South East may be 'too successful' to benefit from Government's devolution drive

10/22/04

The South East may be too successful to benefit from the Government's drive for greater devolution to the English regions. But London's political leaders should work more closely with agencies and politicians across the South East to tackle transport problems and skills shortages that affect the whole South East of England, according to a new study published today.

Researchers from the University of Bristol and Birkbeck College, London, found that the absence of a close working relationship is increasing the likelihood that central Government makes decisions for the region, bypassing local politicians and business interests. Their study was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council through its Devolution and Constitutional Change Programme.

However, the researchers found little appetite among South East politicians and business leaders for a regional assembly similar to that being offered to voters in the North East in a referendum on November 4th. They concluded that the economically successful South East didn't fit easily into Government plans for English devolution, because they were primarily intended to boost poorly performing regions.

Adam Tickell, Professor of Human Geography at the University of Bristol said: "Regional government in the South East is being created in a sceptical environment.

South East businesses don't want a new tier of regulation. County council leaders in places like Kent and Hampshire have developed their own relationships at a more local level, and feel threatened by the idea of a regional assembly.

"The South East region sits awkwardly in English devolution precisely because the region has to manage the consequences of economic success. But this is not the main remit of English regional government, which is to focus on regenerating deprived communities and boosting poorly performing regions."

The South East enjoys a strong and vibrant economy, but decisions that affect it are often taken in Whitehall with little reference to local politicians or business people.

"Many issues of regional importance are also issues of national importance," adds Professor Tickell. "The region does well in terms of Government investment, but decisions about where to situate London airports, the regeneration of the Thames Gateway or the future of Crossrail are all made by Whitehall ministers and civil servants bypassing any regional politicians and institutions.

"A big reason for this is the failure of the Greater London Assembly and the London Mayor's office to work closely with politicians and interests across the South East. The Assembly is elected by people in the 32 Boroughs, but issues like transport and the economy have a far wider regional dimension extending into the Home Counties, where many of the capital's commuters live. There needs to be a much closer partnership on common issues."

The study also found that agencies such as the South East England Development Agency and the Government Office for the South East have played an important role in supporting industry such as biotechnology in Oxfordshire and aerospace in Hampshire. SEEDA has also been important in helping to stimulate relatively depressed economies in East Kent.

The researchers are currently conducting a qualitative analysis of the debates and influences on the referendum on the potential establishment of a regional assembly in the North East, for the ESRC.

Source: Eurekalert & others

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