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By LGCnet political correspondent Robert Hedley ...
By LGCnet political correspondent Robert Hedley

While the concept of regionalisation in the UK had developed under both Conservative and Labour governments - and the wartime coalition - since 1934, the European Commission was quick to 'hijack regionalism to make the single currency work,' claimed Ann Winterton, Conservative MP for Congleton.

She initiated the adjournment debate on regional government in the north west of England. It was the second time in a week MPs - both Conservative and Labour - expressed concerns about the possibility of an elected regional assembly in their area.

Mrs Winterton pointed out that deputy prime minister John Prescott had been leader of the Labour Party delegation to the European Parliament between 1976 and 1979, and a delegate before that. She quoted from a 1975 report by the then Belgium prime minister, Leo Tindemans, which said:'For an integrated economic and monetary unit to operate harmoniously there must be a substantial regional policy to offset the tendency of the market to concentrate capital and activity in the more competitive areas of the Union...Moreover, the regional policy must be concentrated on the most economically backward areas of the Community.'

Mrs Winterton commented: 'For as Tindemans indicated, because the United Kingdom has a successful economy and we have above-average member state GDP, we will be the losers in this new Europe of the regions.

'So the answer to the question that is often posed - whether there will be more money as a result of regional government for the north west - is a resounding 'no'. Indeed, there will be less overall.'

She added: 'We are not talking about regions of the United Kingdom but about regions of the European Union. If the former were the case, it could well be that a United Kingdom government would be prepared ro spend more on the regions, as they do now, particularly in the most needy areas. However, the present government have made it clear that no more funds will be available than a t present for regional assemblies, so the added cost of setting up and running them will top-slice the resources that are available, leaving less overall to spend.'

Moreover, the minister of state for regeneration and the regions [Lord Rooker] had said there would be no new powers and no new money for regional assemblies.

What would happen if the electorate gave the go-ahead for regional government in the north west was the handing over of regional policy to the EU, claimed Mrs Winterton.

She said that buried in chancellor Gordon Brown's assessment of the five economic tests on euro-membership was 'undoubted confirmation' that government plans for elected regional assemblies were all to do with the EU.

'In other words, the plan has nothing to do with the electorate's desire for regional assemblies. Indeed, to date, the electorate have shown an absence of desire for them. It has everything to do with breaking up nation states to form a Europe of the regions, and with moving money to make the euro work,' said Mrs Winterton.

Replying to the debate, Phile Hope, junior minister in the ODPM, said the Labour Party had been committed to successful regional development for many years. Mrs Winterton's argument illustrated not only the Conservatives' knee-jerk reaction to all matters affecting Europe and relationships between the UK and the EU, but 'undermines the north west's deserving case for far better representation at regional level for its economic future.'

The whole point of a referendum was to give people a choice. It was fundamental that no region would have an elected assembly imposed on it.

Two principles underlined the government proposals for elected assemblies. First, it would give the regions the opportunity to establish democratic accountability for activities already carried out on a regional basis by central government, their agencies and quangos. Secondly, elected assemblies could use their resources and influence to improve regional economic performance.

'The government remain committed to improving regional economies, and elected regional assemblies are a vital part of this framework,'said Mr Hope.

'The way to drive forward the UK economy as a whole is to boost regional economies, getting all of our regions firing on all cylinders. A Treasury report of last year suggested that if all of our regions raised their economic performance to the national average, the average person in the UK would be £1,000 a year better off.'

Mr Hope said an elected regional assembly, with ears closer to the ground, could be on the spot to deal with specific issues affecting regional economies. An elected assembly in the north west would have direct spending power, or influence, over funding amounting to about £2.1bn.

'That is not loose change. It can make a considerable difference to the regional economy,' he added.

Hansard 1 July 2003: Column 356 - 364

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