Features: April 16th, 2004

Strategic Regional Government: Lessons From London

By Mark Sandford

Reproduced by permission of the Public Management and Policy Association.

As England’s three Northern regions begin preparations for a referendum vote next October on whether or not they should establish elected regional assemblies, it is surprising to see a dearth of interest in just what these new bodies are going to achieve – and, just as importantly, how they will achieve it. Debate frequently stalls at opposing positions: either that regional assemblies will do nothing useful or they will kick-start regional development, boost regional culture, improve regional health, save the region’s environment, and benefit any other policy that comes to mind.

The Government has proposed a model of elected assembly which has very thin executive powers and limited spending ability. Instead of holding direct executive power, in most policies it is to influence regional policy across institutions, both public and private, by means of ‘strategy’. The elected assembly will write ten strategies. The Government is silent on how the assemblies can make this influence count: the cynical view is that this is a means of devolving responsibility and holding on to power.

But there is a strategic regional authority already in existence in England: the Greater London Authority has spent three years facing the challenge of ‘strategic regional government’. So what have been the characteristics of ‘strategic regional government’ as practised by the GLA? Four strong impressions emerge.

Firstly, the actual writing of the GLA’s ten strategies has been an exhaustive, and no doubt exhausting, task. Some of them are only being completed now, over three years into the Mayor’s first term. This is partly due to onerous statutory consultation requirements (many have appeared in draft originally), to the GLA not being at full staff complement in July 2000, and to the enormity of the task as interpreted by the GLA. GLA strategies, on subjects such as Municipal Waste, Energy, Ambient Noise and Air Quality, weigh in at between 200 and 450 pages each.

Limited funding means limited power

Secondly, the Mayor has very few funds to commit to putting strategies into practice. By law, he cannot switch funding between his functional bodies, such as Transport for London and the Metropolitan Police. He also cannot duplicate borough service provision. With these limits on his power and money, it is unsurprising that his main activity has been hiring large numbers of strategists and producing hugely detailed reports.

Without executive power, the Mayor’s strategies have concentrated on targets, aspirations, exhortation and aims – actions for other people. The Mayor has only the smallest sums of money available to fund his aspirations. For instance, although £21 million was given to the London boroughs to improve door-to-door recycling, this money had been won through a competitive bidding process, by a company set up by a partnership between the Mayor and various private organisations.

Thirdly, publicity and communications are skewed by the lack of Mayoral powers. On the one hand, news from the GLA overwhelmingly focuses on issues relating to the four functional bodies, over which the Mayor does have some level of control. New bus tickets, extra police in certain boroughs, proposals to buy land to enable development, and quick wins such as firework displays, are presented with great fanfare and in great detail.

It is no surprise that little time is spent expounding visible achievements on issues like culture and the environment, because there are almost none. In these areas and other mainstream policy areas like housing and sport, the GLAs role is limited to research, advocacy and worthy sentiments. In this it resembles a voluntary pressure group rather than a government. In the long term, even though the Mayor normally makes clear in public what he can and cannot do, the public is unlikely to be impressed with a government whose main product is words – however worthy – rather than concrete action.

Value can be added

The activities of the Mayor of London do give some clues as to where strategic regional government can be effective. It can add value to existing activities and institutions in two ways. Firstly, it can take the lead on policy issues which do not have a clear institutional home. An example of this is public health: the Mayor helped to set up a London Health Commission, made up of some 30 experts and senior officers from a wide range of London organisations who had an interest in public health. It has facilitated networking, and hence a degree of joint working, between people and organisations who would not have come into contact without the existence of the GLA.

Secondly, issues which are not yet, or are only just becoming, thought of as subjects of public policy are picked up by the GLA. It has an incentive to do this precisely because of its lack of conventional powers of governance. An example of this is the London Hydrogen Partnership. This has been set up to help London meet its share of National Air Quality objectives, and is run by its steering group with representatives from companies such as BP, BMW, Johnson Matthey and Thames Water; public groups like the ALG, LDA, and TFL; voluntary groups such as the Carbon Trust and London First. They divide into task groups to produce a Hydrogen Action Plan.

This group does not have executive powers, but they are both developing a policy and achieving partnership and interest from parts of the private sector which can make a contribution towards delivering change. Ideally, in this way the GLA, can stimulate private sector action to achieve desirable results for the public.

Regional priorities must take precedence

However, small-scale, incremental initiatives of this kind do not a regional government make – neither in terms of establishing its legitimacy with the electorate nor in attaining concrete achievements. Though incremental initiatives may add up to more than one might suspect, the overwhelming public and media interest in the Mayor of London is in the big issues which he has authority over: transport and policing. And this is the central lesson for elected assemblies in other regions: that strategic regional government in London has not overcome the golden rule that ‘he who has the gold makes the rules’. A ‘voice for London’ cannot replace power to act, as demonstrated from issues from the public-private partnership for London Underground to continuing arguments over provision of social housing.

To avoid arguments over lines of responsibility, elected assemblies need either to be given actual control of existing regional executive agencies – of which there are many, spending billions of pounds – or, at the very least, those executive agencies must be free to choose the priorities of the regional government over those of the national government when they conflict. There is really no way around this conundrum: policy change and policy divergence can only be achieved when the central government relaxes its grip, and if that does not happen the regional assembly is limited to scavenging new or neglected issues as described above.

Role of Assembly Members

The other lesson for elected assemblies elsewhere is the need to clarify the respective roles of partnership; appointment; and scrutiny by assembly members. The London Assembly’s role in policy-making appears convoluted and confused. It has a formal role of agreeing the Mayor’s budget and scrutinising his draft strategies. It has also produced a range of its own scrutiny reports, into diverse issues – often on national policy issues – which appear to have had very little influence.

Though individual members of the Assembly sit on a bewildering array of boards, commissions, and committees (some sit on the Mayor’s Advisory Cabinet), the Assembly has a very limited corporate role. Its own scrutiny reports have mostly been tangential to the Mayor’s policy initiatives: GLA policy development has been largely carried out through Mayor-appointed commissions and in-house research. There has been very little role for the Assembly members as Assembly members.

In elected assemblies in other regions the dynamic of the relationship will be different, as the regional ‘first minister’ and his/her cabinet will be drawn from the assembly. However, this makes it even more important that the input of assembly backbenchers is valuable and valued: that they are drawn into the policy-making process through Assembly structures, and by fostering links with external partners, instead of through their appointment to other positions.

The experience of the GLA offers a wide range of lessons to avoid in elected assemblies in the English regions outside London. But it also offers some idea of what elected regional assemblies could add to public policy: valuable initiatives, but on a very small scale in strictly limited areas.

Mark Sandford is a Research Fellow with The Constitution Unit, University College London.