There has been some speculation in recent days that regional assemblies are about to be abolished. The faux-oversight they were supposed to offer the vast regional development agencies was always a sham, and now it seems that Gordon Brown has had enough of them. In yesterday’s Times, the move to abolish them – and reportedly to transfer their remit over regional planning and housing decisions back to Whitehall as part of Brown’s policy of creating “eco-towns” and 3 million new homes – exposed a contradiction in the policy of the opposition Conservative Party. In fact, the opening paragraph required something of a double-take:
“Gordon Brown’s plans to scrap regional assemblies and hand their powers to other regional quangos were criticised by the Conservatives last night who claimed that they were undemocratic. Eric Pickles, the Shadow Communities Secretary, said that Labour was trying to remove the key tier of opposition to its plans to build hundreds of thousands of homes in the South and South East” - Times
Since when was a decision by an elected Government to abolish an unelected quango undemocratic? That said, if it is only a prelude to more powers being centralised in the hands of bureaucrats in Whitehall, then sham democracy has something over no democracy at all. But is that really where the Conservatives are coming from? After years of opposition to the principle of regional government, do they now see regional assemblies – especially those in the South with majority Conservative representation – as a bulwark (however limited) against socialist planning diktats that Brown would otherwise be able to ram through? If so, this is quite a major u-turn. After all, in 2002, Eric Pickles described himself as a “born again localist”:
"We want to give a bigger emphasis to local government, rather than just chasing John Prescott and his six ministers around. I took the job on after Stephen Byers' resignation. For us, local government is the key - it's the building blocks by which we'll get back to Westminster. I've spent the summer talking to local authorities, and in Tyne Tees, for example, 60% of people don't want a regional assembly. People there don't want to be controlled by Newcastle. Ditto for Yorkshire - the people of North Lincolnshire hate the idea of being run by Leeds and Bradford."
If this is still his view, why should people in Dartford, or Dover or Tunbridge Wells, have their views overruled by unelected South East of England Regional Assembly (SEERA) members – of any party colour – in Guildford? Later in the same article, Mr Pickles hedges on the planning subject but also replays the Conservative Party’s conventional message about regional government:
“The regional assemblies are unelected, unaccountable and unwanted. But the musical chairs of passing their functions from one regional quango to another will do nothing to give local communities a greater say on where new homes should go, nor speed up the planning system.”
In other words – "the system is crap but it’s working for us at the moment so we may as well play ball and do our best to annoy Brown". How any of this fits with the party’s preference for more new housing to help first time buyers is anyone’s guess. Or indeed how this national policy – insofar as it is one – is going to go down with local Conservative councils who have been some of the most vehement opponents to any new housing, however much it is needed (these “Nimby” councils incidentally, would of course in Pickles’s eyes be the preferred recipients of any planning powers redistributed if regional government was ever abolished).
These are all details that seem to undermine the Conservative position on planning and local democracy. It is clear that on this, like so much else, the Conservatives don’t really know what they think, even when it isn’t hard to know what argument plays best with the public. We all know that regional assemblies are unpopular (and they seem to know they are – it is quite satisfying to think that SEERA felt the need to dedicate an entire page of its glossy website to justify itself…), and the only time the public were given an opportunity to have a say in the North East in November 2004 they were also resoundingly rejected as a concept.
Despite this, some Conservatives seem to have decided regional assemblies are good for something and many have now built new careers for themselves inside regional government (the head of the UK delegation to the European Committee of the Regions is a Tory Cllr). It isn’t unreasonable to say that Conservatives who sit on regional assemblies (they have done so for years), now have a clear vested interest in retaining them – and even increasing their powers (unlike UKIP MEPs in the EU). Some Conservatives councillors sitting on regional assemblies have already argued for this – even if always as an alternative to losing these powers entirely back to Whitehall. From the same Times article:
"Keith Mitchell, the Tory chairman of the South East England Regional Assembly, said: “The assembly gives elected local councillors the power to make decisions on housing, transport, the economy and the environment that are too big for a single local authority to make. Without the assembly these decisions would be made by quangos or remote civil servants.”
Most UKIP MEPs have to hold their noses when they spend time in Strasbourg or Brussels. Conservatives on regional assemblies seem to actively enjoy their new power and status (and expenses allowance).
All this is pretty inconsistent and the question now is: would a future Conservative government actually reverse the costly and bureaucratic regional government agenda that has taken over planning and regeneration in the last ten years, or would they just settle for being the majority party in charge and therefore in a position to use them as a tool for their own ends? If Brown doesn’t actually abolish them, are regional assemblies and development agencies (where the real money is), here to stay? Like Bank of England independence, tax credits and the minimum wage, is regional government a permanent part of the Blairite inheritance that will be as difficult to abolish as the national curriculum in schools? Earlier last week Alan Duncan, the Shadow Business Secretary suggested not, but if you were going to scrap the RDAs, there would be no need for the regional assemblies at all.
We sincerely hope that the Conservatives iron-out the contradictions on their regional government policy, as much on democratic as on cost grounds. Regional government is a key pillar of our bloated quango state that drains public money at a terrifying rate. The best part of £3 billion is filtered down to these corporate bureaucracies every year and as a result, we have created well-paid local technocratic elites who represent nothing and no-one except the worst examples of our political class (they are typically unqualified, lazy, junket-loving and incompetent…). But there is also the more important democratic argument. You are either in favour of more local control – which means devolution to the lowest possible level as the Direct Democracy group favour – or you are not. Regional government is not and never has been localism and it doesn’t become any better just because your mates are running the show.
Pickles and co. should commit to a clear manifesto pledge to scrap all vestiges of regional government, including regional development agencies and instruct all those Conservative councillors currently sitting on regional assemblies to resign. Those Conservatives who then chose not to, would find themselves in conflict with the popular declared policy of the Party leadership, and also on the wrong side of a people vs. politicians divide. In today’s political environment – not a very comfortable place to be.