October 13, 2004
"When the vote comes in"
The North East should be sceptical about a regional assembly
Democracy is frequently a mysterious process. For many voters in the North East of England, however, everything to do with the referendum on whether they would like a regional assembly remains a mystery.
As we report today, this campaign has not merely failed to catch fire but barely started to smoulder. What little energy is evident has been generated by a small band of individuals opposed to the assembly.
A new opinion poll suggests that they now enjoy the political momentum. If so, they deserve it.
The positive case for an elected mini-Parliament based in Durham is at best vague and at worst feeble. It may well prove to be an expensive talking shop.
This has been a strange exercise in many respects. The drive for elected regional assemblies appears to be more the product of John Prescott’s private zeal than any upsurge in demand from ordinary voters.
At one stage, the Deputy Prime Minister planned to hold ballots in the North West and in Yorkshire and Humberside in the hope of establishing a form of tepid devolution throughout the North of England.
This scheme has been put on hold until the mood of the electorate is tested in the North East, the region which has historically shown the most interest (relatively speaking) in this idea. If the electorate here reject it, the entire blueprint will probably be abandoned.
It is not hard to see why Mr Prescott thought that the North East could be persuaded to adopt an assembly. This is a region with a strong sense of collective identity (which is not so true for rambling areas such as “Thames Valley”). It has endured economic difficulties over several decades. It has long resented being ignored, even patronised, by politicians in Westminster.
Furthermore, some local industrialists are worried that Scotland might overtake the North East in attracting inward investment because it has a Parliament with the resources to lobby for business. And as the part of England that has traditionally been more supportive of the Labour Party than any other, sheer partisan tribalism should help the “yes” movement.
Yet there is no stampede in favour of an assembly. This is partly because it is not obvious what the body would do. Its proposed powers are limited and ambiguous. Despite this failing, it would require a major reorganisation of local government units. It might also impede the interesting work that has been done by councils such as that in Gateshead and elected mayors in Middlesbrough and North Tyneside. There is not much evidence that the Parliament in Edinburgh is preventing companies from relocating to this region. Indeed, Newcastle has enjoyed a boom and revival in recent times.
An elected assembly would, therefore, involve costs but bring few benefits. It would add a new tier of bureau-cracy without doing anything for employment. It would prove difficult to scrap once created, even if it were not value for money.
Postal ballots will be sent to electors next week and need to be returned by three weeks tomorrow. The North East should vote “no” and demand a more coherent plan from the distant cousins in London.
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