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Power to the People!

The debate about regional government is hotting up. Kevin Meagher reports from the North West.

For too long, Britain has been a country governed in the South East, by people living in the South East and, all too often, on behalf of the South East.

The creation after 1997 of the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and city-wide government in London broke the mould of the centralised British state. Power really did shift from the centre in the most significant way since the since the modern British state came into being.

Of course, devolution has been a bumpy ride for New Labour. Many thought the success of Ken Livingstone in London and the decidedly un-New Labour Rhodri Morgan in Wales would limit the appeal for a further bout of decentralisation.

So June’s announcement that the North West, North East and Yorkshire and Humber regions will hold referendums on regional government in autumn 2004 is a truly radical step, especially for a Government all too often criticised for its very lack of radicalism.

A Labour manifesto pledge, the referendums herald not only a new way of conducting politics, but an opportunity to improve social inclusion, economic regeneration, while providing dynamic, locally-based political leadership.

For critics though, regional government is an obsession of a narrow provincial political elite, without wider resonance among the electorate.

What do people in Wirral and Wigan, or Manchester and Morecombe have in common is the popular refrain?

For a start, having a properly functioning M6 motorway is as much an issue for people living in Carlisle as it is for people living in Crewe, and, indeed, everywhere in between.

But the ability to make our selves heard as a region is the real prize. For too long there has been a clear need to have a stronger, collective voice when dealing with national audiences, and, increasingly the European Union.

Regional government is not an attack on local government; neither does it spell a diminution of Westminster’s authority. Instead, regional government will hoover up the vast array of bodies spending taxpayers’ money without reference to the people they purport to serve.

The “democratic deficit” is huge: Government Office; Development Agency; Regional Chamber; Housing Corporation; Learning & Skills Council – all make decisions and spend money without reference to any elected office in the region. There is no complaint about their administrative competence, rather a recognition that a political lead would create more joined-up thinking and better results.

So what about the opposition to regional government? The Tories remain implacably opposed, having decided to disengage their brain from this major issue. However the Party’s representatives in the region are sending out mixed messages. The Tory Leader of Cheshire County Council has instructed his officers to examine alternative local government structures, no doubt conscious that the Boundary Commission will do it for him if he prevaricates.

Time will tell, but perhaps wiser heads in the Tory Party will realise the sheer absurdity of standing for a election to a body that they are, in principle, pledged to scrap.

All too characteristically, the Liberal Democrats have complained that the proposals don’t go far enough and look set to adopt an “empty chair” policy while resting their delicate derrieres on the proverbial fence, unwilling to take a stand on this zero-sum question.

Unfortunately, the real opposition to regional government comes from within the Labour movement.

The insistence on unitary local government accompanying any new assembly has miffed public sector unions who see any upheaval that affects their members as inherently bad.

But the trade unions have a critical network and valuable campaigning skills that ideally need to be employed to support this once-in-a-lifetime bid – and need to be brought on-side.

The most vocal opposition comes from Labour-controlled Lancashire County Council. Denis Healy’s maxim that “turkeys don’t vote for Christmas” sums up their motivation. Their position is nothing more principled than a straight defence of the status quo – keeping a handful of councillors and Chief Officers in a style to which they have become dangerously accustomed. Regional government can happen, they insist, ensconced in their ivory tower, but only as long as they are not affected.

As a way of subverting the debate, some Labour MP’s and Town Hall leaders favour the so-called “city-region” model. Its leading proponents include Graham Stringer in Manchester and George Howarth in Merseyside. But the city-region model, centred around Manchester and Liverpool holds little appeal for people living in rural areas like Cumbria or East Lancashire. City-regions would swallow up neighbouring authorities, increasing the democratic deficit, but would be too small to tackle the economic and social problems that affect those cities.

John Prescott and Nick Raynsford deserve credit for devising a set of proposals that look set to defeat the core arguments of the naysayers.

A 25-35 member assembly is hardly a gravy train when the average Metropolitan Council has 60 members. Insisting on unitary local government, before any move to set up an assembly, should blow the argument about “another layer of bureaucracy” clean out of the water. The cost of establishing an assembly should be absorbed by the considerable economies of scale involved in pulling disparate regional agencies together.

Regional Government isn’t provincial moaning about the success of London and the South East. It is, however, a hard-headed realisation that region’s like the North West have the capacity to make sensible decisions about the way they run their affairs, in several key areas, working in partnership with both local and central government.

A truly historic opportunity to redraw the political map of England is just twelve months away.