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Last Updated: Friday, 5 November, 2004, 11:20 GMT
A night when dreams died
By John Andrew
BBC local government correspondent

Those of us at the Sunderland results centre did not have to wait for the outcome. We could see it in the long faces of the Yes campaigners.

The No Campaign's inflatable next to the Angel of the North
The assembly was dubbed a white elephant
Rumours were spreading that this was not just a victory for the No camp, but a walkover of staggering proportions.

As the results from 23 districts were flashed onto the giant screen they confirmed it - people had voted by more than three to one to reject the idea of an elected regional assembly.

Darlington delivered the biggest majority against, with the Noes winning by more than six to one.

No wonder John Prescott decided not to visit the count but give his reaction to the result at a news conference half a mile away.

Lone battle

The outcome is a massive personal blow for the deputy prime minister, who's been the chief cheerleader for English regional government.

True, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown both lent their support during the campaign but this was one battle Mr Prescott had to fight largely on his own.

John Prescott
Mr Prescott has yet to decide whether other regions will have votes

The result is also a huge blow to Yes campaigners in the North West and Yorkshire and Humber.

Referendums in both regions were due to take place at the same time as the North East but were postponed by the government in July because of problems with all-postal voting in those areas.

Critics though suggested the real reason was pressure from Labour MP's worried at the prospect of No votes so close to a general election.

A leading figure in the Yorkshire campaign has told me they believe any mention of regional assemblies will now be ditched from Labour's next manifesto.

Ministers say that in the light of the big No vote in the North East they're "taking stock" before deciding whether those other referendums should go ahead, but many believe there is no chance of them happening in the foreseeable future.

The great inflatable

So why did the region thought to be the most likely to embrace regional government so comprehensively reject it? Both the Yes and No campaigns had been lively - and at times bitter.

Yes campaigners had the backing of local celebrities such as Olympic hero Brendan Foster and rock star Sting.

But the ace up the No campaign's sleeve was nothing less crude than an inflatable white elephant, which they took around the region, spreading the message that the assembly would be no more than an expensive talking shop.

The Yes campaign criticised their opponents for using Tory spin doctors from London to run their campaign.

The No camp hit back by poo-pooing Yes claims that an assembly could attract thousands of new jobs to the area.

Power problems

But the Yes camp had to admit that the assembly's powers were too limited.

Although they had a key role in housing and the fire service they could not, for instance, announce massive investment in public transport as Ken Livingstone has in London or abolish prescription charges as the Welsh Assembly is doing.

Many No voters I spoke too also mentioned worries about the cost of the assembly and the likely impact on council tax, even though the Yes campaign said the assembly would eschew an expensive new headquarters and rent empty offices in Durham instead.

On the eve of the final polling day, Yes supporters lit beacons by the Angel of the North.

But now that "beacon of hope" they saw for the region has been extinguished in the most dramatic way and perhaps with it, John Prescott's whole dream of regional devolution.




BBC NEWS: VIDEO AND AUDIO
How the vote could end regional assembly plans



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