Let's Get Regionalism Right This Time

By Morgan, Kevin | New Statesman (1996), June 26, 1998 | Go to article overview

Let's Get Regionalism Right This Time


Morgan, Kevin, New Statesman (1996)


The new Regional Development Agencies are a welcome advance for strategic planning. But they must avoid some important pitfalls

With the advent of Regional Development Agencies in England, the Scottish parliament and the Welsh assembly, the UK is once again engaging with regionalisation. Two earlier engagements ended in tears: in the 1960s, when the Wilson government ignominiously ditched regional economic planning; and again in the 1970s, when the Callaghan administration was crucified on the cross of Celtic devolution.

This time it could be different. The momentum is greater and the context is broader. Against the European backdrop the creation of regional institutions now appears unexceptional, a natural part of the governing architecture of a pluralistic state. Indeed, it is becoming brutally clear that the UK, far from being in the vanguard of modern governance, is struggling to catch up. Still, better late than never.

Whatever the limitations of RDAs, they are nevertheless a welcome step in the right direction, and the two ministers most responsible, John Prescott and Richard Caborn, are to be congratulated for nurturing them this far, given the turf fights with centralists in the Department of Trade and Industry and the Department for Education and Employment, two departments that fear a loss of power.

But why are the RDAs being created in the first place? They are meant to spearhead regional economic strategies, bring a measure of coherence to an institutional environment which resembles a jungle, and orchestrate partnerships between public, private and third-sector bodies in each region. In these ways the government hopes that the RDAs will rejuvenate the regional economies of England, because only two regions London and the South-east - meet or exceed the average GDP per head in the European Union.

Reluctant regionalists that they were, the Tories were eventually driven to do something about the chaos that was the English regions, hence the creation, in 1994, of the Government Offices for the Regions, a top-down form of regionalism which further exposed the democratic deficit in these areas. This avowedly modest concession was fatal to the centralist repertoire of economic development, inadvertently fuelling the growth of a more robust, more vital bottom-up variant of regionalism.

The white paper that launched the RDAs - Building Partnerships for Prosperity, published last December - declared that they should address five specific objectives: economic development and social regeneration; business support; enhancing skills; promoting employment; and sustainable development. These are said to be equally important dimensions of "... improving the well-being of each English region".

Once the RDAs are up and running in April 1999, much of the debate will probably focus on their three main limitations. First, whether they have sufficient powers to do the job, especially with respect to the existing Training and Enterprise Councils, Business Links, and an ability to influence the relevant further and higher education institutions. Second, whether their budgets are adequate, and whether these should include things such as regional aid grants, a DTI domain. Third, how to render the RDAs publicly accountable, not so much upwards to Whitehall, where adequate provisions have been made, but downwards to the regions in which they will operate.

The white paper fails to allay fears about a new democratic deficit, other than to say that regional chambers, composed of local councillors and other stakeholders, will be consulted by the RDAs. Like the Government Offices before them, the birth of the RDAs will accentuate demands for more democratic governance structures in the English regions; indeed, we might see directly elected regional assemblies sooner than we think, especially in proud, self-conscious regions such as the north.

When the RDAs begin to design their strategies they may be tempted to draw some lessons from Wales and Scotland, where the Welsh Development Agency and Scottish Enterprise are both 22 years old. …

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