By Tim Roca
With devolution half complete the UK remains one of the most centralised countries in the world. London dominates in ways few other capital cities do.
England is one of the only parts of the European Union without some form of regional democracy. Less than 30% of public expenditure is spent by local government, much less than in Germany, Spain or Canada. Regional disparity abounds. The coalition’s policies are hitting Northern England hard, with over a million working families slammed by the changes to tax credits. The South West has some of the worst areas of fuel poverty, and cuts are disproportionately hammering regions outside of the South east.
Hilary Benn has called for an “English deal”, giving local authorities back powers taken by Whitehall. Maria Eagle has set out plans for transport authorities to have greater powers and financial muscle. This is good, but Labour must be bolder. Being radical and taking power from Whitehall to create strong regional government.
It’s been ten years since the failed referendum on a regional assembly in the North East. Since then devolution in Wales, Scotland and London has proven successful. Redistributing powers to regional government would allow choices to reflect regional priorities, drawing on local knowledge, and with the scale to make the big decisions needed on transport, and infrastructure. A strong dose of democracy, accountability and big picture planning could replace the plethora of Strategic Health Authorities, Local Government Leaders Boards, Local Enterprise Partnerships, and so on, which make decisions in a sort of policy vacuum. From housing, to reformed regional police forces, the potential benefits of regional government are huge.
English regional government would be good for the UK to. The regions need to be a success if the country as a whole is to prosper. As Rachel Reeves has pointed out regional growth “is not an optional extra, it is essential if we are to see the whole of Britain grow.” Research for the BBC shows that the best potential for economic growth is in the regions. The North East, and Yorkshire and Humber in particular, were found to have the highest proportion of fast-growing, export-focused companies. Regional decision making is the best way of unlocking that growth.
One of the main arguments deployed by the SNP for independence is the damage caused by Westminster Tory Governments. But dislike of Whitehall government can be heard just as strongly in Plymouth and Peterlee as in Stirling or Swansea. Regional government would create a strong federal United Kingdom.
Finally regional government could be good for Labour. Regional government would allow Labour to mitigate some of the worst decisions of any future Tory government. The Scottish Government used its autonomy to delay the worst of Osborne’s self defeating cuts. Had Labour controlled regions had the same flexibility then perhaps the UK wouldn’t have seen the collapse in confidence it did.
The level of devolved power regions should receive is open to debate. However the regions could be the foundations of a one nation Labour government, rebalancing the economy and redistributing power from the centre. Regional government would mean a stronger, more united Britain and would have the added benefit of creating Labour regional and devolved administrations that could make the right choices for their communities.