If someone were to tell you that the biggest threat to England right now was regionalisation you would probably laugh at them but it’s true and it’s happening right now.
England is infested with regional quango’s – all unelected and all paid for by the taxpayer – yet most people have never heard of them, let alone know what it is that they do with our money.
Test the theory now – ask the next 10 people you have a conversation with what the West Midlands Regional Assembly does. How many said they’d never even heard of the West Midlands Regional Assembly? Probably all of them and it’s hardly surprising.
The only regional quango that publicises itself – or rather what it does – is Advantage West Midlands. AWM is actually the West Midlands Regional Development Agency by another name. Recently, through the local press, the new chairman of AWM asked the people of the West Midlands how they would like them to spend their £10,000,000,000 budget next year. Count the zero’s – that’s £10 billion of taxpayers money given to an unelected regional development agency to spend as they see fit with the proviso that they believe the money is being spent for the good of the region.
Advantage West Midlands is almost unique amongst the regional quango’s in that it comes under the jurisdiction of the Freedom of Information Act which means that, even though we can’t actually do anything about it, we can at least see what it is they’re up to. This isn’t the case for other regional quango’s – the Regional Assembly being the biggest of these – who are immune from the Freedom of Information Act and can operate in complete secrecy.
There are two main drivers behind regionalisation in England. The first is the EU, which has divided every member state into regions. The reasoning behind this is twofold: firstly, the EU is large and diverse and dividing it into regions makes it easier to govern; secondly, replacing national identities with regional identities will make it easier to subsume member states into a European Federation. The second main driver is the difficulty the Labour Party has in maintaining a majority in England. Dividing England into 9 regions, each with its own regional parliament, would mean that adding only 4 of the 9 English regions to Labour’s virtually guaranteed vote in Scotland and Wales would enable the party to govern England with the support of less than half of the country.
Two years ago, John Prescott ordered referenda in each of the 9 English regions on having an elected Regional Assembly. The Regional Assemblies would have limited powers devolved to them from central government and would have taken away some powers from local authorities. The North East region was chosen to hold the first referendum as it was the region thought to have the highest level of support for regional government. The referendum resulted in a 78% no vote – the biggest referendum defeat of any British government in history. However, rather than abandoning the regionalisation project, Mr Prescott merely cancelled the remaining referenda and gave the unelected regional assemblies more powers.
The English public’s rejection of regional assemblies and the EU’s insistence on regional government left the British government with a dilemma and the answer was city regions.
The West Midlands will be the first place to have a city region – the Birmingham, Black Country and Coventry City Region. Despite only covering the urban areas of the West Midlands euroregion, the City Region has the potential to have a damaging impact on the whole region. This is because, unlike the Regional Assembly and other region-wide quango’s, the City Region will only concern itself with the urban areas in the West Midlands, sucking jobs, investment and funding out of the rural parts of the region. You might think this won’t affect you in the metropolis that is Birmingham, but ask yourself this: if farms and other local food producers go out of business, how much more expensive is your weekly shopping bill going to be? Are there enough jobs in the cities for these unemployed country folk?
Whilst Birmingham will undoubtedly dominate the City Region, some concessions will have to be made to the other towns and cities involved. Working with other local authorities on mutually beneficial projects is a good thing but what about when something that benefits the rest of the City Region doesn’t benefit Birmingham? Would you be happy to accept something that might cost jobs or investment in Birmingham for the benefit of Solihull or Walsall?
The City Region will fundamentally change the way local government works in the West Midlands yet despite nobody ever having stood for election on a manifesto of creating this City Region, the local authorities involved all claim to have a democratic mandate to do so. Not one of the local authorities involved will hold a referendum and so far none have held public consultations.
The City Region has plans to gain tax raising powers and to become the planning authority for all the local authorities in the City Region. Councillors and “business leaders” from Coventry or Telford could end up casting the deciding vote on whether or not Mr Smith can build a garage in his garden in Aston or whether a school in Edgbaston can build a new classroom.
As is the norm with all regional government, nobody will be elected to the City Region cabinet. The Leader and Chief Executive of each council will be appointed to the City Region executive board and oversight committee respectively. They will be joined by “business leaders” who will also be appointed based on their pro-Labour, pro-EU and pro-regional credentials.
The Minister for Communities and Local Government has expressed concern about the accountability of an unelected City Region and small wonder. Scrutiny of the City Region’s work will be provided by the unelected Regional Assembly and Advantage West Midlands – kind of like the lunatics running the asylum!
Regional government is unelected, undemocratic, unaccountable and unwanted. Millions of pounds of taxpayers money is spent on keeping this vast regional bureaucracy in existence, pitting region against region instead of working together to tackle the real problems facing the country and the West Midlands.