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Session 2001- 02
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Regional Affairs Committee Debates

Governance in England

Regional Affairs Committee

Tuesday 18 December 2001

(Westminster)

[Mr. Jimmy Hood in the Chair]

Regional Governance in England

10 am

The Chairman: As this is only the second meeting of the Regional Affairs Committee under new Standing Order No. 117, I shall briefly summarise how the Committee's proceedings will unfold.

We begin with a statement from the Minister on the matter referred to the Committee by the House on 5 December. That will be followed by questions on the statement, which may continue for an hour. We shall then move to a general debate on a motion moved by the Minister. Other hon. Members, including those representing English seats who are not one of the 13 core members of the Committee, can speak until I call the Minister to reply to the debate. At the conclusion of the Minister's speech, or at 12.30 pm, I shall put the question on the motion. We therefore begin with a ministerial statement on regional governance in England.

The Minister of State, Cabinet Office (Mrs. Barbara Roche): Thank you, Mr. Hood. I am pleased that the Committee is under your chairmanship.

We are debating an important subject. In preparing for the forthcoming White Paper on regional governance, we are listening to the views of those with an interest from across England. Today's debate is a key part of that process. Indeed, the Committee has an important role to play.

Over the past decade, there has been growing recognition that many issues—for example, planning and economic development—cannot sensibly be tackled at national level, but for which the areas covered by local authorities are too small. As a result, there has been a progressive growth in administrative structures and institutions at regional and sub-regional level; those changes are intended to address that diversity of needs and interests and to create a framework for regional development.

Since the Labour Government came to power in 1997, much has been done to bring greater strength and coherence to those arrangements. In 1999, we set up the regional development agencies. Their purpose is to co-ordinate regional economic development and regeneration, to enable the English regions to improve their competitiveness and to reduce the imbalances that exist both within and between regions. They have proved a great success, supporting thousands of regeneration schemes, skills projects and initiatives to assist business competitiveness. In their first year, the RDAs were responsible for creating or saving 35,000 jobs.

In recognition of that success, we have substantially increased the funding and flexibility of RDAs. In July 2000, they were awarded a substantial year-on-year increase in resources, worth £500 million extra a year by 2003–04; and by April 2002, they will have more budgetary flexibility so that they can make the best use of those extra resources.

Although the RDAs outside London remain accountable to Ministers and to Parliament, we recognised from the outset the fact that they need to respect the views and needs of the regions that they serve. To that end, in 1999, the Government designated eight voluntary regional chambers to provide the main link between the RDAs and the regions. In July 2001, we announced a £15 million fund for those chambers, to enable them, over a three-year period, to enhance their scrutiny role of the RDAs and to develop their position as a strategic focal point for the regions.

The increasing importance of the regional dimension has been further acknowledged by reinforcing the Government office network in the regions, and establishing more devolved regional planning arrangements.

We do not intend to stop there, however. Our manifesto committed us to regional government in those regions where popular support was demonstrated through referendums, and where there was predominantly unitary government. Led by my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister, in liaison with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions and other colleagues, we are working on the forthcoming White Paper on regional governance.

Last month, the Treasury and the Department of Trade and Industry published a pre-budget report called ''Productivity in the UK: 3—The Regional Dimension''. It stated that effective regional and local institutions were essential to building regions in which workers wanted to live and where successful business could flourish. It also stressed that regional and local flexibility could maximise the effectiveness of economic development policy, involving stakeholders and allowing better targeted policy delivery. The report concluded that the best mechanisms for dealing with regional issues were likely to be based in the regions themselves.

We believe that people in England deserve the opportunity to choose whether to have a democratically elected body that pulls together all the issues that affect their region, and that has the legitimacy, critical mass and clout to set priorities and speak up for the region. The regions outside London, where there are 40 million people, are now virtually the only regions in Europe that do not have some form of regional democracy or representation. Elected regional assemblies can put that right.

Such assemblies can strengthen accountability. In the north-east, for example, there are 70 regional and sub-regional quangos. They are not accountable to the region, and most people do not know who is on them or what they do. Elected regional assemblies can change that. They can open up the system and provide regional stakeholders with a clearer decision-making framework.

Elected regional assemblies will give people in the regions the chance to have a stronger political voice and bring decision making closer to the people whom we represent. They can improve delivery by giving the regions the freedom and flexibility to meet their own needs and priorities within the national framework, and by co-ordinating the many activities and strategies that exist in the regions. It is clear that the country as a whole will only fulfil its potential if all the regions are successful. By making our regions stronger and enabling them to play to their strengths, we can in turn strengthen our nation.

The Government are committed to an open and responsive democracy that meets the needs of the people and is held to account by the people. A programme of constitutional reform is well under way to achieve that aim. We are modernising the institutions of government and devolving power from the centre. Devolving power and strengthening democracy is central to delivering public services, modernising local government and bringing growth and prosperity to the regions. We have devolved power to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and given London a democratically elected strategic body to promote its interests.

The regional governance White Paper will be the next step in the process of decentralisation. It will enable the creation of elected regional assemblies where people want them, which will strengthen our regions and in turn our country.

Mr. Anthony Steen (Totnes): It is always a pleasure to see you, Mr. Hood, in any of your many roles. The subject on this occasion is not Europe, but the regions, and I wondered whether the two were connected and that was why you were our Chairman. During the previous Regional Affairs Committee, everyone shrank from saying that we were moving towards a regional White Paper, which the Minister has clearly referred to today. When is that White Paper likely to be produced? Will it deal with the imbalances in the regions? For example, the population in the south-west is concentrated in Bristol, Plymouth and Exeter, whereas the whole of Cornwall's population is probably smaller than that of those areas put together. The Minister talks about regionalism and decentralisation, but we could end up with decentralisation from the centre but total distortion in the regions, with people feeling far further away from the seat of government. Instead of having a county council based near them, they will have a regional council based hundreds of miles away. Will the Minister deal with that point?

Lastly, will she say something about district and county councils? Will she be quite frank with the Committee and say whether town and parish councils will be retained or whether the Government plan to get rid of the lot? It would be helpful if the Minister would say what is in her mind.

Lawrie Quinn (Scarborough and Whitby): On a point of order, Mr. Hood. Could you confirm that, at this point in our proceedings, hon. Members should put one question succinctly to Ministers to allow them to answer as many questions as possible?

The Chairman: The hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) said that he was coming to a conclusion, but I intended to emphasise that questions should be brief to allow more of them to be answered. Where possible, I ask hon. Members to co-operate with that.

Mr. Steen: Further to that point of order, Mr. Hood. I thank you for drawing that matter to the attention of the Committee.

The Chairman: That is not a point of order, but you are welcome.

Mrs. Roche: This is clearly an incredibly courteous Committee, so I am delighted to play my part in it. With your permission, Mr. Hood, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and I propose to answer the questions from the perspective of our different responsibilities. The Cabinet Office has responsibility for the Government offices of the regional co-ordination unit, whereas my right hon. Friend has responsibility for local government. The hon. Member for Totnes raised several questions, so I shall respond to the first part of his remarks and my right hon. Friend will deal with the other points that he raised.

The point about Europe is well made. Many regions of the UK have some form of dialogue or negotiation with the European Union. From my involvement, I have found that a regional voice can be important. For example, when we were negotiating structural funds, especially objective 1 funding, it was very useful for people in the south-west to be involved in that dialogue. The regions can be important in putting their views to the European Commission.

The hon. Member for Totnes mentioned the south-west. The RDA has been successful in addressing the needs of the south-west as a whole. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that that constitutes a big area, but the RDA has been able to apply a co-„ordinated approach to some regional difficulties. He is also right to speak about regional imbalances. That is one of the driving forces behind the whole idea of regional government, which enables such issues to be raised and addressed.

 
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Prepared 18 December 2001