North East devolution: is it time to think again?

In two months time, voters in Scotland face a choice: whether to remain part of the United Kingdom, or become an independent country.

As they consider those options, it is interesting to reflect that ten years ago, the North East was in the midst of its own devolution debate.

In the summer of 2004, campaigns were underway both for and against a proposal for North East regional government.

The referendum was held on 4th November 2004 and the result was a resounding no. 78% of those who voted rejected the proposal, which had been championed by the then Labour Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott.

Credit: ITV Tyne Tees
The white elephant became a symbol of the 'No' campaign Credit: ITV Tyne Tees

Explanations for the emphatic 'no' vote are varied. Some said a North East elected assembly would have too few powers to make a difference. Others suggested that voters were suspicious of the prospect of more politicians.

The rejection of regional government in the North East stopped Labour's wider devolution plans for the English regions in their tracks.

Ten years on, a businessman who helped to lead the 'No' campaign is still convinced it was the right move.

It was definitely the right thing because they were offering nothing. It was going to give the region nothing more than we had already, though what it was going to give us was more politicians, more expense, with no gain

– Ian Dormer, Businessman

Now though, a new political party wants to put devolution back on the region's agenda. The North East Party says it plans to field twelve candidates in next year's General Election. Its main aim is to press for a North East elected assembly.

Its leader says the prospect of greater powers for Scotland, whatever the result of the referendum there, adds impetus to the debate.

We desperately need more jobs, we need better standards of public services, we need world class education services in the North East as never before. On our doorstep we've got a Scotland which is going to be reinvigorated whether they get independence or whether simply an increased level of devolution, they're going to be a major competitor to us.

– Hilton Dawson, North East Party
devolution
Could the idea of North East devolution be revived? Credit: ITV Tyne Tees

For many people, though, this is not the time to revive the prospect of a North East regional assembly. In cost-conscious times, they say the region must work with existing institutions rater than create new ones.

Some observers say the pledge by a group of North East councils to work together as a Combined Authority is the best way to provide a strong voice for the region.

I think what we're into is probably more of a Plan B scenario, where the local authorities, the Local Enterprise Partnership, the MPs form part of that voice.

I think the independence referendum brings that into sharp focus. We must ask ourselves 'What do we have and what's our offer?', rather than looking enviously across the border to Scotland.

– Prof Jonathan Blackie, Northumbria University

Scotland goes to the polls on 18th September. While the result will not have a direct effect on the North East, our region will be watching with interest.

Watch my full report here: