Chairman Sue opposes elected regions

SUE Sida-Lockett, a Conservative Suffolk county councillor opposed to the Government's plans for regional parliaments, has just been elected chairman of the East of England Regional Assembly.

SUE Sida-Lockett, a Conservative Suffolk county councillor opposed to the Government's plans for regional parliaments, has just been elected chairman of the East of England Regional Assembly. She has been talking to EADT Political Editor GRAHAM DINES.

SIX years after regaining power, Labour is half-way through its devolution and constitutional reforms.

Scotland and Wales have their own decision making bodies and there's an elected mayor in London and anywhere else that wants one. The remaining pieces of the jigsaw are reform of the House of Lords and the creation of directly elected regional councils in England.

The English dimension is the dream of Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott – create eight powerful European-style regions in England and devolve powers to them, ranging from inward investment and tourism through to strategic transport and planning. This would mean the abolition of the county and district tiers of local government, to be replaced by large, all-purpose unitary districts.

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These mini parliaments will only be introduced if the electorate approves the proposals in regional referendums and early votes have been promised for the North-East, Yorkshire & Humber, and the North-West.

The hope in Whitehall is that if elected assemblies are supported in these three regions, it will influence the remaining five to clamour for them.

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But it's likely to be some time off, possibly not before the turn of the decade, before the people of the East of England – Suffolk, Essex, Norfolk, Cambridgeshire, Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire – will have their say.

In the meantime, the Government is perusing its devolution agenda, insisting that regional structures and non-directly elected bodies are put in place to pave the way for full powers parliaments.

The East of England now has a regional assembly – and although not directly elected, it does have one representative member from every county and district authority. At the annual meeting, it elected as chairman Sue Sida-Lockett, former leader of the Conservative group on Suffolk County Council – who is implacably opposed to the Government's regional policies.

The Tories are the main party on the assembly, reflecting the strength of the Conservatives across the region. "The regional agenda is not my agenda. I am still opposed, absolutely, to elected regional government," says Mrs Sida-Lockett, who with her husband, Ivan, farms at Cotton to the north-east of Stowmarket. "I don't think I would stand for election for any future regional parliament.

"I would not have gone down this route. But given that it is here, we have to work together effectively to give the East of England a proper voice.

"We have to work with this because we are stuck with it. There are a lot of things this Government does which I don't like, but because we live in a democratic society, we deal with it.

"But I don't think many of us would have ticked the box and said: `this is the way we want to do it.'

"This Government that was elected by a large majority and it was clear about devolution. Devolved powers have gone to Scotland and that's a good idea. It has executive powers and can put through primary legislation and it can actually change issues that particularly affect Scotland. Wales is not so successful and in London, the Mayor has really only any influence over transport."

If the Government really meant proper devolution, Mrs Sida-Lockett believes Westminster should also be overhauled. "Britain has more than 600 MPs, but if you are going to devolve power down, we should consider seriously how many MPs we really need to undertake national business.

"In the East of England, we have 57 MPs – but a regional assembly is likely to around 32 elected members, who will have nearly twice as many constituents as national MPs.

"To call that decision making closer to the people seems to me a nonsense. Elected regional members will be more distant."

Can the East of England, stretching from Lowestoft to west of the M1 motorway, really be a cohesive unit? "There is no doubt that if there was some facility to redraw regional boundaries, Essex and Hertfordshire might consider themselves more closely bound towards London. And the South East is a huge region and its boundaries could do with regrouping."

She is a stout defender of county councils and would be deeply unhappy if they are ever abolished to make way for regional assemblies. "However, if elected regions are approved, there could be an option for unitary counties – some politicians might not like that, but perhaps the public might think they are a good idea."

Despite her opposition to the concept of regionalism, Sue Sida-Lockett is able to find some good points about the role of the regional assembly she now chairs.

"I think the system operating at region is more consensual than local government because the only way you can actually influence Whitehall is to have a single voice.

"The Government will come to the region and seek out opinion on a whole range of issues. What ministers have done is strengthen the regional government offices. At GO-East based in Cambridge, the civil servants work across public services at large – we have to convince the officers down there that our message is clear and accurate.

"Without a regional assembly, the decisions would be made in Whitehall with no input from local people so there is a role for us to come up with some original thinking."

Mrs Sida-Lockett has pledged not to preside over a bout of empire-building. "Our assembly is not going to build a massive power base. We have taken headquarters space at Flempton near Bury St Edmunds – that's quite sufficient for our small staff."

She doubts if the East Anglia, when given a referendum, will opt for an elected regional assembly. "As more than 50% of the people who voted across our region in May's local elections voted Conservative, I think it is clear the East of England will reject any plans for its own parliament."

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