Blair backs assembly for North-east

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Tony Blair is to take personal charge of an effort to revive the Government's much-delayed plans to set up English assemblies, writing a forward to a White Paper next week on regional government.

The document will pave the way for a referendum to set up an assembly in the North-east by 2005. If approved the assembly would start sitting the following year. Ministers believe the North-west and Yorkshire and Humberside would follow shortly afterwards, although they concede there is little appetite for assemblies elsewhere in the country.

Mr Blair has previously been undecided over the merits of assemblies, even though his Sedgefield constituency is in the North-east. His intervention follows a squabble between Stephen Byers, the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, and John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, over who should take the lead in regional policy.

The Independent has learned that the White Paper will envisage assemblies taking control of economic development, planning, transport, environment and culture. Unlike the Greater London Authority, however, they will not run police and fire services.

Assemblies, comprising a leader and board, would operate in tandem with regional development agencies in an effort to attract investment.

Pressure for an assembly in the North-east has grown since the creation of the Scottish Parliament, with supporters arguing that the lack of a regional voice is hampering its economic growth. The expected £20m cost of setting up the assembly is likely to be borne by local council taxpayers. Its most likely site is Durham, to avoid the local rivalries between Newcastle, Sunderland and Durham.

The envisaged timetable represents a delay on a previous promise by Nick Raynsford, the Local Government minister, that the first English assembly was likely to sit before the next election.

But the decision to go ahead with the White Paper will nevertheless delight supporters of assemblies, who feared that the lukewarm response to government plans for directly elected mayors would deter Ministers from further changes to local government.