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Where a Yes vote seems a distant prospect.

The debate on a regional assembly continues in the North-East - but what's happening on the other side of the Pennines? David Higgerson reports on how the North-West home rule debate is shaping up and how Cumbria might be affected.

When the referendums on regional assemblies in the North-East and North-West were first announced last year, it appeared that there was a sharp difference in opinion between the two regions.

On the one hand, an already well-organised "yes" campaign was forging ahead in the North-East, with local government showing little opposition to the plans and appearing to focus its efforts on survival in the council shake-up which would follow.

But in the North-West, the pro-assembly campaign was more muted - spearheaded by Tony H Wilson, the former record industry trendsetter and local TV newsreader, in the face of much more widespread opposition from the town halls.

Stuck in the middle, meanwhile, was Cumbria - regarded by many as part of the greater North-East, yet lumped in for the purposes of the referendum with a huge region stretching from Macclesfield to Carlisle.

The differences between the two regions were also reflected in the state of the two "no" campaigns, with Neil Herron's North-East Against a Regional Assembly group steering well clear of established political parties.

By contrast, the North West Says No Campaign is being spearheaded by a former Conservative local government minister, Sir David Trippier, who has been tearing strips off Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott's "information campaign" on the issue.

But over the course of the first few months of campaigning, the key movers in the debate appear to have learned from their colleagues on the opposite side of the Pennines.

While the widespread opposition among North-West town halls has spread to North-East local authorities like Alnwick, the "yes" campaign in the North-West has also appeared to step up a gear. A campaigning group called The Necessary Group appears to be leading the charge for pro-devolution fans, producing T-shirts, posters and even a special flag to encourage support for the campaign.

While the yes4thenortheast campaign has Denise Welch and Tim Healy from the celeb world backing its campaign, The Necessary Group has Mr Wilson, immortalised in the film 24 Hour Party People.

Mr Wilson said: "I have long thought that this country is unbalanced and sick; ill with the domination of one city and one region which think themselves to be the whole country when in fact they are a mere 15pc of that country.

"I now believe that the only way to begin to redress these injustices, from health and education provision to the ever-widening wealth gap between the South-East and the North-West is to achieve an elected regional government for my region."

Yes4thenorthwest mirrors its North-East counterpart in many ways, only it appears to be several months behind. Stunts like calling for London Fashion Week to come to Manchester have done some profile-raising, and it is spearheaded by politicians such as Blackburn's Sir Bill Taylor, also Jack Straw's election agent.

But Sir David Trippier is currently concentrating his fire on Mr Prescott, who he says cannot be relied upon to give the public a "clear understanding of the issues involved" because he is not neutral.

"Regional assemblies are his brainchild, he is the prime mover behind them, so it is preposterous for him to claim he can give a balanced picture. The public cannot make an `informed decision' unless both sides of the story are given equal weight," he says.

As for Cumbria, "yes" campaigners in the North-West still face a massive uphill battle in convincing people there that being ruled from Warrington or Manchester or Liverpool would really bring benefits.

Closer to Newcastle than Manchester, it's hard to push the argument that devolution will bring people closer to power when its base would be 20 junctions further down the M6. Pro-assembly campaigners in Cumbria are trying to use the argument that a "yes" vote in the North-West would make it easier for Cumbria to work with a North-East assembly in the event of a similar vote here.

Coun Jim Musgrove, leader of Allerdale Council, said: "We are working with people who think that way and try to explain to them that a regional assembly for the North-West is a good thing, and will work with the regional assembly in the North-East."

But even if the North-East votes yes to regional rule and the North-West votes no, the demands for Cumbria to team-up with our own region will intensify.

Katie Schmuecker, co-ordinator of the yes4thenortheast campaign, acknowledged that the pro-assembly camp in the North-West faces a harder task than her own organisation.

She said: "It is not for us to tell the North-West how to lead their yes campaign but I do think we benefit from a region which has a clear sense of identity. It is a region which can trace the fight for more power back to the 1960s and our campaign has broad support from Labour, Lib Dems, the Green Party, all communities and sections of the business community."
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Copyright 2004 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Date:Mar 16, 2004
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