Goodbye Regionalism, hello….?

Did you see it, tucked away, deftly disguised in the small type, you know, the same small print the Chancellor promised we wouldn’t need to read? There it was, bold as brass: “Regional Development Agencies (RDAs) will be abolished” as part of the transition towards new “Local Economic Partnerships (LEPs).”

This is a momentous step, in Eric Pickles’ hyperbolic words, “in wresting control from the bureaucrats, stopping the top down diktats and axing unelected, ineffective Quangos. It’s the nail in the coffin of the unelected, unaccountable and unwanted Regional Assemblies”.

In other words the Coalition has won the greatest victory for democracy since Lando nailed the Death Star mk II reactor core.

Few people will mourn the passing of regional government agencies; they have become poster boys for inefficient and wasteful big government despite two independent studies found they were among the most efficient and economically productive of all government agencies. And while it is true that the North and Midlands have fallen further behind London and the South East RDA’s were never formulated in a way that could meaningfully reduce these inequalities, and in fact their approach continued to perpetuate their underlying causes.

Regional governance had serious flaws and was fatally strangled from birth by a dual lack of political legitimacy and the lack of power to make real political or economic decisions that could shape the development of their regions.

RDAs operated along a neo-liberal view of the world as a global market place and the result was a focus on making the region as attractive as possible to private investment to power economic growth. But each region has an RDA playing the same zero-sum game, all trying to make their region as attractive as possible to private business through identikit business parks, urban redevelopment schemes, research and development zones and water front development schemes.

Long-term plans for environmental sustainability and social inclusion were marginalised by a self-defeating attempt to attract private capital to drive economic growth. The logic of this competitive regional model ensures that London and the South East will continue to experience the greatest investment, building on their already privileged position and comparative advantage in terms of concentrations of both economic and social capital.

In place of genuine democratic decisions shaping the regional agenda, there was an imposition of a one-size-fits-all model that was overly concerned with structures and functions rather than real human outcomes; and an overemphasis on private enterprise driven economic growth over socially and environmentally sustainable development. In many ways regional government was a metaphor for the whole New Labour project, except Yorkshire Forward didn’t invade a Middle Eastern country.

So now that regional government is dead what alternative is the Coalition offering to reinvigorate local democracy? Well, the joint letter from Pickles and Cable, sent out to all local authority leaders the week after the budget, gives some indication of what their plans may look like.

This letter set out the vague outline of the new LEPs: lightweight and pro-business. So pro-business, in fact, they should have equal representation from the private sector and be chaired by a suitably worthy local big wig, which is an interesting take on democratising local government.

But at the same time as asking for ideas on what these LEP’s should look like, the letter announced the renationalising of a whole swath of decision-making areas that had previously been exercised at the regional level. So despite the “Localism, Localism, Localism” mantra, it seems that power and authority is flowing upwards towards the centre, not trickling down to local communities.

And while local authorities may, and it’s a big ‘may’ at this point, be permitted a greater degree of discretionary control over local spending priorities, the bigger, more strategic planning clearly cannot be trusted to the oiks in the regions.

So what possible reason could they possible give for this apparent contradiction to mask the political wrangling between Cable and Pickles?

Well, it’s because “we believe some of these [policies] are best led nationally.” Well, why didn’t they say so? That’s perfectly understandable, say no more. As the Tories have consistently claimed: a distant Quangocrat in Sheffield cannot not understand the situation on the ground in Rotherham, and an RDA in an office in Newcastle is an albatross around the neck of the struggling small business man in Middleborough.

However, the Whitehall civil servant deciding investment policy in the North West, like the man from Del Monte flying into some small Latin American country to pick oranges and install a military regime – well, it turns out that he knows best, after all.

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2 Responses to Goodbye Regionalism, hello….?

  1. QTKate says:

    Very well-written and well-informed piece. However there’s a over-simplification at the crucial point where you try to describe what RDAs have done wrong, “operated along a neo-liberal view of the world as a global marketplace”.

    RDAs may not have presented a heroic or significant challenge to neo-liberal capitalism, but this is too simplistic. RDAs made interventions to facilitate and effectively subsidise market activity in peripheral areas (whether we define these as entire regions, or pockets of deprivation within an otherwise proposperous region). Neo-liberals have always favoured a strong state that jelps the market do what it wants to do. RDAs at least tried to get the market to do things it otherwise would not have done. People in deprived areas got jobs they otherwise would not have got.

    Towards the end your post I’m not sure what you’re argument is. Of course a whole range of decisions will and should be left with national government – you seem to criticise Cable et al for this without any actual critique of their approach.

    It would be good if you could address the issue of geography further. One issue with RDAs is that they didn’t cover geographical economic areas. The conurbation or city-region is our primary economic area, and at least LEPs might offer the prospect of organising things at that level.

  2. James says:

    Agree for the most part with this. What the conservatives want is to prevent any chance northern cities and regions can challenge the south. RDAs weren’t exactly revolutionary but dismantling this architecture is a backwards step.

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