Mark Wallace of the TaxPayers' Alliance suggests that councils looking to save money could start by withdrawing their funding of the unelected regional assemblies.
With a recession putting downward pressure on tax revenue and upward pressure on welfare spending, all councils are, or ought to be, looking for savings. Ditching their financial commitments to Regional Assemblies is a great way to save money and help to hasten the end of the Government’s failed regionalisation agenda.
Even had the North East referendum in 2004 been successful, the Assemblies would have been a costly white elephant of questionable value. As it stands, the things are simply unaccountable talking shops with no mandate whatsoever from the people. Given that the Government has finally committed to shut them down by 2010, and that the Conservatives have long been opposed to them, they have no real political mandate either.
With Labour and Tory policy committed to getting rid of the RAs, why are most councils still paying subscriptions and nominating representatives to attend the meetings? The Assemblies are on quango death row, but sizeable amounts of taxpayers’ money is still being paid to them in subscriptions.
Some councils have already pulled out. As early as 2005, Medway Council set the trend by leaving the South East England Regional Assembly on the basis that the regionalisation agenda had no popular support and the money could be better spent elsewhere. More recently, West Sussex County Council has pledged to do the same. In 2009, West Sussex’s annual subscription stands at £31,612 – a respectable saving, particularly when one considers the millions that would add up to if councils across England followed suit.
This is not just a way to save money, it is a way to strike a blow for democracy against the Government’s and the EU’s attempts to impose a regional tier of government and bureaucracy on England. Looking to the future, it is also an important opportunity for local councils to assert their democratic authority before the Assemblies’ powers are transferred to the useless Regional Development Agencies next year.
The battle against the RDAs is yet to reach its climax, but it would be greatly helped if more councils were to start asserting their hostility to regional government now. In principal and in practice, most councillors and voters believe that powers should lie locally, not regionally – now is the perfect time for councils to stake out that ideal and start kicking back against the wounded Regional beasts.
The noises being made at a national level, for example in the recent Conservative Green Paper on local government, about doing away with the failed regional tier are welcome, but there is no reason why local councils should not start hammering the nails into its coffin now – and they can save some money on the way.