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Regional Development Agencies (England)

4.38 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Baroness Hayman): My Lords, with the leave of the House, I should like to repeat a Statement made in another place by my right honourable friend the Deputy Prime Minister. The Statement is as follows:

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    economic prospects of their countries. But we will not impose a single blueprint on the regional development agencies. The English regions have different and distinct characteristics. Our Bill will provide a broad framework of powers for RDAs, to give them flexibility to reflect the particular needs of their regions.

    "RDAs will bring together a wide range of functions which at present are being carried out by many separate agencies. These activities fall into three broad areas. First, RDAs will produce and implement economic strategies which reflect regional priorities and needs, in consultation with their partners. These strategies will cover economic development; social and physical regeneration; competitiveness and innovation. They will also contribute to work on transport and land-use planning. This will all be done within a context which protects the environment and promotes sustainable development. The strategic plans will specifically cover business support and training. Business links and training and enterprise councils will continue to provide services locally, with RDAs monitoring and providing a strategic regional focus for their work.

    "Secondly, RDAs will take the lead on inward investment in their regions, working with partners to market the region as a business location. They will develop integrated packages for investors and advise Ministers on applications for regional selective assistance.

    "Finally, RDAs will be responsible for specific regeneration programmes. They will lead on the European Structural Funds and will manage the SRB Challenge Fund. They will also take full responsibility for the regional regeneration programmes of English Partnerships and the Rural Development Commission. As a Government we are strongly committed to the countryside, recognising the particular needs of people who live and work in rural areas. Our proposals will put urban and rural regeneration on the same footing. This will ensure that rural interests will be given their full weight. Indeed, they will be strengthened by our proposals.

    "We are committed to ensuring an effective focus at national level for expertise, advice and information on rural matters. We are therefore accelerating that part of the Government's Comprehensive Spending Review which is examining how to strengthen the institutional arrangements for delivering rural policy. We will involve the relevant agencies in this work.

    "The Greater London Authority (Referendum) Bill which is currently before Parliament is the first step in providing a new strategic framework for London, which will also have its own development agency. The arrangements for this development agency will be set out in the White Paper on London Government to be published next year. This will make clear its democratic accountability to the Greater London Assembly and the mayor.

    "Regional development agencies will of course be accountable to Ministers and Parliament, but they will also need to be accountable to their region.

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    Organisations representing local interests, and above all elected local authorities, have a right to influence the work of RDAs. This will be recognised in our board appointments, but we intend to take further steps.

    "As we made clear in our manifesto, we are committed to move, with the consent of local people, to directly elected regional government in England. This complements devolution in Scotland and Wales and the creation of a Greater London Assembly. Demand for directly elected regional government varies across England, and it would be wrong to envisage at this stage a uniform approach. Local authorities and their regional partners are already creating voluntary chambers. We welcome this development and intend to build on it as a mechanism through which regional development agencies will have greater regional accountability.

    "At present, only two out of nine English regions match the European average for GDP per head. That is unacceptable. The Government are committed to reverse this decline in Britain's economic performance. Our proposals will mean doing so with the regions to the fore.

    "Modernisation of the structures in the English regions is part of the wider reform of the governance of the United Kingdom, and, in particular, the devolution of powers to Scotland and Wales. Our aim is for the English regions to grow and prosper within the United Kingdom and within the European Union. Our proposals for Regional Development Agencies are fundamental to achieving this. They will ensure that the potential of each English region can be unlocked. This is our vision, shared with the hundreds of individuals, groups and local partners who have responded to our consultations with overwhelming support and enthusiasm. Together, we can ensure that the regions will fulfil their aspirations.

    "I have been associated with the cause of regional development and decentralisation for some 20 years. I was appointed as Opposition spokesperson on regional affairs back in the early eighties, and produced our alternative regional strategy. As Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, I established the Regional Policy Commission under Bruce Millan, the former EU Commissioner and Secretary of State for Scotland. The Millan Commission prepared the ground in a detailed and excellent way for this White Paper. I pay tribute to it for all its work.

    "This is a cause very dear to my heart, with widespread support in the country and I am sure in this House. It is therefore with great pride and pleasure that I commend the White Paper to the House".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

4.48 p.m.

Lord Bowness: My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating that Statement which was made in the other place earlier this afternoon. I hope that she will forgive me if I ask a number of questions which she may say are answered in the White Paper. However, as the

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Statement was made in the other place at 3.30 p.m. and the White Paper was not available in the Printed Paper Office in this House at that time, there has been only a limited time in which to study the White Paper, which did not accompany the Statement.

We on these Benches share the aim of promoting policies for jobs, growth and competitiveness for the benefit of all of our citizens, and we recognise the need for growth and investment in all regions in England. The issue before us today is whether this Statement will help anyone to achieve those aims, whether the proposals will be an improvement on the present structures and, indeed, whether there are other ways of proceeding.

In its manifesto, the Labour Party said, among other things:

    "Local decision-making should be less constrained by central government, and also more accountable to local people. We will place on councils a new duty to promote the economic, social and environmental well-being of their area ... in partnership with local people, local business and local voluntary organisations. They"--

that is, local councils--

    "will have the powers necessary to develop these partnerships".

Reference was also made to the Conservatives having,

    "created a tier of regional government in England through quangos and government regional offices. Meanwhile local authorities have come together to create a more co-ordinated regional voice. Labour will build on these developments"--

that is, the local authority developments--

    "through the establishment of regional chambers to co-ordinate transport, planning, economic development, bids for European funding and land use planning".

What does one have to implement those promises? Certainly, regional assemblies and statutory chambers in England, despite the Statement, appear to be a receding possibility. I do not necessarily regret that, but they are without doubt a fading promise. Instead, we have the regional development agencies. What will be their contribution to local or regional democracy? Where is the accountability? Regional development agencies are to be imposed on the areas of the existing Government Offices. To my knowledge, there has not been a thorough examination of whether those areas would be appropriate for regionally-based structures. I believe that they were established for the convenience of central government in basing offices on those areas. It is very difficult to establish the area of a region in England. Either there is no great regional feeling at all or great local loyalties to particular areas, often for different reasons and different purposes.

The members of regional development agencies are to be centrally appointed and answerable to the Secretary of State. One paragraph of the White Paper that I have managed to read in the time available states that there will be 12 board members. I believe that the smallest region as defined by the Secretary of State is the eastern region which has seven local authorities within its area. Some have a dozen or more local authorities. The local authority representation will therefore be particularly small.

Perhaps the Minister can confirm or deny that the regional development agencies will have formidable powers, including the acquisition of land, the financing

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of business, the co-ordination of training, the organisation of inward investment, the development of rural areas, the provision of transport infrastructure and transport planning. I suggest that all of this will bring these organisations into conflict with existing agencies such as the regional development organisations, the TECs and local authorities. Does the Minister agree that, given the great efforts of local government in the field of economic regeneration, these powers will lead to a reduction in the influence of local government? I draw the attention of the Minister in particular to the schedule of functions in chapter 9 of the White Paper which refers to regional development agencies contributing to policies and programmes on transport, land use, the environment and sustainable development, further and higher education, crime prevention, public health, housing, tourism, culture and sports infrastructure projects. That does not appear to be compatible with the manifesto commitment to impose new responsibilities and duties on local authorities.

The Minister made reference to the work of regional development agencies in rural areas. It appears that significant powers are being taken from the Rural Development Commission. Can the Minister explain to the House why it is necessary to transfer from that organisation and English Partnerships certain functions? The functions of the Rural Development Commission to be transferred have been exercised since 1909 for the protection of rural areas. Is the Minister aware that my noble friend Lord Shuttleworth has resigned as chairman of the Rural Development Commission as a consequence of this action? Can the Minister comment on his statement that the break-up of the Rural Development Commission sends a negative message to rural England and is a devastating blow for the commission? Does the Minister agree that rural areas have very special needs, that their confidence needs to be maintained and that assurances should be given that their needs will not be overwhelmed by those of large urban areas?

Further, can the Minister tell the House how centrally-appointed quangos--regional development agencies will be precisely that--operating alongside regional Government Offices can be seen as decentralisation? Despite what is said in the White Paper and the Statement, can the Minister particularise the powers of central government as opposed to local government to be given to those bodies? Can the Minister give the House an assurance that no funds which would have gone to local government will now go to the regional development agencies?

Another issue which I believe is of considerable concern to Members of your Lordships' House is land use planning. I know what "land use planning" means but precisely what does it mean in terms of the involvement of the regional development agencies? What effect will that have on planning authorities? Does it envisage a change in strategic planning responsibilities? Is it proposed that the regional development agencies can override local decisions? Where does this leave--I make no apology for referring to it again in your Lordships' House--green belt protection?

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The proposals for London add yet another layer to the proposed bureaucracy for the capital: mayor, assembly, boroughs, the Government Office for London and now a regional development agency. In the Statement reference is made to variable structures if rural chambers or assemblies come about. I put it to the Minister that, rather than contemplate a centrally-imposed structure of regional development agencies, local authorities in any given region, however determined, should be allowed to devise their own structures to meet the aims outlined in the White Paper. It is anomalous that on the one hand the Government, based on the comments of the Secretary of State in yesterday's Statement on revenue support, actively support a Private Member's Bill to allow local authorities to experiment with different internal organisations but that in this vital area where local government has already made such advances and there is a clear need for flexibility given the difference between the regions, in terms of size and make-up, they propose a fixed central solution. Does the Minister agree that a much more cost-effective way of achieving the same end is to ensure that local authorities have the necessary powers and competencies to be able to work together on projects of regional significance rather than rely on the imposition of new structures?

Finally, can the Minister tell the House whether it is true that the only significant transfer of powers from central government agencies set out in the Statement--admittedly mine has been only a brief reading of the White Paper--are those from the Rural Development Commission and English Partnerships? Is it true that the importance of the regional agenda is not recognised by Ministers collectively, that the case for regional chambers in particular is not accepted by the Government and that there is extreme nervousness from the top about directly-elected regional government? If so, is that why this particular solution, which represents no greater democracy and accountability but another layer of bureaucracy, is before us today?

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