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By LGCnet political correspondent Robert Hedley ...
By LGCnet political correspondent Robert Hedley

Labour MP Gordon Prentice - formerly national local government officer at party headquarters - said the last thing people wanted was another layer of salaried politicians at regional level and a hugely disruptive local government reorganisation.

But if we go down this path - 'I do not think there is a demand for it out there'- the MP for Pendle asked local government and regions minister Nick Raynsford if he agreed the number of Westminster MPs should be reduce drastically, perhaps by 40%.

Mr Raynsford said that if a regional tier of government is introduced, there should be a rationalisation of two-tier local government so there was not an unnecessary number of tiers.

'That is a logical approach and we are adopting a pragmatic way forward because we accept entirely [Mr Prentice's] concern that a wholesale reorganisation of local government, as undertaken by the previous government, is unnecessarily disruptive; we do not wish to repeat the experience of the Banham years. We want efficient government working well at regional at regional level as well as at the local level', he added.

Liberal Democrat spokesman Don Foster asked whether the demand for regional government would be weakened significantly by 'the inexplicable linking of the referendum question on regional government with plans to reorganise local government'.

The democratisation of the plethora of regional quangos demonstrated that regional governance already existed. An additional tier was not being added.

Mr Raynsford insisted that where the appetite for regional government existed, there should be rationalisation of the existing two tiers of local government. Three separate tiers of government below national and European level would be one too many.

Anne Campbell, Labour MP for Cambridge, said it was quite difficult to secure support among local councillors while a degree of uncertainty exists about the structure of council under regional government.

Mr Raynsford said his experience of discussions with councillors and advocates of regional government in all parts of the country was that those who understood the importance of introducing regional government would remain wholly supportive of the government proposals.

'I fully accept that there are concerns - no councillor will welcome the prospect of their council perhaps ceasing to exist - but we must take a broader view and recognise that, in the interests of efficient administration and of the public, there is a need to avoid a proliferation of local government tiers where a regional tier of government is introduced', he added.

Conservative MPs Graham Brady, of Altrincham and Sale West, in the north west, and John Redwood, of Wokingham in the south east, said they had received no representations in favour of regional government.

Deputy prime minister John Prescott told Hugh Robertson, Conservative MP for Faversham and Mid-Kent, that before a referendum on whether a region wanted an elected assembly, the Boundary Committee would carry out an independent review to consider how those parts of the region with county and district boundaries could be restructured on a unitary basis. It would be for the committee to decide whether unitary authorities would be based on existing counties.

Mr Robertson said that while some areas had strong regional ties in some, such as his own, local links were much more important. He asked what estimate had been made of the cost of reorganisation and the annual running costs of the regional assemblies.

Mr Prescott said estimates for the establishment of assemblies was about£20m, similar to the sum for the new London authority. Further estimates would be made as the process continued.

Shadow local government spokesman Eric Pickles asked whether, if the people of Kent rejected regional government in a referendum, the government would impose a system of regional government upon them.

Mr Prescott replied: 'A decision will be made in the referendum and, alongside that decision, we will have the report from the Boundary Committee. People will have a choice about there local authority and what sort of regional authority they wish to have'.

Mr Pickles retorted that meant that if the people of Kent said no, Mr Prescott would say yes. He asked the deputy prime minister if he could demonstrate the homogenous nature of the south east by naming three things Aylesbury and Folkestone had in common.

Mr Prescott replied that he did not understand what Mr Pickles meant.

However, David Clelland, Labour MP for Tyne Bridge, said a recent BBC opinion poll showed that 54% of people in England and 65% of people in the north east want regional government regardless of its effect on local government. Whether people are in favour of or against regional government, they should join forces to call for a referendum and settle the matter once and for all.

Hansard 3 July 2002: Column 211-213; 214-215

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