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White Paper, "Your Region, Your Choice: Revitalising the English Regions"

Standing Committee on Regional Affairs

Wednesday 17 July 2002

(Westminster)

[Mr. Bill O'Brien in the Chair]

White Paper, ''Your Region, Your Choice''

5 pm

The Minister for Local Government and the Regions (Mr. Nick Raynsford): May I say what a pleasure it is to speak in the Committee under your chairmanship, Mr. O'Brien. I am pleased to make a short statement about the Government's new regional agenda and answer questions about the proposals in the White Paper, ''Your Region, Your Choice: Revitalising the English Regions'', which we published in May.

The Government believe that the proposals offer the English regions a great opportunity. The White Paper sets out our plans to decentralise power, strengthen regional policy, and enable elected regional assemblies to be established in regions that want them. They form part of our wider programme of constitutional reform and build on the progress that we have already made in decentralising power and bringing decision making closer to those whom it affects. It also builds on the progress that we have made in devolving power to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and in giving London a democratically elected, strategic authority.

The White Paper forms part of our overall approach to modernising governance in this country. The message running through it is that we need to ensure that functions are carried out at the right level of government, whether national, regional or local. ''Your Region, Your Choice'' builds on what is already in place in the English regions. As hon. Members know, we created the regional development agencies to help revitalise the regions, recognising the importance of effective regional action to enhance competitiveness, improve economic performance, and further regeneration. We encouraged the creation of voluntary regional chambers—assemblies, as they are now generally known—to scrutinise the work of the RDAs and to achieve better co-ordinated regional planning. We have strengthened Government offices to help to deliver better results by working in a more integrated way.

The White Paper contains several proposals to strengthen the arrangements. It seeks to build on the role of the assemblies to scrutinise the role of the RDAs and to work with Government offices and other Government-funded bodies in the region to join up work on regional initiatives. We believe that the closer involvement of the assemblies will increase regional accountability. Taking a lead from our planning Green Paper, we also intend the assemblies to become regional planning bodies from April 2003. The White Paper makes it clear that where assemblies work effectively, they have a key role in expressing the interests and needs of a region.

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The White Paper also acknowledges progress in drawing regional strategies together and proposes that the assemblies develop that further. The Government will support that work. For example, when we develop detailed proposals on regional spatial strategies, we will consider whether more could be done to integrate them with other regional strategies. However, the assemblies will work closely with Government offices, other Government-funded bodies in the region and other regional partners to decide how to take that forward.

The Government will delegate more responsibilities to the Government offices and will shift the focus from Whitehall to the regions. Those extra responsibilities, including the responsibility for crime reduction and drugs, community cohesion and public health, will strengthen regional decision making and better reflect regional priorities. The Government offices also have a natural role to play in bringing together public sector organisations that work at a regional level.

We realise that these developments will be sufficient for some regions in the short term at least. However, some regions will not be satisfied with that, and without a direct democratic mandate, there will always be a limit to what can be devolved to the bodies that currently work in the regions. That is why the White Paper offers the opportunity for an elected assembly in any region that chooses this option. An elected assembly will give a region a real political voice and people more say about the issues that affect their region. It can make government more effective and efficient, developing tailored regional solutions to regional problems. It can also enable regions to build on their unique strengths, improve economic performance and quality of life, and help build and reinforce regional self-confidence.

The White Paper is about choice. No region will be forced to have an assembly and people will have to vote 'Yes' in a referendum before an assembly is put in place. We recognise that interest in elected regional assemblies varies throughout England, so we will not require referendums to be held in all English regions outside London at the same time. Instead, we will hold a referendum in a region when we consider that there is sufficient public interest in holding one.

Mr. Derek Wyatt (Sittingbourne and Sheppey) rose—

The Chairman: Order. I should explain that questions to the Minister come after his statement.

Mr. Raynsford: Thank you, Mr. O'Brien.

We will gauge interest by taking into account the views of members of the public and local authorities and other key stakeholders in the region. We plan to say more about the specific way in which we will assess public interest in the next few weeks.

In deciding the specific powers and responsibilities for elected regional assemblies, we have been conscious of the need to define unambiguously the issues that are best dealt with at a regional level. Those are the specific functions that can and should be devolved by central Government and must be handled on a wider scale than those appropriate to local

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authorities. Local authorities remain the bodies best placed to deliver services locally and we do not propose that elected regional assemblies will take such powers away from local government. Equally, issues such as economic development, transport planning and spatial planning should be approached on a wider basis than local authority boundaries, which is why elected regional assemblies can make a difference.

Each elected regional assembly will develop a strategic vision for improving the quality of life in its region and set out its priorities through a range of regional strategies. Those strategies will cover important issues such as economic development and regeneration, skills and employment, housing, transport, spatial planning, health improvement and culture. The assemblies will be tasked with ensuring that all strategies fit together effectively to provide a coherent approach to the region's development.

Assemblies will have a range of powers to deliver the strategies, including financial resources for economic development, housing, tourism, arts and sport. They will also be responsible for the regional development agencies, appointing the board and approving the regional economic strategy. They will have the flexibility to allocate spending according to regional priorities, which offers the prospect of tailored regional solutions to regional problems.

The proposals are not about taking powers away from local government. Elected assemblies will be taking their powers from central Government and their agencies, not from local authorities. Elected regional assemblies will be responsible for strategic decisions and priorities that affect their region. Local authorities will continue to focus on local service delivery and community leadership.

The Government want elected regional assemblies to be democratic and inclusive. We are aware that if assemblies do nothing else but provide more jobs for the boys, they will fail. Assemblies must therefore not add bureaucracy, but will instead be small and streamlined, with between 25 and 35 members. As such, they will follow the model of the Greater London Authority, which has shown that a body dealing with strategic responsibilities can operate with much fewer members than the traditional local authority.

Indeed, keeping the size of the strategic regional assembly small brings other advantages, not least in avoiding potential confusion about the roles of elected assembly members, local councillors and local Members of Parliament. Elected regional assemblies will have a leader and cabinet of up to six members chosen by and fully accountable to the assembly. The cabinet will develop policies and, after gaining full approval from the assembly, implement them.

To promote a real improvement in regional decision making, elected regional assemblies will need to ensure they harness the experience, expertise and commitment of others in the region. One of the most pleasing aspects of the advent of regional assemblies has been the involvement of stakeholders throughout. There have inevitably been hiccups. Business, the voluntary

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sector and trade unions will not always agree, both with each other and local authority representatives, but the harnessing of the wide range of experience and expertise has undoubtedly been a good thing. We want and expect to see elected assemblies making full use of all stakeholders.

How do we do that without undermining the democratic legitimacy of the elected members? The White Paper outlines a number of options. For example, people with specific expertise could be co-opted to scrutiny or policy development committees, or as policy advisors on specific topics. There could be consultative forums or sounding boards of stakeholder representatives. The White Paper invites views on how the Government should set out the involvement of key stakeholders, and we shall certainly pay heed to the views expressed in response to the White Paper and to those expressed today.

Our proposals for elected regional assemblies are about ensuring that decision making is simpler and more efficient. By joining up regional strategies, improving co-ordination and providing stronger scrutiny, elected regional assemblies should reduce bureaucracy, not add to it. However, in areas that currently have a county council and a district council, a regional assembly would add a third tier of elected government below the national level. That would add complexity to the government structure, and moving to a unitary local government structure in such regions would simplify relationships for local authorities and regional assemblies as well as making it clearer to the public who did what.

In any region where we decide that a referendum on elected assemblies should go ahead, we shall ask the Boundary Committee to undertake a review of local government structures and to recommend the most effective wholly unitary structure. Concerns have been raised about the distraction that any review and subsequent local government reorganisation will cause and it would be unrealistic to say that no distraction will occur in regions in which a review takes place. However, we are keen to keep such distractions to a minimum and to ensure that local government continues to focus on service delivery and on our modernisation agenda. That is why reviews will take place only in regions that want to hold a referendum on having an elected regional assembly and why we propose that any review will exclude existing unitary authorities. Such authorities serve more than half the population of England, and they serve rather more of the population in those regions that have expressed the greatest interest to date in moving to an elected regional assembly.

There will, of course, be no change in the responsibilities that Parliament and central Government take for United Kingdom-wide matters. Many policy areas of England-wide importance, such as the national health service and schools, will remain on an England-wide basis.

This Committee will continue to play a role. It provides a forum for hon. Members to debate English regional issues and the Government welcome its contribution. I expect it to have a continuing role in considering and debating the Government's policy up

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to and beyond the creation of the first elected regional assemblies.

The timetable for moving towards an elected regional assembly will vary from region to region, and some may choose not to go down that route for many years. When parliamentary time allows, we intend to introduce a Bill to provide for referendums and associated local government reviews, with the aim of enabling the first referendum to be held during this Parliament. Once at least one region has voted for an elected assembly, we intend to introduce a further Bill to allow assemblies to be set up. Elections for assemblies in regions where there has been a yes vote in a referendum would be held within months of the Bill becoming law. In practice, that should allow the first regional assembly to be up and running early in the next Parliament. We are considering the process by which we shall choose which regions will have a referendum and we will make an announcement in the near future.

The Government's new regional agenda is a real and exciting opportunity to improve economic performance and revitalise democracy throughout England. We firmly believe that elected regional assemblies can and will have a real impact on a region's prosperity. An assembly will have the responsibilities, powers and funding to develop and implement a cohesive and strategic vision to improve economic prosperity and quality of life.

The regional governance White Paper forms a crucial part of our constitutional reform programme to modernise government, decentralise power and bring decision making closer to those it affects. Our proposals will make government in England more accountable, more efficient and more effective. Ultimately, they will lead to a more prosperous and inclusive society.

 
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Prepared 17 July 2002