places, and the Government’s response, which confirm both the different priorities attached to the reform agenda within Whitehall and the influence of different interests in shaping the reforms. While the SNR had a clear economic imperative the subsequent documents can be seen to reflect an acknowledgement by Whitehall of the political realities of the reforms and the practical difficulties of securing integration across policy areas. Nonetheless, the authors are less than sanguine about the capacity of RDAs to combine their remit for drafting SRSs, alongside regional groupings of local authorities, setting out the economic, social and environmental objectives for their regions, with their overarching task of increasing economic growth. More fundamentally, they question the capacity of the reforms to achieve their twin objectives of achieving greater regional accountability and increasing economic growth.

In a viewpoint Alan Townsend contends that steps to establish single, integrated, regional strategies should be welcomed. Nonetheless, by allocating responsibility for drafting these strategies to the RDAs and giving economic policies pre-eminence, the Treasury led analysis that informed the SNR was at best naïve. Moreover, he reminds us that the role of the Government offices for the regions in policy coordination has been largely overlooked in the debate surrounding the SNR. The author also contends that while the Government has acknowledged the desirability of integration across strategies, the “harmonisation” of economic, environmental and social policies raises practical issues that cannot be wished away. There are clear differences in approach to preparing and implementing regional economic and spatial strategies and while RDAs have pursued a bullish approach to economic development, it is questionable whether this is appropriate in the context of the broader policy remit of SRSs.

Townsend is more optimistic about the potential of sub-regional, multi-area arrangements to treat housing, employment and transport together, which could see a resurgence of interest in metropolitan planning, but expresses misgivings about how the voice of rural areas will be sustained. Furthermore, he draws attention to the view that while the SNR emphasised the need for close links between decision-making at different spatial levels, in England the interface between regional and local economic development initiatives is fragile. Finally, he speculates on future sub-national regional structures and observes that even if some future Conservative government chose to revoke regional planning strategies in favour of local decision-making, much of the machinery of governance at the regional level would remain intact. Nonetheless, the impacts of the current economic recession on public policy are unpredictable. While the less favoured regions may be better placed than previously to recover from economic shocks, a tightening of public expenditure could trigger a resurgence of conflicts over the territorial allocation of resources in the English regions and the devolved territories.

Graham PearceAston University, Birmingham, UK

About the Guest EditorGraham Pearce is Professor of Public Policy and Management at Aston Business School. The main focus of his recent research and publications has been the changing pattern of governance in the English regions, supported by the ESRC’s Devolution and Constitutional Change Programme. He has also written about the politics and policies of devolved approaches to local government in England, the implications of EU integration for British local authorities and EU information society policies.


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Further Reading

European Commission (2007), Growing Regions, Growing Europe, Fourth Report on Economic and Social Cohesion, European Commission, Brussels

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