Power to the people? Not from Mr Prescott

I spent six pleasant and worthwhile years on the old West Yorkshire Metropolitan County Council. It was abolished, along with the other MCCs and the Greater London Council, not only because Mrs Thatcher did not like elected bodies the Conservatives were not winning, but also because they were neither one thing nor the other. They were too small to be regions but too big to be local authorities. What they did provide was a democratic forum where those running police, fire, public transport and a host of other services were directly accountable to elected Councillors and had to answer in public for their stewardship. Since 1986 there has been an inevitable proliferation of joint boards, indirectly elected or appointed, which lack accountability and which are not sensitive to the electoral process.

My experience on West Yorkshire Met confirmed my enthusiasm for a democratic regional assembly able to fill that crucial democratic gap between central government and local authorities. That enthusiasm was fired up anew every time I went to Leeds City station and passed City House in which was situated that myriad of civil servants who ran our regional government but who were responsible to ministers in London and not to the people of Yorkshire.

So, I was pre-programmed to welcome John Prescott's plans with open arms, encouraged by the lively example of Scottish and Welsh devolution. Now I am frustrated and disillusioned by the timidity and, frankly, cynicism of the proposals being put to a referendum. Here is the best opportunity for years about to go begging because passionate devolutionists are likely to vote "no" to the Prescott plans precisely because they do not devolve power.

The faults of the proposals are legion, including the tiny number of representatives to be elected by a flawed proportional system, but the key defect is the lack of financial independence. Without a healthy financial base and its own fund-raising powers a Yorkshire and Humberside Assembly will be hobbled from the start. What ironic timing for the Government to launch a charm offensive in favour of its regional plans at the precise moment that it threatens local authorities with capping if they try to preserve local services by levying what the government believes to be too high a rate of council tax. It is every government's basic failure to understand the cardinal principle of devolution: that elected councillors have to defend their actions year by year at the ballot box. Why should the electorate bother to vote at all every first Thursday in May if the local council loses its powers and is not permitted to fund the few it has left?

The proposed regional assemblies vividly exemplify this government's control obsession. No tax base, no broad power to seek new sources of revenue, not even the freedom to be innovative on raising capital. The assemblies are to depend almost entirely on hand outs from central government with any extra finance to come by precepting on local council tax. That will be very popular with local councillors! No assembly that has to go cap in hand to Westminster and Whitehall for its cash has an earthly chance of genuine regional independence.

It is no coincidence that local government is being further emasculated at the same time as regional government is being pushed. The cities and the districts, with hardly any powers left, are now ripe for integration into single tier local government. More distant administration, less local accountability, more easily controlled by central government. It is that age old mindset of parliamentary politicians who see uniformity of service provision as a key goal, rather than diversity and local innovation, and who have been able to strip powers away from local government for over sixty years. A poker player who holds four aces doesn't ask for a new hand. Local politicians have been playing Happy Families whilst leaving all the real cards to the big boys in Westminster.

How many people strolling down The Headrow in Leeds today would realise that in the immediate post-war years, their City Council ran gas, electricity, local hospitals - including St James's - ambulances, waterworks, police, fire, civil defence, local transport, further education and much higher education? All these key powers have been thieved from local control in the intervening years and the lack of local unity between parties on the issue of local independence has been the means of doing it. Even the bedrock of local government - education and housing - has been forced into the hands of separate private organisations. All parties should have united to keep local powers and then, legitimately, argued over the way to run them. Instead the party in power in Westminster has always received the support of its own local councillors, even if grudgingly given, and this has let this huge constitutional centralisation take place.

The wonderful edifice of Leeds Town Hall is regularly used on television and in newspapers as the image of Victorian civic pride and of municipal grandeur. The building stands proud but what it signifies is on its deathbed. Regional assemblies with genuine devolution from Westminster may well be the last best chance of reversing that decline. But unless there is a change of heart forced on the government by passionate Yorkshiremen and women the present feeble proposals will from the start be a pale imitation of the real thing.

3 March 2004