Intermediate tiers of government are greatly underrated
Updated: Jan 14, 2021
I recommend that you read this wise piece by the NAO's Abdool Kara, published in the MJ. His analysis of the institutional chasm between local and national government in England sent me on a trip down memory lane to the pre-2010 era of economic development...
I am a former denizen of that world. I worked in the 'intermediate layer' as an economist for a Regional Development Agency. And I remember well the debates of the mid to late noughties about the geography of governance. For a time, the question of what to do with the 'regional tier' gripped think tanks and political parties. For years, the op-ed pages of Regeneration and Renewal (as was) covered little else.
Those debates always struck me as shallow and bereft of operational experience. Too often they boiled down to 'city good, region bad, local people know better'. And 'local equals accountable'. Or 'Regional Spatial Strategies are awful and invalidate every form of regionalism'. The arguments for localism often glossed over inconvenient realities. Like the lack of political pluralism at more local levels and its impact on accountability. The greater potential for organisational competition to undermine collective working. And the centralising dynamic inherent in funding competitions devised and judged by the centre.
But anyone who has worked in economic development knows that organisational capacity matters too. One time, I worked on an appraisal for a multi-million pound investment in a science facility. It was a large, complex intervention in the East of England. At the RDA's initial appraisal meeting were economists; a commercial property specialist; a planning and development control expert; a transport infrastructure planner; sector specialists; an innovation specialist; an environmental appraisal expert; a former social worker; project leads for other interventions happening in that local area; funding specialists - and many more. All worked for the RDA. The quality of the appraisal and follow-up was first rate.
These days, a meeting like that would be much harder to convene. The specialisms - such as they still exist at scale in local and national government - are dispersed among agencies and layers of government. There are notable exceptions to this. Some Combined Authorities and pan-regional bodies come to mind. But they stand out because they are exceptions and not the standard.
I agree with Kara that the kind of organisational capability that is easier to establish at the intermediate tier - not least because you draw on talent from a larger area - would have been helpful in the present crisis.