Regional Development Agencies

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Alan Johnson: If the hon. Gentleman does not mind, I shall take that away and write to him on it, because there are complexities. There was some conflict with the East of England Development Agency and the regional assembly about sustainable development. I think that mechanisms are in place, but I shall write to the hon. Gentleman to give him chapter and verse.

Mr. Steen: I am grateful to you, Mr. O'Hara, for allowing me to ask a question before the guillotine falls. It is on sustainable development. The Minister said that he did not think that road transport would be one of the issues, but if we build almost half a million new homes, that will double the amount of traffic on the roads and more people will want to use the railways, which may not exist in Cornwall. Does the Minister believe that those developments will include new school places or hospitals? What does sustainable development include? I have been reading the structure plan for Devon, which was produced by the Liberal Democrats, but it does not help us much. If one of the RDA's five objectives is sustainable development, what does that mean? I am not trying to ask a politically clever question; I am just trying to find an answer that nobody seems able to give.

Alan Johnson: I do not think that I can answer it, either. I was saying not that road transport was not a factor, but that the hon. Gentleman's earlier example of a housing estate being unsustainable because of the road links did not fit with my definition.

To be clear, the RDAs are not about building hospitals and schools; they are about economic development. I quoted the five-word mission statement, not the five targets, and I am saying that the RDAs should concentrate on economic development. Other bodies and groups concentrate on health care and education, and the RDAs must not be lured into areas that are not in their central remit.

The Chairman: Order.

Mr. Steen: On a point of order, Mr. O'Hara. It is only 3.01 pm, and I think that we started at 2.03 pm—

The Chairman: Not according to my clock, so no more questions may be taken. Committee members have taken the full opportunity of the facility to ask questions.

Regional Development Agencies

Motion made, and Question proposed,

    That the Committee has considered the matter of the progress of the Regional Development Agencies against their objectives.—[Alan Johnson.]

3.3 pm

Mr. Waterson: I hope that you, Mr. O'Hara, will not take it as a slight on your chairmanship and that the Minister will not take offence if I say that today has been a low-key affair. That is understandable, because regional development agencies do not set the pulse racing. We do not even have a full complement of the core members of the Committee, nor a single Member who is not a core member with the exception of myself and the Minister, who were invited to be here

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by our respective Whips. There is a distinct lack of excitement in the air, and the Minister reflected that in the great majestic sweep of his opening statement. He noted that some people said that the new RDAs have done little that is radical in their early years, and I would agree.

Mr. Steen: Does my hon. Friend agree that the reason that there is not more excitement is because those on the Government Benches are deadpan about the subject? I am excited about the possibility of tackling RDAs on several points, but the flat feeling on the Government Benches seems to be causing some problems.

Mr. Waterson: I hesitate to disagree with my hon. Friend, but I think that that may be their normal expression, although it is not for me to speculate.

My hon. Friend touched on this point in his question about Dawlish. When the RDAs were set up, there was the feeling in local government and business circles, certainly in my constituency, that we should give them a fair chance to prove themselves. Such attitudes are common in this country, because people believe in fair play. However, the litmus test for the success or failure of regional development agencies is whether they are significantly instrumental in achievements such as repairing the crumbling railway line at Dawlish or whether they are not and it falls into the sea, or whether the cause of that happening was down to another agency or central Government. I have not received one letter from a constituent complaining that he felt deprived because the regional bodies had not existed before. I do not know how many of my constituents even know that they are fortunate to have an RDA looking after their interests.

Mr. Steen: Or care.

Mr. Waterson: Indeed, nor whether my constituents know what the RDA is supposed to be doing for them. I do not want to get on to the subject of regional identity because, with the possible exception—which I conceded when I was shadow Minister for Local Government, as the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside will know—of the north-east of England, there is little regional identity throughout the country, certainly not in my part of the world. People in Eastbourne have no desire to be run by someone based in Guildford.

Mrs. Ellman: Is the hon. Gentleman aware that a national poll published today showed that at least 72 per cent. of the population in the north-west, north-east and Yorkshire want a directly elected regional assembly?

Mr. Waterson: I do not know what questions were asked, but as someone who began life as a Yorkshireman—one never ceases to be a Yorkshireman—if there were a region called Yorkshire, most Yorkshiremen would sign up to it. However, a Yorkshireman could not be persuaded to belong to a region that is larger and more amorphous than Yorkshire. I first thought that the hon. Lady was referring to the ICM poll that showed that the Government's lead had been cut in half.

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Alan Johnson: Only nine points ahead.

Mr. Waterson: Well, only nine points ahead and four, or three, years to go.

The Minister referred to a bottom-up approach as if there were great support among ordinary people and small and medium-sized businesses for RDAs. I do not believe that most people know that they exist or what they are doing. No real interest has been shown in the subject. With all due respect to the sprinkling of people in the Public Gallery, the attendance here today does not contradict what I am saying.

Mr. Steen: I am sorry to keep interrupting my hon. Friend, but I am sure that it will add to the quality and range of his speech if he deals with my question. One aim of the RDAs is to help small businesses. Does he agree that the best way in which to help small businesses is to lift the red tape that surrounds them, especially the rules and regulations that come from Europe? Successive Governments, including Conservative Governments, have said that they will do that, but they have failed. Should that not be one of the litmus tests for the RDAs?

Mr. Waterson: I agree very much with my hon. Friend. I am sure that he has detailed knowledge of the small businesses in his constituency. Only last Sunday, a report showed that an extra £3 billion burden had been placed on businesses under this Government, and that is unsustainable. I can see the sense in putting on RDAs go-getting business men and women who have run businesses successfully, but those people will be nothing but restive if they are controlled by bureaucrats or local politicians who second guess their actions. However, perhaps that debate will be more significant when the White Paper is produced in the spring this year, or some time during this Parliament.

The only people who have a real regional agenda are members of the Government. The agenda has two midwives, one of which is devolution. Like so many Government policies that have not been thought through, after devolution in Scotland and Wales, it was decided to throw in the idea of English devolution—like a last-minute sop. The second midwife is European integration. We know that there are people in the Government and the Labour party—and some Liberal Democrats, if not all of them—who see this as a means of paving the way to a Europe of the regions. In a speech that was reported in the Birmingham Post, the former Minister for Europe, the hon. Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz), called for the regional development agencies to promote what he called ''the positive message'' about Europe. That is an interesting quote.

Therefore, this is not entirely a bottom-up operation. It is a top-bottom operation. There is also an attempt to use the regional development agencies as a mechanism for getting across the Government's message on this, or anything else. If their policy has changed since November 2000, I am sure that the Minister will seek to intervene.

Andrew George: Before the hon. Gentleman develops that old chestnut further, would he like to present to the Committee any scraps of evidence that

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back up his conspiracy theory?

Mr. Waterson: I am not sure that I used the word ''conspiracy'', but there is a tremendous closeness of view between the Liberal Democrats and the Government on this. It might assist the hon. Gentleman if I quote his colleague, the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster). He spoke to this Committee on 18 December last year, and he said:

    ''The Minister, his team and the Government share the view of Liberal Democrats that regional government is of vital importance for England. Its time has come''.—[Official Report, Regional Affairs Committee, 18 December 2001; c. 18.]

I wish to link that with the Liberal Democrats' known enthusiasm for anything to do with Europe, which is about the only thing that all Liberal Democrats have in common. With regard to other matters, there are as many views on policy as there are Liberal Democrats, but all of them are great proponents of Europe. I am departing from the main theme of my speech, but the hon. Gentleman made an important intervention and I want to deal with it fully. The Liberal Democrats are also great supporters of anything that serves to undermine this place, which is why they are so enthusiastic about Europe and regional government. They are happy to sign up to anything that serves to undermine this place; that is a constant theme of their attitude to it.

As the hon. Gentleman has provoked me, I shall say something else, in passing. One must keep an eye on such things on almost a day-to-day or hour-to-hour basis, but I think that it is still Liberal Democrat policy to give tax powers to regional assemblies, so that there would be a regional tax on top of existing national and local taxes. If the hon. Gentleman wants to contradict me on that, I am happy to give way again. Obviously, he does not wish to contradict me.

Let me return to my main point. In a nutshell, we see the RDAs as part of the regional agenda. In fairness, the Minister agrees with that, because he used that phrase more than once in his speech. The RDAs and regional assemblies are a kind of Trojan horse for the development of a Europe of the regions. However, they are also having unintended consequences—the Government are masters of the law of unintended consequences. There are rising tensions over funding differences between Scotland and the north of England, for example, and voices are being raised against the Barnett formula. Such tensions are direct consequences of the Government's policies.

I turn to what I call the competition aspect, which was touched on in one of the questions that the hon. Member for St. Ives asked. Every so-called ''region'' of the country has its own regional development agency. That includes Cornwall, which, on any view, is well behind the European average on all the usual indicators; but it also includes London and the south-east, as the Minister conceded.

I met my local SEEDA representatives—because I am not one of those churlish people who does not do such things—and they are determined to make the south-east the most successful region in Europe. That is fine; if one has a background in business, it is right to have a clear, focused idea of where one is going.

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However, how does that aspiration sit with those regions that are already a long way behind? The south-east has areas of poverty and pockets of high unemployment, although some people might find that difficult to grasp. However, as a region—it is insisted that we consider these places as regions—its economic performance is way ahead of Cornwall's. How on earth is somewhere such as Cornwall to be pulled back up to the European average? Serious questions and tensions surround the Government's various aims for the RDAs.

It is interesting to examine the Trade and Industry Committee's report of May 2001. The Committee examined several regions, and concluded that the north-east was a coherent region with a strong regional identity—I have always agreed with that. However, with life being what it is, there is always a cloud with every silver lining. The report said:

    ''This produced higher initial expectations of the RDA than could, at least initially, be met.''

The report said that the east midlands is

    ''an awkward mixture of town and country''.

It said that the south-west had identity problems, which we have heard from at least two hon. Members. The report also mentioned the reservations of bodies such as the British Chambers of Commerce on the aims and ambitions of the RDAs.

I do not want to go into great detail today, but the report also mentioned relationships between Government offices and RDAs, which were found to be generally good but with the potential for tension and a blurring of boundaries. An interesting performance and innovation unit report also bears some of that out.

Events surrounding the north-west regional assembly are perhaps the most dramatic recent example—the Minister tried to dismiss it during one of his answers—of enormous potential implications for long-term relationships between RDAs and new so-called democratic structures, on which the White Paper will touch, and the effect on the business community's confidence in RDAs. The Confederation of British Industry and other private sector groups effectively walked out of the assembly. Business leaders said that the assembly had

    ''failed to take private sector concerns into account, and created another layer of government rather than drawing on a wide spectrum of support.''

They said that

    ''the running of the assembly fell well short of standards of corporate governance expected in the private sector . . . Private sector disenchantment is not confined to the North-West''.

Mr. Collinson, who is their spokesman, said:

    ''The North-East has also totally ignored the private sector, and other regions are complaining.''

 
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