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Last Updated: Wednesday, 17 September, 2003, 19:38 GMT 20:38 UK
Can regional assemblies bridge the divide?
By Brian Wheeler
BBC News Online business reporter

In the latest in a series on the North-South divide, BBC News Online asks whether regional assemblies can close the widening economic gap.

Despite the best efforts of successive government, the economic gap between rich and poor regions in the UK continues to widen.

Billions have been thrown at the regions in an attempt to boost investment and create jobs.

The results - as the National Audit Office said in a report earlier this year - have been variable.

A lot of money has been wasted on buying a temporary boost in employment, but sustainable investment has been harder to come by.

Next autumn will see the start of the most radical attempt yet to boost the UK's regional economies.

Three English regions, the North-East, North-West, and Yorkshire and the Humber will be given a vote on whether they want their own elected assembly.

For deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, regional devolution is the culmination of a long-held political dream.

He wants to replace the unelected quangos currently in charge of regional development with modern, democratically accountable institutions that will give the regions a real voice for the first time.

But for the scheme's many critics, the new assemblies will amount to little more than expensive talking shops with no real power.

Hidden agenda?

The Conservatives - concerned at the potential dismantling of the traditional county council structure - have branded the plan a "white elephant" in the making.

John Prescott
Will Mr Prescott's dream send everyone else to sleep?
Some on the right also detect a hidden agenda, seeing regional assemblies as part of a move towards a "Europe of Regions", answerable to Brussels rather than national governments.

Although regional assemblies will have the power to set a "precept" on council tax, along the lines of the Greater London Assembly, there will be no extra cash from central government.

Mr Prescott simply plans to use money currently allocated to Regional Development Agencies (RDA), which were set up in 1999 to attract investment and create jobs in the regions.

Laudable aim

Rather than simply redistributing funds from the North to the South, Labour wants to encourage sustainable growth.

Its target is to close the persistent gap in growth rates by 2012.

A laudable aim, but for it to work the three northern regions will have to start growing at a faster rate than the South-East.

And with billions of pounds due to be poured into infrastructure projects in the South over the coming decades - on new housing in the Thames estuary and transport projects, for example - it is hard to see how the regions can keep up with, let alone overtake, the South-East.

The assemblies will have control over planning decisions, but the really big economic decisions will continue to be made in London.

'Expensive bureaucracy'

Peter Allen, chairman of the private sector lobby group the Northern Business Forum, fears an elected North-East Assembly would not have enough power to change things for the better.

Durham City
Durham has been mooted as the home for the North East assembly
"It will add another layer of expensive bureaucracy that will actually slow down what is already happening."

There is also the danger is that it will turn into a job creation scheme for the very local politicians that are currently promoting it so enthusiastically.

Political big hitters in Westminster are unlikely to swap their parliamentary seats for a place in the North-East assembly, he argues.

The growing economic confidence of the North-East, epitomised by Newcastle/Gateshead's bid for capital of culture status, also makes a separate assembly unnecessary, he argues.

'Hot air'

But paradoxically, it is this new found pride and positivity - coupled with a sense that the area has been let down by Whitehall - that could well deliver a "yes" vote next autumn.

At present the regions are badly governed by a web of government agencies, public bodies, centrally appointed civil servants and quangos
Richard Wiltshire
North-West assembly "yes" campaign
"I think the man and woman in the street will probably believe that it must have an advantage because it is somebody local looking after their destiny," Mr Allen tells BBC News Online.

"Personally, I don't know what it will add, apart from a lot of hot air," he adds.

Richard Wiltshire, a spokesman for the recently formed campaign for a "yes" vote in the North-West, argues that local government cannot continue in its current form.

"At present the regions are badly governed by a web of government agencies, public bodies, centrally appointed civil servants and quangos.

"This complex and bureaucratic system undermines the economic performance of all the regions, and therefore the success of businesses," he says.

'Joined-up' government

There is a powerful argument, Mr Wiltshire says, for a one-stop shop for aid and advice.

"The recent CBI report on the Regional Development Agencies talked of the complexity of the current regional administration and called for a moratorium on any more regional bodies and strategies.

"There is a pressing need to 'join up' government more at a regional level and to pursue a more holistic approach in the general area of economic development," he says.

Accountability will also improve, with local people having more say in how their tax money is distributed.

"This should be seen as an opportunity not a threat," he adds.

Tough contest

Enthusiasm for the idea of regional assemblies among the general public is difficult to gauge.

The government's own research showed a majority of people in the North in favour of regional assemblies, but little enthusiasm for the idea in the South.

But the consultation process was criticised for only taking in the views of 7,000 people.

In a BBC survey of 9,821 people in Yorkshire earlier this year, 92% were against the idea of an assembly for the area.

But national research by Mori published in July this year found awareness of regional assemblies to be very low, with only one in six claiming to know more than a little about plans for assemblies.

Encouragingly for the government, people generally became more enthusiastic about the idea when they were given more information about how it might work.

But they became less enthusiastic when they found out how much it might cost and what it might mean for existing administrative structures.

And, with only 36% of people surveyed by Mori saying they would be certain to vote in a referendum, the biggest battle might be in generating enough interest to give the vote legitimacy.

We asked if you thought regional assemblies were the answer for regional development Or if they will be just another talking shop. Here is a selection of your views.

This will just be another non-productive layer of bureaucracy. We have seen over the last 6 years our taxes mainly disappear this way and this will be the same. No thank you.
Keith Miles, England

Before people in the English regions opt for regional assemblies they should look westwards at what's happening in Wales.
There is no demand whatsoever for a North West Regional Assembly...I shall be campaigning to reject the proposal in any referendum which may be held.
Gordon Prentice, Labour MP for Pendle
Our assembly has turned out to be a complete shambles with members divided along party lines spending most of their time trying to score points against each other. Using their very limited power they have thrown a few baubles to the populace to keep us sweet but most of their time is spent squabbling amongst themselves. A typical week was recently spent trying to agree where everyone should sit. How pathetic is that. I voted Labour and for the assembly but would never do either again.
Alun Davies, Wales

John Prescott's devolution to the regions is a fraud, he has no intention whatsoever of transferring power from Whitehall to the regions rather he intends to abolish County Councils instead so rather than having devolution you are in fact getting centralisation with power in even fewer hands.
Stephen Hollinshead, England

The regional assemblies promoted by that epitome of hot air, John Prescott, are the wrong answer to the problem of local democratic accountability. The problem is that far too much power has been centralised in Whitehall, making local government a pale shadow of what it should be. The answer is to devolve relevant power to the existing County Councils, not to create another pointless, bureaucratic tier of government for Labour cronies to inhabit!
Richard, England

Regional assemblies are a bad idea - the County Council structure is the best way to administer local needs - the phrase if is not broken then do not fix it comes to mind.
P Chandler, England

The "principal" behind Regional Assemblies is OK, but yet again the practice of implementing them will no doubt be spoiled by the same self-centred Civil Servants who see themselves in a "job for life", with no real thought as to the people they are supposed to be accountable to. The current system of County Councils and District Councils works to a point, in that there is more accountability at a direct local level - the councillors actually live in the area they serve! With more regionalised assemblies, you would effectively merge county councils into one big behemoth, that would have no direct local knowledge of specific issues....
Dave Parker, UK

If the government really want to help the regions and at the same time help ease the congestion in the southeast, they should start relocating some of the 1 million plus civil service jobs away from London to the regions. This would provide a major economic boost to the regions and address some of the transport, schooling and healthcare issues in the south. It may even provide some of those government employees with a better quality of life.
Alan Whyte, England

Yet another layer of bureaucracy, adding cost and creating more jobs for Tony's cronies. And of course each regional assembly member will need offices, support staff etc. The question is who do I ring to get my bin emptied or for help with housing, my parish councillor, my Kirklees councillor, my MP, My Euro MP or my Regional assembly member. There may be many more layers of elected politicians, but I don't see local services improving. If Prescott is serious about regional devolution, will they be reducing the numbers of MPs in Westminster to compensate, I think not..
John Taylor, West Yorkshire

Another level of red tape to waste money on pen pushers and no added benefit to needs and services of the people.
Francis, England

I do not believe that a regional assembly for Yorkshire and the Humber would be a success. It would waste money, which should be going on services, on civil servants and councillors. Once the Parliament is set up how long will it be before we hear the first calls for a lavish Parliament building? Also it is being billed as a Yorkshire Parliament, but not all of the Y&H region is in Yorkshire, part of it is Lincolnshire. We will have our local decisions made in Leeds rather than Grimsby and Scunthorpe. Local Government in England suffers because it is always being changed and tinkered with. We should leave the current set up as it is.
Dan, UK

I'm afraid they won't just be talking shops. This is a move toward a Europe of Regions. All of the constitutional changes applied by T. Blair esq. and friends to Great Britain have been adjustments to fit in with the European agenda. If these 'assemblies' work then expect them to eventually assume the role of councils and some of the responsibilities of national government also. Just the right blend for dictat from the EU!
Simon Hickey, UK

Just another expensive talking shop providing jobs for the boys.
A Macdonald, UK

We're already drowning in layers of 'democracy' - parish council, district council, county council, parliament, house of lords, Europe. What will yet another layer do (other than consume more tax payers money)? And since when do politicians (especially local ones) have much idea about what it takes to produce a vibrant economy?
Andy Davies, UK

There is no demand whatsoever for a North West Regional Assembly. Not one person in my Pendle constituency has ever written to me calling for such an Assembly.
Whatever next - John Prescott, President and Prime Minister of Yorkshire and Humberside!
Alan, UK
In John Prescott's "sounding exercise" only a couple of thousand people in the North West - a region of seven million - said they wanted one. We do not need further institutional and organisational change which will cost a fortune and deliver very little. It is a complete waste of time. I shall be campaigning to reject the proposal in any referendum which may be held.
Gordon Prentice MP, UK

The British Chambers of Commerce do not support the current proposals on regional government for England. The Assemblies are to be given few real powers and at present seem to be little more than an extra cost. We fear that this will hold back regional economic development as the Regional Development Agencies (RDAs) are generally doing a good job already. A great concern to us is that the plans for the Assemblies are very hazy and will not be finalised until after the referendums have taken place. This, plus the lack of constitutional foundations for regional government in England, leads us to believe that the plans are not what England needs. The Government should concentrate on freeing business to create jobs rather than weighing firms down with more costs to pay for an increase in the public sector that will have the opposite effect. Real, powerful, regional government could be a different matter, but that is not what is on offer.
Matthew Knowles, UK

The perception of many North-Easterners is that a regional assembly will merely shift the concentration of power from London to Newcastle rather than the region, meaning that cities like Durham and Sunderland will remain disenfranchised.
Darren Ross, England

Needless to say, the BBC, which is run by English people who are ashamed of being English, doesn't invite discussion of why Scotland and Wales can get national legislatures but England is being offered only regional assemblies instead. Why aren't regional assemblies good enough for Scotland and Wales? The purpose of English regional assemblies is to forestall the creation of an English Parliament that might raise awkward questions about the subsidies from the English taxpayer to Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, and Cornwall.
Alan Fisk, England

The bodies envisaged by Prescott are a total sham. Comparisons made to the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly etc are totally misleading. As proposed a NW Assembly will consist of 35 members supposedly representing seven million people in the region.
Of course Regional Assemblies will encourage growth - in taxation and highly paid and utterly useless politicians...
Dave, England
They will not have any direct powers over the quangos referred to and their creation will mean total abolition of current local authorities which itself will cost the taxpayers millions of pounds of unnecessary costs. There was no strong response to the " soundings" as to the population's wish to see such a body. Even by Prescott's standards this is his most cock-eyed notion yet.
Cllr. Peter Burns, England

Scotland and Wales have not suddenly started becoming more wealthy with the creation of the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly. The only booming industry is for political lobbyists, hangers on as well as the lucky firms designing and building the new buildings to house these glorified talking shops.
The question is whether elected assemblies would aid regional development - and I think the short answer is yes
Jane Thomas, Yorkshire
The Scottish Parliament has already cost more than the equivalent of 12-15 new secondary schools. If this were repeated nationwide with a multitude of regional assemblies, it would significantly harm our ability to invest in education. Hand real power to the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and the GLA for London, wait and see what happens, then only if it works, see if people want to roll out the structure nationwide. Don't keep wasting money on pointless experiments. Whatever next - John Prescott, President and Prime Minister of Yorkshire and Humberside!
Alan, UK

Of course Regional Assemblies will encourage growth ! taxation and highly paid and utterly useless politicians.........
Dave, England

I am against the plans. It will add another layer of expensive bureaucracy - no doubt each assembly will require a new assembly building to be built at a cost of millions. Why cannot the same thing be achieved by cooperation between County Councils at a regional level?
Martin Rickson, UK

Sounds like a job-creation scheme for politicians to me - with us footing the bill. No wonder they're keen on it.
Mike Bell, UK

I see nothing wrong with the current County structure. But if we are going to talk about devolution, why not talk about an English Parliament. Scotland has one. Wales has an Assembly. Why are the English being discriminated against by being forced to have regions instead of a national body?
Rupert Matthews, England

The question is whether elected assemblies would aid regional development - and I think the short answer is yes. The divide between the three northern regions and the golden triangle of the South East, East England and London has widened in the last seven years. This is simply no longer acceptable. In Yorkshire and the Humber there are serious questions around skills, graduate retention and productivity. We have had years of top-down decisions and initiatives tailored to meet the demands of the South East. If elected Assemblies will allow more flexibility in programmes, decisions that reflect our needs and not the south east and give this region a voice and a platform then this is an opportunity worth taking. I would rather someone be taking decisions about this region who actually lives here - and I would rather have some politician that I can hold to account than a man from the Ministry who has never been north of Watford.
Jane Thomas, Yorkshire

Economic decisions taken in London and the South East always favour London and the South East because the decisions are made by those with power in London and the South East! It's so obvious. We don't want handouts or temporary 'regional' measures. We want the power! Surely by potentially abolishing County Councils there will be fewer politicians and less bureaucracy? This is a good thing! "Regional Government" already exists with a complex array of quangos and government agencies - these would be democratically accountable directly for the first time. This is a good thing! Who says the North West shouldn't have its own way of doing things on health and education for example? Who says we can't do it better than politicians and civil servants based in London? Could it do any worse? Just ask those behind Manchester's Commonwealth Games 2002 and Liverpool's bid to be European Capital of Culture 2008 and say we are not a can-do region in the North West! I really object to MPs who are from London, live in London and work in London (necessarily) but who represent Lancashire seats pontificating on this subject - of course they are in favour of the status quo! They are part of the same old establishment who benefit from keeping the North-South divide so wide and their ticket on the gravy train.
Steve, Lancashire

What a lot of negative stuff everyone has written! I cannot understand why, unless people are happy with the way things are. I believe that you need enough local power to get powerful things done. Counties are not large enough, or powerful enough. My fear is that not enough power will be transferred. Then everybody's fears will be realised!
George Taylor, UK

Decisions should be taken in the regions they affect. England is hugely over-centralised on London - damaging not just the regions but London too (I need hardly mention the chaotic state of London's infrastructure or the extortionate price of its housing and transport). Federal government (yes, that's what it is) devolved power and influence to the regions in Germany after the war, which is why Germany has flourishing, prosperous, influential regional capitals, while Britain has London leagues adrift from the rest of the country. Enough said. Incidentally, it was the British occupying powers who devised Germany's regional system. Pity they didn't absorb the lessons once they got home.
Neville Walker, UK

The whole plan is a worthless version of regional government. If we were being offered the powers of a Spanish region or the Scottish assembly it would be different but we are not. In the North West we are offered a talking shop with no real devolution controlling 750m out of over 30bn of Government spending.
Arguments against elected regional assemblies are arguments in favour of the establishment, quangos, and old style politics
Simon, Lancashire
It will not be able to do anything unless the central government allows it - just look at the rows between the Greater London assembly and the Government on the Underground. A row not decided by politicians who are elected but by judges who are not. And Nick Raynsford has made it clear that the model for the English regions is the Greater London Assembly not the Welsh Assembly of the Scottish Parliament. I think people in the North West know a con when they see one and the referendum will be a defeat for the Government's plans.
Chris Cheetham, Lancashire, England

The only reason why regional assemblies are being considered in the North West, North east and Yorkshire are that they can be guaranteed to be controlled by a Labour majority. It's the same principle as devolution to Scotland and Wales - well paid jobs for the Labour boys locally. If John Prescott was serious about devolution how about devolving to the South West or East Anglia as well - god knows, those regions have their problems. But of course that would mean a Lib Dem or (horrors) Conservative run regional assembly - and that would never do.
John Riddell, United Kingdom

Introducing regional assemblies to allocate money given to boost a region is total rubbish as we can see in Germany. Germany has a system of money transfers to states with less economic power to maintain a level of same standards in Germany. This system is existing now for 50 years and still northern Germany has less economic power than southern Germany. And don't forget the former GDR. Germany is still spending money in that region but unemployment remains at high levels and people from there move to the west to go working. So forget the idea of regional assemblies and money transfers, find a better way to solve that problem.
Horst Mueller, Germany

Arguments against elected regional assemblies are arguments in favour of the establishment, quangos, and old style politics. Those campaigning against are simply trying to protect their own interests - they are afraid of a new era where decisions are more transparent, politicians are more accountable, and government can really effect change for the better. The Government's proposals to shift to unitary authority structures is also critical in modernising and delivering public services. Look at how Blackburn with Darwen has prospered since it came out of Lancashire County Council control - local authority of the year, exceptionally good education, beacon status for a number of its services and the list goes on. Arguments used by those in the 'no' campaign make them sound like old 'has beens' looking around for things to complain about. Stop your mourning, do something positive for the future of your region, and support elected assemblies. Simon, Lancashire
Simon, Lancashire, UK

Regional Assemblies will be constrained by the powers handed down to them by Parliament. They will be larger and more remote from the local population - so we will still retain local councils. The net result will be that we'll create a new tier of petty bureaucrats that will spend ordinary peoples money on themselves before inefficiently handing down a few crumbs - just look at the Scottish Parliament for an example.
Peter Lewis, UK

Devolution is a process and it is to be hoped that powers and finance would become gradually available so that the 'regions' can develop. What is unacceptable is for people in one part of 'region' (that may be poorer) having to pay up to 3p in the pound extra Council Tax for services to be delivered several hundred miles away. That is why we need a debate about regional boundaries. Cornwall is the only part of the country where there is a popular groundswell for devolution - for a Cornish Assembly - and the government would do well to look at how the Cornish Constitutional Convention has galvanised such support. Fifty thousand people (over 10% of the electorate) signed a declaration in favour of a Cornish Assembly. This government chose to ignore this fact at this stage - because it did not fit with their boundaries for consultation - but without a Cornish Assembly they will never be able to even consider a South West Regional Assembly. Even here there is reluctance in Bournemouth , Poole and Swindon about being part of the 'south west'.
Stephen Horscroft, Cornwall, Britain

The number of passionate messages written here, both positive and negative, suggest that there is no shortage of interest in regional devolution. I agree with George Taylor - why is everyone so negative? Why not try a new approach? The reality is the sky will not fall in if assemblies are established. Regional government works well in may parts of the world. It is worth a try in England. What is the underlying logic of the nay-sayers argument? We love centralisation, central government always knows best, more of the same please! Negativity and apathy are not a constructive combination.
MM, Australia

The main win that can be scored here is having reasonable sized local unitary government, more accountable to local people. To create unitary councils on the existing county boundaries would create huge non-responsive dinosaurs. There is an opportunity with regional government to improve local democracy, let's not lose it!
John, UK

The regions proposed for England are too large and both historically and culturally irrelevant. England is not like Germany , Italy or France where there are distinct regions like Normandy, Bavaria or Lombardy. In the south west, the people of Cornwall, Devon and Dorset will be dominated by the views of regional government in urban Bristol. Imagine the turf war between Liverpool and Manchester in the north west and who will give a monkey's about rural Cumbria? My own democratically elected service provider will be removed from the county town ten miles away and end up two counties hence. People's local identity lies with their town or county, not an anonymous region. We are being offered local government organisation and centralisation for the benefit of politicians and unelected bureaucrats. The truth is this Government cannot stand the diversity and eccentricity of the existing system.
It is about time the English were afforded equality with these other UK countries
Isabel Clark, England
Whilst it is true that something has to be done to spread economic development more fairly! around England, it is paradoxical that this Government proposes to cram millions more people into the south-east. Will a north-eastern assembly really be able to compete in terms of inward investment and business incentives with London or the south-east? Indeed the people running the so called south eastern regional assembly are already talking of becoming a `European super region`. The end result of such a process is nothing but what one leading economist has termed` a veritable witches brew of internecine rivalry`. Inevitably there will be winners and losers. This is not a sustainable solution. Strengthen existing local government, successive governments over the past three decades have contrived to neuter it. Above all, as Britain slowly pulls part we need an English Parliament, ideally somewhere like Birmingham or Nottingham. Regional campaigners are surely not suggesting a separate west midland NHS or eastern education system let alone a north eastern common law? Imagi! the chaos and incompetence. The day Blair opened the Scottish Parliament he albeit unwittingly, set the wheels in motion for it's English counterpart.
Greg Laing, England

Well, what can I say? These institutions will be toothless tigers - they have no power over the services that people care about the most. Not a single extra teacher, a single extra nurse or a single extra police officer will be employed as a result of this exercise. What powers they will have will be sucked up from local councils, how is that devolution? The only people who will benefit are politicians and pen pushers - come on, the North East deserves better!
Karl Poulsen, North East England

How can anybody trust anything Blair or his government say or do? They appear to have misled us and broken almost every promise they made. Everything they do appears to have an ulterior motive and I believe these Regional Assemblies are to divide England and thereby weaken her. Why cannot the English have their own parliament? That seems the next logical and fair step to take. Wales and Scotland weren't divided up. They were given national representation for their own people. It is about time the English were afforded equality with these other UK countries.
Isabel Clark, England

Let me sound a word of warning about RAs, firstly despite Government spin there is no overwhelming support for RAs in the three regions who appear to be on John Prescott's shortlist, out of a population of nearly 15 million in the North only 7,000 people responded some 0.05% hardly overwhelming is it? Secondly should these RAs come into being get ready for a hike in your council tax. Here in London there is an 18% precept with most of the money being spent around the city centre, thirdly why should England be divided up into nine regions (who will subsequently be governed by Brussels)no other country within the EU will lose their nationhood, there will be no voice in Europe for England just nine separate regions vying against each other for a dwindling amount of EU funding, the answer is an English Parliament whereby all taxes raised in England can go solely to England's needs rather than prop-up Scotland to the tune of 9bn a year.
Barry (The Elder), England

What a joke! It is said that nearly 70,000 people have left the North East in the last decade and what was Prescott's last proposal, yes, build 750,000 houses in the already stable South East... We have President Blair and umpteen (ex) high ranking politicians in my region, should we not be making them accountable now? Why wait for a glorified talking shop? Only last week we were told that one tier of local government will have to go, the leaders of the County Council, getting the first blow in, decided to say, "if you choose us, the savings will relate to 150 off your council tax". Really, I know Mars has been close, but taking advice from there seems a little extreme. The same leaders(?) have failed year on year to secure the correct budget for the services they provide, only to charge us "twice" with annual double digit council tax increases. You then wish me to trust the same people who recently awarded themselves a 16% increase in allowances to be in charge of the assembly. The North East is a fabulous region, spoilt entirely, by those who run it.
Jim Tague, Durham, England

This is another classic case of the Celtic tail wagging the English dog. Labour had to offer Regional Assemblies to England or be accused once more (justifiably) of favouritism towards Scotland and Wales. In truth, as is apparent from all their other actions, they could not care less about devolution, they are arch centralizers, what they care about is defending their vote from the Nats. The Toytown parliaments of Edinburgh and Cardiff are proof that we need Regional Assemblies like a dose of SARS. They will therefore be expensive and wasteful window dressing only - except for their secondary purpose of weakening English national identity, a necessary stratagem to soften us up for Euro homogeneity. Naturally, the Celts will be allowed to retain their identities.
John Shepherd, England

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