A man achieves his life's ambition

Observations on regional government

This month's Queen Speech is almost certain to promise English regional government. If so, it will mark the culmination of a 20-year battle by John Prescott.

It has been an extraordinarily dogged and lonely progress. When Michael Foot appointed him the party's first ever regional affairs spokesperson in 1981, Prescott's brief was to find a way of squaring English Labour on Scottish devolution. North-eastern Labour MPs in particular had helped sink the 1974 Labour government's devolution proposals. Prescott's conclusion was that powerful regional development agencies were needed first, followed swiftly by directly elected regional assemblies.

In 1982, he published the Alternative Regional Strategy, setting out detailed policy proposals for English regional government. Prescott's view, shared by the new enterprise boards and investment bodies to be found in left-wing councils, was that economic strategy had to be much more decentralised if it was to create full employment.

Regional government was one of the more sensible proposals in an otherwise bizarre 1983 election manifesto, which included regulation of zoos and nationalisation of farmland.

Prescott's successors as regional spokespersons, including Geoffrey Robinson MP and a young Gordon Brown, in his first front-bench appointment, were less enthusiastic about regional assemblies. But Prescott pressed on, pursuing his policy in every portfolio he held in the subsequent two decades. As Kinnock's employment spokesperson, he advocated strong economic powers for regional assemblies. Appointed as energy spokesperson in 1987, Prescott came up with a regional strategy on energy conservation; back at transport a year later, regions were given a key role in the emerging integrated transport policy; and in 1993, Prescott was back at employment, reviving his regional economic strategies.

As deputy leader in 1994, Prescott was determined not to allow vagueness to scupper a perfectly good policy. He established a regional policy commission under former European commissioner Bruce Millan to work on the detail. In the run-up to the 1997 general election, Prescott asked Tony Blair for regions to be included in his new super department and Richard Caborn was appointed minister of state with responsibility for implementing the first stage - the regional development agencies. Is the second stage - the regional assemblies - really necessary? Some argue that Scottish devolution has caused little English unrest. But the financial settlement - the so-called Barnett formula - still rankles and many northern politicians want the stronger voice that regional government would give them.

So after 20 long years, the Queen will pronounce. Thanks to John Prescott, England can have its regional assemblies. The only remaining question to be resolved by regional referendums is: do the people want them?

Mike Craven was an adviser to John Prescott from 1983-87 and is now a partner in Lexington Communications

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