Emphatic defeat for North-east assembly hits devolution plans

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Indy Politics

John Prescott admitted today that his plans for regional devolution in England had suffered an "emphatic" defeat after voters in North-east ejected proposals for an elected assembly by more than three-to-one.

The result was seen as a personal humiliation for the Deputy Prime Minister, who has championed the cause of regional government.

The first English region to hold a referendum on establishing an assembly voted overwhelmingly by 696,519 to 197,310 against on a turnout of 48.36 per cent.

All 23 council areas in the region - including Sedgefield which covers Tony Blair's constituency - returned a No vote in the all-postal ballot.

The North-east had been handpicked as the area where support for regional government was regarded to be at its strongest.

If it had voted in favour, referendums may well have followed in the North West and Yorkshire and the Humber. That now looks a remote prospect.

At a press conference in Sunderland Mr Prescott said that there could not now be another referendum on the issue in the region for another seven years.

"I might be disappointed. It is an emphatic defeat for the possibility of an elected regional assembly," he said. The North-east public have answered in an emphatic way. I am a democrat and I accept that.

"I was surprised by the clear majority and I think there was a number of reasons for that - and claims of more politicians and greater council tax has an affect.

"It was an overwhelming defeat for the proposal put before the North-east public. As a government we believe in letting the people have their say."

A delighted John Elliott, chairman of the successful North-east Says No campaign, welcomed the result.

"I'm not interested in giving the Government a bloody nose - I am sure they are honourable people. But I would rather John Prescott has two weeks' embarrassment than us be saddled with a £25m white elephant," he said.

The Conservative spokesman for the regions, Bernard Jenkin, said the vote should now sound the death knell for regional assemblies.

"I think the whole idea of regional government has been blown out of the water by this vote," he said.

"This is decisive vote against regional government, against more politicians and more talk. The fake devolution which Mr Prescott proposed has been rejected, and the regional agenda is now dead."

The Liberal Democrats, who campaigned alongside Labour in favour of an assembly, blamed the Government for their defeat.

"Labour's half-baked ideas on devolution prompted this No vote. With so few powers promised, this was not a true test of the region's desire to take power from London," said the Liberal Democrat regions spokesman Ed Davey.

Professor John Tomaney, chairman of Yes4theNorthEast, acknowledged that they had suffered a "pretty resounding defeat".

"The vote for No is not going to solve the problems of the North-east, such as jobs, the lack of skills and narrowing the gap between the North and South," he said.

"There is a larger message here and in view the result says something about the state of politics and parties in the UK."

Supporters of the assembly had argued that it would help bring economic regeneration to one of the most deprived parts of the country. However opponents dismissed it as an expensive "talking shop" with no real powers.

Mr Prescott tried to counter the claims with a belated announcement this week that it would be given control over transport but it was not enough.

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