The long struggle

Observations on devolution

The north-east of England has been very patient. Within two years of taking office, Labour had created a parliament for Scotland and an assembly for Wales. Within three, London was given a mayor and assembly. Northern Ireland was rewarded with a power- sharing, devolved government. But the regions of England will, we now know, have to wait until well into the next parliament if they are to see even a weak form of devolution. Newcastle might just have its own regional government by 2008.

The consequences of Your Region, Your Choice, the government white paper, range from absolutely no reform to a full system of regional government. Opinion polls suggest very different levels of interest from region to region. The north-east appears most gung-ho, while the south-east is unmoved.

Whitehall wrestled with the idea of English regional government for a long time before coming up with this set of proposals. John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, is a strong supporter, and had to be given a tangible result. But others in the cabinet, including the Prime Minister, are - at best - agnostic. There are very few votes in the issue, although some may be lost because of the need to reorganise local governments under the new system. The difficulties Labour had appointing leaders and/or candidates in Scotland, Wales and London must have left a bitter taste in Downing Street, and there is no enthusiasm for a north-east regional assembly made up of glorified ex-councillors.

Even if the north-east or the north-west votes to set up a devolved administration, it will be significantly less powerful than, say, the Greater London Authority. It is envisaged that the regions would inherit the regional development agencies, some European funding, housing capital allocations and, perhaps, Arts Council resources.

But there will be no devolution of funding or control of further and higher education, the national health service, the police or transport. The Mayor of London, after all, has significant responsibilities for transport, and some limited influence over the police and the fire brigade. None of these services will pass to the English regions. Compared with the Scottish Parliament, a regional authority in the north-east would indeed be a minnow.

The Greater London Authority provides a lesson for the rest of England: ministers and officials will fight to minimise transfers of power from their departments to devolved institutions. Any gains for Newcastle, Manchester or Birmingham would be a loss to the headquarters.

There is a risk that the weak and delayed regional governments proposed would be so ineffective as to undermine the whole rationale for English devolution. London's government already needs more power if it is to function effectively. The best the north-east can hope for is a long struggle for not very much return.