English regions get set for devolution

18th June 1999 at 01:00
AFTER the creation of the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly, it is perhaps inevitable that the spotlight has turned to England's regions. Are they next for radical devolution of power?

In the North-east, Labour MPs (Tony Blair excepted) have long been agitating for more power, and for grants to be given to an embryonic regional structure being created in Newcastle upon Tyne. And recently an impeccably Blairite MP from the south of England, Christine Butler, a leading member of the House of Commons' environment committee, predicted that regions were indeed on their way. One of the first casualties, she suggested, would be county councils.

As for the Prime Minister, he is keeping his powder dry, although he has indicated in a recent Scotsman interview that, if English voters get upset at the new powers for Scotland and Wales, the English regions might get new powers more quickly than planned.

Of course, there has been a form of regional government in England for a long time - in the shape of government offices in the regional "capitals". Ever since George Brown's grand plans in the 1960s, there have been sketchy regional economic development activities, and to them were added new regional offices for trade and industry and the environment.

On April 1, new regional development agencies (RDAs) set up shop - to help improve co-ordination with central government. These are committees appointed by John Prescott, the Environment Secretary, with about one-third of their members drawn from the ranks of councillors. But their powers are limited, certainly when it comes to education.

The Department for Education and Employment fought hard to prevent them having any control over training and enterprise councils and they have no formal relationship with schools or universities. So, while they decide strategies for training, they will not actually control implementation.

The agencies' lack of democratic accountability is being addressed by the creation of "chambers" - committees of the regional great and good to liaise with the agencies.

It will be worth keeping an eye on the North-east, where the RDA chief executive knows quite a bit about education: he is Michael Collier, lately chief of the Funding Agency for Schools and before that finance director for the National Health Service in Scotland.

The North-east, needless to say, has a lot of catching up to do with the rest of the United Kingdom and not just in terms of gross domestic product per head. Its educational attainment levels are low and unemployment (at 7 per cent compared with 4.8 per cent for England as a whole) remains stubborn. To help address this the North-east's regional development agency has a budget of pound;140 million. It's not new money but a rechannelling of sums previously allocated to English Partnerships, the government office for the region, and related bodies.

So far, the county council response to the creation of the regional entities has been welcoming.

The key political question is whether the agencies and the chambers will answer the "English question". The agencies have between pound;800m and pound;1 billion a year to spend, compared with the Scottish Parliament's budget of pound;14 billion and the Welsh Assembly's pound;7 billion; that means they will control less than 1 per cent of public spending in their regions.

Already there are signs that the predominantly Labour political establishment in the North-east isn't going to be satisfied.

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