The Coalition Programme for Government was fairly clear, and Conservatives (and frankly a lot of other people in local government) were jubilant. “We will rapidly abolish Regional Spatial Strategies and return decision-making powers on housing and planning to local councils”. Indeed so it proved, with the cart running down the hill so quickly it got ahead of the horse, and the strategic regional planning structure was abolished administratively before the requirements to abide by it could be removed from statute. Not a big deal, one for the lawyers if anyone cares enough, perhaps.
Then what of Regional Development Agencies? Conservative policy was somewhat muddled before the election, reflecting an apparent support for them by the Ken Clarke faction which was not shared elsewhere. This may mirror, or be a proxy for, residual differences on the European question, regions being the preferred shape of the EU for dealing with its member states’ economic programmes. Indeed that, rather than them just not being a very sensible size or shape for most policymaking, could even be the root of much Conservative objection to them.
So the policy was, we all thought, clarified. RDAs would be abolished, and Councils would be invited, sometime last week, to make a proposal for what would replace them. That could be on any geographic scale, including – if Councils in a region wished it – retaining something regionally shaped. Last week came and went, and no letter arrived. Then a new timetable was set out – it would be this week. This week has almost gone and, as far as anyone knew when I last asked, no letter had arrived.
Today, though, Regional Leaders’ Boards were abolished. Or, at least, had their funding withdrawn by Government. This seems a little previous, since in some regions they may be the core of what will replace the RDA, but never mind. The rumour is that only frantic lobbying from local government left them with enough funding to pay their redundancy costs, it’s all very odd.
Eric Pickles puts his best face on – “This is another step in wresting control from the bureaucrats, stopping the top down diktats and axing unelected, ineffective quangos. This is the nail in the coffin of the unelected, unaccountable and unwanted Regional Assemblies”. Well, fair enough, but not all of his grassroots activists are convinced (see comments) these are arguable the least undemocratic part of the regional architecture – as were the Assemblies beforehand. If you want to achieve what he purports to want to achieve, the RDAs need to go as well, and so, in all probability, do a large chunk of the functions of the Government Offices for the Regions.
Are the RDAs living to fight another day thanks to their friends in high places, the political space they occupy, or the convenient research on themselves they have commissioned? Perhaps. It could be that the sainted letter will be on my desk when I return to the office, or it could be that – as informed gossip implied today – the Lib Dems (supporters in principle, let’s remember, of resolving the ‘West Lothian Question’ by building a federal UK in which the English Regions have the same status as the Celtic nations) have decided the whole issue should be the subject of a late Summer White Paper and an Autumn consultation.
There go my fears that I wouldn’t have enough to do under the coalition…