John Prescott was accused yesterday of unveiling an expensive "white elephant" after he announced plans to allow people from three parts of the North of England to vote on forming the first English regional assemblies.
The referendums could take place as early as next year. The Deputy Prime Minister told MPs that a consultation exercise had made "an overwhelming case" for holding polls in the North-east, the North-west and Yorkshire and the Humber.
The Conservatives poured scorn on the "pathetic" numbers of people backing the idea of a local referendum on elected regional bodies. They said that a three-month consultation attracted fewer than 8,500 responses. They also attacked ministers for backing referendums on local government reform while refusing to hold a national poll on the new European constitution. Mr Prescott insisted that 50,000 people had taken part in the consultation.
Under the plans, people in Co Durham, Northumberland and Tyne and Wear; Cheshire, Cumbria and Lancashire; and Yorkshire and north Lincoln-shire will vote on whether regional "mini-parliaments", of 25 to 35 elected members, should be set up. They would run economic regeneration, transport, tourism, employment, housing, culture, land use, planning and public health.
The proposals also herald fundamental reform of local authorities. Mr Prescott said that any move to form regional assemblies would be accompanied by single-tier local government in the three areas, to replace the existing county and district councils. A review of the current system would be run before any referendums.
In the West Midlands, the East of England the South-east and the South-west, referendums on reform were rejected after fewer than half of those surveyed backed the idea of a poll.
Mr Prescott hailed the announcement as a "historic opportunity" for the people of the three northern regions. He told MPs: "Elected regional assemblies will bring greater democracy and a new political voice to the regions. They will reduce bureaucracy rather than increase it, and above all provide regional accountability." But David Davis, the shadow Deputy Prime Minister, said: "Regional assemblies are an answer in search of a question, a solution in search of a problem, and a policy in search of someone to love it. The people of the North are again being asked to pay more, for less."
Many Labour MPs welcomed the announcement. But George Howarth, Labour MP for Knowsley North and Sefton East, warned that "any close analysis of the consultation you have carried out would almost certainly reveal that it is a preoccupation of ... nomenclature rather than the people, certainly in the North-west".
Nick Raynsford, the minister for Local Government, said that the Government would not feel bound by a referendum where the turnout was "derisory". But he refused to set a minimum turnout for the polls.
Edward Davey, who shadows Mr Prescott for the Liberal Democrats, welcomed the news as "a good day for democracy". He said: "English regions can now choose between regional democracy and the regional quango state."
George Morran, chairman of Campaign for the English Regions, said: "Whitehall and Westminster have finally loosened the reins on the English regions. Now it's up to people in the three northern regions to prove that elected assemblies can make a real difference.
"This is an idea whose time has come, and there is no going back. With the first 'yes' votes next year, elected assemblies should be up and running soon after the next general election."
But John Cridland, deputy director general of the CBI, said: "We do not want to end up with costly talking shops that few people have asked for. There is little business appetite for this, as there is no evidence that [these] assemblies will have any impact on economic development."
Ruth Lea, head of policy at the Institute of Directors, said: "The proposed regional assemblies are fundamentally flawed. They will be bureaucratic and costly - a typical assembly would employ 200 staff and cost £25m of taxpayers' money a year to run.
"We have a perfectly viable system of local government and creating regional assemblies, doubtless to accommodate the EU's vision of a constitutional 'Europe of the Regions', is unlikely to be little more than an expensive exercise in changing name plates on doors. It will be yet more money squandered."
The view from the North-East
By Paul Peachey
In the 11th century, the eldest son of William the Conqueror built a new castle in the North-east of England to keep out the pillaging Scots. Many centuries and several rebuilds later it remains standing in the heart of the city to which it gave its name. But the people of Newcastle are powerless to prevent the ideas that transformed the Scottish political system seeping across the border and taking root in the region.
Tom Hogarth, an attendant at the castle keep, feels people in Newcastle should continue the tradition of trying to keep unwelcome invaders at bay. "It's bad enough listening to London,'' said Mr Hogarth, 49. "Why should I listen to Durham?''
Durham is expected to be the centre of government for any new North-east assembly which could be set up after a referendum. In an early testing of the political waters, the Government's own figures revealed that in a region of 2.5 million, the 888 responses from interested parties showed a tiny majority in favour of a regional assembly. "Interested parties'' was hardly the term that could be used for the feelings of the regulars in the Metropole on Gateshead's High Street on the opposite side of the Tyne from the castle keep. A small group inside were paying scant attention to the skateboarder's tricks on the big television screen and even less when the manager, Robert Stewart, 24, flicked over channels to Mr Prescott's announcement going out live on Sky.
''Strong regional voice ...'' said Mr Prescott. "Brrrr,'' said Roy Rutherford, 66, a retired industrial chemist. "Waste of bloody time.''
Mr Stewart, a native Scot who moved south five years ago, was equally scathing of the project. "I don't really care, it's all the same at the end of the day - it's all just promises. Take Scotland, it's not independent, it's still run by the English.''
Graham Varty, 53, was a Labour member until Tony Blair came to power and was looking forward to casting his vote. "I'll vote no,'' he said. "In capital letters even. I can see no advantage to it at all."Reuse content