Deputy prime minister John Prescott will this week unveil plans for the regional assemblies. The first will be elected in the north east - where Labour last week lost mayoral elections in Hartlepool and Middlesbrough to 'H'Angus the Monkey' and 'Robocop' Ray Mallon. A second assembly could follow in the north west where last week the British National Party secured its first council seats for nine years.
However, the creation of up to six regional assemblies in England is likely to provoke a backlash from county councils, which face extinction and plan to fight against what they consider to be an even remoter tier of local government.
Three million people will be asked to vote in 2004 in a referendum to decide whether they want a regional assembly to cover Tyneside, Wearside, Teesside, Northumberland and County Durham. Recent opinion polls have shown 70% in favour. They will then return to the polls in 2005 - possibly at the same time as the general election - to elect 30 assembly members headed by a first minister.
The government believes the regional assemblies will leave room for only one lower tier of local government: combined district and county councils. Durham and Northumberland CCs and the regional development agency, One Northeast, will fight to retain their independence.