Monday, September 27
Calls for the Government to act swiftly to salvage plans for regional assembly - Nearly 75 per cent of North East businesses would vote No to regional government
THE Government has six weeks to convince voters of the merits of a regional assembly or it will face embarrassment at the polls, a survey has revealed.
One of the biggest assessments of opinion to date has indicated the business community will vote against a North East Regional Assembly unless the Government can prove it would significantly change people's daily lives.
The North East Chamber of Commerce (NECC) presented its members with identical questions to those that will appear in the official referendum on November 4. Of nearly 900 responses, 74 per cent indicated they would vote No to an elected assembly. The news will be a sharp indicator to Labour - on theopening morning of its annual conference in Brighton - that the regional government agenda is potentially faltering.
To date, business has been one of the leading sections of society to show an interest in the outcome of the vote, suggesting this survey will be an early barometer of the likely referendum result.
NECC has a diverse membership base across the region - from sole tradersto major multi-nationals and from all sectors - and the survey results show theGovernment has yet to address deep rooted concerns throughout industry.
NECC, in conjunction with other business organisations in the region, presented ten key tests to John Prescott last November that it felt mustbe satisfied before a clear cut decision could be made.
To date, one test has failed, two have been met and seven are still ambiguous.
George Cowcher, NECC chief executive, said: "This survey sends a stark warning that a major facet of the North East community has yet to beconvinced that a regional assembly would be a benefit."
The business sector was willing from the outset to listen to both sides of the debate but it would appear that there is still too little flesh on the bones of the Yes campaign to convince companies that there is a tangible argument for change. "The results of this survey should be seen as a challenge for crucial areas of confusion to be clarified. Only then will business buy in to the merits of an elected assembly."
Alan Ferguson, NECC president, said of the result: "The majority ofbusinesses responding to the survey are just not convinced at all by theargument for an elected regional assembly in its current form and feelit would be just more bureaucracy which we could do without."Mr Ferguson, who is executive chairman of Fergusons Transport, based in Blyth, Northumberland, added: "Personally, I believe we are in a Catch22 situation. If we vote against an assembly, we will be accused by theGovernment of not taking this opportunity. But if we say yes, we willget the blame if it is not a success."I believe a no vote is a vote for the status quo and I do not like the status quo. We have been poorly served by the status quo in the past."
Feedback from the business community has shown three key areas ofconcern:
- Costs - there are genuine fears that an elected assembly will cost more than current arrangements and be an additional burden on North East business
- Toothless - the powers for the new assembly are general and mainly aboutsetting strategies rather than making decisions. For the many businesses looking for improvements in the skills base and transport infrastructure, this is a major concern
- Isolated - the North East is already the most remote part of England from its legislature. An elected regional assembly is seen to be a barrier to government investment, or worse an excuse to marginalise the region
John Irwin, director of Storeys:ssp which has operations in Newcastle, Teesside, Manchester and Leeds, expressed his concerns: "I remain to be convinced about the value of a regional assembly. The Government has yet to answer to any degree of satisfaction the key questions regarding such an elected body."It is right that the North East needs a better voice nationally, but it remains to be seen if this is the right voice. "Unless the Government gives the assembly any meaningful powers it is hard to see why anyone would logically want to vote Yes on November 4."
Those businesses in favour of an elected assembly believe a number ofbenefits will be had from voting Yes:
- Change - anything is better than the status quo, and an elected regional assembly is all that is on offer
- Growing responsibility - that the current portfolio of powers will be simply a first step and that the assembly could be a more powerful, more effective body in the coming years
- Success elsewhere - the strong performance of economies in Wales, Scotland and London post-devolution
Jeff Fryer, managing director of County Durham-based construction company M&M Plasline Ltd, said: "I scrape in as a Yes vote despite being able to empathise with the No vote. There are several unknowns, not least of which is the quality of the leadership available. "However, there is a saying 'If you always do what you have always done you will always have what you always get'. I cannot say I am comfortable by that so I am taking a leap of faith in the region's ability to drive its own future. "We need to think positively to make it happen.
Notes about the survey
1) The Business Referendum 2004 survey was a postal ballot of North East Chamber of Commerce members.
In total, 4052 survey papers were mailed on September 2, 2004 with a closing date of September 24, 2004
2) The questions posed were identical to those that will appear in the official referendum with an initial question: Should there be an elected assembly for the North East region. Durham and Northumberland members were also invited to express their preferred type of unitary authority should the result of the referendum be a 'Yes' vote for an elected regional assembly. > (The result of the supplementary question is available on request)
3) The result of the referendum question is as follows: Question: Should there be an elected assembly for the North East region?
TOTAL Durham Northumberland Tees Valley Tyne and Wear
Yes 26.4% 34.1% 30.9% 21.6% 25.7%
No 73.6% 65.9% 69.1% 78.4% 74.3%
Numbers of votes:
TOTAL Durham Northumberland Tees Valley Tyne and Wear
Yes 234 43 29 51 111
No 654 83 65 185 321