Time for home rule in the North East?

Urban regeneration and inward investment have allowed the North East to grow in strength, but only increased autonomy for the regions can allow further growth, says Graham Wright. Graham Wright is a senior partner at Dickinson Dees.

Regional policy is as much of a hot topic in the North East as anywhere else in the country.

There is keen public interest in the extent to which the (relatively) new government will roll out a comprehensive programme of greater regional autonomy to match what is planned for Scotland and Wales.

Through good times and bad and historically we have had more than our fair share of the latter the North East has benefited from a very strong sense of region.

Until comparatively recently, however, this has been focused more internally than externally. So it has been quite exhilarating of late to find Newcastle and its environs being hailed nationally and internationally as a role model for success on many measures: inward investment, urban regeneration and sporting prowess to name but three.

Many of us living and working in the region have woken up to the importance of regional economic success the nation's overall performance is largely dependant upon what goes on in its constituent parts, after all and have also accepted the obligation to play our own part in providing the kind of environment which can generate real economic growth.

Dickinson Dees, for example, took a leading role recently in pioneering a regional initiative called the Services Challenge.

This was designed to drive up standards and to heighten awareness within the business community of what the region could provide.

The underlying message was that the more everyone's requirements for professional and business services were sourced locally, the more providers would benefit and the stronger the regional business infrastructure would become.

But it has not all been plain sailing. The transformation of the North East economy from one which was heavily dependent on outmoded traditional heavy industries has been remarkable. Inward investment has played a very significant part in this.

Massive urban regeneration projects have been successfully undertaken. Yet we still lag behind other parts of the country in terms of economic growth. Unemployment remains disproportionately high and there is a growing sense that the North East is disadvantaged in the battle for resources by comparison with, for example, Scotland and Wales.

How could a greater degree of regional autonomy help? First, in the allocation of resources, it is essential that the North East should be able to compete fairly with other parts of the country.

To achieve this it would make a lot of sense to confer Regional Development Agency status on the region and through that agency provide a comparable funding to that given now via the Scottish and Welsh development agencies.

To function to its full potential, the Regional Development Agency would need a spare management structure and effective leadership.

It is essential that it should not be weighed down from the outset by unnecessary bureaucracy. Get the formula right and the Regional Development Agency would have the strongest backing from business and the public sector alike.

Second, there is the question of introducing some kind of elected Regional Assembly. The case for this is less clear cut. Certainly it raises a number of difficult questions. This area has seen a steady move towards unitary authorities to reduce administrative overlaps.

Would a Regional Assembly not add another layer of decision-making? Who is to head such a body? The Bishop of Durham has recently offered his services to chair the Northern Constitutional Convention which has been mooted to work out detailed proposals on how an assembly can be made to work. Even with his skilled facilitation it will be difficult to find a solution that satisfies the interest groups that have already emerged.

What would be its powers and what would it all cost? It would be disastrous if we all ended up with was an expensive talking shop.

The Government has made it clear that no referendum to measure popular support for an assembly will take place until after 2002. This should give plenty of time to weigh up all the issues.

With the north of England so well represented at the highest level in Government for a change, it is just possible that by then concerns about being overlooked as a region will have been allayed.