Prescott humiliated

By Graham DinesPolitical EditorCAMPAIGNERS opposed to plans for an elected mini parliament to run the East of England are jubilant that voters in the North East have overwhelmingly thrown out a proposal for that region.

By Graham Dines

Political Editor

CAMPAIGNERS opposed to plans for an elected mini parliament to run the East of England are jubilant that voters in the North East have overwhelmingly thrown out a proposal for that region.

Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott had pinned his hopes on a `yes' vote in the North East, believing it would have influenced the other eight regions in England to accept their own regional assemblies.

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But by a 5-1 majority, the North East rejected the plans, which would have completed the Government's constitutional reforms after giving devolution to London, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Critics have hailed the result as a humiliating snub for the Government and Mr Prescott. However, accepting the verdict, Mr Prescott said: "My own personal view is that an elected regional assembly would be in the best interests of the region. That has not changed."

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The Government's strategy was to establish regional assemblies in the North East, North West, Yorkshire and Humber, West Midlands, East Midlands, South West, South East, and the East.

The East would have comprised Suffolk, Essex, Norfolk, Cambridgeshire, Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire. But opponents believe that this is no common identity or interest in such an artificial grouping and it would have been rejected at the ballot box.

Essex North MP Bernard Jenkin, who has led the Tory opposition to elected assemblies, said he could not believe the size of the majority – 696,519 to 197,310.

He immediately called on the Government to scrap the unelected East of England Regional Assembly and the East of England Development Agency, and to hand powers back to local government.

"The vote in the North East was a decisive vote against regional government, against more politicians and more talk.

"The regional agenda is now dead. The Government must abandon its plans for any further regional referendums. We must have now a real debate about how real power is returned to councils so that local people have a real say over local issues."

John Gummer, Conservative MP for Suffolk Coastal, described the result as a "great day for democracy" and Lord Hanningfield, leader of Essex county council, said it was "great news" for the whole of England. "People do not want their constitution toyed with. We have a county system in this country which has served us well."

Tom Wise, UKIP Euro MP, called the vote "a smack in the face" for a Government that did not understand regional identity.

Robin Tilbrook, Chairman of the Ongar-based fledgling English Democrats Party, said: "Regionalism is dead in the water. A public debate on the future of England is now vital."

However, Colchester's Liberal Democrat MP Bob Russell called the outcome a disappointment. "There is a desperate need to devolve powers from Whitehall and restore local accountability to decision making. However, the North East has given a huge raspberry to the Prescott formula."

Ivan Henderson, Labour MP for Harwich, said that although "no-one has been knocking on my door for regional government," there was a need to introduce decision making nearer the people. "The Government must now step back and re-think how to strengthen local powers."

Lib Dem life peer Baroness Scott of Needham Market accused the Government of trying to con people with a "half hearted" form of devolution, which would have had no real powers. "The Government has now wasted a golden opportunity and killed off devolution for England for a generation."

Labour MP for Ipswich Chris Mole insisted regionalism was not dead, but people had to be persuaded that the powers being devolved were meaningful.

Leading North East campaigners for the change were deeply disappointed.

Professor John Tomaney, Chairman of Yes4theNorthEast, said: "The vote is not going to solve the problems of the North East, such as jobs, the lack of skills and narrowing the gap between the North and South."

Sir John Hall, who built the gigantic Metro centre at Gateshead and who is a former chairman of Newcastle United, said: "The result is very disappointing and the size of the defeat is very difficult to take in.

"The North East won't get another opportunity to create an assembly in my life time. The Conservatives were against it and I cannot see any Labour or Liberal Democrat politician trying for another 10 or 20 years."

But Neil Herron, campaign director of North East No, said: "John Prescott's dream – and it was only ever his dream, it never came from the people – has now turned into a nightmare of Elm Street proportions.

"We expect after spending £10m of public money on this fruitless exercise he will now consider his position. The people were never, ever going to buy more politicians and increases in council tax."

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