Governance in England

[back to previous text]

The Minister for Local Government (Mr. Nick Raynsford): I shall respond to the hon. Member for South Hams—

Mr. Steen: Totnes.

Mr. Raynsford: I apologise to the hon. Gentleman. I was familiar with the old name for his constituency, and had not taken on board the new one.

The hon. Gentleman's first question related to the overall nature of the region—the population balance and various component elements. The second stage of his questioning was about how proposals for regional government might relate to existing structures of local government, particularly county councils and parish councils. I will try to respond.

The current definition of the Government office region is an extensive area that contains a number of population centres, not just those that the hon. Gentleman raised—Swindon is also a significant population centre. The region includes relatively densely populated areas and other relatively sparsely populated areas, but it is still seen as a region. A poll undertaken approximately two years ago found that between 80 and 90 per cent. of respondents identified themselves as living in the south-west region.

There is growing awareness of the south-west as a regional unit. However, that does not take away from the fact that there are elements within the region with a distinct local identity. It would be obvious to highlight Cornwall. The people of Cornwall consider themselves to be strongly bound together. As part of the development of our thinking we want to ensure that where a new region or regional assembly is established, it not only reflects the overall nature of the region, but respects the concerns of regional entities within that region.

I would like to turn to the issue of the structures of local government. Our manifesto commitment is to allow regions the opportunity, if they express the wish through a referendum, to have an elected regional assembly within a framework of predominantly unitary local government. The White Paper that we will publish next year will spell out our proposals on how we intend to honour that commitment. There are some regions where there is already a preponderance of unitary local government. In Yorkshire and Humberside, 89 per cent. of the population live in unitary authorities. That is a very different picture to that presented by the south-west. Slightly different approaches may be necessary to enable the different regions that want a regional assembly to proceed.

I want to make it quite clear, because there has been some misinformation about the matter, that there is no secret Government agenda to abolish county councils. We believe that it is important to examine the structure of local government, because there will be several tiers of local government if regional government is introduced and it is in all our interests that we should have efficient systems of governance. However, there is no secret agenda to abolish county councils. I want to get that straight and put it on the record.

Nor will the role or powers of parish councils in any way change as a result of the introduction of regional governance. In the local government White Paper published last week, we set out our commitment to extending the opportunities for parish councils, particularly those that aspire to quality parish status, which will enable them to enjoy certain additional benefits and will enable them to serve their communities even more effectively.

The Chairman: Having appealed to hon. Members to be brief with their questions, I am duty bound to make a similar point to the Ministers. Standing Orders allow either Minister to answer a question, but I hope that we will not have two ministerial answers to every question.

Joyce Quin (Gateshead, East and Washington, West): I welcome my hon. Friend the Minister's statement, which will be well received in the part of the country that I represent. I agree with her that economic development should be the core function of the regional government process. However, I would like her to tell the Committee what other roles she envisages for regional government, and how such government would be able to wield influence and channel its views to central Government.

Mrs. Roche: There has been a great deal of discussion, and many proposals have been put to the Government. Ministers have been listening carefully to the arguments. The importance to economic development of planning on a regional basis is one of the issues that have been raised. Regional transport strategies have also been requested. A small strategic body has also been suggested, a key aspect of which would be some executive powers devolved from Whitehall. People in some parts of the country have raised the idea of civic partnerships as another way of engaging with regional governance and ensuring that regional and sub-regional stakeholders are engaged in the process.

Andrew George (St. Ives): I am pleased to be able to attend this sitting of the Committee. I apologise for not attending the previous sitting; three days before, my eldest brother died and I was taken up with matters to do with that.

The issue before the Committee is very important to me. I should like to think that questions that I have tabled have caused its sitting. I was keen that the Committee should consider other matters besides the White Paper, since other Departments' proposals—for strategic health authorities, for example—will clearly prejudice or influence the development of the pattern of devolved decision making in the regions.

We have heard about planning and economic development powers, but it would clearly be better, in some spheres of power, for democratically accountable institutions to operate. Health is a good example. Often there is a cliff edge between hospital services and social services. If they were brought together under one authority—including those authorities that cater for the general standard of housing and welfare—preventive care, hospital care and community care could be planned together and managed in such a way that regional institutions as one body could take important strategic as well as local decisions about service delivery. Does the Minister agree?

Mr. Raynsford: I hope that the hon. Gentleman recognises that one of our objectives is to devolve power from central Government to the regions rather than to move local government powers upward to the region. We would not regard it as appropriate, for example, for the regions to take from local authorities the power of local service delivery. That is best carried out at local level. For that reason we envisage the primary responsibility for providing social services remaining with local government. However, the hon. Gentleman is right to raise the importance of a better connection between the delivery of health and social services. The Government are trying to achieve exactly that through primary care trusts and other mechanisms to bring bodies together and ensure a more integrated service.

We envisage that the regional assemblies should have some overview of health matters. A parallel is found in the Greater London Authority, which is in some respects a precursor to what we are considering. It is a city-wide authority, introduced to give governance to an area as large as any of the English regions. The mayor was given a role in relation to public health. I was pleased to attend a recent gathering at which the mayor brought together health experts from other cities to share their experience of the wider health dimensions that would be affected by a body whose focus was—in the case of London—city-wide. A similar approach might be possible within the framework set out in the White Paper.

Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside): Does my hon. Friend accept that the small, strategic body to which he referred might not be meaningful enough to make a difference and to be attractive to people in the regions? Does she agree that the model for meaningful devolution in England should be closer to that of the Welsh Assembly than to that of the GLA? Recognising the importance of the knowledge economy to economic regeneration in the regions, does she intend to include a regional remit for the science research councils?

Mrs. Roche: In considering devolution to Scotland and Wales, we should recognise that they are parts of the United Kingdom that have evolved very differently. The model is therefore much more akin to that of London. However, we shall listen to the views of hon. Members from all parties. A small strategic authority with some executive powers is the model towards which most people in the English regions with whom it has been discussed veer. I have visited the north-west twice recently. The majority of people whom I spoke to there favoured that model. I understand the point about science and the knowledge base. That is incredibly important to economic regeneration and economic development and has been so in the north-west. It is among the issues that we have to consider, and on which we shall be keen to receive representations.

Lawrie Quinn: Does my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government share my concern that, as regional entities such as RDAs take on ever more influence and power—as outlined in our right hon. Friend's opening remarks—Members of Parliament do not have enough chances to talk about the specifics of developing policies in the regions? Does he share my concern that Members of Parliament do not have adequate opportunity to cross-examine and scrutinise members of the RDAs?

Mr. Raynsford: My hon. Friend will find that, as our policy develops and we publish our White Paper, there will be plenty of opportunity for hon. Members to become involved in debate and discussion about the role of the regions and the elected regional assemblies.

This Committee provides an opportunity for consideration of regional issues. Following the reorganisation of the machinery of government after the general election, the RDAs, are now the responsibility of the Department of Trade and Industry. Questions relating to the work of RDAs could be raised with our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry or in questions to his Department. If hon. and right hon. Members would like to raise specific issues relating to RDAs during the proceedings of this Committee, we shall pass them on to the Department of Trade and Industry and will ensure that their questions receive proper and full answers.

Previous Contents Continue

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index

©Parliamentary copyright 2001
Prepared 18 December 2001