Democrat Broadsheet (Number 18)
Prescott's folly - a step too far
Report by George West
Regional Assemblies are undemocratic & unaccountable
What are Regional Assemblies? Job centres for local politicians who might be on the look our for career advancement? Arenas in which sceptical politicians can voice largely ineffective opposition to unelected appointees? Forums in which Conservatives can enter into constructive engagement whilst professing to toe the party line of dissolving Regional Assemblies? Talking shops without powers except for highly influential planning powers, which have been taken away from county councils? OR unelected quangos supposedly set up to scrutinise the work of Development Agencies without apparently doing so and most certainly not providing such financial scrutiny.
Regional Assemblies are all of these with the potential, if allowed to continue to empire build, to subordinate or remove our existing councils by acting as Trojan Horses.
Who is in charge?
Who is the politician behind all of this? Mr John Prescott, Deputy Prime Minister who presides over plans to break up England via what could be the greatest disruption to existing local government we have ever seen at huge expense.
A great deal of marketing to pave the way has already taken place with minimal effect, not only to convince people that there is justification for change but that change of this sort towards a sense of regional identity is meaningful to the general public and required by them. In the Midlands, CDs and glossy brochures have been freely distributed to negligible effect that an East Midlands identity is one which we should welcome to supplant our sense of being of a town, city or county.
Imagine only one East Midlands football team and stadium at a time when the title East Midlands Airport has proved a failure and a new name is sought so that people travelling from the continent can have a clearer idea of where they might be landing. Imagine the other side of the Midlands, people proudly boasting, I am a West Midlander rather than saying I am a Brummie. Why the need to change the sense of identity? Why indeed, unless it is to serve another purpose, neatly identifying people not by local associations and loyalties but with EU regional boundaries represented by MEPs in Brussels, whilst the influence of our own MPs and our own Parliament is diminished.
This packaging of people within artificially created regional boundaries, ignores the fact that if people think at all about how they are to be governed, they think of themselves on a local basis. They prefer to be governed locally where they feel they can have access to locally elected councillors and not by unknowns who are appointed.
There are those people who have reached the conclusion that this change to subordinate existing councils to Regional Assemblies is driven by the European Union. Further, if the EU did not first inspire this, then the EU has seized upon the opportunity. Those who disclaim EU dominance appear to be the same as those who support the EU. They cannot prove that the EU is not ultimately the controller or the guiding hand which must not be ignored. There is ample evidence to support that Regional Assemblies are the intermediaries through which EU directives, regulations and objectives are handed down to the people. Gordon Brown himself recently announced at a CBI/TUC breakfast that he had begun to campaign to get more powers repatriated to Britain from the EU. He has met with a refusal to budge.
Government minister, Nick Raynsford published a booklet
It is not of any significance that Prescott is not English by birth but we should bear in mind that he is known as the person who drew up a policy framework for devolution for Scotland and Wales. Also his EU connections are well established. From 1976 to 1979 he led the British group in the European Parliament and was offered but declined the position of European Commissioner.
No EU factor?
Europhiles repeatedly claim that there is not a European Union requirement that member states should have elected regional government. Whilst this might be true of Britain, accession countries which do not have established regional administrations are required to adopt them. These same europhiles also say that empowering our regions does not mean the break up of England just as devolution and city wide government in London has not meant the break up of Britain.
It is true that the EU did not need to impose regionalisation on the UK. British governments have done it for them and continues to do so. The Labour government is trying to put the finishing touches to what the Conservatives started despite even the Prime Minister reportedly saying two years ago, "we need elected regional assemblies like a hole in the head".
The EU remains remarkably clever. A trawlerman does not have to force fish to swim into his net, he waits and the fish become entangled. The EU uses bait and waits for local councils, stakeholders, partners, universities, churches whatever, to swallow the bait. They become hooked and lose any incentive to resist, or, struggle though they might, they remain entangled.
Local Self Government
The Council of European Municipalities and Regions (CEMR) brings together over 100,000 local and regional authorities in Europe. The text for a
So what is the nature of the bait which is used by the EU? These include so called Structural Funds, Cohesion Funds and Regeneration Funds. Paid out of British taxpayers money and is money raised daily by VAT the tax system imported from the EU itself.
This money from the EU pot is available to local authorities and regions which are encouraged to prepare their own development plans and negotiate directly with Brussels. This money is the glue which holds the EU regions together and weakens national governments and nation states.. It is no wonder that in the East Midlands, we see our European MEPs in attendance at Assembly meetings, but seldom if ever our MPs.
This has led to an explosion in Brussels of offices for regional and local governments together with their representative organisations. They have become the vanguard of regionalisation, their staffs dealing directly with the Commission in Brussels. Progressively member state governments are being relegated.
By 1993 the Conservative government was hostile to English devolution and pushed local government reform in the direction of unitary local authorities leading to the demise of some county councils.. Ten Regional Government Offices were created to manage regional government programmes in the regions in order to apply for EU funds. These RGOs are directed by civil servants and not by elected politicians.
In 1996 Prescott established a Regional Policy Commission which recommended that each region should have a Regional Development Agency to promote economic development. The establishment of nine Regional Assemblies followed, their boundaries conforming with those of the Euro Regions.
Each region is headed by a board with between 8 and 15 members appointed by the Secretary of State working with Chambers of between 30 and 100 members. These Chambers or Assemblies as they are known comprise 70% local authority members and 30% drawn from other sectors, the CBI, the TUC, Chambers of Commerce, the small business sector, higher and further education, NHS, voluntary organisations, Learning And Skills Council, regional Cultural Consortia, rural and environmental groups and other stakeholders.
The Assemblies are represented by the English Regions Network formed in 2000. In 2001 the government announced plans for a new fund of £15 million for the Assemblies over three years.
They have followed this up by transferring planning powers from county councils. People are not being offered a real choice. We all want decentralisation and devolution which provides from government the money and powers which enable our councils and councillors to do the jobs they are elected to do.
With devolved Regional Assemblies we will get great competition between regions to acquire whatever money is on offer, to the annoyance of any region feeling that they are left out in the competive scramble.
This coming autumn there will be a referendum in each of the three northern regions. People will not be asked whether or not they want a Regional Assembly. They will only be asked whether they want an elected Regional Assembly.
These referenda will not terminate our existing Assemblies despite the government's White Paper on Page 68 actually stating that "a NO vote will mean no Regional Assembly and NO change to local government". Assemblies in the event of a NO vote will simply carry on gathering strength and devolving structures. This is happening now in other regions where a referendum will not take place, as yet. In any case Prescott has advised or instructed all Assemblies to turn themselves into limited liability companies to enable members to act with financial impunity.
There are many reasons why we should not have Regional Assemblies whether directly or indirectly elected. Page 31 of the government's White Paper states, "England has a well established history of elected local government which represents and serves well the needs of our cities, towns and rural areas, but there has been no equivalent democratic development at the regional level".
Page 45 headed
As with the Scottish Parliament and the London Assembly, you can imagine runaway costs payable by further taxation whether on the present community charge or on a new, local income tax. New buildings, more staff, new furniture, more computers, high salaries and pensions for executives looming ahead with ever increasing bureaucracy. Of course it will be claimed in the forthcoming referenda YES campaign no doubt that savings will be made by removing a tier of local government and local accountability, all in the name of bringing government closer to the people whilst actually taking it further away.
However Lord Bassam of Brighton let a cat out of a bag when he said in Parliament, "all issues relating to the financing of elected Regional Assemblies will be properly dealt with by a Bill which sets up those bodies. Such a Bill will be introduced following a YES vote in a referendum". Cast your vote and then be told AFTERWARDS about funding - are we the electorate considered to be that stupid?
There is also the belief that central government will not devolve any more powers to Regional Assemblies and no more money other than a block grant. The situation is complicated by enlargement of the EU which means that after 2006, funds will dry up with money directed to ten new members. Because of this future shortfall, Brown is asking permission for Britain to be responsible for payments to our own poor areas. Whatever happens after 2006, we can expect to be called to make up any shortfall made even worse should we lose our EU rebate.
Regional Assemblies are an unnecessary expense and an open door for higher taxation. By all means let us continue the campaign to support our existing councils and to empower them to govern locally. Should you live in the north, use you vote to reject elected Regional Assemblies. Should you live elsewhere in England join the campaign to be rid of Regional Assemblies.