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Stay intact with devolution

Local power has made some countries more affluent, writes Leonard Doyle
The English may be frightened into voting Conservative by John Major's scenario of a United Kingdom broken by Labour's devolution proposals. But the experience of Europe shows that devolution tends to keep countries intact and may even make them m ore prosperous.

Britain, as the most centralised state, is the odd man out in Europe. Most other European countries have either toughened their regional and local government structures or are introducing new levels of decentralised government.

By contrast, successive British Conservative governments have refused to sign the Council of Europe's 1985 Charter on Local Self-Government which has already been ratified by 19

European nations.

The proposals for a Scottish parliament with limited taxing powers, an assembly for Wales and the English regions do not go far enough down the federal road in the opinion of Andrew Duff, the Director of the Federal Trust which is campaigning for a federal European Union in which the regions would have more power.

Mr Duff believes Labour's proposals do not give enough taxing powers to the Scottish Assembly to be truly federal, and the confusion and overlap between a future Scottish Parliament and Westminster "could cause acrimony and lead to dangerous outbursts ofEnglish nationalism", he said.

The Council of Europe's local government charter is concerned with ensuring that local authorities have "democratically constituted decision making bodies" and that power is exercised by "those authorities which are closest to the citizen."

Germany and Austria are the best examples of fully fledged federal systems of government. The 16 German Lander or regional administrations have a great degree of autonomy under the constitution, including tax raising powers. For issues such as education and local policing they have total control and send regionally elected ministers to the Council of Ministers in Brussels.

It is often argued that the most prosperous regions of Europe are those with interventionist structures of local and regional government which are close to the electorate and can have a direct influence on economic development.

But in some cases the federal experiment has led to a huge increase in costs. Belgium recently developed a federal structure of government based on Flanders, Wallonia and the Brussels region, complemented by three community tiers of government for the Flemish, French and German speaking populations of the country.

Spain may provide the best example for Labour. The system comprises some federalist features and while there are 17 autonomous regions, the powers of the regional governments vary from region to region, according to popular demand.

The Netherlands has opted for decentralised local rather than regional government.