By John Andrew
BBC local government correspondent
The chance to give English regions at least a taste of the devolution already enjoyed by Scotland and Wales is unfinished business from Labour's first term and a long-cherished dream of John Prescott.
After taking soundings - from politicians, regional bodies and the public - the government has decided go ahead with referendums in three areas of the North -the North East, North West and Yorkshire and Humber.
Scottish Parliament opened in 1999
Support for the idea is strongest in the North East, fuelled by its distance from London and its closeness to a powerful Scottish neighbour with its own parliament and tax-varying powers.
The powers of these new assemblies won't be as extensive as those in Scotland and Wales.
For instance, they won't have the power to scrap up-front tuition fees, as in Scotland, or to freeze prescription charges, as in Wales.
Even supporters of regional government accept that public awareness of the issue is still very low
Their main purpose will be to act as a powerful voice for their region and strategically plans services like transport, housing and economic development.
Supporters also believe they will give each region much more clout in Brussels when it comes to competing for EU funding.
Germany, for instance, already does this successfully through its regional parliaments or Laender.
Most of the assembly budgets will come from the quangos and regional development agencies the assemblies will inherit from the government.
But as in London, the new assemblies would be able to raise money by a precept on the council tax.
To avoid accusations of too much local government No 10 has insisted that where there are already two tiers of local authorities, one of them will have to go in areas where a regional assembly is introduced.
This will mean either the county council will disappear, or in some cases the smaller districts.
Before any referendums go ahead the Boundary Commission will examine the options for a new local government structure.
People will be asked to vote on this at the same time as they choose whether to have a regional assembly or not.
If voters do back an assembly there will need to be further legislation to set up it up, so it is unlikely we will see any up and running before the next general election.
The Conservatives are resolutely opposed to regional government.
They say the poor response to the government's consultation exercise proves there is huge disinterest in the idea and believe the assemblies will be expensive white elephants.
Even supporters of regional government accept that public awareness of the issue is still very low.
Local Government Minister Nick Raynsford has said that where turnout in a referendum is "derisory" they won't proceed with an assembly even where there's a 'yes' vote.
But he has refused to set a threshold, arguing that this will act as a perverse incentive to opponents who will urge people not to vote at all.