Lecturer in Regional Development at the School Martin Quinn outlines his proposal for a new regional development infrastructure
The recent referendum on Scottish independence has plugged ‘the West Lothian Question’ back into the political mainstream. Tam Dayell’s original concern in raising this question was with parliamentary representation whereas today the controversy is over parliamentary devolution. Never mind. English regionalism, what Christopher Harvie once labelled ‘the dog that never barked’, usually only got debated on the fringes of academia, after settlements for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have been agreed. Not any more, or at least not at the moment.
The debate over sub-national development, to my mind, is one worth having. England’s counties and regions are incredibly diverse, both culturally and economically. The country is divided along north/south lines and – to a lesser extent – east/west lines, both of which are exacerbated by the pull of the capital. A focus on ‘England’ as a political entity usually means a focus on London. Rarely, if ever, are positive impacts felt in the rest of the Country. Case in point: the HS2 rail network development. The regions don’t really need access to London made even easier, what they need are better transport links between one another.
So what are the political alternatives to a London-centric England? Proposals made so far include an English parliament, a return to the regions, a focus on city regions and, connected to this, more powers for elected mayors. Critics of the idea of an English Parliament (or the more watered down English votes on English laws within Westminster) rightly point out that this would not solve the issue of London’s dominance over the rest of the Country. The regions are a useful starting point for English devolution but should not be seen as the solution in isolation.
Recent scholarship focusing on Birmingham, Liverpool, Bristol and the North East, however, questions the value of City based elected mayors, proposing instead that the mayoral remit should be extended to the City Region. This is exactly what has been proposed in the form of the Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA). A similar deal has been announced for Sheffield and one for Leeds is expected soon. The GMCA is markedly similar to proposals previously made by Michael Heseltine and John Prescott in the past and it will be fascinating to observe how the accompanying legislation progresses through Parliament, or not. Such historical precedents have struggled to gain popular support and cross party consensus. As such they have tended to survive only as long as the government that created them. This has led to a cyclical effect in English regional development where the same mistakes are repeated time and time again.
The Garden Cities and Enterprise Zones of the 1980s, for example, were limited to specific areas, thereby leaving whole sections of the country without a plan. The Government Offices for the Regions, set up by John Major’s Conservative Government, were then supposed to deliver central government policies to regions, in many cases debilitating the very possibility of local solutions. The Regional Development Agencies (RDAs) of the following Labour Governments had significant funding and some freedom from central government but they did not clearly demarcate regional borders, leading to poor levels of civic and economic engagement. Now, at least since 2012, it is the so-called Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) which have been tasked with undertaking economic development at the sub-state tier in England. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given these austere times, these bodies lack funding and, in areas with little or no regional leadership, they have struggled to get off the ground.
Nick Pearce has argued that any policy on English devolution would necessarily be a “messy affair”. The melee of Shires, Cities, Market Towns and Borough and District Authorities make a single one size fits all policy almost impossible to achieve. This is precisely why, within the academic literature, debate has turned to the idea of multi-scalar approaches to regional development. Drawing on precedents from across Europe (for example, Baden-Wurttemberg, Emilia-Romagna, and, the TriCity area around Gdansk) such approaches combine the bigger strengths of regions with the more localised needs of smaller towns and rural areas. Crucial to this approach is Stimpson and Stough’s concept of ‘slack resources’ whereby power, leadership and funding are not fixed to one tier but moved into the most appropriate scale as the need emerges. Drawing on the above, as well as my own work in the East Midlands, I would argue that such a two stage approach to regional development should be implemented in England.
The first stage of policy implementation should be to re-introduce the regional tier to the policy arena. Devolution should not be based on the mistaken assumption that the nine standard regions (North East, North West, Yorkshire, West Midlands, East Midlands, East of England, South East, South West and London) are mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive. Rather, as the RDAs have previously demonstrated, these can each develop strategies to deliver funding below the state level. Hence the second stage of my proposal: further devolution to the County/City-Region tier, something the RDAs failed to do until their final years.
Concrete example: there is little coherence to the idea of an East Midlands economy. The economies of Derby, Leicester, and Nottingham, on the other hand, contain functioning networks of public and private sector actors. The regional tiers, in other words, should devolve economic and executive authority to existing LEPs. The danger is that smaller towns and Cities will get left behind. So, to mitigate against this, regions should retain responsibility for helping such areas build up networks by providing them with a voice. This is precisely what the East Midland Development Agency (EMDA) did on behalf of the Northamptonshire town of Corby, one of the regions most deprived areas, through its ‘Catalyst Corby’ project.
Whatever shape the future of regional development in England takes, it is vital that the lessons are learned from the many mistakes of the past. The regions should no longer be seen as vehicles of central government. This means, firstly, that the territories chosen must mean something to the public and the business communities within them. Secondly, it requires clear leadership within the regions which can drive local agendas forward. Finally, as the case with Leicester’s development efforts between 2007 and 2010 demonstrated, the presence of City and County Council officials can make a real difference in gaining the support of both the public and business sectors for local economic development efforts. The devolution of power proposed above will need to be matched with the devolution of resource, of course. With the West Lothian question back on the mainstream agenda, now is surely the time to make this very argument, loudly and often.