Regional Development Agencies

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Alan Johnson: My hon. Friend has raised an important point, and I am happy to pay tribute to Lancashire Enterprises, and to all of the work that it did in respect of Leyland in Preston.

It is also the case that in unitary authorities, economic development agencies at local level showed the need to co-ordinate such work. Outside of some county councils, the absence was at a regional level, and the regional development agencies are built on the kind of work that was done by Lancashire Enterprises.

Andrew George: The Minister claims that, by establishing regional development agencies, the Government are allowing a bottom-up approach, rather than a top-down one. Many of the strategies that I have seen seem to be concerned about co-ordination with the Government's intention. Will the Minister answer the question about the ability of the regional development agencies in recent years to respond to some problems in their areas? I am thinking particularly of transport problems, especially those of the rail services, and of RDAs' failure to take a proactive role in bringing partners together to address what are clearly regional strategic transport problems—according to the Government's definition of ''regional''.

Alan Johnson: As I said in my statement, it must be borne in mind that, for the first two and a half years, the regional development agencies have been administering 11 funds that were pre-set by the Government: 92 per cent. of their funding is land and properties, and single regeneration budget money. That was pre-determined; there was little flexibility within their budget. Nevertheless, within those constraints, they have reacted remarkably well to local challenges, and I gave some examples of that in my statement.

Transport is an interesting case. The RDAs say that now that they have a track record of sorts, they are moving into the single budget. They have frustrations with regard to matters such as transport, which is a key issue in every region. However, we want to ensure that they do not bite off more than they can chew. Therefore, part of what we are saying to them is, ''Look, here is the single pot, which is a step forward. Over the next two years you will be handling that, and administering the RSA and other things that add up to a value of up to £2 million. But issues such as transport, where there is a clear national strategy and priority, are different.'' It is understandable that the RDAs get frustrated about that, because they cannot have much influence over their own destiny in such matters.

Let us see how we take the process forward. It would be wrong if the regional development agencies were to bite off more than they could chew. At their meeting with the Prime Minister a couple of weeks

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ago, transport was the major concern: they need more ability to co-ordinate the Highways Agency and other organisations, to ensure that transport is an effective part of their strategy.

John Mann: Although over the past 18 months my constituency has had the most job losses of any constituency, with more than 4,500 redundancies, the latest statistics show that over the past 12 months unemployment has gone down by 61. That position has been consistent over the past six months. Several initiatives from the East Midland Development Agency have contributed to that: the sub-regional partnership, which is one of the first to be private-sector led; the Shireoaks Triangle development, which is about to be opened, and which will provide a significant number of jobs next month; the Worksop housing development, which, significantly, is backed by ENDA and is due to be launched next month; and the Worksop Town football club development. That club was formed in 1861, and is the fourth oldest in the country. It has announced a proposed move to a new ground with a major new sports development, which will be the biggest in non-league football. That, too, has been backed by ENDA. Which of those major RDA and Government successes does the Minister feel it appropriate for me to invite him to open? Which Ministers does he recommend for the others?

Alan Johnson: We all enjoyed that tour of Bassetlaw. I had the pleasure of going there just before the last general election. I shall plump for Worksop Town.

Mr. Waterson: As my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes said, this debate puts the cart before the horse because we await the White Paper on regional government.

I should like to press the Minister on the developing relationship between RDAs and regional chambers and assemblies. Leaving aside the political placement that the Government may have put on RDAs, some agencies include high-powered businessmen; for example, Allan Willett is the distinguished first head of SEEDA, and has a business with a successful track record. Such businessmen will not be comfortable about being second or third-guessed by local councillors who sit on a regional body. They are used to driving through schemes, making profits and wealth, running companies and creating jobs without spending much time talking about it. Would the Minister like to comment on the potential tension between what the Government are trying to achieve, and getting the right people to stay in RDAs?

Alan Johnson: I would, because that question sums up a misunderstanding by Conservative Members—we may have put political point-scoring to one side, but could yet have a little more. The Conservative party is the only political party that does not back RDAs; indeed, one of its previous manifesto commitments was to abolish them. I should like a consensus on the issue, as would people such as Allan Willett, who wants to work with Members of Parliament. Many Conservative activists, too, are fully participating in RDAs.

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The official Opposition confuse decentralisation with devolution. We are not having a cart-before-the-horse debate. RDAs will continue because they are a permanent part of the structure. The White Paper that we await from the Cabinet Office relates to English devolution, not to replacing RDAs. I need to say that because, during an Adjournment debate, a Conservative Member said that RDAs were soon to be replaced by regional assemblies—they are not. [Interruption.]

My point is related to today's debate, and to the comment about the cart before the horse from the hon. Member for Eastbourne. RDAs are a permanent part of the landscape of economic development, and that point is relevant to the issue of regional chambers and assemblies. Our manifesto policy was that, where there were by-and-large unitary authorities, further devolution for English regions could follow subject to a referendum of the people of the region. If there is no appetite for that, or a referendum result opposes it, RDAs will continue on the basis on which they operate now, which is that democratic input comes from the regional chamber's regional assemblies.

The hon. Member for Eastbourne says that business people want to move things along quickly. I agree, and I know of no tensions between regional assemblies and RDAs—apart from one minor example—that have led to a project being held up. They have good relationships. The regional assembly in the south-west was given a scrutiny role, which is important because £1.7 billion of public money goes to the RDAs; that is taxpayers' money. We set central targets and outputs, but the RDAs have a lot of freedom in deciding how to spend that money, particularly after 1 April and the single pot. It would be perverse if there were no democratic accountability in the process from elected representatives. We do not want to hold things up or to impose additional bureaucracy; we want proper scrutiny of what the RDAs are doing. I have dealt with the matter since June, and I have not heard a single business person on an RDA board or an RDA chairman say that significant tension is preventing them from moving forward with their agenda.

Mrs. Ellman: Is the Minister aware that the decision to make the Department of Trade and Industry the lead Department for the RDAs has caused concern in some quarters that RDAs may ignore environmentally sustainable development and consider the interests of regeneration as being less important?

Alan Johnson: My hon. Friend is right; there may have been fears at the time. All the RDAs and people associated with them were keen to come under the DTI umbrella, but that does not mean that they wanted to diminish or dilute the sustainable development part of their programmes. The RDAs can sum up their mission in five words: socially inclusive, sustainable, economic development. The RDA chairmen report every six weeks to a meeting of Ministers, including those from the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Under the single pot, they have four main targets, one of which concerns the amount of brownfield land they regenerate. Sustainable

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development is important and remains part of their work.

Mr. Steen: When I was the Member of Parliament for Liverpool, Wavertree under the Wilson Government, we had many initiatives on urban problems. Then, we had the Tories' urban studies and partnerships chaired by Ministers; now, we have RDAs and Ministers chairing them. However, the problems remain roughly the same.

The hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) referred to transport and, having moved from Liverpool, Wavertree to south Devon, my problem is that it is not being addressed. It was raised coherently, but not specifically by the hon. Gentleman.

There are two railway lines from Exeter to Penzance. They take a scenic route along the coast between Exeter and Newton Abbot, with wonderful views over the sea. The only snag is that the sea is coming in. Railtrack—or whatever it is called now—keeps saying that it can keep the sea out, but it has a King Canute attitude. The sea keeps coming in at Dawlish—100,000 tonnes of rock has already fallen from the cliff—and every so often the track is closed. The time will come when there will be no railway line from Dawlish to Penzance.

I am not complaining about the road or airport system, which is common throughout the country. Will the Minister ask the RDA to focus on the fact that an alternative route must be found to enable the railway line to bypass Dawlish? Otherwise, the sea will come in, as it did at Slapton sands where it destroyed the road, and it will destroy the railway. There will be no rail track between Dawlish, Exeter, Plymouth and Penzance, and something needs to be done to focus on that problem.

 
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Prepared 21 March 2002