Faced with indifference to his proposals for devolving government
in the north of England, deputy prime minister John Prescott has
been frantically bolting on new proposed powers to his plans for
elected regional assemblies in the north west, north east and
Yorkshire and Humberside, writes Mark
Voting on whether to introduce the new assemblies takes place this
autumn. However, quite what people will be asked to vote for or
against is anybody’s guess. In the original white paper ‘Your
Region Your Choice’ published in 2002, the assemblies were
envisaged as strategic bodies designed to inject new life into
They would focus on economic development, regeneration, the
environment, tourism and culture. But with the electorate
unenthused by the idea of an elected parliament in charge of
business parks and libraries, fears of a low turn-out have
persuaded Prescott to consider adding several new responsibilities.
These include policing, adult education, fire and rescue, transport
and public health.
The draft bill outlining the new assemblies’ proposed powers
and responsibilities will be published in July, shortly before the
Boundary Committee decides how local government will be reorganised
to cope with the changes.
As yet there is no intention for the assemblies to have any
responsibility for the delivery of social services. However, they
are likely to be charged with long-term planning to improve public
health and social conditions within the region.
This will involve joint working with health bodies, voluntary
agencies and councils. Proposals to avoid three-tier government in
rural areas currently covered by county and district councils may
also affect who delivers social care. Models being considered
include replacing county and district councils with a single
With the consultation process still under way councils and other
interested parties are urgently marking out their territory.
Firm boundaries needed
A report commissioned recently by the Local Government
Association and the County Councils Network, warns that firm
boundaries must be placed on the role of the new assemblies to
ensure that power is not leached upwards from local authorities
rather than devolved downwards from Whitehall.
According to Sir Jeremy Beecham, chair of the Local Government
Association, local councils need to lobby hard to ensure that their
powers are not eroded if the new arrangements are given the green
“If regional assemblies are given the go-ahead in the
forthcoming referendums, the LGA will be working to ensure that
their powers will be cascaded down from Whitehall and not taken
away from local government,” he says. “Local councils
must remain in the front line of delivering real democratic
accountability in the regions.”
Within social services, one area of concern is that regional
assemblies might further the cause of regional procurement agencies
as outlined recently by Sir Peter Gershon in his review of how to
make public services more efficient.
These proposals, which envisage commissioning services such as
domiciliary and residential care at a regional rather than a local
level, have been criticised as “clumsy and simplistic”
by Association of Directors of Social Services president Andrew
Cozens. They could result in “fractured provision and
councils locked into long-term contracts for outmoded
services”, he says.
No part in delivery
Mona Sehgal, social care programme manager at the LGA, is
equally adamant that regional assemblies should have no part in the
delivery of social services.
“There might be a role for a regional body to gather
information on service needs but in terms of handling the budgets,
commissioning and delivering the services, that should be done at
local level,” she says.
However, according to John Sellgren, director of the County
Councils Network, the presence of a regional assembly could make
regional procurement a distinct possibility. “In those areas
which don’t have a regional assembly then regional
procurement could only be done with the consent of the local
authorities. However, if there is a regional assembly in place then
it is possible that it could aspire to taking over some
Sellgren also takes issue with the idea that regional assemblies
should take over the long-term strategic planning of services such
as public health and housing.
“We are very clear that strategic planning is what we do and
that it is much better done at a local level,” he says.
“There’s also the risk that the elected regional
assemblies won’t be satisfied with simply a strategic role
and will be tempted to meddle with the implementation of that
strategy. We’ve already seen this in microcosm with the
Greater London Authority. Ken Livingstone is not happy with
Barnet’s implementation of his traffic calming measures so
he’s withholding funding.”
According to Tony Rich, the LGA’s regeneration programme
manager, of the various models of devolution in operation in the
UK, it is London’s mayoral system that seems to have most
undermined local authorities.
“In Scotland, the assembly has legislative and tax-raising
powers and is very clear about its role. Wales probably even more
so. But in London the role of the GLA is less clear and the mayor
does seem to have been straying into areas that perhaps should not
be his responsibility.”
This might seem to be an argument for reducing the powers of the
But according to Jo Dungey, policy officer at the Local Government
Information Unit, the reverse is actually the case. “One of
our concerns about the GLA is that it has not been given all the
powers it needs. If regional assemblies are not to lean on local
government then they need to be given the powers to do the
These powers, says Dungey, should include the ability to raise tax
directly. One of the bugbears with local government is that the
elected assemblies are due to be funded by a rise in council tax
which local councils will be expected to collect.
But, in a report published recently in conjunction with the
Campaign for the English Regions, the LGIU argues that if the
assemblies are to be accountable to voters then they should raise
their own taxes directly.
Air of apathy
The report goes on to recommend that the assemblies should also
take on the allocation of housing investment, powers over roads,
public transport and rail, economic development, regional skills
strategy, agricultural support programmes, land management and
They should also have a general duty to promote public health and
the economic, social and environmental well-being of their
Before any of this can happen, of course, voters in the three
northern regions will have to be convinced that assemblies really
are worth paying the estimated extra 5p per week in council
At present there is little sign that the ‘Yes’ campaign has managed
to break through the pervading air of apathy. The publication of
the draft bill in July may change this by offering tangible
evidence of what the assemblies hope to achieve.
“I certainly hope so,” says Dungey. “People will
vote for regional government if they are convinced it will make
practical improvements and won’t just be a talking
May 2004 – Boundary Committee makes its final recommendations
on local government reorganisation.
July 2004 – draft Regional Assemblies Bill will outline the
powers and responsibilities of the proposed assemblies.
Autumn 2004 – Referendums take place in the north east, north
west and Yorkshire and Humberside.
2006 – First elected regional assemblies up and running.