Herts not on regionalism

For the last in his series on regionalism, EADT Political Editor Graham Dines ventured into deepest Hertfordshire to find out what residents thinks of plans to lump them with East AngliaWATFORD stands a few miles north of London, an outpost on the Metropolitan Line tube, west of the M1 motorway and astride the main rail route north to Birmingham, Liverpool and Glasgow.

For the last in his series on regionalism, EADT Political Editor Graham Dines ventured into deepest Hertfordshire to find out what residents thinks of plans to lump them with East Anglia

WATFORD stands a few miles north of London, an outpost on the Metropolitan Line tube, west of the M1 motorway and astride the main rail route north to Birmingham, Liverpool and Glasgow.

The birthplace of Mothercare, Watford is the biggest town in largely rural Hertfordshire and as such is one of the main population centres in John Prescott's East of England region that stretches from the North Sea, the Wash and the Thames to the Chiltern Hills and the Fens.

Most of Watford's 80,000 or so residents look to London for employment – and as it takes only 18 minutes by overland train to Euston, the bright lights of Oxford Street and Shaftesbury Avenue are within easy reach.

In the brave new world of English regions, where the five million residents of six counties dubbed the East of England have so much in common with each other – or that's what Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott believes – the good folk of Watford really ought to be heading to Colchester and Bury St Edmunds to spend their cash.

Even those who do not want to shop in Watford itself or the West End, are more likely to go to Brent Cross next to Wembley stadium rather than the East of England's biggest complex at Lakeside in Thurrock, a 40 minute drive along the M25 on a good day.

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East Anglia is regarded by South West Hertfordshire folk as remote, mainly because of the lack of any east-west transport links or common television service. That's the major hurdle that will have to be overcome by any elected regional parliament if Mr Prescott's desire for everyone in his East region to frolic and work in harmony is ever to be fulfilled.

People wanting to cross the region east-west look at the road and rail maps, and seem to change their travel plans. For those of us in East Anglia, trains do not operate the other side of Cambridge.

The soon to be upgraded A120 trunk road from Colchester and Braintree to Stansted and the M11 fades shortly after Bishop's Stortford, the A47 from Great Yarmouth to Peterborough is little better than it was at the turn of the last century, the A505 winds it way past Duxford, Royston and Hitchin while the A14 goes to the M1 in Leicestershire.

I went to Hertfordshire to hear what the residents and politicians there think of East Anglia. There's no real support in Suffolk and Essex for John Prescott's plans – is the west of the region happy to be part of the Deputy Prime Minister's plans, would they rather join another more logical grouping, or do they want the whole idea scrapped?

To reach Watford from Ipswich, I took the train. No east-west service, so it was into Liverpool Street, across London to Euston, and a commuter Silverlink service to Watford Junction. The ticket cost £49. The option of switching to the much slower Metropolitan Line at Liverpool Street for a direct service to Watford failed because there is no inter-availability of rail and tube tickets on underground services travelling out of Greater London.

My appointment was with Dorothy Thornhill, Watford's powerful directly-elected mayor, whom I had first met at last year's Liberal Democrat conference in Brighton.

She's a Liberal Democrat star, and deservedly so. The party's first directly-elected mayor in the country, as she happens to be in Mr Prescott's East of England her value to Lib Dem regional circles far outweighs the size and importance of Watford, a relatively small district or a par with Colchester and Ipswich.

I expected the Mayor to be a happy-clappy evangelist for John Prescott's East of England. Far from it. "In Watford, we feel like the extremity of a region that has no cohesion," said Mrs Thornhill.

"The people of Watford don't have any enthusiasm for East Anglia other than as a place to holiday. If and when there's a referendum on whether to introduce regional government, I'm sure this town will give it the thumbs down.

"After all, we have little in common with rural Hertfordshire – Hertford itself, which is our county town, is remote from Watford – so having a regional government administered from Cambridge or Bury St Edmunds would be regarded as utterly ridiculous."

But as it's Lib Dem national policy to support regional government, shouldn't she, as one of the most high profile of her party's politicians, be in the vanguard of the fight for this form of devolution?

"I equate regional government with Britain's closer integration with Europe – intellectually I believe in both but nobody has made the case for either. Until regionalism is marketed properly, it will remain simply cerebral talk around a strategic idea."

Watford's mayor accepts there is a case for co-operation between counties on planning and housing. But the wider boundaries of the proposed East of England region are not sensibly drawn.

"If regional grouping has to be introduced, housing and employment pressures would indicate we would have more in common with the outer London boroughs such as Harrow.

"The East of England is regarded as the least natural of the proposed English regions," said Mrs Thornhill. "Here in South West Hertfordshire we are isolated from the rest of the area – we cannot receive Anglia Television or BBC East so we know nothing about the news or issues involving those towns and counties with which we are supposed to share a common interest.

"All our television programmes originate in London and the most widely read newspaper is the London Evening Standard – Watford looks to London. Boundaries have to be drawn somewhere but the proposed region ought to be re-thought."

Hemel Hempstead is even more remote from Essex, Suffolk and Norfolk than Watford. Mike Penning, the town's Conservative prospective Parliamentary candidate, told me: "I don't see a link between us and East Anglia.

"Hertfordshire people are very proud of their history and their county – they might travel to the Norfolk Broads or the North Sea coast for their holidays, or fly abroad from Luton or Stansted airports, but that's the limit of their communication with the rest of this artificial region.

"There has been uproar here at the plans to create a regional fire control centre because it could spell the end of the independence of our county brigade. People do not want valued local services being hived off to a remote regional authority," said Mr Penning.

Returning to Watford Junction station, I went into a High Street shops and asked a young man named Sanjaya, as a good citizen of the East of England, if he had heard of the controversy in Aldeburgh, 80 miles away on the coast, over the Benjamin Britten memorial scallop on the shingle?

No, he admitted, he hadn't. Just who was Benjamin Britten? When I explained

he was one of the more famous former citizens of Mr Prescott's East of England, Sanjaya had difficulty remembering who John Prescott was and knew absolutely nothing about plans for regional government.

It might be harsh to suggest that the two halves of the East of England regard each other with suspicion and disdain. But the blame for the lack of enthusiasm must lie fairly and squarely on the shoulders of Labour politicians, nationally and locally, who have failed to make a case for John Prescott's pet idea.

Until those of us in Lowestoft, Haverhill, and Chelmsford can be persuaded to believe we have common interests with St Albans, Stevenage and Bedford, and vice-versa, Mr Prescott's East of England dream of an elected region is likely to remain

just that.

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