New research by leading academics at Durham and Northumbria Universities shows that the North East’s public services are run by a narrow range of people: largely middle aged, middle class people who are not representative of the region’s population. The majority of those in charge are men – but women are more involved than they used to be.
The researchers have looked at the region’s political structures and the local Councils, bodies and boards running key public services. They covered 100 organisations in local government, health, education, arts and culture and housing. Their report on the region’s governance provides an unrivalled analysis of power and accountability. Key findings are:
- The North East today has very little clout. Most of the region’s MPs (26 out of 29) are in Opposition. That’s very different from the era of Tony Blair’s New Labour. And London is more dominant than ever. The former regional institutions have been abolished and — despite the rhetoric — there’s been little devolution of power to the regional or sub-regional level.
- Local government has been weakened by austerity – and that’s on top of a continuing problem of low election turnouts and a general lack of public interest in what Councils do. Local democracy is at a low ebb – as it has been for years.
- Although people may not have noticed, there are now fewer local politicians than there used to be because District Councils in Northumberland and County Durham have been abolished. The North East now has 12 Councils led by 770 Councillors – down from 25 Councils and 1,279 Councillors before 2009.
- Many public services are run by people who are appointed – they can’t be voted out, so there is little democratic input. In the NHS, the boards of Clinical Commissioning Groups and Foundation Trusts are appointed and that’s also the case with the boards of FE Colleges, Universities, the bodies that invest public money in Arts, Heritage, Culture and Sport, and Housing Associations.
- There’s been a big increase in the involvement of women in governance. Now, 14 of the region’s 29 MPs are women, compared with 4 women out of 30 MPs in 2000. It’s the same on Councils: 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 positions are still held by men.
- Many appointed boards still have male majorities – but the dominance of men has been steadily reducing. Even so, boards where the majority of members are female are very rare indeed.
- In other respects, the people who run the North East are far from representative of the population. Very few are under the age of 45; very few are from Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds; and few are disabled. Most have professional backgrounds. It is striking that there are far more accountants appointed to boards than people from BAME backgrounds. Seven of the 12 Councils have no BAME councillors. Two of the region’s 5 Universities have no BAME governors. No less remarkably, hardly anyone running the region’s NHS organisations is disabled.
- Governance in the North East is complex, messy, confusing – and not particularly accountable or democratic.
The report says that many voices are unheard, many points of view are effectively unrepresented. Big decisions about health and education have little or no input from many of the people who use these services.
There may not be much that the North East can do to counter the dominance of London. But organisations in the region could do much more to be representative and accountable. They need to be far more open about what they do; some of their websites, for example, certainly do not give the impression of transparency and openness. Boards should hold meetings in public and publish minutes of meetings – as a matter of principle and good practice. They should be thinking much more seriously about diversity in their governance and how to foster it; vague policies are not enough.
This research has been done by Professor Fred Robinson of St Chad’s College, Durham University, and Professor Keith Shaw and Sue Regan from Northumbria University. It has been supported by the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, Newcastle law firm Muckle LLP, and the Institute for Local Governance.
The report was launched at a Workshop hosted by Muckle LLP and the event was chaired by Hugh Welch, Senior Partner. He commented: ‘We’ve been keen to support this research because we want to promote informed debate about this region. It’s about governance and leadership – and ensuring that everyone feels included in shaping the future of the North East.’