Academic journal article The Town Planning Review

Devolution to the English Regions1: Assessing Its Implications for Transport

Academic journal article The Town Planning Review

Devolution to the English Regions1: Assessing Its Implications for Transport

Article excerpt

The publication in May 2002 of the White Paper Your Region, Your Choice: Revitalising the English Regions opened up for the first time the prospect of elected regional government in England. It asserted that regional government offers the potential for improved decision making, more efficient programme delivery and a better quality of life for people in their regions. But, like much of the debate about English regional government, these claims have not been tested. Drawing upon the views of regional stakeholders, this paper seeks to redress the balance through a case study of transport policy in the West Midlands of England. It explores deficiencies in current institutional structures and assesses how far they might be redressed by the White Paper proposals. The research shows that transport policies have become increasingly embedded in regional strategies. However, their implementation is an outstanding concern. The government's reforms are designed to achieve greater coordination between transport and other policies and between transport stakeholders. Nonetheless, they fail to address the underlying 'implementation deficit', the fragmented structures and blurred accountabilities that characterise transport policy and delivery in the English regions.

Determining the most appropriate territorial tiers of government for policy making and service delivery has long been a focus of debate among practitioners and academic commentators. In recent years there has been a succession of reforms to the geographical boundaries of UK sub-national government, its structures and functions and the respective roles of government tiers. The most recent and fundamental of these has involved the devolution of political powers to elected institutions in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and Greater London, which has transformed the nature of the UK's territorial government and challenged the traditional understanding of how the UK is governed. In the eight English regions the process has been much more hesitant - 'the gaping hole in the devolution settlement' (Hazell et al., 2001, 192). Outside London, the government has chosen to rely on a system of administrative decentralisation, based on a plethora of non-elected bodies - devolved regional administrations and civil service agencies - appointed by and responsible to ministers for delivering functions, often with different geographical boundaries (Ayres and Pearce, 2002a; 2000b; Tomaney 2002). Government Offices (GOs) in each region have been strengthened and Regional Development Agencies (RDAs), appointed by and accountable to government ministers, have been created to improve regional economic performance. Unelected Regional Assemblies have also been established to provide a veneer of democratic accountability, but without legislative or decisionmaking powers.

These developments can be seen as evidence of a 'de-centring outwards' from Whitehall to the regional tier and the emergence, over time, of more fluid, less hierarchical and more interactive relationships between central government and the regions (Pierre and Peters, 2000). Conversely others assert that central government, rather than applying subsidiarity, has chosen administrative decentralisation, including the imposition of strict financial controls and nationally defined targets, as a means of extending its grip at the regional tier (Bache, 2000; Davies, 2002; Holiday, 2000; Morgan, 2001). These contrasting accounts have been given fresh resonance following the publication of the White Paper Your Region, Your Choice: Revitalising the English Regions in May 2002, which set out proposals for elected regional government in England (Cabinet Office and DTLR, 2002). However, rather than a uniform solution, an incremental, 'two track' approach is to be employed. Track one will be applied in all regions and will build on the current system of administrative decentralisation. It implies a deepening of the roles of the GOs, which are intended to integrate the policies of central government departments in the regions, and an extended role for the unelected Regional Assemblies, including the coordination of regional strategies. …

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