and PATRICIA WYNN DAVIES
One of the battlegrounds of the next election was laid out yesterday as Labour published its plans for regional assemblies to charges of a U-turn and attempts to paint them as a weakening of Labour's commitment to a Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly.
Those charges were flatly denied by Jack Straw, Labour's Home Affairs spokesman, and John Prescott, its deputy leader.
Labour's plans involve a two-step approach. Initially "regional chambers" would be created, consisting of about 40 councillors nominated by local authorities but reflecting local political balance.
They would have no legislative or tax-raising powers and would be set up within existing budget. They would oversee the pounds 6bn currently spent by the 10 existing integrated regional offices on training, housing, urban regeneration and business support.
Their role would include acting as the region's voice in Europe, undertaking land use planning, scrutinising the activities of quangos, agencies and utilities, co-ordinating economic development and possibly running regional transport.
Step two would involve directly elected assemblies, if regions opted for that after a referendum. Some regions may, however, never want to take that step, Labour said, and their powers would be similarly limited.
The proposals, Mr Straw said, would bring back democratic control of billions of pounds of central government expenditure after 16 years that had turned Britain into "the most centrally controlled political system in the western world".
John Gummer, Secretary of State for the Environment, accused Labour of a U-turn over full blown regional government and claimed it "blew away" the fig-leaf which Labour claimed had answered the so-called "West Lothian question" - of how a Scots MP could continue to vote on English matters when an English MP would be debarred from voting on issues controlled by a Scottish Parliament. Mr Straw, however, said the offer of regional government still stood.
Alex Salmond, leader of the Scottish National Party, said "no one in their right mind can now trust Labour to keep their Scottish commitments" after backing down over full blown regional government under Tory fire. Mr Straw and Mr Prescott both insisted, however, that a Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly remained a first year commitment for Labour and denied Liberal Democrat charges that Labour was opting for regional rule by placement on new quangos.
Bob Maclennan, the Liberal Democrat's constitutional spokesman, said: "Labour's claim to favour radical reform of our system of government looks pretty tattered after today's announcement."
A strategic authority for London will be set up without a referendum or other means of consulting the people because the demand for one there is "overwhelming" Labour said, and its creation would be a manifesto commitment. Equally, the party argued that a referendum was not needed for the Scottish and Welsh bodies as their creation would be a manifesto commitment and would be a high profile general election issue in the countries concerned.Reuse content