Last week, plans were announced for a Bucks / Oxon / Northants combined authority, a move that raises important questions of local and regional identity. We’re assured that this is just a practical measure of co-operation that won’t affect day-to-day services but these things have a habit of acquiring their own momentum.
The case for a combined authority is that it might unlock billions of pounds of public spending. It can make the case for new infrastructure, such as an Oxford-Cambridge expressway or completion of the East-West Rail Link. But can’t the councils already do that? For better or for worse, it could open up for development those relatively sparsely-populated areas that form Oxfordshire’s historic boundaries with its eastern and northern neighbours. These are areas that have remained undeveloped because they’ve been on the edge, although the edge may be where they’re comfortable being.
One danger of the realignment is that past investment in infrastructure will be under-valued, with Oxford’s strategic position in the Upper Thames Valley ignored. With its M4, M40 and A34 links and its close connections with Swindon, Newbury and Reading, Oxford sits far more naturally within a Wessex region looking west to Bristol and south to the Solent. For starters, consider where the Environment Agency, the BBC or the NHS ambulance service place it. Whatever happened to joined-up government?
There’s no doubt that combined authorities are in favour with Whitehall right now – and on a cross-party basis – but that ought to set alarm bells ringing. Not being directly elected, their mandate is at one remove from voters. And if what they do is ‘unlock’ money from Whitehall, how did the money come to be locked up in the first place?
It’s our money, paid in taxes to London. We shouldn’t need begging-bowl consortia of councils to make the case for having it drip-fed back to us. A proper, directly elected regional assembly – such as the one Wessex Regionalists demand, and Wessex is 8 million strong – would keep our region’s taxes as of right and spend them on the priorities that matter to us, not the ones handed down from Whitehall.
Too remote? Not as remote as Whitehall, while the ‘headroom’ above county councils would ensure their continued existence as local bodies directly accountable for their decisions. Something that ad hoc groupings cannot. Refusing to think on a truly regional basis is a fault that will come back to bite local government badly.