The Life Aquatic – What do the floods and an 80s dole queue have in common?

Anyone following the news this week would be forgiven for thinking England is recreating the last days of Atlantis. As Cameron fiddles with his Cobra, Somerset has been drowning under water for six weeks, leaving residents homeless, furious and soggy. Meanwhile EU officials remain “puzzled” as to why the government has failed to apply for the millions available from them for emergency assistance. They must be new to the job I guess, because this is classic Tory strategy for dealing with the regions and the EU.

Back in the 1980s, Brussels started the Regional Development Fund. The principle behind it was simple; to assist poorer areas of the common market get jobs and grow richer by providing billions in funding for regional projects. All the governments had to do to qualify was a) have poor areas b) have people in the region to work with the EU and c) contribute equally in funding for the projects.

In the era of ‘managed decline’ the UK wasn’t short of areas that qualified. With record setting unemployment, every region outside the Home Counties qualified for assistance and they all clamoured for the funds. Anything that could help get people back in work and off the dole. What we were missing however was a government willing to spend money on the regions.

From the start, the UK government was openly hostile to the idea of taking funding for the depressed regions. France, Spain and even Germany rushed to get any kind of funding advantage for their depressed regions. Westminster meanwhile, chose to block our local governments from accessing the huge sums that were available – Blocked, of course, unless that region voted Tory. The result of which was cities like Newcastle, Liverpool or Glasgow continued to slide into low wages and high unemployment, creating a generation without jobs, ruining the lives of whole communities in the process. Even in Tory cities like Birmingham, the projects were paid scant attention and entirely controlled from Westminster. Progress reports from the time show EU officials tearing their hair out in frustration as one project after another failed to materialise, handicapped by bad management, a lack of funding from Westminster and a seemingly pathological aversion to getting Labour voters working again.

But why would a government do that? This was the era of building the common market, free enterprise and all that good money-making stuff that Torys’ care about. It’s remarkable now but at the time the Conservatives were the more pro-European of our parties, fully committed to the benefits of a single market and the financial benefits it brings. The foamy mouthed rhetoric about bendy bananas only turned up with a new influx of MPs in the 90s. It couldn’t be Euroscepticism then.

It’s one of the great ironies of UK politics that Labour are painted as the party of big centralisation. In truth, Conservatives are the masters at focusing power and influence back to Westminster. Suspicious of local government’s tendency to be poorer and left of centre, Conservative policy, according to scholars like Batler and Stoker, focused on “an aggressive restructuring of local government.” Not content with cutting funding and removing local powers, they did as much as possible to leave the regions incapable of coming up with coherent development strategies. One great example was the introduction of a new rule where councils were banned from talking to each other about the same project. Supposedly this was to help improve efficiency through competition. The reality of course was more like incompetence through confusion. Westminster would then use the inevitable failure as an excuse to take more power from the local governments.

And we know that this wasn’t the fault of the people working in the regions. At the time they were doing everything they could to get as much funding and advice from the EU as possible. UK local actors in Lancashire, Lanarkshire and Birmingham were innovators and leaders, setting up their own regional organisations to circumvent Westminster and lobby Brussels directly. They set up Europe-wide networks to share information, policy plans and management strategies for local projects on everything from the environment to unemployment; networks that countries such as Germany built on as they took the funding home and ran with it. Meanwhile our regions stagnated, not for lack of ideas, but for lack of power. It should come as little surprise then that once Labour came in the regions all rapidly improved. Backed by a supportive government regional actors showed themselves to be some of the best in Europe, with almost all of them being too rich to qualify for EU support just five years later.

Fast forward to the coalition era and we see the same situation playing out yet again. Whether it’s the ‘bonfire of the quangos’ the culling of local government funding or the dismantling of the Regional Development Agencies, it’s the same old Tory strategy of divide and mismanage. Right now it’s the Environmental Agency’s turn for a kicking as Tory MPs like Eric Pickles blame them for failing to dredge the rivers. The reality of course was that the Agency knew exactly what needed to be done; they’d even allocated the maximum available funding for it in 2012. Westminster had blocked it because the maximum was still not enough and more funding was needed. Funding that could have come from the Regional Development Agencies (scrapped) the local council (impoverished) or the private sector (hah!).

Of course, now Westminster has taken charge of the emergency. Shunting the EA out of the way they have declared money no issue as they look to solve the crisis personally. So why, if money is no issue are they still dithering over applying for EU emergency funding? Why, when we pay into this fund are we not taking every scrap of help we can to get people back into their homes and out of the torrential rain? History gives us the answer; Westminster’s taking the power back yet again.