Prescott still dreams of his regions

DEPUTY Prime Minister John Prescott still firmly believes that the East of England will eventually accept the need for a democratically elected regional assembly to make strategic decisions on behalf of its six counties, including Suffolk and Essex.

By Graham Dines

DEPUTY Prime Minister John Prescott still firmly believes that the East of England will eventually accept the need for a democratically elected regional assembly to make strategic decisions on behalf of its six counties, including Suffolk and Essex.

Although the North East region effectively scuppered the regional agenda by rejecting devolved government in a referendum last November, Mr Prescott has not given up hope that the policy of elected assemblies will one day be resurrected.

"I was genuinely surprised by the large vote against the plans in the North East," said Mr Prescott. But he insisted devolution was the right path for English regions to adopt and gave the example of Scotland and Wales, which had voted for their own parliaments 20 years after initially rejecting them.


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Mr Prescott, who was visiting the Labour marginal constituencies of Braintree and Harwich yesterday, insisted county councils could not cope with the increasing demands of regional policy because they were not big enough. England's eight regions needed strong voices which only proper assemblies, legitimised by direct election, could achieve.

What people had to ask themselves was whether it was better that regional decisions were taken by elected assemblies or enacted by civil servants and quangos.

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One of the first steps down the Government regional road is the establishment of single fire and rescue control centres in each region which, he claimed, would lead to greater co-ordination and efficiency which small county brigades could not achieve on their own.

Mr Prescott rejected suggestions that he was concreting over the East of England - "that's soundbite politics" - by his insistence that the region takes nearly 500,000 extra homes in the next 20 years.

People needed his affordable homes, many of which would be built along the Thames gateway in the Harlow-Stansted-Cambridge corridor.

He rejected suggestions that people would not want to live in the proposed linear sustainable community along the M11 because it would be under the flight path of an expanded Stansted airport.

"In my experience, houses near airports increase in value," he joked. "Just look at the towns around Heathrow."

Mr Prescott acknowledged the proposed expansion of Stansted was controversial, but the present runway was nearing its maximum capacity and more and more people were wanting to travel.

The Government had a responsibility to meet the needs of air travellers in the South East, but concerns over Stansted would be fully examined at any planning inquiry.

Yesterday's visit to Essex started early when he unveiled Labour's national campaign poster at St Basil's Roman Catholic Social Club in Basildon, accompanied by the party's election co-ordinator Alan Milburn.

After visiting the Sure Start scheme at Jaywick - "it must be election time, you want me to pose with children" - Mr Prescott went for a quick stroll along the seaside community's promenade before heading to Witham in the Braintree constituency.

Accompanied by Labour's Alan Hurst - who is defending a majority of 358 - is visited the Doorstep Green Project, a regenerated playing fields, on the town's Templars housing estate.

n Other declared candidates in the election are:

Harwich: Douglas Carswell (Conservative), John Tipple (Respect), Keith Tully (Liberal Democrat) and Jeffrey Titford (UK Independence Party).

Braintree: James Abbott (Green Party), Roger Lord (UKIP), Brooks Newmark (Conservative) and Peter Turner

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