The origins of regionalism

EADT Political Editor Graham Dines looks at the origins of the Government's plans for regional councils in England.BIGGEST is best – that's been the crie de coeur of successive governments in Britain since the end of World War II and it's the real but unwritten driving force behind John Prescott's plans for regional government.

EADT Political Editor Graham Dines looks at the origins of the Government's plans for regional councils in England.

BIGGEST is best – that's been the crie de coeur of successive governments in Britain since the end of World War II and it's the real but unwritten driving force behind John Prescott's plans for regional government.

The Conservatives may be opposing the plans, but the stark reality is that it has been always been the Tories who have done the most damage to the ancient administrative maps of England.

It was Harold Macmillan who created the Greater London Council (GLC) in the 1960s, wiping Middlesex off the face of the earth and absorbing chunks of Essex, Hertfordshire, Surrey and Kent into the capital.

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The Tories under Edward Heath were at it again in the reorganisation of local government that was introduced on April 1 1974. County boroughs and small rural and urban districts were abolished. In their place, came metropolitan counties and districts and bigger shire counties.

Edward Heath's Conservative government at a stroke removed Huntingdonshire, the Soke of Peterborough, Herefordshire, Worcestershire, Cumberland, Westmoreland, the three ridings of Yorkshire, and Rutland – without any referendums or any attempt at local consultation – and gave us the new counties of Greater Manchester, Merseyside, Tyne & Wear, West Midlands, West Yorkshire, South Yorkshire, North Yorkshire, Cleveland, Humberside, Avon, and Hereford & Worcester.

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It was done for the sake of administrative ease and expedience.

At the same time, towns were transferred from one county to another – for example Bournemouth was evicted from Hampshire and given to Dorset, Middlesborough from Yorkshire into Cleveland.

Scotland and Wales were not spared from this bizarre Tory exercise – the ancient counties, boroughs and burghs of both nations were removed and replaced by regions such as Strathclyde, Highland, Borders and the hideously named Central in Scotland, and South Glamorgan and Gwent in Wales.

Neither nation has forgiven the Conservatives for this barbarity, and it was to lead to the decline and fall of the Tory Party outside England.

Twelve years later and the Tories were at it once again. Margaret Thatcher hated the metropolitan counties and the GLC and axed them, removing power to unelected boards made up of representatives of the relevant metropolitan districts and the London boroughs.

John Major at least bowed to popular pressure and rescued Rutland from the clutches of Leicestershire, and gave unitary powers back to the big cities such as Portsmouth and Bristol, which had been incorporated put into shire counties.

During all these reforms, Tory governments centralised more and more power. Far from localising decision making, Whitehall took unto itself greater control over the spending of councils.

It couldn't last. A bloated civil service in London was unable to effectively administer the United Kingdom. While the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland Offices before devolution were able to deal with their relevant areas, England remained a problem.

Whitehall ministries over time set up regional offices, led by the old Ministry of Housing and Local Government. Bug the boundaries did not tally – by default, England had become an overlapping patchwork quilt of almost Gilbertian nonsense.

John Major's successive Environment Secretaries, Michael Heseltine and John Gummer, took the Central Office of Information – set up originally to help the local media cope with the labyrinthine corridors of power – and used its administrative boundaries to standardise the regions of Whitehall departments.

Eight regional offices were established to deal with the South West, South East, East, West Midlands, East Midlands, North West, Yorkshire & Humberside and the North East.

Unamended, as if set in stone, this is map that John Prescott has adopted to create the English regions. It is totally artificial. Gloucester has nothing in common with Bournemouth or Penzance; Carlisle, Crewe and Blackpool are a disparate bunch; Milton Keynes, Southampton and Canterbury are outposts of a vast grouping arching around London; Rickmansworth in Hertfordshire shares no history with Colchester or Aldeburgh.

But John Prescott won't budge on the boundaries. They are non-negotiable.

The Government claims its plans will devolve powers from Whitehall. In some respects this is true, such as inward investment, but unlike Scotland, the regions of England will have no authority over university tuition fees and foundation hospitals.

What the regions will have once they are in place is strategic authority over fire and rescue services, economic development and regeneration, tourism and culture, spatial planning and transport, and possibly the police – all services currently taken at a more local, county level.

Thus it is the very opposite of devolution – it's taking decision making away from county level and giving it to middle-tier regions.

But the Tories gave them the idea – the powers to be handled by the regions are virtually identical to those Ted Heath's government established for the unloved metropolitan counties.

The saving grace is that we, the people, will have the final say about whether elected regional government is introduced. And so far there is no clamour for a regional government in the East of England. There is little commonality of interest between Watford in Hertfordshire and Lowestoft, between Whipsnade in Bedfordshire and Frinton-on-Sea.

Three regions will have referendums in the autumn – the North East, North West and Yorkshire & Humberside. These are the areas where there has been most enthusiasm for elected regional government, but even there, doubts are growing whether a `yes' vote will be achieved.

Government ministers are desperate for at least one vote in favour, in the belief that a domino effect will be created. They expect that if a North East elected region is created, other regions will see the advantages, and clamour to have their own.

But as we've seen with the plans to replace county fire and rescue centres with one regionalised control, the Government is determined to have its way whether or not the voters approve.

It seems likely that even if a region rejects the form of self-government on offer, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister may decide to abolish the current structure of local government and bring in unitary authorities. Hundreds of councillors and thousands of council posts would be abolished.

Regional structures are already in place, intended to pave the way for full regional government, but they consist of appointed representatives. This is the other ace up the Government's sleeve – ministers are banking that a revolt against this democratic deficit will lead to calls for elected regions.

The Tories, if they win the next election, will halt the move to regionalism, belatedly supporting localism. And they will stop the current practice at Westminster of Scottish and Welsh MPs being allowed to vote on purely English matters.

But although Labour's signature is on the plans for breaking up England into regions, the Conservatives can be seen as the real architects.

Tomorrow: Europe's influence the current regional structure.

Proposals for regional government were outlined in the White Paper Your Region, Your Choice, Cm5511 published on May 9 2002. It is available from the Stationery Office price £14.75

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