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Last Updated: Monday, 18 October, 2004, 05:02 GMT 06:02 UK
Devolution 'depends on North East vote'

By John Andrew
BBC local government correspondent

After delivering more power to Scotland, Wales and London, the government is now rolling out the fourth phase of devolution - to the English regions.

Between now and 4 November, nearly two million voters in the North East can decide whether they would like an elected regional assembly.

Originally, referendums were planned in the North West and Yorkshire and Humberside too, but in July the government announced it was postponing them because of problems with postal voting in those areas.

The decision was attacked as a cynical move to avoid contests in the two regions least likely to deliver a yes vote.

Labour MPs in both areas were also nervous about a no vote just months ahead of a likely general election.

Region reborn

So why is the North East thought to be the region most likely to say yes?

For years now the region has complained that its remoteness from Whitehall has meant it losing out on investment and funding.

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Now that its Scottish neighbours have their own parliament and tax-raising powers, that feeling of isolation is even more intense.

To outsiders, the rejuvenated Tyneside, with the award-winning Millennium Bridge and Baltic Mill art gallery, gives the impression of a region reborn after long years of industrial decline.

The successful Nissan plant in Sunderland is another symbol of regrowth. But on almost every measure - household income, output per head and health - it still lags behind other English regions.

It's a prize the region must grasp
Professor John Tomaney
Yes campaigner
Professor John Tomaney, the Newcastle academic who has been one of the main driving forces for a regional assembly, believes it would give the region the tools to bring in more investment and develop home-grown industries.

"It's a prize the region must grasp," he says. But will an assembly have the powers to accomplish it?

It would have a budget of around 500m - mostly inherited from transferred government functions - and influence over a further 500m.

It would control where investment goes for affordable housing and become the new fire and rescue authority.

But it would have no powers over the health service, police or transport.

Cynical

Local government expert Tony Travers compares the proposed assembly to a Christmas tree: "That is, it's completely bare when you buy it, but with the hope you can buy interesting things - in this case new services - to hang on it."

Yes campaigners accept the powers are not all they would want, but argue that once established, the assembly could accrue more functions.

The draft Assemblies Bill allows this to happen without new legislation.

Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott
John Prescott says he is committed to regional assemblies

But the perceived weakness of the assembly has been something of a gift for opponents.

While the Yes camp boasts celebrity supporters such as Brendan Foster, the star of the No campaign is an inflatable white elephant which they are parading around the region.

This, and the burning of fake 20 notes, is their way of saying that the assembly would be no more than an expensive talking shop.

At a public debate in Hexham - one of several in the region organised by the Journal newspaper - the issue of cost of the assembly was a major concern for older voters.

Many were cynical about claims the running costs would only amount to an extra 5p a week in council tax for a Band D home.

The Yes camp have countered with reassurances that the assembly's tax-raising powers would be limited by capping.

They have emphasized that, unlike Scotland and Wales, they will not be pushing for an expensive new headquarters.

The assembly - probably to be based in Durham - is more likely to rent empty offices in the city.

How to govern?

But as well as the battle over the need for an assembly, there is another big issue confronting voters in the counties of Durham and Northumberland.

On their ballot papers they will find a second question, asking them which new form of local government they would like for their area.

That is because the government has insisted that if an assembly is approved, the two-tier system of county and district councils must be reduced to one.

Voters will have to choose between a unitary system based on the county council, or one where the county council is scrapped and services run by amalgamated districts.

In either case, many councillors would disappear and some argue this would make local government more remote.

Much is riding on the result of this referendum. If voters deliver a decisive yes to a regional assembly it could give a fillip to campaigns in the other regions.

But if they say no it would be a heavy blow for Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, who has been the main cheerleader for regional devolution, and many believe it could be the kiss of death for the whole experiment.


Your comments

What a lot of whingers in here. Yes, parliaments cost money to run. The question should be over what powers regional governments take back from an over-centralised Westminster to help foster real democracy in this country. But it seems that, as with other public services, the British want their democracy on the cheap! Well we'll get what we pay for.
Neil Gall, Edinburgh, Scotland

The idea of basing government and providing government services close to where people live and work is quite evidently a good one. The UK needs to become more regionalised, and a North East assembly (delivered properly) would undoubtedly be a boost. But (and it's a big one) isn't the assembly in its current form simply a way of funnelling taxpayers money into labour heartlands with little benefit to anyone other than 2nd rate politicians. The devil, as they say, is in the detail.
Alistair T, Durham, UK

The north-east must grasp this opportunity to compete on equal terms with the capit
Chris Smith, London, UK
I am originally from Teesside. Living in London I have observed two things. Firstly, I have seen the great benefits to London of an assembly and mayor with democratic legitimacy who can directly promote the interests of the region. The north-east must grasp this opportunity to compete on equal terms with the capital. Secondly, I am appalled by the manner in which the south-east casually exerts its economic, political and cultural power upon the rest of the country. If the north-east votes yes it will begin the process of correcting this ridiculous concentration of influence within the M25. North-easterners can run the north-east better than overpaid civil servants from Berkshire.
Chris Smith, London, UK

Why the rush to separate the people of Britain into regions? Why the rush to abandon Britain as a country, in favour of a European Super State? What we really need is a Constitution between the people of Britain and their elected officials before there can be any Constitution with other countries. The government should comprise of elected men and women who, in the best interests of ALL the people, should administer the affairs of the nation. This is the 21st century and it is high time for politicians to understand they work for the people, not the other way around. Democracy is a wonderful idea, perhaps we will see it in action one day.
Dave, Rudyard, England

Enough signatures have been raised in Cornwall to meet the requirements of a referendum. However this has been ignored by Westminster and the county has instead been ignobly lumped into an enlarged region that seems to take in every county west of Berkshire. So instead of small populations gaining a voice through a local assembly, they will end up drowning in a sea of interest groups vying for attention from the controllers of the super region.
Paul Parsons, Truro, England

Definitely not! What's needed is an English Parliament.
Barbara, Northampton

It's the old story "Divide and rule"! Split up the nation into regions and then play one off against the other. Why not have a referendum for everyone in England on whether there should be an England parliament? I guess the answer would be "yes", but I believe the government are frightened that a single English parliament would be too strong to manage. Then again, should not everyone in England be asked if part of their country should be devolved? It will affect people outside the region too!
Colin Woodley, Oxford

Having been born and bred in the North East, nothing had prepared me for the moment of graduating from university only to find (and to my horror) there are very few job opportunities in the North East! So I begrudgingly up sticks and moved down south. Had the opportunities been available to me to remain in the North East, I would never have moved away from all my family and friends. If the North East referendum can prevent the next generation from moving away from their homes in search of a career, then surely this a worth while cause?
Maria, Oxford, England

Speaking as a northerner currently ensconced in London, I have to say I am in favour of the regional parliaments. London has successfully devolved and has introduced a number of locally specific measures like the congestion charge that have significantly improved life in the capital. If the Regional Assemblies can do something similar then they will prove successful. Writing as a civil servant I can also say that the more localised the tier of government is, the more efficient it will prove to be.
Leon Hughes, London, England

It's just another waste of resources, parliament just needs to give more consideration to the North - we don't need devolution. We've seen an uptake in regional development companies spending European money but more needs to be given to the North East, more needs to be done to attract graduates from our universities to stay in the region, more needs to be done to encourage small business growth, house prices are starting to become phenomenal, problem is, wages aren't growing to accommodate, end result? We can't afford to buy homes.
Andrew Taylor, Sunderland, UK

We are hoping that Our Friends in the North will stop the Balkanisation of England dead in its tracks. These artificial 'regions' represent nothing other the administrative convenience of the EU combined the opportunity to abolish England by stealth. What is on offer is regionalism not devolution - few if any powers will be given up by the liberal cosmopolitan ruling elite at Westminster. Instead they will be taken from existing local councils. The region will not have powers comparable to the Scottish Parliament or even the Welsh assembly. It's time, to paraphrase the Scottish Daily Record, for the people of England to rise and be a nation again.
Ian Campbell, Leatherhead England

A Yes vote in the North East will only allow all the 'Usual Suspects' to set up another expensive talking shop to further their own interests and all this at our cost. We don't trust our local politicians and quangos to run things today so why should we trust them tomorrow?
TW, Newcastle

I can't believe people are actually fighting against giving themselves more power
Duncan Thorp, Edinburgh, Scotland
It's a real shame that so many people seem to be missing the point about English regional assemblies. Yes of course Prescott has made a mess of it and yes the planned assemblies are flawed - but it's a start. I can't believe people are actually fighting against giving themselves more power and taking it way from the government! In Scotland we have actually taken responsibility for ourselves and seen Westminster centralisation drain away. To those who oppose devolution in their region: please don't ever complain about the government again when you actually had the chance to do something about it.
Duncan Thorp, Edinburgh, Scotland

The day the Whitehall machine really gives up true powers in favour of the regions, any regions, is the day I'll vote "yes" to a regional assembly. Until then, I'll live with the tiers of government we have got - right down to the "ward committees" telling me (asking me?) where I want the pooper scoopers to be sited in my neighbourhood.
Michael, York, UK

Rather than a regional assembly, why can't we choose to vote for an English Parliament or assembly as they have in Scotland and Wales?
Mark Palmer, Hull, England

We can't afford this regional assembly
Malcolm C, Durham, UK
Under no circumstances do I want to see this happening, it is a con. How can the government expect us to believe that this is for the better after failing to deliver on education, crime, public services, etc. Although, I would say it's a foregone conclusion knowing how strong Labour is supported in my area. This is another part of the preparation for full entry in the EU. We are part of a national society, this move is trying to get back to "The Good Old Days" where we are born, taught, work and die in our own local village. That died a long time ago, unfortunately, along with the community spirit and industry for this ideal. It will cost us more and I want to keep what little I have in my pocket, I pay more than enough in tax already. We can't afford this regional assembly. Don't do it!
Malcolm C, Durham, UK

More bureaucracy, more tax, more politicians, more waste. How many tiers of government do we need?
Royston Smith, Southampton Hampshire

If it's not broke, don't fix it! Just look at the mess we have in Scotland for messing with a system that has worked until people want change for change sake or to try to make a name for themselves!
Neil Trotter, Cleethorpes. N.E Lincolnshire

Why not follow the wonderful EU example and every 4 weeks move the whole parliament to Newcastle and let the MPs see for themselves?
Bill Reynolds, Whitley Bay, Tyne & Wear

I have found the overwhelming benefit of devolution is representation. It might not seem like much, but being able to contact a number of different MP/MSPs (as well as MEPs) that directly represent you is very reassuring. Devolution in the English regions would be fantastic for the people living there, especially if a PR system similar to Scotland's is used. It does mean more bureaucracy and will be expensive, but in my opinion it is a small price to pay for a more democratic UK.
Robin, Fife, Scotland

We in the North West have already told Prescott where to get off on his devolution plans. We view it more like Westminster trying to wash its hands of any responsibility for our region, that mixed in with the fact that the govt split our region up 35 years ago in the first place does not inspire confidence in this bunch.
Chris, Preston, UK

Another talking shop
Ian Hunter, Whitby, England
Another talking shop, another round of Council Tax increases to pay for it. We do not want it, Mr.Prescott!
Ian Hunter, Whitby, England

The Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister the new Labour party election supremo and several experienced local MPs - what a travesty that they can't effectively represent the needs of the North East - surely that's why they were elected - no more jobs for the boys in this Labour stronghold please!
Peter McVay, Gateshead

A regional assembly is another form of centralisation, sounds bizarre? but when your local services are moved to a provider 40 miles away that is not what I would describe as devolved government. Also, how much is this new assembly going to cost? Where will it sit? And will it require an expensive new building? What exactly are the Terms of Reference?
Steve , Newcastle

What about Middlesbrough? What relevance has decisions made in Newcastle to Redcar and Cleveland. We have to pay for 60 more Peter Mandelson's to tell us that all services are better off based in Newcastle 60 miles away.
Paul Hammond, Redcar, UK




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