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FEATURES - LINING UP FOR ASSEMBLY

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Pulses were racing in Pateley Bridge. In Appletreewick and Eldroth farmers stopped work and glued their ears to tra...
Pulses were racing in Pateley Bridge. In Appletreewick and Eldroth farmers stopped work and glued their ears to transistor radios. In Skipton crowds built up in front of television stores, noses pressed to the glass. Motorists stopped in the high street and opened windows so passers by could hear the announcement. Even the market traders from Keighley and Burnley hushed the noisy bustle to catch the news in full.

Yes, deputy prime minister John Prescott?s statement that there would be a referendum on regional government in Yorkshire fell upon a population vibrant with expectation. Cheering broke out spontaneously at the news, and excited crowds rushed into the hostelries to consume libations of grateful thanks.

In fact, of course, the announcement was greeted with the massive indifference that marked every stage of this debate. Some 79% of people in Yorkshire and Humber had never heard of the idea of a directly elected chamber.

Few things are more impressive than the sheer dedication of the British electorate when it has decided it is not interested in something. There is a purposefulness about its determination not to be bothered which is almost intimidating.

No doubt Mr Prescott will decree that the referendum will take place by postal vote, or will be extended over several days, or polling booths will be set up inside Morrison?s or Asda, or we can vote by text message or by e-mail.

I suspect the county which produced Geoffrey Boycott and can appreciate the finer points of padding up may be ready to stand up against the enticement to vote for another category of politicians.

It is a pity the test for having a referendum had not been borrowed from chancellor Gordon Brown?s Articles of faith on the euro ? a ?clear and unequivocal? case for entry. But we did, of course, have the soundings exercise ? specially extended to take into account the decision to offer voters a choice on local government reorganisation.

Yorkshire and the Humber has a population of about five million whic h must give it an electorate of something over three million. Almost 1,200 responses to the soundings were received. Even if a significant minority of these were representing organisations, it is difficult to see how anyone can argue there is an appetite for a referendum.

Residents of Humberside may think Mr Prescott might have been better employed knocking local heads together as the tragi-comic infighting at Kingston upon Hull City Council took off with new vigour. Stand by now for the great local government knock-about as the Boundary Commission gets stuck into its proposals for reorganisation.

Having lived through one reorganisation and seen the sheer passion put into the battle of survival by councils, I developed a sense of wonder that Britain managed to fight two world wars in the 20th century with everyone staying on the same side.

There will be a huge consumption of energy by two-tier councils in the three regions concerned. And, if Mr Prescott sticks to his determination to limit the size of any assembly to 30 or so representatives, all this will be for the doubtful privilege of electing how many people to speak for North Yorkshire ? two or three? We could end up electing the most anonymous politicians in the nation. Hey-ho for the jolly arguments about accountability.

David Curry

Conservative MP for Skipton and Ripon

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