The regions are being rebuilt, even under the Coalition. Last week a consultation began on the formation of a ‘combined authority’ for Durham, Northumberland and Tyne & Wear. It will take over transport, economic development and regeneration powers from the seven member councils. It’s almost the regional assembly all over again, and will be if the five unitary councils in the Tees Valley join later. Similar combined authorities are being set up in other metropolitan areas, though none on this scale.
Within Wessex, councils in Devon and Somerset have pooled their economic development role and share a fire & rescue service. There are rumours of forthcoming mergers in other departments too. Sometimes this sort of co-operation can move us in the right direction, as in fire control services, which are now co-ordinated across most of southern and central Wessex, defying London’s divide-and-rule obsession with the ‘South West’ and the ‘South East’. Such developments are essential to improve our region’s resilience in large-scale emergencies. What is of great concern to us is when co-operation stops short of the Wessex level because London insists on a different agenda.
This seems to be the case with the ‘combined authorities’, all of which are part of a drive to create a ‘city-region’ scale of governance rather than a truly regional one. Cities matter a lot to this government, as they did to the last. The belief is that concentrating decisions and resources in cities, at the expense of the countryside, will produce some sort of economic miracle that will benefit everybody. So we all need to doff our caps to those creative, entrepreneurial, interconnecting urbanites without whom we would be nothing. Sounds familiar? Yes, it’s the London view of the world turned into a general theory of economics.
Underpinned in policy terms by ‘city deals’. Despite the faint echo of Roosevelt’s New Deal (which was much more wide-ranging), the real inspiration for the term is the Thatcherite obsession with contracts, with shaking hands on a mutually beneficial transaction. The problem is that this isn’t a contract between equals. What city deals are about is our cities signing-up to support for government policy, however distasteful, in return for getting back some of the money the London regime has taken from them in tax.
The original idea of putting cities centre-stage by means of elected mayors has been largely shot down by the electorate. It was always going to give rise to questions about the scope of their mandate. Giving elected mayors powers over hinterlands that have no say in their election was too undemocratic even for the London regime to defend. City-regions – joint authorities for cities, suburbs and surrounding countryside – are Plan B. They’ve been discussed among the elite for around 50 years and are now flavour of the month not only with the London regime but with the half-free Welsh Assembly, which wants similar structures for the Swansea and Cardiff/Newport travel-to-work areas. That way the Assembly can continue to preside over a fragmented, colonial economy instead of tackling the real job of building a genuinely free and integrated one. Municipal leaders in the English regions have exactly the same priority: keep it so local it hurts. All because, in their experience, shaped by the capricious acts of the London regime, the regionalist alternative is a leap in the dark.
City-regions give the appearance of decentralisation without the reality. Their powers are drawn up, not down. They are small, manageable, and no threat at all to the London regime. They can even be played off, very aggressively, against the aspirations of small nations and historic regions, contrasting a supposedly sophisticated global-cities-club identity with rooted territorial identities now to be judged passé. They breed suspicion about the motives of neighbouring cities. They erode traditional local government without replacing it with anything that has a compelling identity of its own. They entrench the idea that life is urban-centred and that nothing larger than the travel-to-work area is real until the level of the sovereign UK is reached. That’s why they’re flavour of the month. And no-one should be fooled into thinking otherwise.