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Mr. Caborn: We received a number of representations from local government about the accountability of regional development agencies. RDAs will be non-departmental public bodies; as such, they will be accountable to Ministers. They will also be required to consult the designated regional chamber, and account for their activities to the chamber.
Mrs. Spelman: Will the Minister assure the House that the new regional development agencies will not remove powers from local government, especially the planning powers envisaged in clauses that were withdrawn in consideration in Committee of the Regional Development Agencies Bill?
Mr. Blizzard: Will not people judge the accountability of a regional development agency by how successful it is in tackling a region's problems? For example, in Lowestoft in my constituency, where unemployment is 9.2 per cent., against a regional average of 3.6 per cent., people are looking forward to the RDA tackling the disparity, which was left unattended for 18 years by the Conservative party. Will my hon. Friend confirm that addressing such disparities will be one of the priorities of RDAs?
Mr. Caborn: My hon. Friend is right. Apart from the Opposition, everybody accepts that there is a need to address the serious structural weaknesses in our eight English regions. To that extent, all the major stakeholders involved in the RDAs will address the issues and will try to bring more employment back to those regions than ever before.
Mr. Yeo: As the Minister will appoint every single member of the RDA boards and will also choose the organisations that are to be designated as the regional chamber, is there not clearly a serious lack of accountability in the structure proposed? Against that background, is it not absolutely extraordinary that every one of the Opposition amendments, which would have required the Minister to consult local authorities about the activities of RDAs, were voted down by the Government?
Mr. Prescott: The Government are taking action to improve air quality through the implementation of the national air quality strategy. On 12 February, we announced our plans to take forward an immediate review of the strategy, during which we shall look at all options for delivering improved air quality more quickly.
Mr. Boswell: While that is welcome, will the Deputy Prime Minister take a particularly close look at the Environmental Agency's recent proposals in connection with sulphur dioxide emissions from power stations, which do not seem to be well founded in the facts and go well beyond our current international obligations? Incidentally, the proposals would have the serious effect of virtually wiping out the economics and the potential of the British coal mining industry overnight.
Mr. Prescott: The hon. Gentleman will be aware that this strategy was begun by the previous Administration and that that is one of the gases under consideration in the review. We shall take into account the points that he has made.
Dr. Lynne Jones: I understand that the planting of trees can have beneficial effects on air quality. However, will my right hon. Friend assure the House that he will not encourage the planting of leylandii trees and hedges in residential areas? On the contrary, will he consider introducing measures to curb the activities of those who insist on growing those hedges to monstrous proportions, thus inflicting considerable misery on their neighbours?
The Minister for London and Construction (Mr. Nick Raynsford): Apart from the hon. Gentleman's letter of 24 February to my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister on this subject, the Government have received no representations regarding legislation concerning the use of rendering to newly built houses.
Mr. Collins: The Minister will know from my letter that I have laid before the Department the concerns of my constituents living in the Helme View estate, built by Barratt Homes, in Kendal. Will he consider legislation to require the minimum specified standards of rendering set out by the manufacturers of those materials, to be used by private sector builders? Will he also consider replacing the National House-Building Council with something that is rather less of a toothless watchdog?
Mr. Raynsford: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for providing me with some detailed background information about the case of Helme View. On the strength of his representations, I have seen that there is some evidence that the rendering may have been put on in a way that did not comply with the specification contained in the British Board of Agrement recommendations. If that is the case, there would certainly be grounds for the home owners concerned to seek redress through the NHBC, which has provided the insurance back warranty on the scheme. We have had general discussions with the NHBC about the performance of its obligations, and I have twice met its chief executive. I am expecting a report on the progress that it is making in the review of its service to ensure that it provides effective warranties to the public.
Dr. Cable: Does the Minister recall that the Government have signed the European charter of local self-government? Is she willing to tell the vast majority of councils--of all parties--which are well run, what time scale the Government now envisage to allow councils to raise their own revenue to meet local needs free of central Government capping and other centralised controls?
Ms Armstrong: We have said that we shall consult shortly. The consultation document will be going out in the next two to three weeks. Councils will then be able to respond. We shall be able to deal with the points that the hon. Gentleman has raised in that process. We then hope to bring a White Paper to the House. He will then see precisely how the Government intend to proceed.
Dr. Ladyman: When the Minister is looking into how to reduce local government reliance on central Government funding, will she also look into those ways in which local government is bailing out central Government? I am thinking of the burden of housing benefit payments on district councils. When the
Ms Armstrong: That is part of the present review of housing finance. I met the Local Government Association to discuss issues associated with that last week. It is one of the areas that we are reviewing and I look forward to reporting back on the results at some stage in the future.
Ms Armstrong: We are committed to making local decision making less constrained by central Government and more accountable to local people. However, there will remain a need for reserve powers for Government to act if and when councils fall seriously short of what people are entitled to expect.
Mr. Russell: While I acknowledge the Minister's response, does she agree that, after 18 years of relentless attacks on local government by the former Government, Britain now has the most centralised local government system anywhere in the democratic world--even more centralised than the system that Stalin achieved in the former Soviet Union? Is it not time that the Government started to roll back central Government control and get rid of the quangos? In short, is it not time that central Government got off local government's back?
Ms Armstrong: I certainly accept and agree that we have ended up with the most centralised system in Europe. Indeed, the number of Acts that the previous Government passed to try to neuter and devalue local government was almost more than the number of Conservative representatives on the Opposition Benches at the moment. We are determined to change the situation, but we want to do so in partnership with local government. That means that we are working with local government to plan the way forward and to do that in partnership. We shall not take decisions on our own without recognising the valuable contribution that local government has to make to the way forward.
Mr. Rammell: All of us would want to see an end to crude and universal capping as soon as possible, but does the Minister agree that political consistency is necessary on those issues? While in the House the Liberals argue for extra powers, extra expenditure and extra taxation at a local level by local councils, in my constituency and, I imagine, in others they criticise the fact that council taxes are increasing to fund reasonable increases in expenditure. Do we not need some consistency on those matters and does not that problem undermine the credibility that the Liberals might otherwise have on such issues?
Ms Armstrong: I think that both Opposition parties have some difficulties in consistency in their local government policy. Of course we need consistency, but, more than anything else, if we are to get a proper democratic balance in this country, we need a rejuvenated local government. We need that rejuvenation and diversity properly to express the will of local people and to ensure that they really are in the driving seat and we get a democracy worthy of its name.
Mr. Pickles: One of the principal worries of local councils about Government intervention concerns the planning powers of the regional development agencies. There is confusion on that. The Select Committee on the Environment, Transport and the Regions was told that there were no plans to take away powers from local authorities. The Regional Development Agencies Bill originally proposed to give the agencies such planning powers, but those proposals were then withdrawn. I accept that there may have been drafting problems, but my question is wholly reasonable--what powers does the Minister believe that the RDAs should have on planning?
Ms Armstrong: I am staggered by the hon. Gentleman. Year after year, he supported measures that gave central Government greater powers of intervention in local government. He knows that the issue will be dealt with properly on the Floor of the House on Report.