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Last Updated: Monday, 16 June, 2003, 15:53 GMT 16:53 UK
Regions get vote on own parliaments
Durham Cathedral
Durham could be the base for a North East regional assembly
Voters in three regions of northern England are to get referendums on whether they want regional parliaments.

The North East, the North West and Yorkshire and the Humber will get to say whether they want elected regional assemblies, Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott announced on Monday.

The votes would take place in autumn next year, he said.

Before then, the Electoral Commission would recommend two options for each region on which layer of current local government would be removed to make way for the new assemblies.

Mr Prescott said at least 50,000 people had been involved in the consultation to "sound out" interest in the idea.

Varying interest

Campaigners for the assemblies say it is "high time" to hold the votes but opponents such as the Conservatives say there is a huge lack of interest in the idea.

Mr Prescott told MPs the move would remove the unelected bureaucracy of the government's regional offices.

In the North East and North West more than 50% of people wanted the change and his own Yorkshire and the Humber region nearly three-quarters wanted the assemblies.

John Prescott
Prescott's dream sends everybody else to sleep, say the Tories
But in other regions, there was little interest, so there would be no referendums in the East, South East, South West, the East Midlands and West Midlands.

"Today's announcement is good for democracy, good for the English regions and good for the whole of the United Kingdom," said Mr Prescott.

The government has said the first assembly could be up and running soon after the next general election.

Turnout concerns

Regional devolution has been a long-time dream for Mr Prescott, whose Hull constituency would come under a Yorkshire and the Humber assembly.

The powers of the assemblies have yet to be fixed, but would include economic development, planning and housing.

They would be able to raise money through council tax and borrowing, but delivery of local services would be left to local councils.

The people of the North yet again are being asked to pay more for less
David Davis
Conservative spokesman

The government says it would not go ahead with the plans if there was a "derisory" turnout in the referendums.

But it is refusing to set an "arbitrary threshold" on turnout before the votes as it would only deter people from voting.

David Davis, Mr Prescott's Tory shadow, said in fact there had only been a "derisory" 8,000 responses to the soundings exercise.

Millions of pounds of taxpayers' money would be "poured down the drain" in pursuit of Mr Prescott's obsession with an "expensive white elephant", he said.

He predicted the referendums would prove deeply embarrassing for the government, with voters giving ministers the same two-fingered hand signal Mr Prescott delivered to journalists last week.

"The people of the North yet again are being asked to pay more for less," he argued.

Mr Davis also accused the government of hypocrisy in offering referendums on regional government but refusing to hold a vote on the draft European Union constitution.

Democracy move

Liberal Democrat spokesman Ed Davey welcomed the news that three regions "can now choose between regional democracy and the regional quango state".

But he said the statement was a "modest start" to regional devolution.

Andrew Holden, spokesman for the Campaign for the English Regions, instead said there was "huge demand" in the three northern regions for devolved powers.

Do people in the north want regional assemblies?

"England already has regional government, but it's run by Whitehall agencies and quangos," Dr Holden told BBC News Online.

Director of Charter88, Karen Bartlett, said she welcomed attempts to address what she termed the UK's "democratic deficit".

"Regional assemblies should serve the purpose of revitalising local democracy," she added.

But John Cridland, deputy director of the Confederation of British Industry said the assemblies would be just "talking shops".

"There is little business appetite for this as there is no evidence that assemblies will have any impact on economic development," he said.

Parliament has already approved the potential questions for the referendums, which are expected to happen next autumn.

Voters would be asked not only to say whether or not they want an assembly in their region.

They could also choose which layer of local government - district or county councils, for example - would be removed to make way for the new assembly.

The BBC's Richard Bilton
"Now one vote will decide the North-East's future"

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