We recently published work on governance in the North East of England. In our study, we examined the role and composition of the directly elected, indirectly elected and appointed bodies delivering public services in the North East of England. The North East of England traditionally comprises Northumberland, Tyne and Wear, County Durham, and the Tees Valley. The research covered both organisations (nearly 100 bodies spending over £12bn a year) and people (profiles of the 2000 or so members that manage and deliver public services in one English region). In short: we posed the question, Who Runs the North East? (Robinson, Shaw and Regan, 2017*).
There are number of findings from the research in the North East that are of wider relevance for the British Academy’s Governing England initiative.
Firstly, public engagement and support remains low. Whatever the suggested benefits of new governance innovations (such as metro mayors) public understanding of, support for, and engagement with, devolved governance in the North East is already at a low ebb. The turnout in local elections in some councils is well under a third of voters. One of the region’s three Police and Crime Commissioner elections (in Durham) saw only 17% turn out (the lowest in England). Finally, the recent election of the new mayor for the Tees Valley Combined Authority enthused just over 21% of the local electorate. This is not a good start for an office that some hope will provide a new institutional base around which political engagement and identity can coalesce. A reminder perhaps that whatever the new governance arrangements introduced, tackling the local democratic deficit also requires action on issues such as levels of voter registration, new approaches to public engagement and even electoral reform.
Secondly, the governance landscape is complex. It was not easy for the researchers – let alone a member of the public – to get to grips with an institutional landscape in the North East that is increasingly complex, fragmented and downright confusing. The number of governance bodies, their differences in status (elected, un-elected or indirectly elected, such as Local Government Joint Boards or Partnerships), the lack of coterminosity in organisational boundaries, and the labyrinthine nature of governance structures, leaves citizens confused and lacking any real understanding as to how decisions are made. The governance system has an in-built ‘bias against understanding’, which leads to widespread ignorance of how things work, about who is in charge and where real power lies. Governance is ‘cluttered’ and needs streamlining, not the addition of even further layers.
Thirdly, the North East remains a patchwork. Our report highlights that once the single North East region withered-away after 2010, it seemed likely that the ‘new’ North East would now be divided into two. Hence, the five Tees Valley councils going their own way as a Combined Authority, soon to be joined - it was thought - by the North of England Combined Authority, (NECA), comprising the remaining seven councils. However, political differences saw four of the councils reject the deal on offer, with the result that three councils (Newcastle, North Tyneside and Northumberland) have negotiated their own North of Tyne ‘Devo- Deal’ which now leaves the other four local authorities (including Durham and Sunderland) as part of a third, so-far, non-aligned group in the region. Clear evidence that – despite the merits of flexibility - local political factors can push government-inspired devolution deals to a level of asymmetry bordering on the ridiculous and create a context for administrative competition that renders strategic alignment and effective joint-working somewhat challenging.
Finally, existing democratic and governance structures face numerous challenges. Our research found that there are some serious issues with existing patterns of representation on local governance bodies. We found that many voices are unheard, many points of view are effectively unrepresented.
On a positive note, we found that 43% of North East Councillors are women, compared with 23% in 2000. Much of that change is attributable to the Labour Party’s use of all-women shortlists when choosing candidates for elections.
However, most senior council positions are still held by men, who constitute over 80% of Leaders, Elected Mayors, and Deputy Leaders. As both the Fawcett Society and IPPR North have recently confirmed, such gender imbalances remain a national issue. Our research would support their call for fundamental action including:
- National quotas;
- Term limits for councillors to aid turn-over;
- Allowing remote attendance at council meetings;
- Introducing maternity, paternity and parental leave entitlements for councillors;
- Adopting a requirement for gender balanced leadership;
- All-women shortlists for metro mayor elections.
Other forms of unbalanced representation in the region make for depressing reading: in the elected sector, seven of the 12 councils have no BAME councillors, and there are only 9 out of 770 councillors in total, while only 11% of councillors are under 45 years of age. Disabled people are also under-represented. Not surprisingly, one local newspaper referred to the ‘pale, male and stale’ who are running the region.
To sum up: it’s no good designing new structures of governance, or encouraging new forms of engagement if citizens simply don’t understand - or identify - with the people or organisations that take the decisions that impact upon their daily lives. A key democratic imperative is to try to ensure that local governance is less cluttered and more coherent, with clearer links and stronger accountability between the elected and appointed sectors. Crucially, we need to ensure that the people who take decisions on public services are more representative of the people they profess to represent.
*Full report: Who Runs the North East: Governance and Governing in an English Region. Available on: https://www.stchads.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/Who-Runs-the-North-East-Now-Main-Report-Oct-2017-FINAL-09-10-17-2.pdf
Keith Shaw is Professor of Politics at Northumbria University
Fred Robinson is Professorial Fellow at St Chad’s College, Durham University
Sue Regan is a Research Associate at Northumbria University.