Penny Otton joins regions debate

WE must not forget that there has historically been a form of regional governance in the shape of unelected, unaccountable quangos.

By Penny Otton

Liberal Democrat

WE must not forget that there has historically been a form of regional governance in the shape of unelected, unaccountable quangos. I n 1994 there were 6,500 quangos of which 5,521 were executive bodies spending millions of pounds of public money. Significantly for those of us in local government 4,732 operated at a local, regional level having taken over services previously provided by local authorities. These quangos were found to have serious deficiencies in accountability and openness and less than half were required to publish annual reports or let the public see agendas and minutes.

So how has the introduction of a form of regional governance helped to reform this sorry state? By introducing a degree of democratisation and forming links with all public bodies at all levels and the ability in some areas to scrutinise proposals and decisions.

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But we need to go further. The regional development agency is unelected although there is a system of scrutiny in place to whereby the Regional Assembly can call the RDA chair and members to account.

Britain signed up to the Council of Europe's Charter for Local Self Government and we should be following this through. We need to have a directly elected regional assembly with powers taken from Whitehall NOT from existing local government.

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UK citizens live in the most centralised state in the western world, which helps to explain the low turnout and lack of interest in local elections. The present Regional Assembly has 100 members of which 70 are from local authorities and political groups with 30 members from the voluntary sector, education and environmental groups.

It can and has developed a regional housing strategy and is the planning body for the region. Both of these have been influenced by councillors from districts, counties and unitary authorities across the whole of the eastern region.

Through it work with the regions office in Brussels it has been able to establish links with other EU countries and the Integration and Asylum panel of which I am a member has been able work with the Home Office.

A regional Assembly must have the power to decide regional priorities but the government should not then have the power to decide which of those priorities gets the cash!

We should probably do more to publicise all of the work of the Regional Assembly and its panels to ensure the public are aware of just how much is now being done in the region for the region.

A truly democratic, elected regional government would as shown in other parts of the world are closer to the people and relevant to the people it is elected to serve.

Penny Otton is Mid Suffolk district councillor for Rattlesden and the authority's Liberal Democrat leader.

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