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LGC POLICY - SELF-ASSEMBLY INSTRUCTIONS

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John Prescott is promoting his plans for regional assemblies. Jon Hanlon looks at how these could transform the fac...
John Prescott is promoting his plans for regional assemblies. Jon Hanlon looks at how these could transform the face of local government

Ministers are on a charm offensive in the English regions in an attempt to drum up interest in regional government, as Labour's 1997 manifesto pledge to introduce elected regional assemblies continues its interminable march to fruition.

Deputy prime minister John Prescott, local and regional government minister Nick Raynsford and local government minister Phil Hope have been on tour in the north-east, north-west and Yorkshire and Humber - the three key English regions which could soon have their own form of government.

A draft bill is expected later this year, outlining the powers each assembly will have, and perhaps the most notable of these is the responsibility for fire and rescue.

The ODPM's proposal for elected regional assembly powers says: 'The assembly would be responsible for a new regional fire authority, and for ensuring fire and rescue services are organised in the most efficient way to protect people and property across the region.

'Fire is a local authority responsibility, but regional fire authorities would be large enough to deal with large-scale terrorist incidents and environmental disasters.'

Other powers cover the environment, health, housing, planning and transport - although they are broadly defined in the ODPM's proposals for elected regional assemblies. These largely revolve around promoting ideas, working in partnership with some organisations and advising others, making plans about how resources should be used, setting agendas and agreeing long-

term action.

In other words, there is still a long way to go before elected assemblies become regional powerhouses to rival Westminster and, perhaps unsurprisingly, the government is unwilling to give up any real power.

For example, the ODPM's latest set of proposals for devolution says: 'Each region has a regional cultural consortium that supports cultural, creative and sporting activities in the region and works with local authorities to ensure that such events are taking place throughout the region. At the moment, the consortiums report to the government in London, but an elected assembly would take over responsibility for it and be able to set the agenda for cultural activities in the region. The assembly would also promote tourism for the region.'

This seems a long way from the introduction of tax and spending powers similar to those of the Scottish Parliament or, as Tony Travers, leader of the London School of Economics' Greater London Group, more prosaically says: 'The regional debate is moving in an almost crab-like way, inching sideways, going forward a bit, inching sideways a bit more and then stopping.'

He adds: 'The present government's approach to regional government is fascinating evidence of its own split personality over whether it wants power centralised or decentralised.'

Handing over responsibility for setting the agenda onwhich cultural activities should be promoted and encouraged is a far cry from offering the sort of financial and decision-making freedoms many in the regions would like. But what little is on offer at this stage is likely to come from local government.

The debate on creating a single tier of local government rumbles on in areas such as Northumberland, where local people will vote to scrap the two-tier system at the same time as they vote for a regional assembly. Alnwick DC chief executive Bill Batey says the issue of having an elected regional assembly should be separated from the question of creating a single tier of local government.

The argument over introducing unitary authorities in areas where people vote for a regional assembly is sure to continue, but there is no doubt the regional agenda is slowly gathering momentum.

Scottish devolution has been a success in so far as it has quieted the nationalists, while providing greater autonomy in some key policy areas.

English devolution could be equally successful in the three key northern regions where the referendums are most likely to take place in autumn next year.

The government's PR campaign in the regions is being rewarded. An ODPM spokesperson says meetings as part of the 'Your Say' debate in the north are consistently drawing crowds of more than 200.

This, of course, suggests a groundswell of support

but it also highlights an uneasiness among the proponents of regional government. A very low turnout will effectively scupper the entire regional agenda - something Mr Prescott says has been the focus of his entire political life.

Some commentators say an uneasiness, or even a distrust, within local government of the new regional assemblies could also scupper Mr Prescott's plans.

To up the ante, Treasury officials have discussed the idea of giving the regions greater financial freedom. However, this would mean the regions would have to take powers from local government and councils would have to get their money from the regional bodies.

Mr Travers says: 'I would be surprised if there are many local authorities that would feel easier about getting their money from the regions than from Westminster.'

He says devolution in Scotland and Wales has been easier to achieve because the Scottish and Welsh Offices handled local government finance separately in the past: 'Devolution in England would change the nature of the British state.'

Stephen Hughes, Birmingham City Council's strategic director of resources, took on the West Midlands job after working as finance director at Brent LBC where he worked closely with the capital's devolved assembly.

He says: 'I can understand why some people might be more cautious of decisions made by regional assemblies. But if we are to make regional government a success then we need to have a significant degree of devolution, as has happened in Scotland and Wales.

'Of course, individual councils would have to fight their corner, but elected regional assemblies have got to have real power. That could be around resource allocation or individual tax raising powers.

'My gut feeling is that the regions could combine to form a suitable counterweight which would allow the government to focus on other areas more, such as foreign policy, a bit like the German model.'

There are those who rail against the notion of regional government as an unachievable waste of time and resources, and those who argue the case for the English regions as fiercely as anyone did in Scotland and Wales.

The government is, of course impartially and benignly offering a choice to people in the form of regional referendums.

However, in the meantime, it is also quietly and determinedly putting a regional framework in place and remains committed to its 1997 pledge.

France

The introduction of directly elected regional assemblies in the English regions would entirely change the way government operates, but France had an even more centralised system when it went through a similar process of devolution in the 1960s.

Different regions were created for administrative purposes in France in 1964, in a process similar to that in England today. However, it took nearly 20 years before regional government was fully introduced in order to streamline and decentralise government.

There are now 22 regions, each with a directly elected assembly. They have wide ranging powers, including responsibility for secondary education, planning, economic development, training and regional transport.

Spain

Spain's independent regions were created during the transition to democracy in 1975, when the country's new constitution created a multi-speed process for regional devolution.

This approach seems likely to be adopted in England, with different regions being able to set up regional government at different times.

Spain's 17 regional parliaments vary in terms of size and power they wield. The Basque region actually sets its own tax, and central government takes a precept from this. Catalonia is another region with significant tax-raising powers and, like the Basque region, is responsible for all government functions apart from foreign policy, defence, the police, national security and major national planning.

In contrast, the smallest regions in Spain have more in common with the English regions, collecting only some indirect taxes, managing local roads and handling economic planning and agriculture.

Regions around Europe

Germany

Five East German states were added to the 11 existing states after reunification in 1990, and each region has its own parliament, elected every four years.

The German regions have few direct tax-raising powers, but each receives a share of central funding. Their responsibilities cover education, planning, policing and culture but they also have an influential role in economic development.

Devolved administrations in Germany also have representatives who are powerful at a national level.

Italy

Regional devolution has been a long-haul process in Italy, where 20 regions were first set up after the Second World War. The process was not completed until 1975, but each region now has an elected council with an executive and a president.

It seems the powers of the regions in the UK will vary considerably as different regions progress at different speeds and to varying degrees. This is certainly the case in Italy where only five regions have the power to set taxes, although this could change over the next few years.

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