Here we go again

David Cameron yesterday raised the spectre of yet another referendum on the future of regional government in the North-East - this time over whether to keep the regional development agency.

David Cameron

David Cameron yesterday raised the spectre of yet another referendum on the future of regional government in the North-East - this time over whether to keep the regional development agency.

Two years ago voters rejected plans for a directly-elected regional assembly by a margin of more than three-to-one.

Yesterday, however, the Tory leader suggested the experience could be repeated - so the public can decide whether to keep One NorthEast, instead.

It marks a major U-turn on the Tory stance at the 2005 General Election when they pledged to abolish the bodies within days of forming a Government and hand over the powers to local councils.

Since he took over Mr Cameron has refused to be drawn on specific policies but yesterday he admitted in some parts of the country the bodies were working - and should be kept - provided there was "genuine enthusiasm" from the public.

He said: "It's fairly clear that in a couple of parts of the country, particularly the North-East, there does seem to be genuine enthusiasm for what the RDA is doing and I have to say that's not matched around parts of the country."

In those areas where the RDA did not have public support, Mr Cameron said the organisation should be scrapped.

"In areas where people feel the RDA is valuable and they think it's doing a good job, by all means, let's keep them and work with them," he said. "That's the whole point of having our policy reviews to look into the detail of how to do it, but you could have a referendum, you could have some other way of taking the temperature in terms of what people think about it."

Mr Cameron has come under increasing pressure during the party's conference to come up with detailed policies, not least on plans to cut tax.

Last night, though, anti-assembly campaigner Neil Herron said: "We have been here before. There is no public will, there is no public demand for a referendum done at taxpayers' expense after which the people will say a resounding No.

"What we want to see from the Conservatives is clear leadership and statements of policy such as removing the (unelected) North-East assembly and the RDA," he said.

With a budget of £280m a year, One NorthEast plays a key role in shaping economic and regeneration policy for the region.

However, a recent report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) said the quango was too optimistic and people could be disillusioned if targets were not met.

One NorthEast chairman Margaret Fay said the issue of a referendum was purely hypothetical - not least because the Tories would have to win the next election.

But she said the RDA played a pivotal role in driving economic growth and added: "We have consistently provided value for money since our creation in 1999.

"The issue of a referendum is purely hypothetical at this stage and is not one for us to determine. We will continue to work with the region towards the key goal of raising its economic contribution to the UK economy."

During a wide-ranging interview with The Journal, Mr Cameron defended the actions of Margaret Thatcher during the 1980s - and her legacy to the region.

"Yes they were difficult and, yes, tough decisions had to be made and, yes, some people did suffer and some communities did suffer. I have always been frank about that. But I think overall, I still think, that what Margaret Thatcher did was very important and needed to happen but while understanding that some people did not immediately share the benefits."

He refused to concede, though, that the Conservatives would struggle to regain support in the North-East, saying there were no "no-go areas" for the party.

Page 2: Brain drain is 'sucking North life-blood'

Brain drain is 'sucking North life-blood'

The North-East is having the "life-blood" sucked out of it by the continuous drain of graduates moving out of the region to London, the country's most senior businessman has claimed.

David Frost, the director-general of the British Chamber of Commerce, yesterday issued a stark warning to politicians to act to stop the exodus of highly-skilled graduates to the capital each year - saying the North-South divide was being deepened as a result.

In one of his most powerful interventions yet, Mr Frost said it was time for the Government to take decisive action, by relocating 50,000 civil servants out of Whitehall and into towns and cities across the country.

He argued the mass redeployment of decision-makers and back office staff would act as a `catalyst' to regional economies, which could then retain graduates with the prospect of high-quality jobs available straight after university.

Two years ago, the think-tank, IPPR North, said despite being a net importer of students, the North-East had a shortage of graduate jobs forcing people to look elsewhere. Those that did stop in the North-East however often did worse in employment terms than graduates from most other UK regions.

Yesterday Mr Frost said the brain drain was having a detrimental effect on the region. He told a fringe event at the Conservative conference in Bournemouth: "You are getting the life blood sucked out of the regions to London, which I don't think can cope.

"That's why the divide between the North and South is not being bridged."

Government ministers had to play a role, Mr Frost added, calling for 50,000 civil servants to be relocated out of the capital and into the regions.

The Chancellor Gordon Brown has ordered the removal of 20,000 Whitehall mandarins from their London offices over the next 15 years, however the business chief said it was not enough.

"Don't take 10,000 or 20,000, take 50,000 - get them out and relieve some of the pressure on London at the same time as acting as a significant catalyst for the economy in the regions," he argued.

The Government has been criticised for encouraging Soviet-style state dependency with the level of public sector employment in the region.

However Mike Parker, of the North-East Chamber of Commerce, said the region had a talent for doing the job and that is why "the public sector is so strong". But he warned the entrepreneurial spirit also had to be encouraged to ensure "businesses can expand and grow".

Page 3: Power to regions

Power to regions

Tyneside should get to influence future Tory trade policies a shadow Cabinet minister will say today.

Alan Duncan, shadow minister for Tyneside, will use his speech to announce plans to create a working group of business leaders and politicians in the area to test out Conservative policies in practice - and to shape official party statements.

"We are not only taking an interest in Tyneside but we want Tyneside to take an interest in us," Mr Duncan told The Journal

In his speech, he will warn against sitting cosily in London but to get out to the regions to ask "what our policies will do for school leavers and manufacturing industry".


Tax pledge

Shadow Chancellor George Osbourne will today warn Tory right-wingers against pushing for detailed policies on tax cuts - insisting the Cameron leadership will not back down.

On the penultimate day of the conference, Mr Osbourne will face down criticism about David Cameron's refusal to set out a low-tax agenda for the party saying: "We will not be pushed or pulled."

A tax commission set up by the Tories is expected to call for a £19bn a year reduction in tax levels within weeks but Mr Osbourne will say no such commitment will be forthcoming from him years before a general election.

"To those who want us to make upfront promises of tax cuts now, we say: We will not back down. We will not be pushed or pulled. We will stick to our principles. We will do what is right. I am not going to write my 2009 Budget in 2006."

It will come though as Mr Osbourne faces an angry backlash after he appeared to suggest Gordon Brown could be "faintly autistic".

The National Autistic Society said the shadow Chancellor could have caused "deep distress" to people suffering the condition and had merely "perpetuate(d) the confusion that surrounds" autism.


Queue rows

They were the talk of the Labour party conference in Manchester last week - and the queues for accreditation are now plaguing the Tories too.

Angry crowds greeted party chairman Francis Maude yesterday when he went to see first-hand the chaos being caused by increased security checks.

Tory delegates have been forced to wait hours - even days - for security passes to enter the Bournemouth conference hall despite organisers working through the night. Mr Maude hit out at Dorset Police, who had refused to work through the night to reduce the backlog.


David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer