OPINION: Fyson on ... the case for elected regional authorities

The beginning of this month saw deputy prime minister John Prescott launch a year-long campaign for a yes vote in the forthcoming referenda on elected assemblies for three northern regions of England. Last Saturday, at the other end of the country, local government minister Nick Raynsford braved the angry pensioners of Devon to explain his feelings about recent unsustainable rises in council tax. Meanwhile, in middle England, indignation simmers at the prospect of the county councils' reduced or abolished roles.

It is time these matters were all part of a coherent public debate about the future organisation and funding of government below the national level.

A start has been made in the review that the government has set up to examine how the balance of funding could be reformed. This might lead to a fairer way of raising the 25 per cent or so of local government spending not provided for by Whitehall grant or redistributed business rates. There is an obstinate unwillingness in government circles to recognise that fairness in this context means, to most people, a charge related to the ability to pay - and more sensitively related to it than through such a crude and volatile measure as house valuations assessed at infrequent intervals.

The people do not appear to share government wariness of a new local income tax. They even believe that direct user charges for services would be preferable to the present arbitrary and punitive arrangements, though this could put many civilising facilities at risk as being uneconomic.

The current pressure on the elderly from rising council taxes may encourage them to leave homes that are too large, but it is unacceptable on humanitarian grounds.

The regional government initiative will provide the electoral legitimacy for functions, especially planning, which need to be carried out at the regional level. It remains true that this requirement is not limited to the north and that there is a good case for asking the country as a whole whether it wishes to see democratically accountable regional authorities everywhere. Making clear that county councils can be scaled down under such arrangements would at least head off critics who complain that regional government merely means adding more bureaucracy.

However, Prescott should avoid presenting the case for the northern assemblies as in any sense real devolution. No powers not presently in the remit of local government are to be relinquished by the centre. There are sound reasons for the regional reorganisation of many local government services in a properly elected middle tier between local and national levels. In some places regional identity may be one of them, but in others the argument remains strong too.

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