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The real story of Prescott's regions


Peter Davidson (Alderley Edge): Groups implacably opposed to any notion of English Regional devolution repeatedly focus on the overwhelming rejection of an elected assembly for North East England during the November 2004 referendum. This result has assumed iconic significance amongst English Parliament supporters, but it overlooks a body of compelling objective polling data concerning this contentious and emotional topic.

In the first instance devolution for Wales was decisively rejected when first offered in 1974 and only supported by the narrowest of margins during the 1997 referendum. Subsequently, the benefits flowing from the devolution process have become more tangible, and with popularity increasing it now seems likely that a referendum to confer primary legislative powers upon the Welsh Assembly, thus converting it into a full blown Parliament, will succeed.

In England, prior to the bungled Prescott devolution programme of 2003-4, every single opinion poll showed strong support for increased levels of Regional autonomy (for example, here, here and here) with particularly strong support evidenced in this 2002 BBC survey (part 2 of this research is particularly illuminating, given the events of 2004).

So what went so disastrously wrong between 2003 and 2004 to turn public sentiment in England against Regional devolution and towards an all-England constitutional settlement?

There is no definitive response to this question, but closer inspection of the devolution timetable during the 2001-2005 period provides some vital clues.

Following Labour's 2001 election victory English Regional Devolution strategies were very prominent within the newly mandated administration. John Prescott and his Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (ODPM) were charged with the task of masterminding a strategy to roll-out devolution plans for the English Regions to complement devolved institutions already established in Scotland, Wales and N.Ireland and Greater London.

Intense consultations took place during 2001-2002, culminating in the publication of a White Paper "Your Region, Your Choice: Revitalising the English Regions" on 9th May 2002, setting out Government plans for Regional Assemblies. The government confirmed that referendums would be held where sufficient interest was expressed to warrant plebiscites. Eventually they settled on the three most peripheral English Regions (discounting the claims of SW. England to this title); NE. England, NW. England and Yorks-Humber, as candidates for referendums.

Sometime during 2002, John Prescott's ODPM team visited all Government departments with a shopping list of competencies for the nascent English Regional Assemblies. They were intent on creating robust institutions of devolved governance with responsibility for vital everyday portfolios of governmental activity. It was this tacit assumption of effective power dispersal that sustained strong public support for English Regional Devolution during the previous ten year period. The public believed that devolution meant what it said: the transfer of significant powers replete with revenue raising capacity, particularly in areas of everyday impact such as healthcare, education, law & order, housing, intra-Regional transport and economic development policy, from a highly centralised Whitehall bound government machine to more immediate tiers of accountable governance.

However, public hopes and aspirations were cruelly dashed as the ministerial heads of one government department after another, colluded with by senior civil servants and emboldened by the lukewarm support flowing from Nos. 10/11 Downing Street, flatly rebuffed the advances of Prescott's team. Effectively the Whitehall mandarins gave the English Devolution strategy a two fingered salute!

Stunned by this reversal, Prescott's ODPM machine furiously backpedaled in an attempt to create an entirely new raft of proposals for the forthcoming Regional Assemblies Preparations Bill. Published in November 2002, the paucity of powers slated for the embryonic regional institutions drew an overwhelmingly negative public response in the peripheral English Regions and a barrage of criticism from respective regional media publications. During 2003, previously positive public support for the English Regional Devolution concept understandably plummeted. Planned referendums for NW. England and Yorks-Humber were finally suspended in July 2004, leaving Prescott and his increasingly isolated team the thankless task of promoting sham devolution proposals during the Autumn 2004 official referendum campaign period in NE. England. The rest, as we know, is history.

For me this lamentable sequence of events clearly illustrates how long-term public support can quickly turn to ambivalence and downright hostility in the face of duplicitous central government machinations. The grand designs and aspirations attributable to English Regional Devolution were effectively sabotaged from the outset by a pervasive culture of centralised London (Whitehall) bound power.

Concurrently the established institutions of devolved governance in Scotland, Wales and eventually N. Ireland have inexorably raised their profile, driven by the incontrovertible logic of more effective governance flowing from a more immediate and responsive administration of civic power. Even in London, residents of the City have begun to display a new sense of affinity emerging from the quite limited powers displayed their own devolved tier of governance. This latter development lends credence to the remarks of Professor Kevin Morgan in his paper "The English Question: Regional Perspectives on a Fractured Nation" (opens pdf) when he states:

This suggests that the perennial criticism of English regionalism, that ‘regions' in England are ‘artificial' creations with no historical pedigree, is less damning than it appears, not least because the vast majority of regional governments in the EU today consist of ‘artificial' regions which subsequently developed varying degrees of regional identity, often in response to rapidly changing contextual conditions

In stark contrast, effective power dispersal in England remains moribund, frustrated by Whitehall intransigence and a deeply embedded culture of control freakery characterised in a "we know best" approach to policy formulation. Westminster resolutely clings to control of finances as the ultimate symbol of political power and the capacity to raise revenues is perceived as an inviolable asset.

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