The concept of regional assemblies is not new. George Lansbury,
the Christian socialist leader of the Labour Party, advocated them
in the 1930s. The issue is again being seriously debated. Critics
argue that Britain is already overloaded with bureaucracy,
regulation and public expenditure and that another layer of
government would make matters worse.
My starting point is that government should be democratic and as
close as possible to the people whose lives are moulded by major
decision-making. So I am in favour of regional assemblies.
By regional assemblies I do not mean appointed quangos. Rather they
must be elected bodies with the powers and resources to legislate
for their region. In particular, they should establish an economic
strategy and shape services such as housing, social work, youth
work and health which would be administered by the next layer of
local government. The assemblies would be financed by central
government but also have powers to raise revenue through local
The assemblies would have the potential to improve local services
simply because they would be financially powerful while
simultaneously able to respond to the needs of their area. Within
each region, services might well develop on different lines so
offering diversity throughout the country with one region able to
learn from another. Moreover, they could do much to reduce the
centralism of Britain, a centralism based on the Westminster
parliament, the London-based civil service and southern financial
institutions. As regions grew in importance so the media’s
obsession with London would be lessened and proper recognition
given to the contributions of places outside the South East.
My thinking on regionalism has been influenced by the experience of
living in Scotland. Of course, Scotland (like Wales) does not have
a regional assembly, it has a national parliament.
There are aspects of the Scottish cultures which are admirable, but
nationalism with its ugly aggressiveness is to be deplored. I
prefer regional assemblies to national devolved parliaments. Thus
Scotland might have two assemblies, one in the Highlands and one in
its south with the latter taking in part of the north of
This said, the establishment of the Scottish parliament has brought
government nearer to voters. The complaint that Scotland was an
English colony ruled by Oxbridge civil servants is now rarely
heard. Instead, members of the Scottish parliament can concentrate
on Scottish interests and appear to be much closer to their
constituents than their MP counterparts. The MSP for Ballieston
(which includes Easterhouse) is a former community worker, Margaret
Curran. Despite being a government minister, she is frequently in
The Scottish parliament has also put social services high on the
political agenda. Its policies on housing, antisocial behaviour and
juvenile justice have provoked controversy but, at least, they are
now mainstream issues.
A further benefit of the Scottish parliament is the system whereby
voters have a second vote. This has meant that minority parties,
like the Greens, are represented. The Scottish Socialist Party, led
by Tommy Sheridan, voices the kind of socialism which is not heard
at Westminster. Moreover, Sheridan puts principles into practice by
refusing to take his full salary.
Sure, the Scottish Parliament has had the Holyrood fiasco in which
millions have been wasted on a new parliamentary building. But it
has shown that a smaller political unit can be closer to the people
and provide a voice for minorities.
So I want regional assemblies but with a couple of provisos. One is
that they should cover the whole country including London. This
would create something akin to a federal system in which all
citizens have the same kind of votes.
The other is that they should not take the Commons as their model.
Many MPs now regard politics as a career option rather than as a
means to serve society. Of late, MPs have voted to use public money
to increase their already high salaries, to add to their
substantial perks, to improve their generous pensions, and to have
financial compensation for ministers leaving office. No wonder the
culture of greed abounds. Members of regional assemblies should
receive no more than the average income. They would then attract
people who want to serve others.
Bob Holman is the author of Champions for Children:
The Lives of Modern Child Care Pioneers, Policy Press,