Labour drops regions plan

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The Independent Online
LABOUR will back away from plans for regional government in England by insisting on a tough new "triple-safeguard" to stop unwanted regional assemblies being created.

The move means that only Scotland, Wales and London will be guaranteed any form of directly elected body. Senior Labour figures are sceptical that any others will be created, although some believe that support for a northern assembly will be powerful enough to overcome the three-tier obstacle.

The decision to backtrack follows the attack on Labour plans at the turn of the year, when Conservatives pilloried them as costly and bureaucratic. Many MPs believe that the original regional government proposals were misconceived, arising out of a desire to promise something for England which would offset pledges for a Scottish Parliament.

Under the proposals, to be outlined at the end of the week by Jack Straw, who is responsible for the constitutional agenda, Scotland, Wales and London will be given directly elected assemblies. In other parts of the country, regional offices of government departments will be "democratised".

Local authorities will nominate councillors to sit on these "regional chambers", which will consider economic development, planning policy guidance, transport policy, urban regeneration and scrutinise the activities of the quangos. Labour says there is already a structure - the English regional associations of local authorities - on which its new chambers can be built.

In order to go further, and establish a directly elected assembly, three criteria will have to be fulfilled. The authorities themselves will have to agree, the plans will have to gain Parliamentary approval, and there will have to be overwhelming evidence of public support for the measure. That will probably require a referendum, although convincing evidence from opinion polls might be a substitute.

If directly elected assemblies come into being, they will assume the powers of the county councils but will have no additional fund-raising powers.