BBC On The Record - Broadcast: 05.05.02

Film: REGIONAL GOVERNMENT FILM. Iain Watson reports on the Government's plans to establish regional assemblies in England.

IAIN WATSON; New Labour, New Britain, that was a promise back in 1997, power would flow from Whitehall to the regions, but following devolution to Scotland and Wales, the north of England has increasingly felt consigned to the wilderness. Now, after a hard struggle by John Prescott, a White Paper on English regional government is on the way. But some campaigners won't be heralding its arrival; they say it signals that the government have given up on their aim of a radically different United Kingdom The campaign for regional government has been strongest in the North East. So voters here could be the first in England to have a referendum on whether to set up new regional assemblies. But according to an internal government document seen by On The Record, these new bodies certainly won't be as robust as existing Tyneside landmarks. In fact they could have so few functions, people may wonder whether Labour is more interested in devolving power in principle, rather than in practice LOUISE ELLMAN: We have to enthuse people and if we don't do that, people will increasingly disassociate themselves from the democratic process and that is bad for everyone. TREVOR PHILLIPS: If you start with a body where people don't quite know what it's for, they'll never be able to judge it properly, and it's inevitable that they will think this is just another tier of government which we are paying for, which is basically a bunch of politicians sitting in a room arguing with each other. WATSON: In Scotland, when people voted for their own Parliament, they knew it would have control over their everyday lives. It's got its own Education Minister for example. But when it comes to England, the government doesn't seem to have adopted the same grown up attitude. There will be no say for the English regions over schools and powers over other areas are looking decidedly weak. The Welsh Assembly can argue it made a real difference to people's lives. It froze prescription charges two years in a row. But anyone who expects similar powers over health for the English regions could be in for a very long wait. The North East is undergoing something of a cultural renaissance, so you might assume new regional assembly would have control over arts and leisure, well the government can't even promise that. BARONESS SHIRLEY WILLIAMS: In the North East, they'll say, well if we were Scots, it wouldn't be like this. In the South West, they'll say if we were Welsh it wouldn't be like this. It's the recipe in my view for very, very great tensions, between the different parts of the United Kingdom and I don't think that helps keeps the United Kingdom united. WATSON: In a BBC poll conducted amongst English voters in March, around two thirds of people supported regional assemblies. But 68% wanted to see them have responsibility for education, 65% for the police and 61% for health. But the new assemblies will be slim-line bodies electing just twenty-five to thirty-five members and have slim-line powers, mostly over strategic planning. Long standing supporters of regional government think people could reject the new assemblies unless they have very tangible functions. ELLMAN: I don't think people will vote for a talking shop, but they will vote for a body that will make a difference and they'll want to see changes in for example transport, in health, in education and in the economy, but they have to see a difference and that difference has to matter. WATSON: And members of England's only devolved body to date, the Greater London Assembly, believe the government is keeping too much of a watchful eye over them and mustn't make the same mistake again. PHILLIPS: The tier of government that I'm involved in, pan London government, I think has got a job, but it hasn't quite got the tools to do it. It hasn't quite got control over the right bits of transport, over the right bits of regeneration, can't raise the money in the right way. Now I think this is a lesson that needs to be learnt elsewhere. That if you're going to give a tier of regional government a job to do, you also have to give it the tools. WATSON: On Tyneside, a key campaigner for English devolution, Joyce Quin, and her Labour colleagues, are prepared to accentuate the positive. She's delighted that, at least regional assemblies will have a significant say over economic development, thanks to John Prescott seeing off objections from the DTI. JOYCE QUIN MP: I think it's a fair aspiration to have a regional assembly that has real clout, but I actually think that there will be a lot to start the ball rolling with, when the White Paper is published. I certainly think if you're talking about economic development, you're talking about powers over a certain amount of funding in the region which can support very visible projects in the region. WATSON: The last experiment in limited local democracy, elected mayors, put this man in a monkey suit into power in Hartlepool. So there are now Labour supporters who warn the government about taking English devolution to the next stage of evolution. MARK TAMI MP: What happens if certain individuals are elected, are they going to run their own agendas, there are all these hosts of problems I think and if this isn't really based on a real desire of the people, to actually have these institutions or these individuals in the first place, you know why are we actually having them. WATSON: Some champions of regional government suspect those at the very top share that view and are deliberately depriving people of clear reasons to vote for regional assemblies ELLMAN: While ministers like John Prescott have always advocated regional devolution, the Prime Minister has been considerably less supportive and who knows, maybe the Bill that comes forward now will create the hurdles that he hopes will stop it happening. WATSON: Labour activists were chuffed with the results of the local elections but could face a tougher challenge to win referendums on regional government. At Downing Street's insistence, anyone who lives in a county council area and who opts for a new regional assembly would in effect be simultaneously voting to abolish their county or district council; the electoral commission will pronounce on which. Opposition to this will come not just from the Tories but from within Labour's ranks, starting next door with the North West. COUNCILLOR HAZEL HARDING: I think personally in Lancashire that we do a good job, and as far as I'm concerned is what works with the people of Lancashire that matters. We are at times accused of being remote ourselves, but we are as close to every community as every school that we help to run, every home help that goes into people's homes. We are very close to our community in fact and I think people would see a region as being a step further away. THERESA MAY MP: We believe that the key difference between county councils and the government's proposed regional government, is that county councils already have an identity, that people feel comfortable with and county councils obviously have a historic reference as well. People know their counties, they don't know an amorphous regional area. WATSON: During the 1997 General Election campaign, Tony Blair famously compared the tax raising powers of the Scottish Parliament to those of a parish council. Well, if Scotland is comparable to a parish council, the English regions won't even have the clout of a church restoration committee. At least it can appeal for more cash, and has the freedom to spend its own money. The new English regional assemblies will have their spending limits capped even more tightly than local councils. Misunderstandings have been part of Hartlepool's history. They hanged a shipwrecked simian as a spy during the Napoleonic wars. But when voters went bananas at last week's elections it could be due to a feeling that local councils have peanuts for powers. Some say the government's attitude to the regions is due to an underlying failure to take any local democracy seriously. PHILLIPS: If people think the local government is really just a sort of shouting match between slightly powerless politicians, what they're going to do is they're going to put people in the council seat, who are protests, they are jokes, they are way out in the fringes. If we want local government to really have a serious purpose, to attract serious and effective people, then you've got to give it the powers, you've got to give it the resources, to carry out the job, and if they fail, then you have to let them answer to the people. Central government can't really be nanny on local government. WILLIAMS: The Number Ten policy unit has become a Prime Minister's department and so what you get is a very great deal of powerful control from the centre and a lot of bright young men and women who feel they justify themselves by coming out with initiatives that they then impose on the people. Whatever innovation you get at the local level tends to be snuffed out by the structure of central control. WATSON: The North East could become a beacon to other English regions that want new assemblies, but it may be a massive task to convince people that it's worthwhile erecting a new tier of government. Especially one which doesn't have powers grounded in people's everyday lives. Campaigners will hope the regional White Paper will be something to build on and not a farewell to their high hopes for further devolution.
NB. This transcript was typed from a transcription unit recording and not copied from an original script. Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy.