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REGIONAL DEVOLUTION CAMPAIGN AT 'BEGINNING OF THE END'

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Campaign for the English Regions' national campaigns officer Don Price addressed the AGM of the Campaign for a Nort...
Campaign for the English Regions' national campaigns officer Don Price addressed the AGM of the Campaign for a North East Assembly's AGM on Saturday. His speech follows:

'I know I am here with my national hat on and I will be saying something about national developments and what has happening in other regions.

But first if you don't mind on the day that we are celebrating the 10th anniversary of this campaign, that as a founder member I want to reflect briefly on where we are in this region.

And to hell with the usual North East self deprecation, I am telling you we are going to win devolution in the North East First, we will win a referendum in the next year by a mile - For once lets put the North East first - now that's a good slogan!

Because like many of you, I have spent the last 10 years campaigning for the region, campaigning for our own democratic assembly. Campaigning with my head and campaigning with my heart - you need both in a campaign - you cant enthuse people with dry academic arguments alone. To win this campaign we all need show more passion and commitment - we need to touch peoples emotions as well as convince them intellectually.

Of course there have been many, many periods of frustrations but also some tremendous high points. And many more high points in last few years compare with the when we first kicked off.

For example there been some lighter moments like the raising of the St Oswalds Flag on the Quayside during the last general election for Clive Anderson and a Newsnight debate with the UKIP - well done Brian James! It was good fun and good politics.

There been some truly inspiring moments for me personally - like when I sat down and totted up returns from the first poll we did in Sedgefield last January. Fantastic result and one that had a national impact. I can tell you we had several requests for copies of the poll from no10 staff and the Cabinet Office. Thanks to Howard Elcock for his guidance on the polls. And we went back to Sedgefield last month and it was even better!

But the biggest personal high for me, a moment of pure bliss - happened at 8.42am on the 22nd March 2002 when I boarded the 38 bus on my way to work. The 22nd, you will of course recall, was the day after the BBC poll was published showing 72% support for elected regional government in this region.

72% in an independent poll - that alone was enough in itself to get the sap rising in this particular devolutionist, especially on a fine spring morning.

But you ask 'What on earth happened on that 38 bus that could surpass the exquisite pleasure of that poll'. Well, in true Gerry Springer style, it is time to reveal all.

There was a large group of young people, boys and girls in their late teens I would say, sat on the back of the bus. What is more they were having an animated discussion about, yes you've guessed it, regional government!!!! Yes! Yes! Yes! - thank you there is a god!

What's more they knew their stuff and they were dead enthusiastic. You know I could of kissed every last one of them but the driver had already clocked me rolling my eyes in ecstasy and I didn't want to get chucked off.

Now there the future for this campaign and there is the potential for this campaign - we should have self belief to understand the true strength of our argument, for the region that can decide its own future, for real democracy, for a regional assembly that is truly representative that argument has the power to carry every generation and every sector of society with us - if we make the case, if we campaign and make the case.

Of course back in 1992 the North East, or the North as we called ourselves then stood alone in England. Now this debate has really taken hold in other regions.

That wonderful BBC poll showed the same level of support - 72% - in Yorkshire and the North West with the West Midlands coming in at an astounding 73%! The only region where support is less than 50% is the South East but even there is still a majority there when you account for the don't cares and don't knows.

What has brought about this transformation? Many factors but I will talk about two here.

The first thing despite the best efforts of the national media is that people have really begun to notice that devolution in Scotland and Wales is making a difference.

There has been a devolution dividend. Lets take the Welsh Assembly as a case study -you know that's the weak one - the talking shop if you believe the national media. This is some of the facts we revealed we visited Rhodri Morgan and the Assembly in Cardiff In February

Education

- Student grants re-introduced not only for higher but also for further education through the Assembly Learning Grant announced on the 12 February 2002.

- Class sizes are falling below those in England. The Welsh Assembly has provided£36 million over three years to employ new teachers. In September 2001 only 0.5% of infant classes had over 30 pupils.

- Reduced target setting for schools, and league tables were scrapped on 20 July 2001.

- Schools and local education authorities have been given much more freedom by the Assembly compared with England. Much less of their funding is 'ring fenced'.

- Free school milk reintroduced for key stage one pupils from 1 February 2001.

- Social rather than skill based teaching method for early years education have been introduced. This method of teaching reflects the strategy followed by many countries with highly effective education systems.

Transport

- The Assembly has negotiated an all Wales rail franchise that will greatly assist in the planning of integrated transport, as it is set out in the strategic plan 'The Transport Framework for Wales'

- The Assembly has funded the re-opening of 2 rail lines - Vale of Glamorgan to Bridgend and the Ebbw Vale line. This will improve communications within Wales and move away from all transport routes radiating out from London.

- Wales will have free local bus travel for all pensioners and disabled people from 1 April 2002.

Health

- Prescription charges have been frozen, and abolished for 16 - 25 year olds and over-60s.

- Dental and eye test fees abolished for some groups including the over-60s.

- The Assembly has been able to have direct influence on primary legislation in Westminster. For example they have retained their Community Health Councils, abolished in England.

Housing

- The Assembly has extended the right to priority housing to new sections of the homeless in Wales including 16 and 17 year olds leaving care homes and ex-service personnel.

Winning for Wales in Europe

- The Assembly secured match funding from the Treasury required for Objective 1 monies from the European Union.

- All 3 devolved institutions are represented at the European Union Council of Ministers meetings. English regions are not represented.

Enhanced Democracy

- Positive action by the parties and proportional representation ensured an even gender balance in the Assembly. 25/60 Assembly members are women and 5/8 cabinet ministers are women.

- The Assembly is credited with overseeing a much more flexible, humane and effective response to foot and mouth outbreak.

- Quangos have been rationalised. Where new quangos have been established in England they have been democratised in Wales. For example England formed new quangos in the form of the Care Standards Commissions in 2000, whilst Wales established the Care Council for Wales, appointed by and guided by the Welsh Assembly. As of next month the quangos will become part of the Government for Wales, operating as agents of the Welsh Government.

- The Assembly has brought about a transformation to open and transparent decision-making. For example even cabinet papers are posted on the Assembly web site.

- Welsh Assembly has to be more responsive to Welsh public opinion than Whitehall as it is actually based in Wales.

New partnership with Local Government

- Welsh Assembly is close enough to local government to develop real partnerships. For example the Assembly agreed 24 key target areas with Local Authorities and then individually negotiated targets with each of the 22 councils. Compare this with England where there is one central government trying to work with over 400 English local councils

Some Talking Shop! Some Talking shop!

So regions like the West Midland s have learnt from Wales and else where but they are also doing their own thinking . There active campaigns and Conventions in six out 8 of the English Regions. The latest East Region, that that really radical region that includes Norfolk, Suffolk Cambridge, Ipswich, Norwich. The East Region CC is to hold a major conference in July.

All these organisations are part of CFER and are adding to the momentum towards devolution, which we believe is now unstoppable.

If we keep up the pressure if we campaign if we continue the fight.

I will finish by saying I am convinced that there will be White paper in May and if that goes well there will be referendum legislation in November.

How should we respond to the Launch of the White paper?

- well in the long run it will depend what its says but remember this. There will be a whole line up of our opponents ready to knock the White paper whatever it says. Martin Callahan will be sharpening his poisonous pen as we speak - the WP and our long term hopes could be drowned out in an avalanche of critical comment if we the supporters of devolution, blindly join with the opponents of devolution in highlighting the faults in the Paper in the first few days after the launch. Remember how sensitive this government is to criticism in the media. In that first period let us all welcome the fact that the government has issued a WP as a positive step first step and save any constructive criticism until after this particular baby has been born and took its first breath. There will be plenty of time and opportunity to press for changes. The legislation that will determine the shape and powers of the assembly will only be placed before parliament after a successful referendum - which will be in 2003 at the earliest.

So if we keep or nerve and keep on working hard we could be at the beginning of the end of our campaign. The whole country is looking for this to succeed first in the North east lets use the next few months strengthen the skill base and capacity of the campaign for the fight ahead.'

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