Regional Government in England

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2003 National Delegate Conference
29 May 2003

Since 1997 UNISON has supported the principle of devolution and decentralisation applicable to English regions as well as Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London. This union continues to believe that regional governance offers great opportunities for improving public services whilst making government more relevant and open to the local population.

Conference notes the continuing contribution of UNISON in developing proposals for the creation of elected regional assemblies. Last year Conference agreed Composite G which called upon the National Executive Council to develop proposals in advance of the Government’s White Paper with particular reference to ensuring democratic principles underpinned any proposals.

Yet since last year the Government has published its proposals regarding regional governance in England. Some elements of these proposals do not go as far as many would wish, whilst other aspects place unnecessary and harmful preconditions on the development of democratic regional government.

Whilst Conference acknowledges the Government’s intent to hold referendums on the creation of elected regional assemblies, the majority of UNISON members, like most of the electorate, are apathetic to the proposals at this time. This is a reflection of the crisis in representative democracy and the lack of accountability and democracy within elected bodies.

Conference believes that placing a precondition that a region must have a wholly unitary tier of local government deflects from the benefits afforded by democratic regional government. Conference agrees that we are totally opposed to the abolition of district and county councils. Such a precondition will not deliver the cost savings assumed by the Government, will damage the delivery of public services, erode support for regional assemblies, provide insecurity for thousands of our members and makes no rational sense if the aim is to decentralise power from Westminster.

Conference recognises that the decentralisation of power has already taken place within England on an unprecedented scale since 1997, but has not been accompanied by transparent and democratically accountable institutions. Unelected regional quangos now control a record amount of public sector resources and regional government offices have more power and influence than ever before. Where regions are without an elected assembly the Government proposes to continue increasing the power of these bodies. This is not, and cannot, be healthy.

As a result, Conference believes that regional assemblies are a more appropriate means of addressing regional economic, social and environmental issues in a democratic, accountable and transparent way. Regional government provides an opportunity to address the democratic deficit by regional bodies having a statutory obligation to engage with stakeholders and social partners on policy development and implementation.

However, Conference agrees that UNISON’s continuing commitment to regional democracy as outlined in current policy relies on the government precluding the abolition of county councils and district councils and the subsequent change to imposed unitary authorities.

To reflect, take account of, and emphasise, a commitment to stakeholder engagement and participatory democracy conference calls on:

1)models of participatory democracy to be developed which allow and encourage the widest active participation in both developing and implementing policies;

2)the need for organisational and research resources to encourage and support engagement and participation and for these to be provided by government;

3)UNISON to identify and consider its role within the broader civic movement;

4)experiences to be drawn on of elected assemblies within the UK, and models of participatory democracy in Europe and internationally such as the participatory budget exercise developed by the Workers Party in Brazil.

Whilst UNISON believes that the Government’s current proposals are imperfect we continue to support the principle of regional government.

Therefore, Conference believes UNISON’s priority work, in relation to regional government over the next 12 months, should be to develop proposals and pursue negotiations with the Government that ensures the safety and security of our members’ jobs and careers as a priority in any move towards regional assemblies.

Following this, Conference calls on:

a)regions and branches to inform members of the impact of regional assemblies, and consult them on their views;

b)branches to provide UNISON regions and National Executive Council members with information on the potential impact of a directly elected assembly.

Conference further calls on the NEC to:

i)investigate the impact of a directly elected assembly on UNISON membership and organisation;

ii)support the co-ordination of a UNISON network for members who are involved in existing regional structures, so that they can share information and effectively promote UNISON interests;

iii)fight and campaign for the removal of any precondition that requires local government reorganisation as part of a regional settlement.