Parliaments for the North: Prescott takes plans to the people

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Indy Politics

A smiling group of teenagers atop a Blackpool tram pose for the camera. Two are putting their thumbs in the air; a third points his thumb in the opposite direction.

From today, that postcard image from the North-west's top resort will be distributed across the region to drum up interest in a proposed tier of government stretching from Cheshire to the Scottish borders.

Similar awareness campaigns were launched yesterday in the North-east, using a picture of footballers in the front of the Angel of the North. There were also campaigns in Yorkshire and the Humber, with a photograph of football fans in an unidentified soccer stadium.

Citing the thumbs-up, thumbs-down pictures, the Government insists the publicity drive is not intended to corral the residents of the three regions into voting for assemblies. It says the aim is to engage local people in the debate over whether they should be created in the first place.

But there is no disguising John Prescott's enthusiasm for the Government's much-delayed drive to devolve power to the English regions.

Labour first floated the idea in its 1997 manifesto. Nine years later, it may finally become reality in three of the eight regions.

The policy almost withered in the face of apathy, among voters and around the Cabinet table. But the Deputy Prime Minister got his way in 2002 and published a White Paper, Your Region, Your Choice, setting up assemblies. He told MPs that the plan would "bring decision-making closer to the people of England".

In June, he announced that, following consultation with "local stakeholders", referendums would be held in autumn 2004 to discover whether the residents of the North-east, North-west and Yorkshire and the Humber wanted them.

Suggestions that a vote could be held in the South-west have been hampered by tensions between different parts of that region. There is little perceptible interest in the idea in the West or East Midlands, the East of England or the doughnut-shaped region around London that has been designated the South-east. Mr Prescott visited Durham and York yesterday and goes to Warrington today to launch the "Your Say" publicity drive. Leaflets setting out the plans were launched in each region and, next year, all households in the three areas will receive detailed information packs about the devolution drive.

Speaking at Durham Castle, Mr Prescott said: "People in the North-east have a great opportunity to establish a new form of government that will bring choice, democracy, and opportunity to their region.

"The information campaign will ensure people are armed with the knowledge to choose whether they want to take this opportunity or not."

Backing for a regional assembly is probably strongest in the North-east, where the argument is advanced that the region has missed out on the financial benefits enjoyed by Scots because of devolution. There has been something of a "domino effect" in the North-west and Yorkshire and the Humber. But there is no certainty over the outcome of next year's referendums in any of the three regions, particularly as postal ballots will be allowed.

By launching the publicity campaign nearly a year before 11 million people get the right to vote, the Government hopes to build momentum towards a 'yes' result.

It also knows it has to achieve a respectable number of people voting in each referendum. Nick Raynsford, Minister of State for Local Government and the Regions, has made clear ministers will not approve the creation of assemblies in regions where the turnout has been "derisory".

The Government's biggest task will be in convincing electors their new mini-parliaments would be more than glorified talking-shops.

The 25 to 35 members, who would be elected by proportional representation, would take control over economic development, employment, planning, transport, housing, culture and health improvement, and be responsible for Regional Development Agencies.

But there will be strict limits to their powers, being given, for example, only a "responsibility to advise the Government on local transport spending" and "a duty to promote the public health of the region".

Each assembly would cost £25m a year to run, offset by the abolition of a tier of local government in each region.

The new bodies would be funded mainly by Whitehall. But, like the Greater London Assembly, they would have the power to raise more money through a precept on council tax and by borrowing.

Opposition politicians and business leaders have not been convinced by the arguments, with the Tories seeing it as a useful chink in the armour in regions where support is patchy.

Eric Pickles, Conservative local government spokesman, said: "John Prescott is wasting taxpayers' money on this propaganda campaign, based on misinformation, in support of his expensive white elephants.

"These regional assemblies will not give the people of the North the same powers as the people of Scotland and Wales - far from it. All they will do is take power away from local residents, raise their taxes and put in place an extra army of politicians and bureaucrats. John Prescott is living in cloud-cuckoo land if he thinks his barmy proposals will make any difference to the people of the North."

The Confederation of British Industry has said it is "sceptical", arguing companies need better regional decision-making, not "another expensive and time-consuming talking-shop".

The British Chambers of Commerce has also complained that industry's views will not be represented.The Liberal Democrats welcomed the plan but said authorities should have wider powers.

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