Regions: Duff joins the debate

By Andrew Duff MEPTHE East of England is the right size to matter. As an administrative unit, it is not unusual in being relatively diverse in terms of society, culture and geography.

By Andrew Duff MEP

THE East of England is the right size to matter. As an administrative unit, it is not unusual in being relatively diverse in terms of society, culture and geography. Nor is it special in lacking somewhat in education, public transport and regional media. And it is certainly not unique in lacking a strong sense of popular regional identity. Yet, for all that, the region matters for two reasons.

First, there is a number of strategic decisions to be taken that have a regional dimension - such as Stansted airport, the 2012 Olympics, ports and their related infrastructure, new towns, and conservation of the fens and maritime environment. These issues are too large for any single county council to address and too important to be safely left to the men in Whitehall.

Second, in this age of globalisation regions have to compete with each other across national borders for investment. European integration is the most important and dramatic example of that phenomenon. Successful regions have a political approach to gathering together and marketing their assets.

Liberal Democrats advocate more decentralisation of decisions from London, as well as more direct interaction between regions and the EU. Despite the establishment of EEDA and the regional assembly, most important planning and investment decisions are still taken by GoEast - the regional division of national government. And regional quangoes proliferate - with a lot of guff about 'stakeholders' - because we are too timid to think boldly about bringing better governance to the region by way of an integrated regional government.

You don't have to be a Lib Dem to know that the whole bureaucratic machine deserves closer democratic scrutiny than it gets.

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Meanwhile, we can make local government less confusing and more effective by eliminating disputes between districts and counties about boundaries and competences.

I favour the creation of larger, all-purpose unitary authorities, with more professional politicians elected by proportional representation (so that seats won in the council chamber really match votes cast at the ballot box).

We also need much stronger parish or community councils with relevant powers to take decisions over local planning, traffic management, culture and the environment. Likewise with the police: it is likely that the police can be better trained and managed in larger regional or sub-regional forces, but the local bobby must also be responsive locally.

Andrew Duff has been Liberal Democrat Euro MP for the Eastern Region since 1999.

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