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

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Mr. Clifton-Brown: The Minister told us today that if there are not referendums leading to regional assemblies, the Government offices will be strengthened. That will be regionalism under another name, which will not be democratic. Will my hon. Friend speculate on that and on the powers that would then be taken away from local authorities?

Mr. Lansley: My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. In the east of England it is probably a more significant point than the question of regional assemblies because they are not wanted and will not happen.

In Cambridgeshire, we know perfectly well what regionalism means in that context. It means taking decisions out of our hands, and it often means that decisions are taken that make no sense—for example, the recent options include creating a city the size of Milton Keynes between London and Cambridge. I will not elaborate, but that makes no sense for a whole range of reasons. It will strangle one of the geese that lays our golden eggs, of the same sort referred to by the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey. If there is any university that stands any chance of doing anything remotely like Stanford has done, it is Cambridge university. One cannot achieve that if a regional planning conference thinks that it would be convenient to put down 100,000 homes in a gap in the map, hoping that it does not have any impact on the economic development of the area.

I am going to stop because otherwise I shall go on as long as some other hon. Members. My purpose is simply to say that we should strengthen local government and the mechanisms for local government to achieve genuine devolution, instead of doing it through regional window dressing, which is the Government's approach.

7.6 pm

John Mann (Bassetlaw): My points have not been made; I think that I am in a bit of a minority in this Room, but probably not in the country. The Minister wanted some feedback and suggestions. My first suggestion is that the question could be framed ''Do you want more elected politicians?'' I have seen no mood for more elected politicians. There seems to be a mania for creating more—mayors, the House of Lords and so on. I have not noted larger and larger turnouts in the referendums to date. The post of Mansfield mayor, which I opposed, and thankfully my bit of Mansfield voted heavily against, was established by 11 per cent. of the voters. I hope that there will be some clear guidelines and minimum tests built in, so that we do not end up with something sneaked in by

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the back door when people cannot be bothered to vote because they are not that interested.

When we talk about devolution, we should also talk about empowerment. My constituency is rather interestingly situated. It is in Nottinghamshire—the east midlands—which is not mentioned in the White Paper. In fact, Nottinghamshire is only mentioned in terms of Nottingham. Our health authority is in Yorkshire. Our radio is based in Sheffield and Nottingham, depending on where people live in the constituency. The same is true of television, although Yorkshire Television in my constituency is the Lincolnshire version of Yorkshire Television, and we have both Nottinghamshire and Yorkshire telephone codes.

The unions have always built their structures where industry is based. The regional office of the Transport and General Workers Union for my constituency is based in Birmingham. The regional office for the General, Municipal, Boilermakers and Allied Trades Union is based in Leeds. The regional office for the Communications Workers Union is based in Sheffield. The regional office of Unison is based in Nottinghamshire. However, the most pertinent example is that of the National Union of Mineworkers. In my constituency, there are villages where one part of the village comes under the Derbyshire NUM and the other half comes under the Nottinghamshire NUM, so during the strike, one part of a village went on strike and the other part did not. Harworth, which is 10 miles north of Worksop, the main town in my constituency, is in the Nottinghamshire NUM because of strike action or inaction in the 1920s and 1930s. Manton colliery, 10 miles to the south, has always been in the Yorkshire NUM, and so Manton went on strike, but Harworth did not. There are real communities of interest, often within the same village. The village of Shireoaks is in Nottinghamshire. The pit has always been in Derbyshire, but Shireoaks NUM has always been in Yorkshire. There is no better example than that of the arbitrary nature of regions.

In my area, the biggest economic issue by far—we have a petition with tens of thousands of signatures—is Finningley airport. We want the airport, but where is it? The runway goes to the very borders of my constituency. Thirty years ago, it used to be in my constituency, in Nottinghamshire—the east midlands—and Yorkshire. Yorkshire now has the runway, but I have all the airspace. The map identifies airports, but Finningley is not to be found on the Yorkshire or east midlands maps.

I come from Yorkshire, and I know that the birth criteria for those who wanted to play for Yorkshire country cricket club—the rules existed for more than 100 years—meant that people from Grimsby were not allowed to play for Yorkshire. If the proposals go through, Yorkshire and the Humber area will both be in the same region, so we need to be wary. I do not really care if there is overwhelming demand for a regional assembly in the north-west or the north-east—if that is what the majority of people want, they are welcome to it—but the Minister will find no one in my area who wants it.

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I should like unitary authorities to be carved out without having to impose another structure. That would be popular. We could then, say, get shot of the county council. I am prepared to argue for that; we could have a referendum on it. I would put my neck on the line in support of getting shot of the county council and having a unitary authority. What worries me is that the boundary review's tinkering will have all sorts of ramifications, whether or not the people want regional government. The minimum size of a unitary authority is therefore fundamental. My authority area, Bassetlaw district council, has 106,000 people. If that is deemed to be too small, what size should it be?

The real nightmare is that, because the county council has said that it would be the unitary authority, we will be stuck with a county council in Nottingham and regional government in Northamptonshire or somewhere similar. What will that mean for mining communities? They are not linked to cities, which is one of the big issues that needs to be addressed. We do not want to be isolated by the cities getting more and more power, as has happened during the past 20, 30 or 40 years. During that time, my communities have been isolated in terms of resources, and we end up being statistics.

Nottinghamshire published its social statistics last week. On its criteria, one of the poorest areas is shown as being one of the wealthiest. Mining villages have some of the worst poverty in the country, but because the county council borders are arbitrary and because posh new estates have been built on the fields where most of the pits were to be found, the statistics show that, according to every criteria, those villages are no longer deprived. That is not empowerment for the people in my area.

We might be different from other areas—we might be unique—but we are caught on the boundary with Yorkshire. If we were allowed the chance to talk to Yorkshire, there might be more enthusiasm about a regional boundary. I am not sure what complications that might cause, but such consultation needs to be incorporated into the review so that we have some feedback. However, we are not going to keep quiet about the city having more power, and allowing devolution to move resources from our areas to the city. We have had too much of that.

Housing has been mentioned. Worksop in my constituency has been waiting for 30 years, despite consulting various levels of local government, to get rid of its slum housing. I must tell the Minister that his Department is now sorting that out. The announcement has already been made within the civil service, and it will soon be made formally. I should like to invite a senior politician to launch the programme in Bolsover, Bassetlaw and Mansfield. For the first time in 30 years, we shall be able to start sorting out the slum housing owned by private racketeer landlords. In the end, it was appropriate Government action that worked. What I do not want is layers of bureaucracy and committees miles away in Northamptonshire—we have nothing in common with that area—having their say and sticking their oar in on matters about which they know nothing.

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I would rather be accountable as an MP, and I would rather all Ministers were accountable for their actions. My right hon. Friend the Minister should keep his powers for himself. It is good to see action on housing issues; let us see more of that.

7.14 pm

Ms Atherton: I welcome the White Paper. I speak from a parochial standpoint, especially given how little time I have. I am concerned that we in Cornwall and the south-west in general might miss the boat if we do not take the opportunities that the White Paper offers. It provides an opportunity for debate on how we tackle our regional issues, such as transport and planning issues and the accountability of the regional development agencies. I should inform the hon. Member for St. Ives that the issues do not stop at the Tamar bridge; they affect our neighbours and our neighbours affect us.

The issue of boundaries has dominated the entire debate in the western half of the south-west, but it is not the only issue. For most people in Cornwall, the issue is about devolving power to the most appropriate level, such as a regional assembly, a Cornish assembly, or a unitary, district or town council. Different people are talking about delivering different levels of power to different layers.

We in Cornwall are on the margins, but we are linked to our neighbours. I support the idea of a regional assembly complemented by unitary authorities. I believe that 500,000 people would be too many for one single Cornish unitary authority, and favour instead two unitaries in, perhaps, the east and west. That is what we should be debating—not wider boundaries in the south-west.

The opportunities are on the table and there for the county to take. I regret that the boundary debate has so completely dominated the media debate on devolution, while the issues behind the concept of an assembly have not figured. The question has simply been whether the Government will give Cornwall a Cornish assembly. When one actually talks to people, that is not what they are interested in; rather they are discussing how to take power from Whitehall or an elected quango and give it to the more marginal areas, on the periphery, such as Cornwall.

As a result of the focus on that part of the debate, we have fallen back in terms of the country as a whole. The north-east is way ahead of the wider south-west in the debate. We are being left on the margins, and we are partly to blame for the problem. Now that we know what is on the table, we need to come together and make the argument for a regional assembly. We can argue about boundaries later. We should seize the opportunity, because it would be short-sighted to reject it. In a few years' time, the north-east may have an assembly while Cornwall does not, and the Western Morning News will ask why the south-west regions of Devon and Cornwall have not seized their opportunities.

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7.18 pm

 
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Prepared 17 July 2002