Regional economic regeneration – It’s done the rounds so many times!

My good friend Bob Robinson recently pointed me towards the podcast linked below:-

open.spotify.com/episode/0BkowQ14PrKsFwsTQAregb

Bob’s take on it and indeed the whole issue of how governments keep on making the same mistakes over targeted regional investment are summed up here:-

‘This is a 50-minute podcast and is the most accurate description of the chequered history of UK regional development, I have ever heard. I carry the scars as I was involved in submitting business cases to: the North West Development Agency (Improving Construction Industry Safety), the South West Development Agency (Construction Skills development) and the Welsh Development Agency (Redeployment of Military facilities}. I watched their rise and fall. I also was seconded for a period to support the DTI’s “Rethinking Construction Programme” following on from the 1998 Egan Report into the root and branch need to reform the construction industry. Listening to this podcast suggests we are making the same mistakes over and over again. Regional policy has been a half-hearted inconsistent shambles for years and this fiasco, as evidenced by the ongoing rows about the Manchester Rail Network, is set to continue.’

I can’t but agree with Bob’s assessment having listened to the very interesting podcast and taken his concerns on board. UK policy in so many critical areas is subject to far too many twists and changes meaning nothing gets bedded in before an incoming government wants to shake it all up again. The NHS and Education are a couple of glaring examples but this blog piece is about regionalism and how we invest in areas most in need of investment – ‘Levelling Up’ being the latest incarnation of it.

I’ve blogged about such issues before so there’s a danger I could well repeat myself here; if so my apologies. My experience as a Sefton Borough Councillor from 1999 to 2015 and particularly my period as Council Leader from 2004 to 2011 inform my views.

There’s little doubt that the North West Development Agency was the big beast with regard to most if not all large scale projects whilst it was in being. It sat rather uncomfortably aside the North West Regional Assembly as Blair was going about his decentralisation of power and public money from Westminster. His was the first government to really embrace regionalism aside from the efforts of ‘Tarzan’, the ‘Minister for Merseyside’, Michael Heseltine during the previous Tory years under Thatcher and Major.

That we live in one of the most centralised countries in the developed world says a lot so Heseltine and Blair were kicking against a well-ordered position stoutly defended by virtually all Labour/Tory politicians and of course the Civil Service. Liberals had seriously woken up to regionalism and devolution many years before them I might add so in general, we welcomed such initiatives whilst usually being of the view they were too small in scale, done to people rather than them being consulted and not far-reaching enough. Of course, we were right!

Blair got stuck or got bored with regionalism and devolution and it kind of fizzled out well before the job was done particularly in England. Ignoring the Brown years where nothing much happened on this agenda it took the Coalition Government to have another go and I think it fair to say that they only succeeded in adding to the dog’s breakfast of English regionalism and devolution. City Mayors and City Region Mayors were their big idea and I opposed them from day one as I still do now. My many previous blog postings on this subject go before this one so I’ll link one that seems pertinent below:-

tonyrobertson.mycouncillor.org.uk/2021/03/02/more-elected-mayors-will-not-address-north-south-divide/

So the podcast is very much to the point and sadly the majority of our English politicians still love that we are overwhelmingly ruled from Westminster. Apart from crumbs from their table, they will want it to stay that way too!

Until the UK fully embraces regionalism and very significant devolution of powers and spending from Westminster we’ll continue to be badly governed.

LEP’s won’t be missed if they fade away

Firstly, I bet that most folks have never heard much, if anything, about Local Enterprise Partnerships let alone know the purpose they are meant to serve.

I recall when they were being set up as an alternative arrangement to the out of favour Regional Development Agencies (by the Coalition Government) and thought at the time that I was at best sceptical about LEP’s.

That’s not to say the Regional Development Agencies were the right model for encouraging economic development but they were regional and therefore at about the right scale to promote economic activity in my book. The old NWDA (North West Development Agency) was reasonably successful despite it being too arms length from democratic control. And thereby hangs the big issue of how to promote economic activity, particularly in areas of deprivation, whilst keeping a firm grip on the need for such activity to be in the control of local democratically elected leaders.

Here’s Jim Hancock’s view on what may well be the demise of LEP’s:-

jimhancock.co.uk/a-lep-in-the-dark/

The muddle at the heart of this matter has been the relentless pursual of elected mayors on a sub-regional/City Region basis. Readers of this blog site will know I’m no fan of elected mayors as concentrating power in the hands of one person is simply not right to me.

But having set up, or should I say imposed, elected mayors for many parts of England and then channelled economic development money through them hasn’t the government simply undermined their network of LEP’s? Well, it seems to me that’s exactly whats happened.

Devolution for England has been an utter mess for years and goes back at least to the probably well-intentioned tinkering by Blair and Prescot. The problem being that devolution has never been properly defined as you will find in most European countries and has ended up being bits and bobs handed down from Westminster with no coherent strategy.

We remain a centralised democracy with our two major parties being authoritarian of nature, trusting no one but themselves. Until we really grasp the need for regional governance and properly defined devolution we will continue to do things badly.

Will we miss the LEP’s if they wither away? No, not really.

Note: The author was the leader of Sefton Borough Council 2004 – 2011

North West Development Agency (NWDA) gone but not forgotten on an Aughton grass verge

The NWDA was abolished by the Coalition Government some 5 years ago. It was a quango giving out Government cash towards worthy infrastructure/economy developing causes across the north west of England.

Like most quangos it was not much loved and few will have mourned or even noticed its demise. So what brings it to mind now?

Well walking along the busy A59 in Aughton, literally on the Sefton/West Lancashire boundary I found this lying in the grass verge:-

img_9281

It’s glass plaque on a stone plinth saying that a project was supported by the NWDA. So what was the project? It took us a couple of minutes to work it out but it seems it must have been the gateway planting of trees and shrubs on the Sefton – West Lancs boundary. I wonder how that project will have driven the West Lancs economy forward?