9th May (Europe Day) saw the new Government White Paper amazingly named "Your Region, Your Choice". Predictably Messrs Byers & Prescott pop up to spin us: "Less bureaucracy, more democracy"
A key point is that the English public (outside London) are not to be given any say on whether to have regional government full stop. The Regional Assemblies will exist regardless; any choice is purely on whether they should be elected or not!
Despite claims for making government "closer to the people", abolishing existing councils for vast regional bodies would make it more remote. Planning powers have already been transferred to regional bodies.
Tony Blair makes it quite clear that elected assemblies would mean a local government carve-up ("unitary authorities" (UAs) - with a level of government to go. Read: our historic counties, which coincidentally are often not New Lab strongholds.
NB: This argument may be stronger in the South/Midlands as N. England has already had the more UAs imposed. However taxpayers everywhere will have to foot the bill for an unnecessary reorganisation of local government.
When offering local electorates a "choice" on elected mayors and cabinet-style councils in 2000, the Government' refused to allow them the option to keep their existing structure. 'Modernisation' seems to be about centralising power away from people and disorienting them through unneeded change. Some "choice"!
The White Paper lets on that there is an EU dimension - "EU policies and legislation will have a considerable effect on many of the matters for which [elected] regional assemblies are responsible". It mentions the European Commission's own White Paper from 2001, but not its view that regional government should be tasked with enforcing even more regulation!
The current (and rising) level of public disillusionment with politics hardly indicates popular demand - in London, only 22% of the electorate supported 'devolution'; 14% voted for the Mayor.
However "demand" can be created; regional propagandists quote one survey in support of the White Paper.
BBC COLLUDES ON PROPAGANDA
The BBC Charter, requiring impartial & accurate reporting, was disregarded by a recent 'BBC' feature claiming "big support" for regional assemblies in England - and that, overall, just under two-thirds of the public "want" them.
New Alliance researchers reviewed the original findings from the market research company (ORB)
* The BBC did not mention that over 5 in 6 surveyed (84% nationally) were hardly even aware of the issue - they could not recall any discussion or news item on 'regional devolution'. (Think: if only 15% had awareness before the BBC telephone poll, maybe someone did some 'prompting' to make them 'want' it?)
* Only 9% of respondents related primarily to a 'region' - far more chose their country (49%) or locality (27%). This was represented by the BBC as '36%' for "Provincial" identity - not the same thing! A spurious link - unless you're out to promote regionalism.
* Although a string of leading questions then conveniently put ideas into people's heads - such as regional assemblies offering 'a stronger voice in Brussels or Westminster'.
This was billed as "the most popular reason" - 72% said 'Yes' when prompted. However it is immediately contradicted - another figure shows a majority believe that they will be talking shops for politicians and a waste of money. This hardly adds up to burning public desire?
A telephone survey on an unfamiliar topic will just get snap reactions that reflect the way a particular question was put - especially if people are suddenly interrupted at home and questioned on a subject that doesn't especially interest them. The longer & more complex a survey, the greater the temptation to speed through it?
Reporting (21/3/02): BBC Six O'Clock News; BBC News 24; BBC TV; BBC Online - 'English Regional Devolution Survey', 1-10 March 2002
Ironically, the least satisfaction with 'the direction that their region was taking' was found in London - the only English 'region' to have an elected regional assembly. And - as for the BBC's "big support" - at the end of the survey, only 19% - less than 1 in 5 - were "strongly in favour" of regional assemblies. 44% were marked as "somewhat in favour", which is very bland, vague and non-committal.
That the BBC should have to go to such lengths to hype regionalism shows how weak the 'strong support' must be. (New Alliance copied an expose of the biased "survey" to newspapers).
MEDIA REACTION IS CRITICAL
Tim Luckhurst (Independent, 10.5.02) exploded a few myths. Far from being a model of devolution, Scotland has not seen power delivered to voters. 60% believe devolution to be a failure; "We just feel an awful sense of anti-climax" says Glasgow's The Herald.
It has been generous financing from the Treasury [London] that enabled the partial abolition of student fees.
While businesses fail and economic growth lags behind England's, the politicians argue over the cost of a new assembly building. He warns England over believing calls that Scotland has prospered massively [regionalists in the North-East are trying to create an 'envy' factor in the drive for a regional assembly].
The British Chambers of Commerce said that regional assemblies would increase bureaucracy and cost the taxpayer £1.4 Bn. (Telegraph, 10.5.02). Philip Johnston added that assemblies could raise up to £25m a year through levies on council tax [i.e. a stealth tax].
He adds that they would also have the power to raise indirect taxes such as congestion charges.
Some £20m of the £25m would be required to cover accommodation and expenses for 25-35 assembly members. (Daily Mail, 22.5.02, also estimated the Regional Director salary at £93,000 a year).
Although the assemblies would have responsibilities for housing, tourism, 'regeneration', 'regional culture' & other vague 'influencing roles' (Johnston), Peter Riddell advises that they would only control about 12% of spend in their catchment area (Times, 10.5.02).
WHAT CAN WE DO?
The White Paper consultation sought feedback to the new 'Office of the Deputy Prime Minister' by 31 August 2002; you can still contact them by email to: email@example.com
Or to: Regional Policy Unit (White Paper), ODPM, Zone 1/A4, Eland House, Bressenden Place, London SW1E 5DU.
* In the past, the Government has been swayed by a heavy response to public consultations.
* You can also complain to people in councils that are threatened by abolition, a local business group or Chamber of Commerce, and ask them what they're doing to oppose this waste of taxpayers' money, which could be used in improving vital public services?
* The Government claims that regionalism "makes sense" in the EU context. It doesn't let on that the 'EU regional grants' are just the return of our own money but with strings attached. EU needs will take priority over local needs.
* Small Business minister Nigel Griffiths claims to be 'reversing the trend' towards more red tape and "sponsoring an office in Brussels" to intercept legislation early. Why then is the Government movng towards the mechanism the EU wants for even heavier regulation?
FOOTNOTE: NEW LABOUR's 'DEMOCRATIC' CREDENTIALS
* New Labour's record of commitment to 'democracy' is very poor. Remember the Party vote on the choice of London mayoral candidate? MPs were given one thousand votes each, party members one vote.
* The people of Gibraltar want to stay British and are heavily opposed to the 'sovereignty-sharing' (i.e. surrendering) agreement with Spain. Blair, of course, will ignore their referendum result.
* Despite 90% overall opposition, and 75% from business, John Prescott transferred county councils' housing planning powers. to (unelected) regional bodies. (Telegraph, 19.7.02).
* New Lab's mania for uprooting local government hit trouble after 15 out of 22 referendums rejected "continental" elected mayors, at a cost of £2.5m and turnouts averaging 30%. (Times, 19.7.02).
* Of course, when they were proposed in 1997/8, John Prescott's "reforms" insisted on centralising power with a cabinet and/or executive mayor as "really good government", and voters were not permitted to retain the existing set up whereby decisions were taken by the full body of elected councillors.
* Now Councils will no longer have to hold referendums on elected mayors. Councils can just go ahead if they want a scheme. (BBC Online, 25.6.02)
* The percentage of voters who do not want the Euro is easily in the 'sixties', even 'seventies'. This has not stopped the Government wasting millions on Euro preparations - cynically "to give voters a choice".
Scrapping the Pound for the Euro not only transfers vital powers to run our currency to unelected and unaccountable European bankers. The Government it quiet over the fact that would be legally irreversible - even if a country's voters find it doesn't work and change their minds.
* By ratifying the Treaty of Amsterdam, more powers have been passed from the elected Parliament to EU institutions. The Government wants to transfer even more powers via the Treaty of Nice, even though this has been rejected by voters in the Irish Republic. Their wishes in the referendum should have been respected, which would have meant dropping the proposed Treaty across Europe.
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Date this page first compiled: 26 June 2002.
Updated 30 August 2002