Prescott facing `no' vote humiliation

DESPERATION and panic seem to have set in as the Government's plans for devolved government in England face a humiliating rejection in next week's referendum in the North East.

DESPERATION and panic seem to have set in as the Government's plans for devolved government in England face a humiliating rejection in next week's referendum in the North East.

Despite the backing of Cabinet members with seats in the region, including the Prime Minister, as well as industry, local government, academics, Teesside's controversial Robocop Ray Mallon, and those English players in the Newcastle Utd squad, it seems the public is less than thrilled.

The `no' a clear seven-point lead, according to a Mori survey of over 1,000 voters, and the gap widens to 23 points among those certain to vote on November 4.

For Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, a `no' vote this Thursday will effectively scupper his plans for regional devolution. He has warned voters that it would be at least another decade before the North East was offered another chance to vote on having an elected regional assembly.

The Tories and the UK Independence party both back a no vote, while the Liberal Democrats are campaigning for an assembly, albeit with reservations about the body's lack of powers.

Essex North MP Bernard Jenkin, who speaks on regional affairs for the Conservatives, said yesterday: "If there is a `no' vote, the Government's whole constitutional agenda is thrown into chaos, John Prescott is completely discredited personally as this has been his personal project, and it opens the door to a proper debate as to how we should decentralise government in England."

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Mr Jenkin told the ePolitix web site: "Prescott is going to have to carry the can for this. I should have thought this will be the end of John Prescott's career is there is a `no' vote. "

If the regional assembly is set up, the current two-tier local government in Northumberland and County Durham would have to be rearranged into a single tier and voters will be asked how this should be done.

Even if Mr Prescott achieves a 1yes' vote, it's unlikely the East of England will see an elected regional assembly in the life of his remaining time in office.

There is no real enthusiasm anywhere for a remote tier of local government, even though Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are seeing real advances because they have devolved government.

One of the reasons is that the powers the Government proposes for the English regions - strategic planning and transportation, inward investment, tourism, and fire and emergency services - make them little more than super county councils, with no real teeth to stand up to Whitehall.

AS the UK Independence Party reels from the split caused by the antics of Robert Kilroy-Silk, it has started unrolling its General Election candidates, naming former teacher Nicholas Betts-Green as its standard bearer in Suffolk Coastal to oppose Conservative pro-European MP John Gummer.

Kilroy-Silk walked out of the UKIP's group of Euro MPs this week, resigning the whip because he has failed in his bid to oust Roger Knapman as leader.

UKIP, which has spent the past six months praising the former Labour MP and television chatshow host, is now backtracking. A spokesman said: "Robert Kilroy-Silk doesn't do much except generate negative press comment."

The schism in UKIP is overshadowing its attempts to be accepted as a mainstream party, ready to fight the British General Election. At least Suffolk Coastal members have tried to ignore the uproar, choosing a local candidate who was educated at Woodbridge School.

Nicholas Betts-Green - descended from the Betts family of Wortham Hall near Eye - served as an engineer in the Royal Air Force before joining British Airways for a year and then working for Qantas in Australia.

On his return to Britain, he became a mature student at Oxford University, reading modern history and gaining an MA and the Certificate of Education. He taught at Cheltenham Ladies College and then Mills Grammar School in Framlingham, and subsequently became head of history at Farlingaye High School in Woodbridge.

Describing himself as a former Conservative, Mr Betts-Green claims it is "impossible" for the UK to remain in the European Union and attempt to re-negotiate the terms of British membership, which is the policy of Tory leader Michael Howard.

Mr Betts-Green - who has been married since 1965 and is a eucharistic minister at St Thomas's Roman Catholic Church in Woodbridge - says the `grey vote' will be important on polling day. "If we pull out of the EU, we will be able to use the money we pour into the organisation to increase old age pensions," he claimed.

Other candidates already selected for Suffolk Coastal are John Gummer (Conservative), David Rowe (Labour) and David Young (Liberal Democrat).

IN a House of Lord debate on the contribution made by the State to maintaining the architectural heritage of England's churches, and of their future communal use, Liberal Democrat peer Lord Phillips of Sudbury, urged the Government to increase its current "pathetic" grant.

Currently around £100 million a year is devoted to the repair and maintenance of cathedrals, churches and chapels of which under £15 million comes from the State - £10m via English Heritage, £3m from the Churches Conservation Trust and £2 million direct to cathedrals.

He contrasted the £15m with the £17m spent on buildings in the Royal household, £89m on the British Library and £85m on Welsh Channel 4. "I would not take a penny away from any of them, but £15 million for 16,000 churches, cathedrals and chapels is not good enough."

He called for churches to be used more by the community. "In Sudbury we have a redundant church in the middle of the town on the Market Hill - St. Peter's - which is a model. It has not been deconsecrated, but on Friday it was the farmer's market, on Saturday it was a craft market, also selling Christmas cards. It has concerts, it has organ recitals, it has lectures, it has plays . . . indeed, that is how medieval churches were."

GOVERNMENT support for rural bus services in Suffolk is among the highest in England, junior transport minister Charlotte Atkins revealed in the Commons.

In reply to a question from Viscount Thurso (Liberal Democrat) she said the rural bus subside grant supported 2,211 routes nationwide, while the rural bus challenge scheme had provided £110m for 301 projects, including "many new services."

Suffolk had 36 subsidised services under the scheme, which although dwarfed by Norfolk's 71, was still higher than Essex's 28 and Cambridgeshire with 26.

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