Regional government around the world

By Matthew Tempest
Published June 16th 2003

As John Prescott announces referendums on the creation of three new regional assemblies for England - with powers to be specified at a later date - for the north-east, the north-west and Yorkshire and Humber, here is how some of our European neighbours and transatlantic friends govern themselves.


With a federal system created by a UK act of parliament in 1867, Canada may prove a particularly relevant example to Mr Prescott. Although central government can officially overrule the 10 provinces' laws, this has not happened in 50 years, and over the past 80 years the number of provinces, and their competencies, have grown. Provinces now raise their own taxes, control 41% of total public expenditure, and look after health, education, social security, prisons, law, justice, and the police.


Austria has a tier of regional government known as the Lander, each of which has its own constitution, parliament (Landtag) and executive, with the second chamber of the national government consisting of Land MPs.

Despite this powerful-sounding set up, the Austrian system is weaker than it appears. Although all competencies outside the direct constitutional remit of the central government revert back to the nine Lander, in practice this only covers planning law, agriculture, youth welfare, theatre, sport and tourism.


With three languages, Belgium has a history of regionalism which was only constituted into federal form in 1993. The country runs an extremely complex form of "cooperative federalism", with three "language communities" (French, German and Flemish), and three economic regions (Brussels, Flanders, Walloon). The communities exercise power over "individual" policy - health, culture, education, media, welfare - while the regions govern economic issues and housing, transport, planning, foreign trade and the enviñronment.


Finland is one of the few European countries with no tier of regional government.


Although the French prime minister, Jean Pierre Raffarin, is currently trying to devolve further power down to France's 22 regions, at present the power of the bodies, created by President Mitterand in 1982, is limited. The "conseils regionaux" cannot legislate, and only control around 2% of public spending raised through minor incomes such as motor tax. Although members are directly elected by proportional representation, each region has a Prefet whose job is to represent the prime minister.


Probably the most devolved state in Europe. After reunification, West Germany's 11 Lander were joined by 5 from the former East Germany. Each has its own constitution, parliament and executive, members are elected by additional member system, and, perhaps most importantly, the national second chamber (Bundesrat), which has a power of veto over the Bundestag, consists entirely of Land ministers.

Landers have their own judicial systems, their own powers of primary legislation and tax raising powers, are responsible for education, culture, safety, law & order and ultimately control nearly 40% of public expenditure.


One of the most devolved governmental systems in Europe, Spain's 17 elected and autonomous regions grew up following constitutional changes in the late 1970s after the death of Franco. Each of these "communidades autonomic" has its own president, executive, parliament and high court of justice, although some have more powers (eg tax systems, police) than the standard portfolio of education, health, urban planning, culture, agriculture and social services.


Perhaps predictably, Italy's situation is a little chaotic - although for a country which was only unified 130 years ago, and still has political parties calling for reseparation, this may not be surprising. There are 20 "regioni" (5 special, 15 ordinary). Although they have no tax raising powers, members are elected every five years by a list system and have responsibility for heath, welfare, town planning, tourism, culture and agriculture.


The Dutch have 12 provinces with responsibility primarily for traffic, public transport, town planning and the environment. They do not have legislative powers, and raise revenue through motor vehicle tax.


The Poles have 16 "voivodships", created in the post-communist 1990s. Each has a directly elected parliament, but with no tax raising powers or legislative powers. And with a centrally-appointed governor in each acting as a representative of the prime minister, there is little leeway beyond strategic thinking on regional economic development.


Effectively, Portugal does not have regional government, although the offshore territories of Azores and Madeira do have a form of autonomy.