Time to address democratic deficit in English regions

March 10, 2000

This week's theatre over Labour's choice for London mayor shows again that the party that brought devolved government to the UK is having trouble living with the consequences. The Greater London Assembly will not control education, though the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament do, and significant decisions in further and higher education have been left dangling by the suspension of the Northern Ireland Assembly.

England is next on the agenda. Here progress is being made - but indirectly. Regional development agencies and learning and skills councils are being introduced, with the latter inheriting Pounds 3 billion a year of Further Education Funding Council spending.

But there is a serious democratic deficit in these arrangements. LSCs will be appointed directly by the Department for Education and Employment in London, which will be open to local suggestions and nominations but may choose to ignore them. RDA members will be appointed by the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, which seems to have lost a Whitehall battle to give them power over the LSCs.

These will be powerful local players. And they are being set up at a time when the role of elected local authorities, particularly in education, has been substantially reduced through the loss of polytechnics and colleges, and is being further weakened by central intervention in schools. Both Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are right in their criticisms. The new arrangements will undermine existing elected authorities; they will also mean more centralisation. The scale of local government, reduced in most places to a single tier, means that the eight RDAs will be in a bigger league. Furthermore, their borders coincide with those of the government offices that represent Whitehall in the regions, and not with local government.

The case for regional devolution in England is strong. After all, nobody in Falmouth, Newcastle or Wigan thinks that people in London are in touch with local economic or educational needs. There are compelling reasons to ensure that RDAs and LSCs work well and interact effectively.

What is needed next is that most dreaded of reforms: a thorough reorganisation of local government so that the new authorities are made democratically accountable and the credibility of local government is restored. Currently, no English region has a local authority to which an RDA can relate - although on May 4, London will acquire one, and a takeover of the London RDA ought to be one of the GLA's first demands. For most areas of England, deputy prime minister John Prescott is surely right that regional assemblies have more to offer than directly elected mayors.

The structure and effectiveness of local government is crucial to all further and higher education colleges and most universities - all but the most elite acknowledge a regional role. Higher education colleges, in particular, train many teachers, managers, nurses and other professionals for local labour markets. But arrangements for local involvement are not promising. The model is one of patronage rather than democracy, and consultation seems more rhetorical than real. The new foundation degrees, for example, intended to appeal to small-scale employers, seem to be being proposed as national awards without scope for local input.

Further developments in England will doubtless hinge on experiences in London and elsewhere in the UK. But as significant regional voices are arguing in other contexts, it is anomalous and undemocratic to allow all the important decisions concerning the country to be taken in London. Local government reorganisation is a necessary corollary to the constitutional reforms new Labour has introduced. It should be addressed as soon as possible.

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