The City of Durham Trust
The Wider Context
1. Regional Planning
It has come as a surprise to many people that the massive (78%) rejection of regional government in the referendum in November 2004 had little effect on the inexorable march towards regional planning and the role of the North East Assembly.
The North East Regional Assembly had been in existence for some time, with its 72 appointed members, although it was intended that it would either be replaced by an elected body or abolished if regional government was rejected in the referendum (Regional Assemblies (Preparation) Act, 2003). This “voluntary chamber”, as it was called in the Regional Development Agencies Act, 1998, had no planning powers of its own, but nevertheless started work in 1999 on strategic planning, under guidance from Government Office for the North East.
Then came the Planning and Compulsory Planning Act, 2004, which gave the Regional Assembly responsibility for the Regional Spatial Strategy, a framework for all local government planning activity. By now central government had rescinded the condition that regional government would only proceed with the backing of popular support. The November 2006 referendum vote, therefore, proved to be one against democratic accountability. There will be no elected Assembly.
2. Local Government
The November 2004 referendum contained a second question concerning the tier of local government below regional level. Durham District, along with all other districts was to be abolished and replaced either by a single county-wide unitary authority or by three separate unitary authorities from the amalgamation of former districts. The voting figures were 50.6% in favour of the County and 49.4% in favour of threefold division of the County. In view of such an inconclusive result, the pronouncements of the then Leader of the County Council, Mr Ken Manton, were interesting.
As soon as the result was announced, he was reported as saying that he would be "urging Mr Prescott to move immediately to a single unitary authority to govern County Durham" ( The Journal, 6th November 2004). In the Council’s newspaper, Countywide (December 2004) he wrote: "If a future government decided to reorganise councils in Durham, then we would urge them to base their decisions on the results of the referendum. Rather than subjecting us to another expensive review, from this poll they already know what people’s preference for unitary local government would be." He followed this up with a letter to The Times (6th January, 2005) in which he claimed that in County Durham "the result provided government ministers with a clear indication of people’s preference for the future shape of local government." A claim of overwhelming endorsement next?