Regions: Hanningfield joins the debate

By Lord HanningfieldLAST year's referendum in the North East was a resounding defeat for the Government and, in particular, John Prescott. 78% of the people voted against the creation of an elected regional assembly.

By Lord Hanningfield

LAST year's referendum in the North East was a resounding defeat for the Government and, in particular, John Prescott. 78% of the people voted against the creation of an elected regional assembly. Quite rightly, they didn't want a powerless white elephant and they certainly didn't want to pay for it.

But has this massive public rejection put a stop to Prescott's regional pipe dream? Not a bit of it. Instead the Government continues to pursue 'regionalisation by stealth' by reorganising democratically accountable structures and services into unaccountable and remote regional units. Unelected regional assemblies are now responsible for housing and planning. Everything suggests that the police, fire and ambulance services will go the same way.

So in Essex we need to keep up the fight against John Prescott's vanity project and I applaud the EADT's referendum, which will demonstrate just how unwanted regions are. I receive hundreds of complaints about regional assemblies - and here's why:

There is no such thing as a region in the UK. There's no loyalty to regions, no history of regional government. But Essex has existed as a geographical unit of government since the Kingdom of the East Saxons in 600 AD. The idea of an eastern region is meaningless. We have little in common with our regional neighbours - in truth, we have more in common with Kent.

Regions are a fig leaf for centralisation. They don't lead to any real devolution of power. County and district powers are sucked up while Whitehall tells regions what to do. Regions actually move power away from the people. Elected regional assemblies would be just another layer of expensive bureaucracy.

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There would be no extra money from central government to fund an elected East of England regional assembly. Instead the assembly would tax people to pay for itself. This would mean higher council tax for people in Essex. In London, the cost of its assembly has already exceeded the government's original estimate by 400%.

Regional assemblies are being used to subvert local democracy. The Government is gearing up for another pointless and expensive reorganisation of local government, pitting counties against districts, while stealthily boosting the role of regions. Counties and districts, for all our imperfections, have local knowledge, local passion and local accountability.

I am passionate about wanting the best for the people of Essex and have been striving for that for more than 35 years. The regional agenda offers no benefit to our county. Instead it is a massive and expensive distraction from our main focus, which is improving our services to the public.

Lord Hanningfield is Leader of Essex county council, representing Chelmsford's Stock division and is also a Conservative spokesman on local government in the House of Lords

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