Local difficulty

There is no need for John Prescott's regional assemblies

Last week the Prime Minister created a new Department for Constitutional Affairs and appointed a Secretary of State to run it. Yesterday important constitutional changes were announced, sufficiently important to require referendums before being implemented. Yet the minister making the announcement was not the new Secretary of State. It was the Deputy Prime Minister. Whatever this may say about the coherence of the recent reshuffle, it says something even more eloquent about the nature of the plans announced yesterday to create regional assemblies for the North East, North West and Yorkshire and the Humber after referendums. These assemblies are a personal project. The polls are taking place only because of the insistence of the Deputy Prime Minister. He wants them as a concrete monument of his period in office. It is an expensive retirement gift from the Prime Minister. Too expensive.

The real cost of establishing the assemblies does not lie in the £90 million capital outlay to create all three or the £25 million each will require for running costs. Although, as the Scottish Parliament demonstrates, these sums can rise, they are, in the context of overall public spending, fairly modest amounts. What may cost the taxpayer dearly is appointing a new group of politicians to eminent posts with poorly defined functions. It is almost inevitable that local taxation will be higher in regions that have assemblies than they are now, with little to show in the way of extra local amenities.

This does not, of course, automatically disqualify the idea from consideration. The Labour Party came to support regional assemblies for essentially political reasons. If these arguments continued to hold, then it might be worth incurring some cost. Unfortunately for John Prescott, they do not.

The first reason was to provide Labour with an answer to the so-called West Lothian question. When asked what would happen when Scottish MPs were able to vote on purely English matters, Labour MPs were able to respond that responsibility for such matters would be devolved away from Parliament to the English regions. Some time ago, however, Tony Blair hit on a rather different way of dealing with the West Lothian question -- just do not ask it. The lack of fuss that was made when a Scot was appointed Health Secretary last week suggests that this approach is working. The powers of regional assemblies will now in large part be devolved upwards from local government. For this reason, even if an answer to the West Lothian question was needed, Mr Precott's assemblies are not it.

A further reason for Labour's adoption of the assemblies was to provide a response to the decline of local government. Quite rightly, however, the party decided that it would begin with the creation of mayors for centres of population. This reform makes far more sense than assemblies. The powers are clear and the machinery in place to implement decisions. More importantly, the areas covered by mayors are proper communities. All too often, regions simply define areas within which communities battle with each other. The announcement last year of a possible North West assembly had to be held in an hotel in Daresbury in Cheshire in order to be roughly equidistant between Liverpool and Manchester and avoid offending the residents of either.

Mr Prescott's response to this criticism is that he will proceed only where there is assent from a referendum and the turnout is not "derisory". No definition of this term has been offered. The Government should have the courage to put a figure on the percentage of the population it requires to vote in favour. These assemblies should not be created unless there is overwhelming local enthusiasm.