The short life and changing times of a people's parliament that never was

The rise and fall of the Yorkshire Assembly has in many ways defined the era of New Labour. Political Correspondent Tom Smithard reports.

Row over 340,000 assembly overhaul 'farce'

In its way, the Yorkshire and Humber Assembly has mirrored the strengths and weaknesses of the political party that created it in the days when it could do no wrong and which has killed it in an era when it can barely do any right.

It was the first regional body in the country to start work – set up in 1999, then known as the Chamber – during those heady days of early New Labour when policies were vague and those tasked with implementing them often left bewildered.

As Labour moved into its second term and became more ambitious, the Assembly was picked to lead the push for regional devolution, campaigning hard for a referendum for an elected chamber. It got badly burned, as Labour did so often when it began to test its appetite for localism with the electorate.

It was only into Labour's third term, in 2006, that the Assembly worked out what it was really there to do. Using its experience it began to make itself useful, but by then it was too late – it had lost all credibility in the eyes of the public.

And so to what could well be New Labour's dying days, 2009, and the Assembly is itself today being put down – choosing to go of its own accord a year before the deadline, as pioneering in its death as it was in its birth.

But its demise has been far from clinical – as we report today the Government's attempts to streamline regional government in Yorkshire has cost 340,000, seen just two jobs go, and been widely condemned as a "fudge".

With a staff of 40 and an annual budget of 2m, the Assembly has always been small as far as quangoes go, but its work has been wide-reaching.

Set up to provide scrutiny of regional development agency Yorkshire Forward, it soon took responsibility for strategic planning for the region – deciding how many houses should be built and where, choosing which major transport schemes received funding, and more recently looking at how to reduce carbon emissions.

Throughout its short life – as the Assembly it ran from 2001 until today – it has been criticised by many political leaders as out-of-touch, undemocratic, an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy, unfocused; but it has also had its staunch defenders.

John Prescott, the Hull East MP who as Secretary of State for the Regions was in charge of its inception, said yesterday: "The Yorkshire Assembly, along with Yorkshire Forward, has played an important part in developing the region's economic priorities.

"I have no doubt regional political accountablilty will be back, as it was with the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament – originally rejected and eventually established – so it will be for English regions."

Its executive director Sue Jeffrey, who has worked for the Assembly from 2001, said: "We sometimes struggle as an Assembly to say what we've achieved – it's hard to give a tangible figure for the miles of new road we're responsible for or the number of houses built.

"Our main achievement has been bringing organisations together to discuss what needs to be done in Yorkshire. That seems low-key, but if we hadn't been doing it no-one else would.

"It was always difficult to make our work of interest to the five million people of Yorkshire and Humber. But at the end of the day, given the constraints we've been working under, we've done an excellent job and been accountable through the leaders of the local authorities. That's the legacy we're leaving."

The constraints became clear when the Assembly, along with its cousins in the North East and North West, were thrust into the limelight when chosen in 2004 to be the first to hold referendums for mini regional parliaments.

But the resulting campaign backfired spectacularly, the Assembly becoming the focus of much disenchantment in the region, and plans were dropped hastily when a referendum in the North East resulted in a resounding No vote.

"It is fair to say that left us in complete disarray," said Ms Jeffrey. "There was no Plan B. We found ourselves caught in the backlash of a policy decision that had not been thought through. It left us all very disappointed."

As a result, the Assembly executive instituted a thorough review of itself and out of that, in 2006, grew an organisation more focused on its core business of long-term infrastructure planning.

But within a year it was dealt its final killer blow with the result of a Government review into regional governance. Many expected it to abolish the regional development agencies but instead it handed them more power, alongside local councils, and abolished the assemblies.

"It was a surprise. I thought our record would be such that the Government would recommend that they needed some sort of push at regional level and that it was only through us that they could do that effectively," said Ms Jeffrey.

"The change that was proposed – to scrap assemblies but devolve power to local government – was a surprise, and seemed like a step back to me."

As we report today, howls of protest from councils up and down the country led to the Government partly reversing its decision and instead forming panels of local council leaders to jointly make policy alongside the regional development agencies.

That was a job that the Yorkshire Assembly could easily have been adapted to take on, but by the time the Government had reversed its position last November the Assembly had already announced that it was to close on March 31.

Its achievements difficult to quantify though undoubtedly there, the Yorkshire Assembly is unlikely to linger long in the memory except perhaps as a footnote in the history of New Labour's time in Government – an example of policy that was badly conceived, poorly supported and then embarrassingly killed off.

But as Sir John Harman, the former leader of Kirklees Council and first leader of the Assembly says: "Its creation gave real voice for the first time to the common interests of councils and their partners in our region.

"That remains as important now as it was in 1999. Even though the wider regional powers that then looked possible did not materialise, the Yorkshire region still matters."


1999 Set up as the Regional Chamber to work with the newly-created Yorkshire Forward

2001 Becomes the Yorkshire Assembly, a new partnership between councils and minority-interest groups

2002 First success: lobbying for more flood defence funding, which increased from 93m to 208m over 10 years

2002 Produces major transport study that secures 1.2bn to tackle motorway congestion

2003 Agrees to support a referendum to decide if the region wants a directly-elected Assembly

2003 Produces major strategy paper for the region, Advancing Together, setting out six priority areas

2004 Starts work on planning strategy, also produces strategies on waste, farming and freight

2004 Decides on priorities for spending 285m of Government money on improving housing stock

2004 Plans for mini parliament discarded after overwhelming No vote to referendum in the North East

2005 The draft planning strategy – which maps out development over 25 years – submitted to Government

2005 A rural framework is published, setting out the region's rural priorities

2006 Reports produced on future of coal industry, energy issues and affordable warmth

2006 The Assembly is relaunched with a focus on core business and better involvement of local authorities

2007 Further work done on planning strategy, biomass, fuel poverty, and building sites for gipsies and travellers

2007 The Government announces that the Assembly is to shut down with power given to Yorkshire Forward and local government

2008 Study into tackling climate change in the region launched, alongside work on sustainable development. The planning strategy is also finally published by Government, including proposals to build 22,000 homes in the region each year

2009 Assembly closes for business on March 31, and is partly replaced by Local Government Yorkshire and Humber based in the same building.