In this page:
- This paper sets out ideas for new regional assemblies in England. These would sit below central government and above local councils.
- People from large regional areas would elect these assemblies, which might each have 30 to 40 members. Each assembly would elect a first minister and cabinet.
- Regional assemblies in England would probably have fewer powers than those in Scotland or Wales. They might take on powers from central government over matters such as policing, healthcare, transport, and economic development strategies.
- Local councils would continue to exist and would have roughly the same responsibilities as they do now.
What’s the basic idea?
The basic idea behind regional assemblies is that government in England is too centralised. Scotland can make its own decisions on matters such as education and healthcare, and it has a population of 5.3 million people. Wales can also make many of its own decisions, with a population of 3.1 million. But for England, most decisions are made by central government in London, covering a population of 53 million. The same decisions made in London affect everyone in England, whether they live in the South East, the South West, Yorkshire, or anywhere else.
People who support a regional assembly believe the regions of England differ in terms of what they want and need. They accept that devolution deals increase local control, but they think these deals don’t go far enough and give too much power to local elites rather than ordinary people. They think that elected regional assemblies would be more democratic.
How would it work?
A regional assembly would be elected by people in the area. In order to take on significant powers from central government, it is generally agreed that these regions would need to be quite large:
For Assembly North, the region that is normally suggested is the whole of Yorkshire. For example, the Yorkshire First political party calls for ‘a Parliament for Yorkshire with similar powers to the Scottish Parliament’. An alternative could be to have an assembly for South Yorkshire. A third option would be to use the Sheffield City Region, which includes parts of central Derbyshire and northern Nottinghamshire.
The population of South Yorkshire is 1.4 million. That includes about 238,000 people in Barnsley, 304,000 in Doncaster, 260,000 in Rotherham, and 564,000 in Sheffield.
The population of the Sheffield City Region, which also includes Bassetlaw, Bolsover, Chesterfield, Derbyshire Dales, and North East Derbyshire is 1.8 million.
For Assembly South, the region that has in the past been suggested is the South East, which stretches from Kent in the east to Hampshire in the west, and from Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire in the north to the Isle of Wight in the south. Alternatives could include an assembly for Hampshire and the Isle of Wight or for Central South area covering West Sussex, Hampshire, Dorset and the Isle of Wight.
The population of Hampshire is 1.8 million – about the same as that of Northern Ireland. The population of the Isle of Wight is about 138,000.
The regional assembly would appoint a First Minister and a cabinet, who would (like the UK, Scottish and Welsh governments) be responsible for devising a policy programme and putting it into effect. The assembly would form committees to represent local interests and policy areas and hold the cabinet to account. Staff and programmes would transfer from existing bodies. That means that there should not be much new bureaucracy: it would just be in a different office.
What powers would transfer from existing bodies?
There are many options for the powers that a regional assembly could have.
The Yorkshire First party and some other groups propose a full devolution model, where the powers of the regional assembly would be the same as those of the Scottish Parliament. That would mean that the assembly could pass new laws and would have complete control over matters such as healthcare, education, policing, transport, urban planning, and rural affairs. The assembly might even have powers to set a regional rate of income tax.
The goals of this approach would be to bring politics closer to the people, tailor decisions to fit local needs and wishes, and encourage regional development.
Critics argue that would be going too far. Scotland has always had separate arrangements for many issues. There are also concerns that regional autonomy could lead to a ‘postcode lottery’, where different regions have different levels of services.
A partial devolution model would be an arrangement where fewer powers would be transferred to the regional assembly and more control would stay with central government. This would be more like the devolution deal than Scottish devolution, but with an elected assembly added in.
Regional assemblies on this approach would not be able to pass their own laws. But they might have powers similar to those recently offered to the Greater Manchester area. These include responsibility for police and fire services, integrated health and social care, and a range of measures aimed to encourage economic development.
The goals of this approach would be similar to those of full devolution. But the degree of local control would be more limited.
This option has some similarities to devolution in Wales. In Wales, however, the UK government doesn’t intervene in devolved matters. That is not likely to be so true in English regions. The government is likely to want to continue to control overall policy and funding in a way that it does not in Wales.
On the full devolution model, much of the funding for regional assemblies would come in the form of a ‘block grant’ from central government. This would be a block of money that the assemblies would be able to spend as they decided. The assemblies might also be allowed to raise or lower tax rates in their area. If they raised taxes, they would be allowed to keep the money to spend in their area. If they lowered taxes, they would have have less money to spend on services.
On the partial devolution model, funding for regional assemblies would consist mainly of grants from government linked to the functions devolved. The assembly could also have the power to add a small amount to council tax bills. The assembly would depend upon the attitude of the government to funding its programmes in the future.
How are those in charge held to account?
The First Minister in the region would be held accountable by the assembly’s committees, and via media coverage and transparency of proceedings – as with Parliament in London. The full assembly would be elected on a regular basis by citizens in the region.
Haven’t regional assemblies been tried before?
The government of Tony Blair came to office in 1997 promising to create regional assemblies. This policy was championed by John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister. In 2004, however, when a referendum was held on whether to establish a regional assembly in the North East of England, the idea was rejected by 78 per cent of those who voted, and the government abandoned the idea. Some people think the proposal was defeated because people did not want more politicians and another tier of government. Others think it was because the proposed assembly would have had few powers, so people couldn’t see the point of it.
Very limited regional chambers were set up in 1998. But they had only a few powers to do with regional development. And they were not elected: they included councillors from local authorities and representatives of businesses and other groups. They were disbanded between 2008 and 2010.
What are the concerns?
Supporters of regional assemblies argue that they would strengthen democracy, increase local control, encourage development in the English regions, and allow policy to reflect local needs.
But opponents have two main concerns. First, they say that regional assemblies would create another layer of government, with more politicians and more bureaucracy. Second, critics argue that England is a nation and that few people identify with the English regions. They argue that it is important to have common standards for services across the country, rather than different standards depending on where you happen to live.
Where to from here?
- A referendum on regional assemblies in the North East failed in 2004.
- This has not stopped different groups advocating regional assemblies.
- Supporters say regional assemblies would encourage development and allow policy to reflect local needs.
- Opponents do not want more politicians and more bureaucracy.