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Thursday, 9 May, 2002, 07:17 GMT 08:17 UK
Devolution offered to English regions
Durham skyline
Durham could be the seat of a north-east assembly
Plans for local parliaments for every English region are to be unveiled by the government.

Each area will be offered a referendum on an elected regional assembly.

The move could lead to the abolition of county councils in areas where there is an assembly, to avoid too many layers of local government.

Cornish Constitutional Convention logo
The Cornish Constitutional Convention has been campaigning for an assembly
The government has said the idea will decentralise power to the regions, giving people a stronger voice.

Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott said it would be the completion of a "political dream", begun with devolution for Scotland, Wales and in theory Northern Ireland.

But BBC correspondent Rory Maclean said it was "not a big issue on the streets", with no strong public support.

The Conservatives claim the assemblies will do little more than add an extra layer of red tape at the equivalent cost of about 1p on income tax each year.

The Liberal Democrats have warned assemblies would be pointless unless given fully devolved powers.

Business has also warned about more red tape.

Powers

Although no details have been officially announced, it is understood the regional assemblies would be modelled on the Greater London Assembly rather than the Scottish or Welsh assemblies.

They would be given control of economic development, transport, waste management and planning - but not tax-raising powers.

Councils would retain control of social services, education and other services.

It is believed assembly members would be elected by proportional representation, with each area having between 25 and 30 members, headed by a First Minister.

Shadow local government minister Theresa May told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that it was a centralising move not devolution.

Expected regions
North East
North West
Yorkshire
West Midlands
East Midlands
East of England
South West
South East
She told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "It will take away decision-making and power away form local communities."

"It is going to reduce the power and freedom of local government," she continued.

But this was not a view shared by the Bishop of Exeter Michael Langrish, chairman of the south-west constitutional convention which has discussed how an assembly might work.

He said the structure was already in place for regional assemblies but bodies set up for tourism, agriculture and health had no democratic accountability.

"I would certainly be extremely unhappy if today's proposals included any suggestion of powers being taken away from existing local authorities and devolved up," he warned.

He favoured the idea as a way of devolving power but said it had to capture the popular imagination first.

Enthusiastic

A poll commissioned by the BBC earlier this year suggested there was widespread, if not strongly enthusiastic, public support for regional assemblies.

Almost two-thirds of people (63%) wanted regional government, according to the survey, with less than a quarter (23%) opposed to the move, 8% undecided and 6% with no opinion.

The north-east was the most enthusiastic region, and it is here where the first assembly would be expected to be set up.

This would cost an estimated 20m and would probably sit in Durham with a leader and a board of elected members.

Areas such as the south-west and north-west, where people have complained their voices are not heard strongly enough by central government, could also be keen.

Correspondents say the government believes that ultimately, no more than one or two assemblies will actually be backed.

Mr Prescott, in overall charge of the project, has suggested that assemblies could be established within two years.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Jonathan Beale
"The Tories simply oppose the idea"
Peter Mandelson MP
"The government has got to adopt a different approach"
Teresa May, Tory local government spokeswoman
"There is no evidence that people are asking for regional government"
See also:

04 May 02 | UK Politics
'Red tape' warning on assemblies plan
21 Mar 02 | UK Politics
English 'want regional parliaments'
12 Dec 01 | England
Tories reject South West assembly
19 Mar 99 | UK Politics
Devolving England
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