Media darling and economic blogger Duncan has been looking at the list of possible public spending cuts put forward by David Davis MP in today’s FT. He asked me what I thought of both the effectiveness and the likely saving from the proposal to “Abolish regional government and devolve remaining functions ‘back to the counties’ or back to the centre“. You can read my full answer in the comments, but I thought I’d raise the issue here in case any readers have any specific insights.
My general view is that at the moment the “regions” (RDAs, GORs, SHAs, and assorted other smaller regionalised Quangos) generally do the job they’re given adequately, but there’s no particular logic to them. Certainly there’s no reason it couldn’t mostly be accomplished either at a county level without spending any extra money (and sometimes by spending less) or centrally, since the limited devolution that the regions represent often doesn’t add anything in terms of real accountability.
The problems the proposal needs to address are, firstly, the variable geometry of the UK – not everywhere has Counties any more, so for example Doncaster and Brighton may not be large enough to undertake some tasks, but the Conservatives are generally opposed to structural reforms that might address that, and to the best of my knowledge not exactly enthused by the city-region (aka “metropolitan county”) agenda. London is the other anomaly – would the Mayor be the County and decide what can and cannot be pushed down further to the individual boroughs? Instinctively that seems sensible.
Secondly, where the savings from scrapping the regional tier come from the amount of work the Government Offices of the Regions do on liaison over regulation and inspection with individual Councils, there is a risk of double-counting, since the Conservatives are already proposing to save much of that money by reducing the amount of regulation and inspection. You can’t, sadly, save the same money twice. I suppose you can get rid of some of it, and have the part you keep done more consistently and with fewer layers.
In principle though, it’s much simpler to me. Democracy works better when there’s demos as well as cratos. Villages, towns, cities and counties tend to have a significant number of people who describe themselves as being “from x”. I meet very few people who say “I’m from the East of England”, and when someone says “I’m from the West Midlands”, they tend to mean the conurbation, I don’t think it’s a widely used self-description by people from Herefordshire.
Therefore I would want the argument to be overwhelming for governance at the regional level if it were to continue – which is not to say that some delivery can’t still be done at that level by agreement, but I wouldn’t use the current structures or, to be honest, regional boundaries. I am put in mind of a comment once made by Matthew Taylor, MP for Truro and St Austell – who when asked his views on regional government replied that he was entirely at ease with it but that there wasn’t really room for many regions in a country the size of Cornwall. I think he was joking…
While we’re on the subject, I have some changes I would like to make to the sections of the Local Democracy Economic Development and Construction Bill dealing with drawing up the Integrated Regional Strategy. Will supply own red ink if required.