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Regional government looks set to be included in the new government's policy agenda. ...
Regional government looks set to be included in the new government's policy agenda.

Three advocates of regional devolution, John Prescott, Hilary Armstrong and Dick Caborn, are in key ministerial positions affecting local government.

Hilary Armstrong, speaking to LGC the day after taking up the post of minister of state at the DoE responsible for local government, said an early priority was to establish regional development agencies. On paving legislation to allow directly elected regional chambers, Ms Armstrong said: 'I can't promise that will be done quickly, but the push for it is there.'

Before the election there was doubt about Labour's willingness to deliver its promise to devolve power to the English regions. But Ms Armstrong, herself an advocate of strong regional government, said the appointment of Mr Prescott to run the DoE was a positive message about Labour's intention on regional devolution.

'We will move to a strategic authority for London and that will signal devolution in England is as important as in Scotland and Wales, although it will take longer,' she said.

Ms Armstrong said Labour's emphasis on regions will bring more coherence to the planning of housing growth, regeneration and sustainable transport.

Left-wing Sheffield Central MP Richard Caborn, for years a proponent of regional devolution, is the minister in Mr Prescott's team responsible for regional affairs, further indicating the government's intention to take this area of policy seriously.

Ms Armstrong promised that Labour will rebuild relations between central and local government: 'The main message is that we will establish a new relationship between local and central government. We see councils as partners, as an important elected tier of government.

'Having the deputy prime minister as the overarching head of the DoE indicates the importance with which the Labour government is viewing local government issues, and we will be ensuring local government is part of the decision-making process. We will listen to their ideas.'

The new ministerial team has already made clear to DoE civil servants they are expected to reinforce this spirit of co-operation in their dealings with bodies such as the Local Government Association.

A crucial part of rebuilding central/local relations will be implementing the report of the Lords committee chaired by Lord Hunt on central/local relations. Meetings will be taking place within the DoE and between the department and the LGA on how to implement its recommendations.

Ms Armstrong was cagey about the chances of getting local government legislation in the Queen's Speech next Wednesday: 'You can't assume anything yet. The problem is we all have very long lists of Bills, and this is a big department.' But she expected legislation to begin the phased release of capital receipts and improve the private finance initiative to be early priorities for the government.

On ideas such as elected mayors and replacing CCT with the 'best value' system, all Ms Armstrong would say was: 'They are all in the melting pot and they will all get attention.'

LGA chairman Sir Jeremy Beecham met Mr Prescott on Sunday. Ms Armstrong plans an early meeting with the LGA to discuss what Labour's programme will be 'and what it is realistic to work on'.

In Downing Street last Friday Tony Blair promised to clean up politics. This means implementing recommendations by Lord Nolan's committee, notably the forthcoming report on local government. Ms Armstrong said ensuring high standards in councils would be a 'major priority' for her.

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