That could save something in the region of…

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.


4 responses to “That could save something in the region of…

  1. At the risk of being very boring can I suggest that deciding on the appropriate level of government is always a compromise between local identities and the scale of operation that is technically appropriate to the job to be done?

    So, for example, no one would question the strength of the Cornish identity (which different people might describe as local, regional or even national according to taste) but it doesn’t have a Police Force to itself, having to share one with Devon. Partly this may be down to the vagueries of history but I suspect it is also about having an operation which is large enough to economically support specialist services- in the case of the Police stuff like CID units, air unit (it seems to have only one helicopter to judge form its website) etc. Analogous points could be made about most public services. & here’s the rub: the economic scale of operation for one service – say education – may not be the same scale as that for another, say economic development. Neither will necessarily ‘fit’ the level at which local identity is most profoundly felt ( itself is a matter of great argument which can be both weaselly and subtle if Boundary Commission hearings are anything to go by…). So deciding on the best level of government is not simply a question of identifying your demos and then fitting the services around it – it’s always a compromise.

    • thelocalgovernmentofficer

      This is broadly a fair point, but I would suggest when we talk about democratic accountability of policing we’re not primarily talking about CID or, even, the helicopter. While there’s a single police authority and constabulary for Devon and Cornwall, there are three Basic Command Units – Devon, Cornwall, and Plymouth.

      We could have a different geographic scale for every public service based on the ‘economic scale’, or we could define a menu of scales (like at a bad seafood restaurant) and see at which level each one best fits, making an exception only if there are really overwhelming arguments for that service to be geographically unique.

      Where there is a mid-point on the scale – as you believe there is for policing in the wild west, and you may be right – I might be really radical and suggest that this can be decided by those elected at the next level down, so Cornwall’s voters could choose whether they want to pay more tax and have a slightly less efficient but Cornwall-only police service, or else pay less but accept that much will be shared with Devon.

      Right down at the lowest geographic scale, many parishes are already very good at this, maintaining their own identity but clustering or grouping either for overall administration, or else on specific aspects of their work, whether transport or crime and antisocial behaviour.

  2. All very true – but it does suggest that there are inevitable ‘frictional’ costs of co-ordination between government at different levels which are unlikely to be significantly affected by simple shouting ‘death to the regions’….a point which I think you made over at Duncan’s place, so we’re agreeing I think

    • thelocalgovernmentofficer

      Yes – there are indeed inevitable frictional costs, especially when things are different shapes. It’s why I was so annoyed that ‘coterminosity’ was on the LGA’s list of banned words. It’s very important…

      All the same, co-ordinating between Whitehall and Truro should in principle be a little bit cheaper overall than co-ordinating between Whitehall and Bristol, and Bristol and Truro.

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