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Thursday, March 18, 1999 Published at 13:56 GMT

UK Politics

Devolving England

Newcastle could be the seat of a regional parliament

By BBC News Online's Sarah Teasdale

The success of devolution campaigns in Scotland and Wales has given growing impetus to groups demanding regional government in England.

The Campaign for Yorkshire to establish a parliament for England's largest county was launched earlier this week.

However, groups in the north east and Cornwall have been campaigning for regional assemblies to bring democracy to a new local level for years.

The Yorkshire campaign, spearheaded by local politicians and trade unions, insists the county is the best place for England's first regional assembly because of its strong regional identity and "undisputed boundaries".

[ image: Leeds: A Yorkshire assembly would represent the people]
Leeds: A Yorkshire assembly would represent the people
Chair of the Campaign for Yorkshire Paul Jagger told BBC News Online that the idea of a devolved assembly was "not to put walls around the region".

He said: "This is not an attack on the government.

"We want to assist the government in developing its policy implementation.

"We don't want to put walls around the region, we're not an island."

The idea for a democratic assembly follows the establishment of a regional development agency, which comes online at the beginning of April.

Mr Jagger is a member of that agency and sees it as a "staging post" on the way to a proper parliament.

He said: "We eventually hope to have a referendum.

"An ideal window would be after the next general election.

"The parliament would carry out the work currently done by the RDA and that is carried out by the government regional office. We're not talking about major policy such as taxation or taking over bodies such as the emergency services.

"However, it would create an independent democratic body which is accountable to the people of Yorkshire."

Public discussion

The campaign would like the parliament to evolve to become a body similar to those in Scotland and Wales.

It would be elected by proportional representation for its members or it could have a directly-elected leader, similar to the mayor of London.

Mr Jagger says: "All these things need to be discussed and debated.

"We want to generate public discussion and support for devolution."

The campaign has met with organisations from different parts of England who are also seeking devolution, including their neighbours in the north east.

Mr Jagger says: "There are two things you notice as you get further north.

"One is that people want a greater say in running their own affairs.

"The other is that resources begin to thin out."

North of Yorkshire, the idea of a regional assembly is also gaining momentum.

A campaign for an elected body in the north east to cover the area from the Tweed to the Tees has been gaining support since the 1960s, although it has grown considerably in the last decade.

The campaign is now embodied by the Constitutional Convention, chaired by the Bishop of Durham, and includes business groups, trade unions and voluntary organisations.

[ image: The angel of the north: The region is pushing for devolution]
The angel of the north: The region is pushing for devolution
The convention wants a regional body to have powers over such policy areas as planning, the local economy and transport.

One particular issue is the inequality in public funding between English regions. A local parliament could control its own finances and funding, supporters believe.

Dr John Tomaney, a member of the Constitutional Convention's steering group, explains the north of England has a long tradition of political autonomy.

He said: "Up until the union of the Scottish and English crowns in 1603, the area pretty much ruled itself."

However, Dr Tomaney describes the response from central government towards devolution as "luke warm".

He says: "The government has said it will respond when we can demonstrate there is regional interest.

"That, by its definition, is quite hard, how do you define that?"

However, he does believe regional interest is growing in a whole range of issues.

Cultural network

He said: "One area of local interest, for example, is the issue of the Lindisfarne gospels.

"They are currently kept in London but there is a strong regional feeling they should be moved to Durham as they originate from the north east.

"When the gospels came to an exhibition at the Laing art gallery in Newcastle as part of the Treasures of Northumbria exhibition, it was the best attended exhibition ever held at the gallery.

"That demonstrates there is a regional cultural and social network as well as an economic network."

At the other end of the country, Mebyon Kernow has been campaigning for devolution for Cornwall for nearly half a century.

Mebyon Kernow's chairman Dick Cole said: "Our long term aim is self government in Europe.

"In the short term our aim is for a Cornish assembly, a local development agency and a university."

The party's motives are fuelled by the county feeling it is being increasingly ignored by central government and hence failing to get proper help to target problems like unemployment.

Cornwall is grouped in a regional development agency which ranges from Swindon to the Scilly Isles and in the European Parliament, Cornwall is covered in a seat which stretches from Bristol to Scilly.

[ image: The Cornish campaign is linked with other nationalist parties]
The Cornish campaign is linked with other nationalist parties
Mr Cole explains: "Cornwall is only 10% of the RDA.

"We've just been granted objective one status for EU funding as we've got some of the lowest economic figures in Europe, with the highest unemployment and the lowest wages.

"We should have had objective one status about eight years ago but because we were linked with Devon we never qualified it."

Mr Cole claims that there is an increasing amount of support for the right to self-government.

The party already has one councillor on Cornwall County Council as well as representatives on three district councils.

In this year's local elections, MK will put up 25 candidates - its highest number ever, a mark of the support it believes it can win for devolution.

Mebyon Kernow is closely linked to the Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru and in Parliament the Welsh nationalists often raise issues for their Cornish cousins.

Mr Cole told BBC News Online: "Plaid Cymru is doing tremendously well.

"We view Cornwall as being in a similar position to Wales and Scotland. We don't consider ourselves as being part of England.

"There was a Commons debate on the Cornish language but there were problems trying to work out which department dealt with it.

"There's no Cornish office, it started at the Foreign Office, went to the Home Office, then the Welsh Office, then the department for the environment and the regions, then to the department for education and then back to the Foreign Office."

The support for devolution is mirrored by the growing interest in the Cornish language. There is a campaign to get Cornish recognised by the government and for it to be included in the European charter of minority languages.

However, Mr Cole is not overly optimistic that their campaign will gain government support.

He said: "Our campaign is supported by four out of five Cornish MPs, the ones who are Liberal Democrats.

"However, in my opinion I don't think it wouldn't make the slightest bit of difference which party is in office."

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