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COMMENT - DEVOLUTION FLOATS DOWNSTREAM

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With the government due to unveil its draft bill on the powers of regional assemblies next month, English devolutio...
With the government due to unveil its draft bill on the powers of regional assemblies next month, English devolution is slowly emerging from the backwaters to become a key political battleground.

This November's referendums in the north will be the last major test of public opinion before next year's expected general election, and they will give voters a clear choice between the respective visions of the two major parties. But while the Conservatives' opposition to regional government is clear, there is more doubt about the specifics of Labour's vision for English devolution.

Its last major statement of policy - the 2002 white paper Your region, your choice - should provide the core of next month's bill, giving assemblies power to draw up strategies on economic development, transport, skills, housing and spatial planning.

But there is a growing feeling that a more radical package of reforms will be needed to make a success of regional devolution. This week's report by the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufacturing & Commerce is the latest to call for radical decentralisation.

It warns that responsibility for drawing up strategies should not just be about writing documents, but having the power to deliver them.

On this point, the 2002 white paper falls short. For instance on skills, assemblies would only have the power to appoint two members to learning and skills council boards, and the right to be consulted by LSCs on their spending plans.

This point illustrates another problem with the government's proposals to date, namely their failure to bring many of the dominant national quangos under regional democratic control.

In recent months, ministers have hinted at adding to the list of powers in next month's bill - for instance by giving assemblies control over LSCs.

This is to be welcomed. As the society's report points out, only strong assemblies will attract high-quality politicians and officers, carry clout with both government and business and provide the e ffective leadership needed by our poorest regions in particular.

Councils' ability to influence regional assemblies is likely to be significantly stronger than their current hold over Whitehall, so it is in local government's interests that these new bodies are worth influencing.

This suggests that councils should be firmly in the camp arguing for powerful assemblies - so long as it is the government regional offices and quangos, as opposed to local government, that are the sources of that power.

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