EDITORIAL: Devolution set to fail if it lacks cash clout

The latest conventional wisdom suggests that deputy prime minister John Prescott is the last person that you would want campaigning for a radical policy. With his various homes and cars, his credibility as a man of the people has taken something of a battering of late. His tendency to lose his rag, either with television interviewers or mullet-haired protesters, is another chink in his armour.

Then there is his notoriously garbled syntax. Yet undaunted by his questionable communication skills, Prescott set out this week to argue for regional devolution across the north of England.

There could hardly be a worse time to launch this charm offensive. The government's first problem is that it is pushing for a "yes" vote on the new regional assemblies without being clear what powers they will have.

Prescott suggests that the advisory role envisaged in an earlier white paper should be extended to real powers over transport and jobs, but details are sketchy at this stage.

However, his further difficulty is that many residents already fear that the assemblies will undermine local democracy by removing strategic decisions to a remote regional tier. He will also struggle to overcome the impression that these bodies will be little more than expensive talking shops as long as the Treasury retains a tight grip on finances. If governments, whether local or regional, lack tax-raising powers they also lack credibility.

That said, the case for an assembly becomes much more persuasive when you consider that Greater Manchester, for example, has a bigger economy than Greece or Portugal. Yet financial rigour matters more than size.

Opponents of devolution need only point to the own goal of the Scottish parliament, which went disastrously over budget on a new building by 1,000 per cent, to cause irreparable damage to the concept.


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