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Christopher Booker's Notebook
(Filed: 05/09/2004)

The battle for the government of England
Italians inflamed by incinerator plans
Ministers to get dictators' powers

The battle for the government of England

Only now is the realisation dawning that John Prescott's forthcoming referendum on an elected regional assembly for the North-East could presage a mighty earthquake in England's local government.

If the North-East's voters approve his plans on November 4, they will also in effect be voting to abolish 13 district councils and the county councils for Durham and Northumberland, employing 40,000 people.

At a cost which could total hundreds of millions of pounds (Mr Prescott's Office of the Deputy Prime Minister has produced no figures), these local councils would be replaced by just two or three huge and remote "unitary authorities".

Mr Prescott's plan, completing a process that has progressed piecemeal over the past 30 years, is that this should be the prototype for the greatest-ever revolution in England's local government.

Hundreds of district and county councils would disappear, to be replaced by a two-tier system of nine regional governments with, below them, a few dozen "unitaries", administering areas much larger than those now run by district councils.

So stealthily has Mr Prescott's blueprint been taking shape that the first time most of the North-East's 1.9 million voters were aware of it was when they saw the leaflet sent to every household about the referendum. This includes maps showing the 15 councils that will go if voters say Yes to an elected regional assembly.

The first local authority to blow the whistle on these plans was Alnwick district council. Earlier this year, on the initiative of itsleader, John Taylor, the council chose Mr Prescott's scheme as the theme of its annual "state of the district" debate.

Alan Beith, the local Lib Dem MP, and John McCormack, a North-East Labour luminary, argued the case for a Yes vote, opposed by two members of the "North-East No" campaign, Archie Turnbull, a custodian for English Heritage, and Ian Riddell, who runs a local engineering company.

Speakers for both sides deplored the fact that Mr Prescott had linked an elected assembly with the reorganisation of local government, which they argued should have been kept as separate issues.

The linkage was made, it is believed, on the personal insistence of Tony Blair, himself a North-East MP.

Following a victory in the debate by 71 to 25 for the No camp, Alnwick council became the first in the North-East formally to register its opposition to an elected assembly.

Councillor Taylor, an independent, says: "It is vital that, in the short time remaining, people realise what an immense constitutional change is being proposed. We are being asked to vote not just on an elected assembly, but on a completely new system of local government.

The provision of services will be taken away from genuinely local councils, and given to a remote authority which cannot be properly accountable to local people."

In Newcastle last week Mr Prescott's deputy, Nick Raynsford, attended the highest-profile public debate so far in the referendum campaign.

In front of more than 200 people, the debate was led for the Yes camp by Professor John Tomaney, an expert on EU regional government, and for the No side by Neil Herron, the former Sunderland market trader, now director of the North-East No campaign.

Although no vote was taken, after the discussion, in which members of the public, councillors and leaders of local organisations also spoke, Mr Raynsford could have been left in no doubt that persuading voters to back Mr Prescott's plans will be a uphill struggle.

Meanwhile, Mr Prescott's plans were in deeper trouble in Yorkshire and Humberside, when East Yorkshire council last week became the first to pull out of one of his unelected regional assemblies, saying that it was not "giving value for money". Other councils seem set to follow.

Italians inflamed by incinerator plans

Last Sunday, dozens of people, including more than 40 police, were injured during a demonstration in the Italian town of Acerra, near Naples. Its purpose was to protest at the building of a huge incinerator near the town.

In June, demonstrations against plans for another incinerator nearby cut rail links to Reggio di Calabria for four days.

The official justification for these incinerators is that there are no longer enough sites to dispose of waste in landfill. The real reason, which the authorities seemed reluctant to explain, was that the EU's landfill directive 1999/31 is forcing the mass closure of landfill sites, so that most waste has to be incinerated.

According to our own Government, by 2016 Britain must build as many as 165 incinerators with chimneys up to 400 ft tall, at an estimated cost of 6.9 billion, to comply with this directive.

At present there is no sign of this happening. Wherever such incinerators have been proposed, as in the South Downs in Sussex, they have met a wall of local protest.

The only way the Government can hope to meet its obligations, as scores of landfill sites are declared illegal, will be for John Prescott to introduce "guidance" allowing central government to override local planning procedures and dictate where incinerators are to be built. (Mr Prescott made a similar provision last month for windfarms, in order to meet our obligation to the EU to produce 10 per cent of our energy from "renewable sources" by 2010.)

Whether British protesters will be prepared to take their opposition to the same lengths as the residents of Acerra remains to be seen. But last week's events in Italy showwhat happens when people are deprived of their democratic right to oppose policies with which they strongly disagree.

Ministers to get dictators' powers

In 10 days' time the House of Lords will be debating one of the most extraordinary pieces of legislation ever placed before Parliament, the Civil Contingencies Bill. No one could disagree that a government should have contingency plans and powers to deal with a major public emergency.

This Bill, sponsored by a junior Home Office minister, Douglas Alexander, opens with a soothing claim that nothing in it is incompatible with the Human Rights Act; and Part One reads almost like a parody of bureaucratic tinkering, under such headings as "Advice and assistance to business", together with a section defining how the Act shall apply to Scotland and Wales.

Only in Part Two, after 13 pages, does the truly extraordinary nature of this legislation suddenly explode off the page, as Section 21 sets out the powers it will give to a tiny group of ministers and "regional co-ordinators" in the event of an emergency being declared.

The conditions for this could hardly be more loosely or widely defined, including anything from a terrorist incident to flooding, a chemical spill or a recurrence of foot and mouth.

In any such instance, senior ministers (including whips) will be given virtually unlimited powers to do anything they think fit, virtually without parliamentary control. They will be empowered to "disapply" any law or act of Parliament they choose, simply by issuing regulations.

They will be permitted to order any person or body to go anywhere, or to "perform any function"; to forbid any travel or movement; to order the requisition, confiscation or destruction of any property (with or without compensation); and to prohibit any assemblies of persons, however small.

This tiny, unaccountable group of politicians and officials will be empowered to issue regulatory edicts off their own bat for any purpose, enforced by criminal penalties.

Such powers go far beyond anything on the UK statute book before, even in time of war. Yet when this Bill had its second reading in the Commons on January 19, MPs were only allowed time to discuss its innocuous Part One.

(One or two honourable exceptions, such as Richard Shepherd and Bob Marshall-Andrews, did try to ring alarm bells on Part Two.) The Bill was then approved by 286 votes to 138.

When it first came before the Lords late on the evening of July 5, again one or two peers protested at its more extreme provisions. But unless they are joined on September 15 by enough others to provoke a real rebellion, we shall have an Act which would in effect permit the setting up in this country of a dictatorship as sweeping as anything achieved under Hitler.

It would be scant consolation to know that this was sanctioned by Parliament, even if MPs had scarcely been given a chance to discuss it.