Here come the regions

Plans for one super control centre for fire and rescue services are the first real signs of the Government's regional agenda for the East of England. Political Editor Graham Dines looks at how regions are being thrust upon us.

Plans for one super control centre for fire and rescue services are the first real signs of the Government's regional agenda for the East of England. Political Editor Graham Dines looks at how regions are being thrust upon us.

XENOPHOES and Eurosceptics wag their fingers at Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott. They point to his plans for elected regional government as an example of the creeping Europeanisation of the United Kingdom.

It's certainly true that regions are fundamental to the future of Europe envisaged by the more starry eyed supporters of a superstate based in Brussels.

On the official map of the European Union, the continent has already broken down into regional administrative units – from Lisboa e Vale do Tego in the west of Portugal to the Greek islands, from Sicily in Italy to Lapland in Finland.

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There are 77 in all of the 15 EU nations – and there'll be plenty more when the 10 new countries join in a few months time.

The European Union likes dealing with regions. There is a highly powerful Committee of the Regions which is made up of representatives from its component nations. European cash is handed out on a regional and sub-regional basis.

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It's part of the subsidiarity process of handing down power to the people – if issues can be dealt with at a more local level than from the centre or at national level, so much the better.

To many people in Britain, the very fact that there's a European involvement in regionalism is to condemn it out of hand. They point to the ludicrous way in which we elect Members of the European Parliament, using the closed regional list system of proportional representation devised by an obscure Belgian mathematician

The European argument may be fuelling the anti-regional agenda. But more considered opposition is being focused on what seems an undeniable fact –regions will be, in essence, a centralising body at regional level taking decision-making away from county councils rather than being an authority responsible for powers handed down from Whitehall.

It's the very antithesis of subsidiarity.

When Labour won the 1997 election, Scotland was one of its biggest headaches. The clamour north of the border was for the handover of powers – and to stop calls for full independence, the Government proposed a Scottish parliament to deal with most policies except taxation, foreign affairs, defence and broadcasting.

This was approved in a referendum as were the plans for London and Welsh assemblies with lesser authority than Scotland. Northern Ireland was given its own assembly.

But nobody asked the English and the problem remained: But what to do with England outside the capital? How do you counter the economic power, strength and magnetism of London that has over decades had a corrosive effect on the rest of the country?

While there is considerably merit in the establishment of an English Grand Committee, consisting of England's MPs to decide on policies to deal purely with England, by no stretch of the imagination can this be called devolution.

Labour's preferred option is a structure of eight regions, on the European principle, to deal with strategic matters such as tourism, spatial and transport planning, inward investment, fire and rescue and possibly the police.

But importantly they will not deal with health or education policies, which remain firmly under the control of Westminster – and Scottish and Welsh MPs.

These regional bodies will be unelected unless local referendums approve directly elected authorities and at the same time, county councils will be abolished.

Thus we have the prospect of some parts of England being governed by fully accountable regional parliaments and its county councils ceasing to exist, while others have appointed bodies with fully functioning county councils.

The proposed East of England region covers the counties of Essex, Suffolk, Norfolk, Cambridgeshire, Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire, and the unitary authorities of Southend-on-Sea, Thurrock, Luton, and Peterborough.

Currently, the region is administered by three separate bodies – the Government Office of the East of England (GO-East), the East of England Regional Assembly (EERA), and the East of England Development Agency (EEDA).

GO-East is the voice of Whitehall in the region, co-ordinating government agencies or, to quote official jargon, "to promote consistency of direction." It ensures ministers are aware of local and regional issues when making decisions and promotes government policies in the regional media. It has an annual budget of £360m and a staff of 248.

EEDA takes the strategic lead in promoting the sustainable economic development of the region. Its board members, who have a background in business, the trade unions, local government, voluntary bodies and education, are appointed by Government ministers.

EEDA's responsibility is to ensure the East of England does not lose out to other regions when it comes to inward investment. It is aiming to make the East one of the top 20 European regions by 2010 – the region is currently third out of the 11 UK regions in terms of economic performance but only 27th out of 77 European regions. The Development Agency has a budget of £90m a year and a staff of 140.

EERA is the representative voice of the region, but members are not elected. They are appointed by local authorities and community stakeholders covering social, economic and environmental interests. It is the regional planning body with responsibility for spatial and transport planning. It is the outrider for a directly elected regional assembly. It has an annual budget of £3m and employs 32 staff.

Increasingly, the Government is trying to legitimise its regions by tailoring all its announcements on a regional structure – on the principle that if ministers say it often enough, the people will believe it.

Some examples include:

The Office of National Statistics publishes labour market statistics on a regional basis. Data is also broken down by travel-to-work areas, local authorities, and parliamentary constituencies.

The Department for Trade and Industry's issues a regional competitiveness and state of the regions report, with a raft of data ranging from "gross value added and household disposable income per head" to average earnings, employment rates, business registration, transport, industrial property and office rental costs, and the re-use of vacant and derelict land.

A national call centre and website is to be introduced, known as Consumer Direct, and the East of England may be chosen as a pathfinder area. The aim is to trial a scheme designed to allow more consumers to benefit from "high quality consistent advice" – but it is being done at regional rather than county level.

On January 15, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs announced nine regional clinics on its Organic Farming Scheme maintenance option, part of the ministry's plans to encourage more farmers and growers to convert to organic production. The East of England's was held at Bury St Edmunds.

But by far the biggest march towards regionalism is the establishment by 2007 of a centralised fire and rescue control room. County brigades will remain until elected regional government is approved – and then there will be one East of England fire and rescue service.

It seems only be a matter of time before the police is organised on the same lines.

Elected regional government in England can only be fully implemented over time while Labour retains power nationally. But England, with 85% of the United Kingdom's population, has never been consulted as a whole on devolved government.

For the Tories it is a Catch-22 situation. They might pledge to stop it – but the Conservatives would be on a dicey path if they were say to a region that has democratically voted to have its own elected body "we are taking it away from you."

Tomorrow: East Anglia is wedded to Hertfordshire under the Government's plans. But does Watford really approve of the marriage?

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