Northern regions to vote on assemblies

By Andrew WoodcockKeep all local lines inREGIONAL government could be introduced across the north of England as early as 2006 the Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott has announced .

By Andrew Woodcock

Keep all local lines inREGIONAL government could be introduced across the north of England as early as 2006 the Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott has announced .

Referendums will be called in three areas of England, the North-East, the North-West and Yorkshire and Humber, where enthusiasm for regional assemblies is believed to be strongest, said Mr Prescott in a statement to the House of Commons yesterday.

The decision was hailed by supporters of regional government, who said it was "an idea whose time has come".

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But business was more cautious, warning of additional red tape, while the Conservatives denounced the proposal as an "expensive white elephant' which would result in millions of pounds of taxpayers' money being "poured down the drain'.

No referendum will be carried out in the East of England about regional assemblies.

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Mr Prescott decided the current level of interest in holding a referendum on elected regional assemblies in the East of England is low and he has not directed the Boundary Committee to carry out a local government review at the moment - a necessary precursor to referendums.

But Mr Prescott reaffirmed the Government's commitment to revitalise all the English regions – including the East of England – whether they are moving towards a referendum for elected regional assemblies or not.

Mr Prescott said that referendums in the three northern areas would be held as soon as possible, probably in autumn next year. A Yes vote would clear the way for elections to the assemblies in spring 2006 or 2007.

A review of existing county, district and borough councils in these areas will also be carried out by the Boundary Committee for England, with the aim of creating one-tier local government in County Durham, Northumberland, Cheshire, Cumbria, Lancashire and North Yorkshire.

The referendums would be "another significant step on the road to regional government for England', following Labour's introduction of devolution in Scotland and Wales and city-wide government in London, said Mr Prescott, a long-time enthusiast for regional assemblies.

"Elected regional assemblies will bring greater democracy and a new political voice to the regions,' said Mr Prescott. "They will reduce bureaucracy rather than increase it and - above all - provide regional accountability.'

"We are offering the people of the three northern regions an historic opportunity,' he told MPs.

"An opportunity we offered the people of Scotland, Wales and London before them. An opportunity for the northern regions to choose how they are governed.'

But his Conservative shadow David Davis said: "It is our belief that you have just instigated referendums ... that will deeply embarrass you and the Government.

The new assemblies will have responsibility for economic development, jobs, investment, transport, planning, housing, culture, arts and sport.

They will take powers from central Government, not from local authorities, said Mr Prescott.

But critics said that, with an expected 35 members each, the assemblies will be even more remote from voters than the Westminster Parliament, with each assembly member representing twice as many voters as an MP.

A three-month consultation period showed little enthusiasm for the proposed changes in the West Midlands, East, South-East, South-West or East Midlands.

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