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As attention turns to UK-wide devolution, who will stand up for the ‘lesser’ English regions?

Anyone listening to the Scottish Independence debate may wish to have a care for the English regions. Take the West Midlands, equal to the population of Scotland, cradle of the industrial revolution and host to the UK’s second city: it is less wealthy, less autonomous and receives less central government funds than its noisy Saltire-hugging rival.

With Scotland briefly looking like it was heading to the exit, the UK government rushed to shore up “The North” with promises of infrastructure that were (ahem…) in no way favourable to the re-election prospects of the senior-ranking advocates, George Osborne (Tatton) or Nick Clegg (Sheffield). Now further reform is threatened for England’s cities, one can almost hear the palpable drawing in of breath by the old hands in local authorities across the country.

Constitutional tinkering

We have been here before: Regional development agencies were established in 1998 and have since been abolished. In 2004, regional assemblies were proposed for the three northern regions, went to the vote in just one and failed. Following the 2011 Local Government Act, cities held referendums for directly elected mayors, a mere two were approved. Now we have a mosaic of 39 Local Economic Partnerships (LEPs) criss-crossing old regional boundaries with no mechanism for democratic election.

It gets worse. With further powers likely to flow to already well-remunerated Scotland and no doubt to Wales – and with much noise about a Northern Hub and London’s pre-eminence showing no sign of receding – what is there for the rest of the English regions?

This question was not lost on the participants of a recent West Midlands Economic Forum conference. For many local authority policy makers, the imposition of LEPs during a period of the financial crisis had been disruptive; the bodies were too small to be independent economic actors, too dependent on central government largesse and too frequently in competition with each other.

David Jarvis and Jennifer Ferreira of Coventry University reinforced this impression by presenting an audit of LEP plans that demonstrated with jaw-dropping clarity that all of them had articulated a nearly identical list of policies – apart from Greater Birmingham and Solihull who had evidently decided that it could safely leave out a rural policy, but kept the rest.

Only connect

Attempting to do too much with too little has consequences on the ability of economic actors to decisively make a difference to an industry. The West Midlands has an internationally recognised automotive manufacturing tradition, yet to make the transition to alternative fuels requires government support. In the research project “Intrasme” it was found that small-to-medium sized businesses in the region were disproportionately fragmented – unclear about sources of regional support and unlikely to co-operate with each other – when compared to international peers.

Sink or swim. Collaboration is key. Land Rover Our Planet, CC BY-ND

Similar problems are in evidence across other key industries: motorsport is split between the South-East, the West and the East Midlands, aerospace between the South West, the North-West and the two Midland regions. While there have been some encouraging attempts at collaboration to support Jaguar Land Rover’s supply chain as one example of joined-up thinking, the fundamental problem is that these the assembled regional players (universities, companies, local authorities, partnerships etc) are all in competition with each other for central government funds.

Infrastructure spending is of course welcome, but as HS2 connects Birmingham to London, it bypasses Coventry. This is no small issue, the problem of the larger city overshadowing the surrounding area is part of the reason why the 2004 proposal to devolve powers to the North-East failed: many residents reasoned that it would be synonymous with rule from Newcastle. The same dynamic might be observed in the recent Scottish referendum: stronger support for independence in Scotland’s biggest city Glasgow, stronger resistance in Orkney and Shetland where suspicion of oversight by Holyrood was expressed.

Autonomy or collaboration?

The coming months will see escalating calls for new constitutional and funding models. The UK could have a written constitution; it could devolve powers to England or the regions, or to cities; it could enable local authorities to keep more of the money raised in their own patch or to redistribute.

Part of the reason why some of these models have failed in the past is that England is a geographically small country with a dense and mobile population. Industries do not neatly fit into one area or another and can be fluid over time. Many of the “regions” have no historic basis or inherent logic – after all is it possible to imagine a South-East without London? To fix these models in a federal structure might only create a new set of problems.

Real regional independence must be founded on the principle of collaboration, rather than creating new divisions. If the West Midlands region as a whole wishes to pursue an industrial policy of automotive manufacturing then the major cities will need to persuade partners (other authorities, universities, agencies, commercial organisations) to share resources and specialise in different fields. The form this takes cannot be dictated by Whitehall, as it may require the imaginative redrawing of boundaries to reflect clusters of activities; but neither can it be led solely by the larger metropolitan areas, as smaller authorities may choose to opt out.

And to enjoy a shared legitimacy any new structure must have the strength of a popular vote and be driven by a set of ideas bold enough to capture voters’ imagination. The Scottish independence campaign teaches us two things: that if you ask a big enough question people will respond and that real autonomy requires compromises amongst the big institutions. Had Westminster and Holyrood (and maybe even the cities and islands) come together on a shared home rule option at the start, a damaging constitutional crisis would have almost certainly been avoided.

Finally, a balance must be struck between creating a sense of permanence to aid investment and the recognition that priorities – and borders – change over time. A cross-party commitment to revisiting a “grand bargain” with the nations and regions every 10-15 years might have some merit. There has never been a full and final settlement to the internal borders of the UK and periodic tinkering by central government only diminishes the regions’ sense that they are in control of their own fates.

A commitment to renewing the constitutional arrangements on an agreed timetable makes the regions more of an equal party to the state and institutionalises a useful flexibility in a fast-changing world. On an island as small as Britain, autonomy is important, but collaboration is essential.

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