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How can people vote if they don't know what they are voting for, asks Mike Clark? ...
How can people vote if they don't know what they are voting for, asks Mike Clark?

Before putting pen to paper, I felt it necessary to canvass a few opinions. So I asked colleagues what they thought of the local government review and a north-east regional assembly.

Such was the breadth of their thoughts and concerns - many of which mirrored my own - that I could write a book on the subject.

My view of a referendum is that it is most effective when asking a straightforward question on an issue people understand, both in terms of consequence of the vote and the implications of the action. Keeping to a single issue is always the best way to achieve a clear answer.

However, some people in the north-east will not just be asked about the regional assembly. People in Northumberland and County Durham will also be pressed on the review of local government which, theoretically, would have a significant impact on the north-east and the area's public services.

The second question, about the future of local government, impacts on approximately 900,000 people. Unfortunately, the debate is marginalised by the emphasis placed on what is nationally seen as the major issue - that of a regional assembly.

This is not a surprise, bearing in mind the importance of such a creation to senior politicians. Nevertheless, I feel that the presence on the ballot paper of this second question for people in Northumberland and Durham derogates the importance of local government services.

My concern over recent weeks has been re-emphasised during conversations - some with people in senior positions - who still believe that if they vote 'no' to a regional assembly they need not cast their vote for the structure of local government in County Durham and Northumberland.

This is not because they are dismissive of local government - it is an indicator of the lack of awareness within the community about the process.

My fear is that this poor understanding will affect turnout, and those who do vote will tick 'no' through an aversion to change. This would be a setback for both the development of the region and the improvement of public services in Northumberland and County Durham.

My hope is that people will become actively engaged, feel part of the process and use their vote positively to achieve stronger and more effective local government within a new regional context. But if that is to happen, national politicians must work harder to put the message across.

Mike Clark

Chief executive, Derwentside DC

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