Prescott's dream shattered

John Prescott's dream of elected regional parliaments lies in tatters. Political Editor Graham Dines looks at what could happen nextTHE snub was massive.

John Prescott's dream of elected regional parliaments lies in tatters. Political Editor Graham Dines looks at what could happen next

THE snub was massive. The North East of England, one of Labour's staunchest heartlands, rejected the chance of devolved elected regional government by a massive 696,519 votes to 197,310.

This is an area with just one Tory MP, who represents rural Hexham in Northumberland . Tony Blair is MP for Sedgefield and leading Labour figures Alan Milburn, Stephen Byers, Hilary Armstrong, Nick Brown and Peter Mandelson have been some of the region's most powerful voices in Government since 1997.

But despite a mass of arm-twisting and promises of a better tomorrow, the region wants nothing to do with the type of devolution on offer from the Government.

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Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London all have varying types of devolution. But Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, architect of the devolution for England policy, was not offering powers over policy and taxation.

All the North East assembly – and the eight covering the other areas of England – would have been is little more than glorified talking shops.

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"If the North East has said `no.' then there is no chance of any other region accepting devolution," was the verdict of Colchester MP Bob Russell, whose Liberal Democrat party campaigned feverishly with Labour for a `yes' vote.

John Prescott tried to put a brave face on the outcome. "People in the North East decided they do not want an elected assembly. They have had their say.

"As a Government, we believe in giving people more say over the decisions which affect them. That is a more democratic way of making decisions and of course we abide by the people's decisions."

But whatever he says, the `no' vote by a margin of 55.84% among the 48% of voters who took part in the referendum is decisive.

The Government, optimistic it could achieve a majority in favour, was making contingency plans in case of slight defeat. Wait a few years, sweeten the pill, and have another vote when the people will see the error of their ways and vote `yes.'

This seem to be the initial reaction of Mr Prescott's deputy, Nick Raynsford, who said the Labour Party would need to reflect on the result before making any decisions about proposed devolution in other parts of the country.

But he bullishly pointed out that that plans for an assembly in Wales were overwhelmingly rejected but eventually came to fruition.

"At the first attempt in Wales in 1978 people voted no and that was 80% against. When the second offer was made in 1997/98, a very different result was seen."

That's as may be. But even on Mr Raynsford's timescale, it will be at least 2020 before any fresh attempt to introduce elected regional councils will be made.

To the Conservatives, who have opposed the plans from the outset, there is undisguised glee at the result. MPs and councillors believe they have killed off an idea which will never resurface.

Bernard Jenkin, the North Essex MP who is opposition spokesman on devolved and regional affairs, said the size of the majority was a "decisive vote against regional government, against more politicians and more talk."

Tory peer Lord Walker, the Environment Secretary in Ted Heath's government which introduced a massive reorganisation of local government, commented: "Yet another lunatic idea from John Prescott has been defeated.

"His intention was to bring in regional government dominated by the big urban conurbations where Labour was strongest and taking away all power from the counties of England.

"This was done in a typically manipulative way, yet 78% voted against it."

Lord Walker went on: "The legislation they passed to enable this to take place should be immediately withdrawn to ensure that another £10 million is not wasted on elections for proposals that nobody wants.

"Mr Prescott has proved very expensive and his follies should now be stopped."

Lord Hanningfield, leader of Conservative-controlled Essex County Council, believes that if voters in the artificial East of England region – Suffolk, Essex, Cambridgeshire, Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire and Norfolk – are ever given the opportunity to have their say, rejection would be in the order 99%-1%.

However, with New Labour's plans for European-style super regions firmly thrown out, there is now a democratic deficit to be resolved.

If London, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland run their own affairs, why should the rest of England outside the capital be treated differently?

Liberal Democrat life peer Baroness Scott of Needham Market believes the answer is simple. "The type of devolution on offer which was rejected n the North East was little more than a talking shop. It offered no real opportunity to give local people real powers over decision making."

It was ironic that the result was announced on the day the unelected East of England Regional Assembly (EERA) – the Government's forerunner to its hoped for regional parliament – met to consider the number of homes to be built across the East of England.

The Assembly is made up of councillors representing each local authority, plus community stakeholders. But even this attempt at regionalism is too much for Lord Hanningfield.

"Any decision by councillors in Suffolk, Norfolk, Cambridgeshire and Bedfordshire to impose tens of thousands of new houses on Essex and Hertfordshire will be a `disgrace.' It should be for Essex and Hertfordshire to decide, and nobody else."

Apologists for EERA believe it is better to have such an unelected body giving advice to Whitehall rather than having the Government imposing policies on the region without any local input.

Opponents argue that we do not need any decisions to be taken at a regional level. Most people, other than those who believe in New Labour's woolly utopia, believe that England has managed perfectly well up to now with the county system of local government.

The Tories yesterday called for more powers to be devolved to local government, especially counties. That's highly unlikely to happen. The Government won't drop its ambitions for regionalism. It will keep going with regional development agencies and regional assemblies.

However, I expect there will be some changes to the way we are governed.

Forget European-style regions.

My betting would be that if Labour is re-elected with a large majority at the next election, it will set about scrapping the current system of county and district councils and replacing them with all-purpose unitary authorities based on populations of 300,000 and above.

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