Labour `to delay' shake-up

Plans for new regional assemblies face problems. Nicholas Timmins reports
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Indy Politics
Elected regional assemblies in England look increasingly likely to be put off to the second term of an incoming Labour government.

Labour remains determined to press ahead fast with correcting the "democratic deficit" in the regions caused by the proliferation of quangos.

But party sources now say the need to subject local government to a further reorganisation, and to consult widely before elected assemblies are created, make the establishment of elected regional government ahead of a second election unlikely.

Tony Blair, the Labour leader, told a party meeting at St Helen's last week that full regional government in areas like the North-west "cannot happen unless there is a radical reorganisation of local government underneath it. "People do not want another tier of government simply slapped on top of what is there already," he said.

The first step should be "to make democratic" the institutions which already exist, he said, a process likely to involve slimline assemblies made up of councillors nominated from existing authorities.

Labour's sensitivity to the charge that regional government will create more bureaucracy was confirmed at the weekend when Jack Straw said it was clear that "you could not conceivably establish elected regional assemblies as well as having a tier of shire counties and districts underneath".

With the local government commission having reduced only eight of the 39 shires to anything like single district authorities, it meant the timescale for elected assemblies was now "longer than had been anticipated".

But some senior Labour local government figures believe the party could move faster, creating county boroughs in the larger towns which are to remain under shires in the current reorganisation proposals. Elected assemblies, they believe, could then follow in regions where the demand is strong - such as the North-east.

At present Labour's only hard first-term commitment is to an elected London-wide authority, which now looks set to be based on the old Greater London Council boundaries. A more radical alternative for a "linear city" stretching from Heathrow to Docklands but excluding the outer London boroughs will also be contained in a consultation document in June. Frank Dobson, Labour's local government spokesman, appeared to kick that into touch at the weekend, however, saying if people "batter down the door'' in their enthusiasm Labour "might well bear it in mind".

Under phase one of Labour's plans, regional assemblies would operate much as joint boards consisting of councillors nominated from existing authorities. But Labour is still debating precisely what powers they should have to appoint people to Tecs, urban development corporations and other bodies, or whether they would vet ministerial appointments.

The precise statutory powers they would have over transport, economic development and land use planning have also to be decided.