Major attacks Labour's `farcical' regional plans

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JOHN MAJOR yesterday launched a fierce attack on Labour's plans for regional assemblies in England, describing them as "farcical, amateurish, ill thought-out and contradictory". He said he had "never known such a total shambles", and argued that the policy would "disembowel" local councils.

Opposition leaders retorted that Mr Major had invented Labour policy in order to criticise it.

Mr Major's speech, at the Conservative Local Government Conference, follows earlier attacks on plans for a Scottish parliament. Linking the issues, he said Labour was proposing regional assemblies because they had promised a Scottish parliament and "don't want an English backlash".

Addressing around 300 councillors, he said: "The last thing our communities need now is Labour's plans to put you under the control of regional government. Another whole tier of government would make Britain the most over-governed country in Europe."

Mr Major picked on suggestions by Frank Dobson, Labour's local government spokesman, that regional assemblies might take some powers from councils. He said: "I wonder how many Labour candidates for the local elections realise that Labour wish to disembowel the councils they're standing for." The extent of regional assemblies is not likely to be spelt out by Labour until June when Jack Straw, chairman of the party's democracy committee, produces a paper. But the party has moved away from a plan for a national network of directly-elected regional assemblies.

Latest thinking is that the Opposition will propose that elected councillors are nominated to sit on regional bodies, perhaps alongside local businessmen, MPs and MEPs. Labour argues that the quangos set up by the Conservatives and the regional offices of government departments can be democratised at a regional level.

Tony Blair, the Labour leader, is stressing that the party is not committed to setting up new tiers of regional government until there is evidence of a public demand for it.

The scaling down of Labour's plans is made clear in an interview in today's Scotland on Sunday in which Mr Blair says: "There is not a consensus about regional assemblies in England. We can't commit ourselves to doing something until it is clear that the support and pressure for it is there. We are not committed to regional assemblies in England. We are committed to decentralisation and to bring the quango state under democratic control."