James Prentice considers the potential function of devolved government in a less centralised Britain.
Regional government is often considered when discussing devolution. Indeed, Gordon Brown’s ‘Commission on the UK's Future’ report recommends regional government when devolving power from Westminster. Yet, this policy idea is still in its early stages and the exact purpose of regional government remains unclear. The purpose of this blog post is to set out what regional government’s role could be by defining the policy areas we could devolve.
Rather than regional government being a substitute for the House of Lords, it should instead be a new tier of local government that has control over policy areas currently reserved by Westminster. The policy areas that should be devolved are ones which will allow government structures to better represent our country’s differing identities and solve problems that affect local communities across the UK. Therefore, regional government would have the following functions and policy controls:
1. Representing the voices, identities and political will of the regions.
A key criticism of our current political model is that it is overly centralised and does not allow for a diverse range of voices across the entirety of Britain to be represented. To address this, regional government could elect representatives to each region based on the proportion of votes cast for each party within each region at the general election. This party-list system could ensure that a greater range of voices are heard when making decisions that could improve communities across the UK. These representatives could also suggest new legislation to improve areas regional government are responsible for.
2. Infrastructure spending responsibility and new powers to build, such as road and rail infrastructure projects.
Each region could be allocated part of the overall infrastructure budget to invest in economically beneficial projects, such as rail improvement projects. This would promote smaller-scale projects that could deliver better value for money whilst also having democratic legitimacy from local communities. This could also avoid further commitments to large-scale projects that have run way over budget, like HS2, and instead promote more affordable projects that will better connect deprived towns with prosperous regional hubs.
3. Powers to build large-scale housing projects, such as authorising new garden cities. Also, powers to plant more trees, maintain forests and improve biodiversity to offset this building. New planning laws could establish regional government’s seniority and power to build.
A lack of affordable housing is a problem that affects communities across the UK. Building more housing is the most effective way to tackle this problem, but local government struggles to authorise enough house-building to meet building targets. Regional government could be utilised to address this problem by being given new powers to engage in large-scale house building projects. Regions would be allowed to build new garden cities and undertake projects that offset the pollution caused by building, such as by planting more trees.
4. Environmental and energy spending. Powers to build large-scale renewable projects and commission new power plants that produce clean energy, such as nuclear power stations.
To reach net zero the UK needs to increase renewable energy production at a large scale, yet local government has struggled to secure planning permission to increase renewable energy production in line with set targets, meaning the UK is set to miss net-zero transition targets. Indeed, local government politics often prevents progress, such as when the Green Party in Hastings opposed installing a solar farm, stopping Hastings from increasing its renewable energy capacity. Regional government could address this problem by being given the power to build new large-scale renewable energy projects, such as mass solar and wind farm projects. Further, they could be given responsibility for overseeing the increase in nuclear power stations that will generate large-scale clean energy production. This large-scale production would help the communities across the UK reach net-zero targets whilst maintaining a form of democratic legitimacy and public consent.
5. Responsibility for promoting agriculture, forestry and fishing communities. They also would be responsible for monitoring how well localities perform and scrutinising performance.
Brexit has brought back powers to the UK, but how do we best manage these policy areas? Central government is overburdened with the amount of work it conducts and might not have the time to effectively deal with former EU policy areas, such as agriculture and fishing. Regional government could be given authority for this policy area as they would have greater capacity to devote the required time that is needed to manage the problems that our Brexit transition will bring for these industries. Further, they would provide better representation for these industries than Westminster currently does, potentially providing better policy-making whilst giving any new legislation greater legitimacy for this area of government.
Whilst more policy areas could be discussed, I argue that this comprises a good starting point, and that when discussing regional government it is best to conceptualise its function as I have laid out.