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North East England rejects
elected regional assembly

By Andrew Stevens, UK Editor

5 November 2004: A proposal to introduce an elected regional assembly for the North East of England and undertake a massive shake-up of its local councils has been decisively rejected by voters in the region. The referendum held on 4 November 2004 rejected the plans 77.9 per cent to 22.1 per cent on a 47.7 per cent turnout. The referendums planned for two other English regions were immediately thrown into doubt by the scale of the result.

Update November 2007:
In October 2007 the UK government’s Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act was finally approved by Parliament and overhauled the system of governance in most English councils, seven years after the landmark Local Government Act, which introduced the elected mayor model for the first time. The new Act requires council leaders to be installed for four years, thus almost creating a Swedish-style indirectly elected mayor. More

Stretching from Scotland to Yorkshire, the North East region is one of eight English regions outside London used by both the UK and EU to define the boundaries of a plethora of government bodies. However, of the eight, only the North East could be argued to have a cohesive cultural and political identity and even this is brought into question by the strong sub-regional identities surrounding the cities of Newcastle and Sunderland and the large town of Middlesbrough. Nonetheless, all three share a common political identity fashioned around the strength of the Labour Party within the region, though this has receded in recent times, reflecting more transient political allegiances, particularly on the part of the young. Many of the Cabinet’s ‘big-hitters’ such as the Prime Minister Tony Blair himself, policy chief Alan Milburn and former local government secretary Stephen Byers hold Parliamentary seats in the region, as does ‘rising star’ education minister David Miliband and, until very recently, EU Commissioner for Trade Peter Mandelson.

The region is dominated by its capital, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, though the picturesque cathedral city of Durham was the city’s political centre in the past and was thought to be the candidate city to house any assembly. Sunderland achieved city status in 1992 and Middlesbrough, with its university and cathedral, is considered as a city in all but name. In the past, many aspects of the region’s identity were shaped by its heavy industry – namely coal-mining (hence the expression ‘coals to Newcastle’), steel-making and ship-building and while all of these have died out, some residual chemical industries and light engineering remains, though most of those in employment are in either the service sector or light manufacturing. As such, wages and the standards of living in the region are the lowest in England, with high unemployment the norm. The region has been able to successfully re-brand itself to some extent through culture – such as the European City of Culture bid on the part of Newcastle-Gateshead, with its flagship Baltic modern art museum. Signs of progress on this front are sometimes reported in the lesser Sunderland and Middlesbrough, though both were recently featured in the now infamous book of ‘Crap Towns’ that was something of a pre-Christmas publishing hit in the UK.

The Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott had championed of devolution to the regions for two decades and was in search of a legacy for his political career, other than Tony Blair’s ill-fated policy on elected mayors, of which he was never an enthusiastic supporter despite having responsibility for it within the Cabinet. Ironically, the North East contains three out of 11 of the country’s elected mayors, with arguably its two most high profile on Teesside in the form of Ray ‘Robocop’ Mallon and Stuart ‘H’Angus the Monkey’ Drummond who stood as independents and won in Labour heartlands.

The regional government proposals were derided as ‘bureaucratic’ by the Conservative Party, who briefly considered the idea of an English Parliament as a response to the reality of Scottish and Welsh devolution. The consultation exercise undertaken by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister in 2003 assessed the apparent demand for elected regional government and it was demonstrated that in the regions of the North East, the North West and Yorkshire and the Humber there was sufficient cause to proceed with referendums. Referendums in those two regions were later put on hold after backbench pressure from Labour MPs over the timing (less than one year before a likely General Election), though the official reason given was concerns over the use of postal voting in this year’s local elections.

In September 2004, the Electoral Commission announced that it would allocate public funding of £100,000 each to the two official ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ campaigns for the referendum. This followed a neutral public awareness campaign by the government designed to improve turnout in the referendum itself. While only one ‘Yes’ campaign emerged to bid for the state funding, two rival ‘No’ campaigns argued over which was best to take on those campaigning for a regional assembly. The official ‘No’ campaign was business-led while the other was more associated with anti-EU campaigns in the region. The defects in each of the campaigns were evident – the official ‘No’ campaign was actually organised by many people from London, it being publicly fronted by a failed Tory candidate from the region. The Conservative leader, Michael Howard MP, was told not to lend his support to the campaign in case this encouraged people to vote ‘Yes’, such is the party’s unpopularity in the region. However, despite the support of both Labour and the Liberal Democrats, the ‘Yes’ campaign suffered from a lack of grounding in the community and was organised by academics with little political or PR experience.

The requirement for the introduction of unitary local government – both of the rural counties of Durham and Northumberland retain the two-tier system of counties and districts – saw an internecine battle between the two counties and districts unfold as a fight for survival ensued. Voters were also asked their opinion on the form of unitary councils – counties or large districts – in the poll. The elected mayor of Middlesbrough, Ray Mallon, proved to be a controversial frontperson for the ‘Yes’ campaign as his combative style and openly partisan approach was bemoaned by his opponents as avoiding the issues. In any case, these concerns proved irrelevant due to the scale of the vote against.

The decisive majority in favour of the status quo has, observers argue, effectively killed off devolution to the English regions, at least for the duration of this Labour government. It is hoped that more substantial devolution plans that address the ‘No’ campaign’s argument that the proposals represented merely a weak talking shop might return in a generation’s time. The one lasting aspect of the process is that the government are thought to have viewed the reorganisation of local government in the region as straightforward enough to proceed with the possible introduction of unitary councils across the rest of England in its third term.

A source close to the ‘Yes’ campaign who is also a leading figure in one of the city administrations in the region told City Mayors that the rejection would be heeded but a campaign for a ‘Constitutional Convention for the North’ to spearhead demands for more meaningful devolution from Westminster would emerge very soon. It was felt by some that the proposals were rejected by the electorate as the proposed assembly lacked teeth and real powers. One possible consequence of the policy being killed off for at least the duration of this government is that the ‘city region’ agenda might be revived.

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