Magazine article Public Finance

All Talk, No Action

Magazine article Public Finance

All Talk, No Action

Article excerpt

Regions with local government, or city-regions with neighbourhoods? This appears to be the choice of options posed by competing ministers in their recent statements about the future of England's system of governance. In particular, there now appear to be distinct and competing views about whether regions or cityregions are the way forward.

This week, Ed Balls and John Healey, respectively economic secretary and financial secretary to the Treasury, published a New Local Government Network paper, Evolution and devolution in England: How regions strengthen our towns and cities. In it, they argue that the regional level of government offers the most promising way ahead for securing a range of social, economic and political objectives.

More challengingly, the Treasury duo state: 'We are very sceptical' about recent proposals to promote 'city-region-wide elected mayors as an alternative to regional decisionmaking - with powers and resources diverted from the regional development agencies'. Coming from such an exalted pair, so close to the chancellor, it is easy to see this explicit put-down of a Number 10 policy as having long-term meaning.

In Tony Blair's letter to new Communities and Local Government Secretary Ruth Kelly in May, he stated: 'I would like to see a radical, devolutionary white paper and subsequent Bill, with more powers for local neighbourhoods and new models of accountability and leadership, including mayors.'

Picking up on the PM's enthusiasm at the recent Core Cities conference in Bristol, Kelly said: 'Getting governance over the right spatial area is essential... some key decisions need to be taken across the city-region. Indeed, empirical research across European Union cities suggests that a better fit between administrative boundaries and the real, underlying economic geography strengthens economic performance across the city-region.'

The Balls-Healey axis wants to strengthen RDAs and underpin them with regional 'grand committees' of Parliament to provide a greater degree of accountability. There is a strong 'no town left behind' flavour to their enthusiasm for RDAs.

They evidently worry that city-regional leaders would further burnish the centres of, say, Manchester and Birmingham to the detriment of, say, Wigan or Walsall. RDAs are seen as vehicles to spread the state's resources evenly across the whole of a region rather than concentrating it in the cities. Existing councils should, under this model, be strengthened.

Quite how the rest of us are supposed to 'read' this ministerial policy spat is hard to guess. …

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