Prescott's nightmare
(Filed: 17/06/2003)

Last year John Prescott announced that he had a "dream" - in which he saw eight regional assemblies towering over the landscape of England. Yesterday, this latter-day Martin Luther King's vision came closer to becoming reality, with the announcement that the North-West, North-East and Yorkshire and Humberside are to receive referendums on regional assemblies.

This is an idea that has long commanded support from the European Union, as it represents a progressive weakening of the nation state. The Government has been quite open in its view that the assemblies would fit into a model E U superstate better than the current borough, metropolitan and county council arrangements, and cites the example of the Länder in Germany. The analogy is misleading.

The German Länder have, as it were, an organic claim to authority, and have represented their local communities for much longer. The English regions are, by comparison, ahistorical, nebulously conceived, arbitrarily imposed. The South-West region, for example, has little to hold it together. Cornishmen have a distinct history and even language from those in Somerset, of which this government legislation takes no account. The Scottish Parliament actually means something to the Scottish because the nation is a long-standing entity.

Nor does the Government's claim that these regional assemblies will round off the process of devolution bear water. Those in the North- East, who have so far been the most vocal supporters of regionalisation, will be dismayed to discover that the proposed authorities will not gain even the limited substantive powers that the existing assemblies enjoy. They will not be able to scrap tuition fees as in Scotland or freeze prescription charges as in Wales. Instead they will be given a small number of targets to achieve by the Government. So in no sense will these bodies give greater autonomy to the regions.

The assemblies will, however, entirely change the face of local government - giving far greater opportunity for the salariat to flourish. Rather than leaching power downwards from central government, they will usurp the existing powers of local government. They will be operated on a party list system, which will mean that the electorate will not have the opportunity to select their assembly members individually.

The Government's own research in the three regions suggests that opinion - inasmuch as any opinion is held - is 5:1 against these assemblies. Yet for ideological reasons - or perhaps to guarantee Mr Prescott's peaceful slumber - they are pressing on with costly and likely fruitless referendums. The three regions, and ultimately all of England, will receive a referendum on this issue when there is no desire for one - but not on the EU constitution, where one is desperately wanted.

In this case, we are asked to vote on a move that purports to strengthen the local but will do the opposite. Our counties and boroughs, and the voices of less-populated rural areas, now to be lumped with the urban, will be the weaker for Mr Prescott's dream.