In 2004, John Prescott tried very hard to establish elected regional government in England. He selected North East England for his attempt, believing this was an area that saw itself as a region and would support the idea. He failed when a referendum voted by 696,519 votes to 197,310 against the proposal. In the face of such opposition, the whole concept of a tier of elected regional assemblies was dropped and the government instead legislated for eight unelected regional assemblies to cover the whole of England except London which had opted for a directly elected Mayor and Assembly.
I remember this period well. In addition to being Leader of Oxfordshire County Council, I was first Chairman of the Regional Planning Committee and, subsequently, Chairman of the South East England Regional Assembly, each for a three-year period. We were charged by the Blair government with preparing a South East Plan for the region with housing numbers, locations of growth and infrastructure needs. The membership of the Assembly was overwhelmingly Conservative although there were a gang of unelected “stakeholders” from business, environmental and voluntary groups in addition to councillors appointed from every upper-tier council in the region. The Conservative Party was wholly opposed to regional planning and I had to manage the opposition of my own majority group of council leaders as well as the views of the other assembly members. It was an interesting and challenging time!
The opposition of South East Conservative members of parliament was an added trial and I can remember John Redwood telling me I should have nothing to do with the whole thing! Well, I pressed on and we produced a South East Plan that I think was pretty comprehensive and in time for the incoming Conservative government to abolish the Assembly and to bin the Plan in 2010!
Which brings me to the irony of George Osborne promoting a new form of regionalism with a Manchester Combined Authority comprising the 11 borough councils that make up Greater Manchester. These councils have been cooperating on strategic planning and housing for quite some time. This devolution brings powers over strategic planning, housing, transport and, most recently, health with substantial funding including the ability to retain 100% of the growth in business rates. However, the price of devolution is imposition of an elected mayor which Manchester did not want but George Osborne said was non-negotiable. The cooperation among the Manchester councils has been ongoing for some time despite political differences and mainly due to the leadership of Sir Richard Leese, a Labour councillor. It sounds as if he will stand for Mayor.
So, we have a Conservative Chancellor promoting a piecemeal approach to regional government and it is provoking interest elsewhere. The North-East, where opposition to Prescott’s earlier attempt was critical in sinking the plan, is now bidding for a similar regime to the Manchester model and I am sure others will not be far behind. Liverpool and Birmingham are obvious examples and, once a critical mass is established, I suspect there will be a rush from councils fearful of missing the boat.
Michael Heseltine has been a consistent fan of directly elected mayors, presiding over functional economic regions but much of the Conservative Party has been implacably opposed to regional government. So we live in interesting times! If there is a difference, the Manchester model of a combined authority represents a building up from the councils and not a downward imposition.
Tucked away in Osborne’s budget statement was the power for Manchester to retain 100% of its increased business rates and – very interesting – the same power to Cambridgeshire as part of its City Deal programme. My ears pricked up at this but only provoked a sadness that Cambridgeshire seems to have stolen another march on Oxfordshire.
Oxfordshire and Cambridgeshire have much in common. They both comprise a functional economic area with a university city at its heart with a strong hinterland. Both endure two-tier local government with all of its complications. However, there are big differences. Cambridgeshire has gone for growth for 20 years and has demonstrated commitment to economic and housing growth by councils, business and university. Oxfordshire still has a reputation of resisting growth although this is beginning to change. The geography is different as well. Cambridge City sits wholly within South Cambridgeshire District Council so there are three councils primarily involved in planning for growth – City, County and District.
In Oxfordshire the City sits in the centre of the County and is surrounded by four rural Districts. The Districts are paranoid about the imposition of unitary county government, stupidly provoked by the County appointing consultants to prove a unitary county would produce substantial cost savings. There is also antipathy to growth in some Districts and unwillingness to review the Green Belt in any way. Add to this a low profile business community who do not see their potential to raise the game and a University that still exhibits a complacency and an inability to focus on the area that sits between their comfortable and cloistered colleges and the whole world in which they are a global player.
Oxfordshire is a functional economic area with huge potential but I fear a lack of political, business and academic leadership will leave Oxfordshire as a poor second behind Cambridgeshire.