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By Jon Hanlon ...
By Jon Hanlon

The government is paving the way for elected regional assemblies with a series of referendums and a review of local government tiers. But there is a strong consensus it will to retain tight control of the English regions.

The English regions white paper, published today by deputy prime minister John Prescott, was expected to allow referendums in eight English regions after the queen's speech in November. This will be followed by a bill next spring which would trigger a vote by members of existing assemblies and the electorate of each region.

A positive vote will mean the first referendums would be held in 2004 and assemblies set up the following year. This would have far-reaching implications for local government in many areas, such as the north-west, where 72% of the electorate are in favour of a regional assembly and 58% are unconcerned about local government reorganisation, according to Steve Machin, director of the North West Regional Assembly.

If elected, regional assemblies would resemble the London Assembly, with 35 to 40 members elected by proportional representation.

The white paper was expected to contain no plans to reform the Barnett formula,

simply a long term proposal to review the funding arrangements for devolved areas in the UK.

The document forms the building blocks for English devolution and elected assemblies' powers are expected to be limited. They will have strategic powers on transport, planning, culture and regeneration but will have no jurisdiction over police or fire authorities.

They would certainly have no powers over the direct delivery of services, which would still be carried out by councils. Yet chair of West Midlands Constitutional Convention Phil Davis said: 'An elected assembly could pick up on the issues which are too big to be picked up by councils.'

Labour MP for Scarborough and Whitby Lawrie Quinn said the white paper is seen as an opportunity to reform local government. He said: 'We have missed out because we are on the edge of a region which is on the edge of a region. A unitary system of local government could be established but there also needs to be a decentralisation process and powers given to the region.'

Others were sceptical about the extent of the government's commitment to elected regional assemblies, particularly when comparisons are drawn with the Greater London Authority which is perceived to have achieved little since it was set up two years ago.

London School of Economics Greater London Group director Tony Travers said: 'The powers of the GLA have been extraordinarily controlled. Unless the regional assemblies have powers which are at least as strong, they will be a complete waste of space.

Dr John Tomaney from the Centre for Urban and Regional Development Studies echoed these views, insisting the development of regional assemblies is 'a process not an event'.

He added: 'Assemblies will be small strategic bodies with a package of powers which will be strong in some areas. '

However, senior research fellow at the Institute for Public Policy Research John Adams said the white paper is significant when compared to other countries.

He added: 'The prime minister believes in unitary councils and is particularly concerned with the number of tiers.'

The white paper effectively sends the message that a positive vote in a referendum will mean a reform of local government and the abolition of either county or district councils, said Mr Adams.

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