Public bodies in England’s three northern regions are doing little to prepare themselves for Elected Regional Assemblies. The result is that regional policy is being driven by insiders and the concerns of many, that regional assemblies will suck up powers from the local level could become a self fulfilling prophecy. This is the stark warning from the independent think-tank, the New Local Government Network.A referendum on an elected regional assembly for the North East will be held 4 November 2004. Referendums in the North West and Yorkshire and the Humber are being rescheduled following concerns expressed about postal voting in these areas.
The authors of the NLGN report ‘Are we ready for Regions?’ highlight a lack of understanding about the implications of regional government and a belief that they will not be affected by it. They interviewed council leaders and cabinet members, local authority directors of planning, education, social services and housing, chairs of Police Authorities and a Primary Care Trust, and senior representatives of the Regional Development Agencies and Passenger Transport Executives.
Half the people interviewed claimed a fairly good understanding of the implications of regional government, but only a small number who were actually involved in the planning were found to have a very good understanding.
There was a widespread belief that regional government was mainly about region wide strategic issues such as planning and transport. Directors of social services and education, for example, were unaware that if regional assemblies were set up the civil servants transferred to the regions would set the policy agenda, with implications across all policy areas.
One reason for the lack of understanding is that consultation has not reached as far as it might. It appears to be restricted to those ‘in the loop’. The report calls for a widening of consultation.