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What have we learned in 10 years? What would have happened if the region had voted yes to a regional assembly when given the chance 10 years ago, and what can we still do to give the North East a more powerful voice? PETER HETHERINGTON explores the issues.

TEN years on from that famous referendum - infamous for some - it's tempting to ask "what if?".

The result was emphatic on November 4, 2004 - 22% yes; 78% no, on a turnout of almost 48%.

But what if the North East had voted yes? Would 25 assemblymen from all parties and none have put the North East on the political radar screen, and given it some standing in Whitehall to rival the onward march of Greater Manchester? Maybe.

What if John Prescott had been successful in wresting more powers from Whitehall departments - and oh, how he tried - to give a North East assembly some teeth, rather than the limited functions on offer? What if Labour MPs had wholeheartedly supported the project, rather than - as many did - shamefully sit on the sidelines, leaving the deputy prime minister to do all the work? And one big question, above all others: why on earth was the no campaign so negative with absolutely nothing to offer other than twisting, misrepresenting and delivering plain untruths - doing the region a grave disservice in the process.

Full disclosure, then: I voted yes.

In doing so, it was not out of any great enthusiasm for the watereddown package on offer; it was simply a belief that this represented a once in a lifetime opportunity. Before that fateful vote, I wrote a long piece for The Journal arguing that the power of advocacy should never be underestimated, no matter the powers - and, at least, they potentially offered a base on which to build something better.

I am reminded of one leading opposition figure, now a senior minister, who visited Tyneside shortly afterwards and reportedly told a North East friend: "I don't understand this region - it continually complains about being done down by governments then, given a chance, it overwhelmingly rejects it."

Let's be blunt. The North East is marginalised, partly as a result of geography, but partly self-inflicted. Too often, political tribalism - rather than ideology - triumphs over common sense and co-operation. People with ideas, something to offer, outside that seemingly charmed tribal circle aren't always welcome.

Imagine councils from three political persuasions - Labour, Tory, Lib-Dem - presenting a united case to Westminster for more powers and fiscal freedom. That's happened in Greater Manchester. But here Labour councils have to be dragged kicking and screaming to do business with other Labour councils in the interests of creating a combined authority.

And let's be clear to the nay-sayers and doomsters - a combined authority emphatically does not represent another tier of bureaucracy; rather, it From Page 15 should deliver the sensible co-operation and agreed working across specific areas - public transport, rail franchising, highway priorities, strategic planning, economic development, marketing and broader housing issues - that characterises successful metro-regions in mainland Europe and the USA.

The Scottish referendum almost two months ago should concentrate minds. The SNP, now the third biggest UK party, is riding high, challenging - and overtaking - Labour in its west-central heartlands.

And south of the border? Briefly, the English question - how can the largest country of the Union be run adequately from the centre, micromanaged from Whitehall? - topped the agenda after Sept 18. Sadly, it has boiled down to addressing yet again the West Lothian question and "English Votes for for V English Laws" - or the acronym, EVEL - rather than the wider question of meaningful English devolution.

That takes us back to Greater Manchester. It seems to be the only devolution game in England up to now; strategic planning powers have been promised, with the 10 metropolitan councils making up its combined authority accepting the case for a new 'metro-mayor'. mayor'.

George Osborne's much-hyped 'Northern Powerhouse' should not be idly dismissed. Cynically, you might say it represents brazen preelectioneering by the MP for Tatton, Cheshire, with marginal North West and West Yorkshire seats up for grabs.

But Greater Manchester certainly has traction with its "earn back" model, agreed with the Treasury. Under this, the government agrees the funding of infrastructure projects on the basis that they will generate growth and tax revenues through jobs and business rates - a proportion of which will then be given back to Greater Manchester - with tens of millions of pounds front-loaded to kick-kick start key projects such as a rapid expansion of the conurbation's tram system. So how can the North East respond, beyond some meaningful political unity? Three suggestions, for starters: ?Marketing: Unbelievably, no agency seems to be promoting the region. Think of the money, and prestige, generated by the grand depart of the Tour de France from Yorkshire four months ago - an initiative delivered by that region's marketing agency - then ask if the North East has similar capacity? Unbelievably, it doesn't. Who on earth is promoting the region? Time for serious, urgent thinking.

?Europe: Withdrawal from the EU would be an unmitigated disaster for the only region with a balance of payments surplus, partly built on car manufacturing. If the UK votes to leave the EU in any referendum, Scotland - most likely to support continued membership - would demand another independence ref-referendum. In this, it would assuredly vote to leave the UK, leaving the North East even more isolated. Highlighting the positive benefits of EU membership, and the consequences of pulling out, must now be the highest priority for all North East institutions. Time for a fightback.

?New alliances: The region must raise its sights and acknowledge that strong political leadership - rather than parochial, tribal, bickering - can bring results, notwithstanding the unprecedented level of cuts being inflicted on local councils, with the prospect of worse to come. It has strong ties with Scandanavia - particularly Norway, with the world's largest sovereign wealth fund (worth over PS500bn) - and with Scotland. And it has a strong story to tell in manufacturing, from offshore fabrication and engineering to car production, and much to offer. Why not explore an alliance of North Sea nations and regions, embracing Scotland and Scandanavia? Finally, time to address the future - and not the past!

Peter Hetherington, former Journal reporter, was a visiting professor at Newcastle University's Centre for Urban and Regional Development studies and a member of a team monitoring English devolution. He is monitoring English devolution. He is a former northern and regional affairs editor of The Guardian.

Scottish Independence >supporters at the Hope over Fear Rally in George Square in Glasgow >The Tour de France's Grand Depart generated revenue and prestige in Yorkshire


Opposition to the 'white elephant' of a regional assembly was widespread at the time
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Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Nov 4, 2014
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