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Thursday, 14 November, 2002, 15:15 GMT
Regions get chance to govern
The Angel of the North
The North East could hold the first referendum
English regions are to get the chance to have their own elected assemblies, and the UK's planning system is to be made quicker under new law plans.

The Queen's Speech announced a three-track agenda for Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, whose long held goal of regional devolution could now be realised.

The North-East is likely to be first to choose under plans to allow England's regions to hold referendums on whether they want their own assemblies.

The speech also laid the ground for the planning process to be streamlined and for local councils to get more financial freedom.

Since 1997, Labour's constitutional reforms have included devolution for Scotland and Wales.

Now the English regions could have the chance to decide whether they want elected assemblies to take some of the decisions now taken in Whitehall.

Vote triggers

A government spokesman said the bill, which is expected to be published on Thursday, would set out how a referendum could be triggered.

Those conditions would include the level of interest in holding the vote, he said.

"So it is possible that they may take place in only one, two or three regions," said the spokesman.

John Prescott
Regional devolution are a long held ambition for Prescott
Opponents of regional devolution say current county councils would be abolished as the extra layer of government is introduced.

If a regional assembly was created, there would be one "unitary council", combining the roles of the county councils and district councils.

'Filling the void'

The government spokesman said the Electoral Commission would conduct a review to decide on the best structure for local government before a referendum was held.

The plans were welcomed by George Morran, the chairman of the Campaign for the English Regions.

Mr Morran said: "This begins to fill the gaping void from the government's constitutional reform agenda of its first term."

David Davis, shadow to Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott
David Davis will lead Tory campaigns against regional devolution

But the plans failed to impress David Frost, director general of the British Chambers of Commerce, who said ministers would need to think again if they wanted business support for the plan.

Mr Prescott's Conservative shadow, David Davis, said his party would oppose regional assemblies, which he claimed could cost 290m in administration alone.

"They would be a nightmare for council taxpayers who would foot the bill for yet more bureaucracy," said Mr Davis.

"They would lead to more red tape, more interference and taxes. Local communities would lose their voice."

Local councils currently hold a key role in the UK's planning process, which is now set to be streamlined.

Removing delays

The Queen said: "My government will introduce legislation to speed up the planning system while improving the involvement of local communities."

Planning delays over major projects like the fifth terminal at Heathrow airport have prompted calls for change.

The new planning bill is aimed at speeding up the handling of major infrastructure projects by central government.

Development plans set the local and regional framework against which individual planning applications are judged.

But ministers believe the development plan process is too complex and needs to be simplified.

Regeneration help

A government spokesman also said the law plans would make the compulsory purchase system, where people can be forced to sell their properties, "simpler, fairer and quicker".

Under the plans, promoting "sustainable development" will be made a legal purpose for planning.

And Business Planning Zones are to be introduced to "aid regeneration by fast tracking developments in areas where jobs are needed most".

A separate bill will try to modernise local councils "by improving the delivery of local services through better financial management and greater freedom for councils based on performance".

All councils would be able to borrow "within prudent limits" and to trade and charge for certain services.

The top performing councils would get added financial freedoms - a proposal which trade union Unison warned could create a "two-tier system".

In an effort to improve town centres, new Business Improvement Districts are set to be created to help councils work in collaboration with local firms.

A government spokesman added: "Small businesses would also benefit with the introduction of the new small business rate relief scheme."

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See also:

23 Sep 02 | England
23 Sep 02 | England
09 May 02 | Politics
10 May 02 | Politics
09 May 02 | Politics
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