North East wants devolution, says peer who led failed campaign for regional assembly

Former Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott told peers his plans for a North East assembly were scuppered by Cabinet colleagues

John Prescott
John Prescott

The North East peer who helped lead a failed campaign for an elected regional assembly has insisted voters in the region back devolution.

In his first speech as a member of the House of Lords, Chris Lennie said the North East wanted more control over its own affairs.

But politicians in London had to let the region decide for itself how it should be governed - instead of coming up with an idea, like an elected assembly, and trying to impose it on local people.

Tynemouth based Lord Lennie of Longsands, as he is now known, was taking part in a Lords debate on devolution, prompted by the Scottish independence referendum campaign during which the major parties all pledged to devolve more power to the Scottish Parliament.

He was regional director for the Labour Party in the North of England in 2004, when a referendum was held on the creation of a directly-elected regional assembly for the region.

The assembly proposal was the brainchild of John Prescott, the former Deputy Prime Minister.

It was seen as a way of dealing with the “West Lothian Question”, or the fear that giving Scotland its own assembly placed English voters in an unfair position because Scottish MPs were still able to vote on English issues in the Commons.

Lord Lennie helped lead the campaign for a “yes” vote - but the idea was rejected, with 78% voting against it.

Delivering his maiden speech, he told peers: ““It is often said that we are shaped by our experiences. Having to explain the north-east rejection to my noble friend Lord Prescott certainly helped shape me.”

He added: “Despite that defeat, I believed then, and I believe now, there is an appetite for devolution of government in order that we improve lives, or seek to improve lives, and increase opportunities across England.

“For devolution to succeed, however, we must understand the reasons for its past failure in terms of what happened in the North East.”

Voters rejected the assembly because they did not want more politicians, he said.

“The opponents simply asked voters whether they wanted more politicians at more cost, meddling more in their lives. The answer was a resounding no, thank you very much.”

And antipathy towards politicians was probably even worse now than it was then, he said.

“There needs to be a convincing argument that devolution means government done at lower cost, with clear, tangible benefits to the electorate at large. That is a huge challenge.”

Proposals must be backed by “a broad consensus of civic society”, he said.

Speaking in the same debate, Lord Prescott told the Lords that the assembly idea was rejected because “the public did not believe there were sufficient resources or powers in what was being offered to them” - and that he tried, and failed, to convince Labour colleagues to offer the North East much more.

“When I argued in the Labour Cabinet for more resources and powers to be given to the North East Assembly, I could not get them. They were fixed in a central system, and very few of my colleagues were prepared to give the North East the powers it was entitled to, and which they were quite prepared to give to Scotland and Wales.

“The people saw that I was offering a consultative body with quango powers - that was all it really was - and they rejected it.” But the North must have more powers and funding, he said.

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