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
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
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
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.
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
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