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COMMENT - REGIONAL INFIGHTS COULD MEAN TOOTHLESS VICTORY

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The announcement of the first three regions to hold referendums for directly elected assemblies offers the prospect...
The announcement of the first three regions to hold referendums for directly elected assemblies offers the prospect of a more effective, rational and accountable system of governance. Conversely, it also raises the spectre of chaotic and arbitrary local government reorganisation and greater centralisation, not devolution.

The referendums announced for the north-east, north-west and Yorkshire and Humber will include two decisions ? for or against a regional assembly, and a choice of at least two unitary local government structures ? which may or may not be based on districts or counties.

For those councillors and officers whose scars from the Banham review of local government structure almost a decade ago have only recently healed, the prospect of another bout of council internecine warfare must fill them with dread. But the government, having learnt their lessons from the last fiasco, is keeping the options down to two, and letting the people decide.

It is imperative the councils embroiled in these decisions avoid the temptation to look no further than their own self-interest. The experience of the Greater London Authority shows a regional tier can, at the very least, give a region a voice. Reforms in transport and policing show how tax and revenue-raising powers allow radical experiments without waiting for Westminster. But it can also impose huge tax increases and fetter council autonomy.

Above all, councils must realise the key battle is likely to be, not with each other, but with Whitehall departments, regional development agencies and government regional offices, as vested interests resist the move to greater scrutiny and accountability.

The boundaries between different regional authorities ultimately pale in significance compared with the central issue of wrestling power from the centre.

It would be a mistake for councils to fight each other, only to realise too late that the worst of all options had materialised ? a toothless region, still under Westminster?s thumb, whose only hope of a worthwhile role was to strip powers from councils.

Government departments will face a challenge in operating different systems of government in different parts of the country ? and in any event, Whitehall is happier to accrue powers rather than relinquish them.

So three battles will now ensue: between counties and districts, between the pro-and anti region campaigns and between the pro-regionalists and Whitehall.

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