Ministers axe regional assembly

Ministers will today announce the demolition of unelected regional assemblies as part of a move to speed up house-building and streamline decision-making - by handing their planning powers to another quango.

Ministers will today announce the demolition of unelected regional assemblies as part of a move to speed up house-building and streamline decision-making - by handing their planning powers to another quango.

The 100-member East of England Regional Assembly (Eera), a mix of councillors from 54 authorities, voluntary groups, and business and trade union representatives, has been responsible for drawing up a regional blueprint - setting out the need for nearly 500,000 new homes in the region, including nearly 80,000 in Norfolk.

But delivery has failed to keep up with the targets and with the new prime minister placing housing at the heart of his political agenda, power will now pass to the East of England Development Agency (Eeda), which is set to take on the assembly's responsibilities for housing, planning and transport.

The assembly, part of former deputy prime minister John Prescott's vision for elected regional government, is expected to pass into history by 2010.

Officials from Eeda remained tight-lipped last night about its beefed up role.

Councils are also expected to recover some powers from the assembly and could also gain from the proposed scrapping of the Learning and Skills Council - taking back control of education for college students.

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Scrutiny of regional policy is also set to pass upwards from the assembly to MPs with a new parliamentary select committee, part of a move which has seen Barbara Follett appointed as minister for the East of England.

But with Eeda consisting of a board of only 15 appointed members, there are fears that policy making will be less accountable, placed into fewer hands, and lacking the local knowledge of assembly members.

Last night Daniel Cox, leader of Norfolk County Council and an assembly member, said: “We would welcome any change that strengthens the role of the county council and elected members in local decision making, and await the results of the review with interest to see what changes could potentially be made to the current structure.”

North Norfolk MP Norman Lamb said he had always been “very uncomfortable” with the concept of regional assemblies - though his party supported elected versions.

“The vast majority of people have no idea that these assemblies even exist,” said. “And if they do know they exist, they don't know what their role is. Abolishing them must not be allowed to result in an even greater concentration of power in Whitehall.”

Although the Conservatives are long term critics of the regional assembly system, they have claimed the latest move to scrap them was aimed at removing the key tier of opposition to its housebuilding plans.

Tories were the majority group on the East of England Regional Assembly, and the driving force behind a political decision to suspend support for its own housebuilding targets unless the government coughs up the £6bn needed for new roads, schools and other infrastructure projects.

Eric Pickles, the shadow communities secretary, said: “The government's move is expected since many of the regional assemblies are criticising the lack of infrastructure and sustainability in its building plans, and Labour wishes to sideline this opposition.”

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