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Baroness Hamwee: My Lords, I too thank the noble Baroness for repeating the Statement. She started by making reference to the new department to integrate the various areas of policy and activity on the environment, transport and the regions. I am beginning to think that she must have some personal regrets about having to represent that integration. For one Minister in this House it is an enormous task.
We welcome the integration of the functions but are concerned that that should not lead to centralisation. It is the aspects of centralisation which appear to peek out from under the new development agencies which concern us. Devolution to the regions from central government is very welcome. To move functions up from local government to new agencies at regional level which are not accountable in the way that we are accustomed to seeing local government work is not welcome. Each local district must retain its autonomy, and not just because there will be a need for local delivery mechanisms of the work to be done by the new agencies. It is important to ensure that our hierarchy of government is understood and that the functions of the new agencies are examined in the light of that hierarchy.
One part of the Statement grated with me, in particular. It has nothing to do with the policy, but with the jargon, "Agencies for Change". If "regional development agencies" is a description of what the agencies will be--regional, and to do with development and being an agency--that is an adequate title. "Agencies for Change" is jargon and may deny the fact that there are aspects of the way our regions function which should be retained.
The Statement refers to the different interests which will be represented on the boards. Let us make no bones about it: these will be new quangos unless and until they are fitted into a democratic regional framework. I appreciate that the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, is not here to answer, but one cannot help observing that it is a little rich to have criticism of quangos coming from that part of the Chamber.
We shall need to examine how the boards are to be made up--the relative numbers of representatives of different interests. I am especially worried about local government in that context, not because it is perfect and everything else is bad, but because members of local authorities are elected. There is a great deal to be said for elections. It is important for democracy that they feed in effectively, and that does not mean just the majority groups in local government. Let us admit it. There are some rotten boroughs which run on a majority basis without proper input from minority politicians. That probably applies across the board. It is important that minority politicians, representing those who, on a first-past-the-post electoral system, are in the minority of electors, are not excluded. Indirect representation is not proper accountability.
The Statement talks rightly about the different and distinct characteristics of the different regions and says that a single blueprint should not be imposed. Like the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, I do not believe that the different characteristics are properly reflected in the existing areas of the Government's regional offices. For instance, there are only two regions in an area which stretches from Penzance to Dover, and a doughnut around London which is divided oddly in a way hardly recognisable to those who live in it, assuming, of course, they know in which government region they live. The regions need to be examined. I do not suggest that the legislation should deal with boundaries; it would probably never get through if it did. But it should provide for a boundary commission procedure so that the boundaries of the regions are examined before the new bodies are established.
Like the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, I am concerned as to how the agencies' work will fit into the context of planning in the sense of town and country planning. The current system for strategic plans may not be perfect, but the agencies' work should be done within the context of strategic planning which is created elsewhere. They should not set their own strategic plans in the sense of town and country planning. I am apprehensive about the reference to land use planning contained in the White Paper.
Reference is properly made to Europe. The regions have lost out within the EU over the years because there has been no appropriate route for EU development funds. On the subject of funding, I have not detected within the Statement--I may have missed it--what powers the new agencies will have to raise capital. That is an important point which should be highlighted, and I hope that the Minister can assist us now. I should also like assurances that the agencies will be resourced from the centre, which may be a different way of saying what the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, said.
We are told that the Government's comprehensive spending review is to be accelerated in the area of rural policy. I wonder how, sensibly, one can accelerate one part of a review which, by definition, should be overarching. Like others, I am suspicious as to what the code is in this part of the Statement.
Countryside interests may go wider than one region, and they may also be local. To the extent that those references are references to sustainability, that, of course, is welcome, but to the extent that they mean the transfer to quangos which do not have an enthusiastic responsibility for the countryside and put development above other interests, they are not welcome.
The Statement identifies the difficulty of the London development agency perhaps being established before the Greater London authority. I am glad to see that the White Paper on London will make clear the democratic accountability of the agency, but will the Minister comment upon whether there is any scope for considering the postponement of the LDA so that it is properly within the democratic control of a new democratic authority, assuming that that is what we end up with?
There is the whole question of regional government. Liberal Democrats are enthusiasts, as is well known, for regional government where there is a demand for it. From the north east--there are others in the Chamber who know the north east better than I do--one hears loud cries and demands for regional government. I do not know whether the Minister can comment upon the possibility of a fast-track approach to a regional assembly in that part of the country.
Finally, we welcome the Government's general progress on constitutional reform. We are therefore most anxious to see the RDAs set in a constitutional, democratic, and accountable framework, dealing with truly regional and not local matters.
Baroness Hayman: My Lords, many issues were raised by the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee. I shall do my best to answer all of them. A great deal of the detail, as the noble Lord acknowledged, is contained in the White Paper which, he will understand, had to come out contemporaneously with the Statement.
At the beginning there is an issue about boundaries which it is important to get out of the way. We have chosen to base the RDAs on the administrative boundaries of the Government Offices. Those Government Office boundaries were well established for economic purposes and we believe that it makes sense to base the regional development agencies on them. That does not militate against cross-boundary co-operation; we want to encourage that. The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, acknowledged that if we became bogged down in debating issues of boundaries, the progress that we have made on regional development agencies, let alone regional government, would have been slow. We did not wish to become diverted from the real agenda, which is about improving the competitiveness of our regions and addressing their economic deficit.
We must look at the powers which are being drawn down into the regional agencies from government in that context. I wish to make it clear that the specific functions of regional development agencies will be towards inward investment; the administration of a single regeneration budget challenge fund; the regional regeneration role of English Partnerships and the Rural Development Commission; a leading role in European funding; advising Ministers on regional selective assistance; and helping TECs and business links to improve their performance and to match their work to regional needs.
We believe that that is a reasonable and sensible package which will give the regional development agencies the influence that they need to make an impact. Partnership working is the key to that. The regional development agencies will need to work with all the stakeholders in their regions; they are, local authorities, industry, business, trade unions, education and the voluntary sector.
As regards some of the concerns that have been raised, I make it clear once again that the regional development agencies will be accountable to Ministers. Their boards will be business-led, but they will also reflect a broad range of groups with an interest in the regional economy, including four members from local authorities. That issue was raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee.
The noble Lord, Lord Bowness, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, expressed anxiety about the potential of taking away responsibility from local authorities rather than drawing down and devolving them from central government. The noble Lord, Lord Bowness, raised the issue of new roles for local authorities, but I am afraid that he must wait a little longer for the Government's proposals on that. I can reassure him that the RDAs will take no powers from local authorities. Local authorities will have great influence on the regional development agencies both through the board membership that I have described and through the role of the voluntary chambers. We have set out broad criteria for the formation of those chambers, but they allow for some flexibility. That point was generally acknowledged in the consultation process and in the House.
As regards planning, about which there was concern, the RDAs will not have land use planning powers. Those will remain with the democratically elected authorities. The regional planning process is being reviewed and one of the main objectives is to increase regional ownership of the process. However, it is difficult to see how a statutory regional plan could be introduced in the absence of a statutory body to devise and implement it. As the White Paper makes clear, the creation of statutory regional chambers or directly elected regional assemblies is for longer term consideration. Voluntary chambers might have a greater role than at present within a process where the Secretary of State retained ultimate responsibility.
Perhaps it is appropriate to comment on the issue of chambers and assemblies because a point was made about the regional development agencies--they are business-led and not democratically elected bodies--and longer term plans. The voluntary changes which have begun in many regions are at various stages of development. We need to develop those bodies. The RDAs would be required to take account of the views of the chambers and give to them an account of their activities within the existing democratic framework. That will be a first step towards giving a voice to the regions. In time, the regions may move to more directly elected regional government. However, it is important to recognise that we see the RDAs as providing a catalyst for the development of the voluntary chambers which have made a promising start.
In the longer term, we are committed to more accountable regional government in England, but we are not in the business of imposing directly elected assemblies where there is no demand. We believe that within the present democratic structures we can do a great deal to build up the voice of the regions. Local authorities are already coming together with business and other partners to form voluntary regional chambers and to set out a more integrated regional approach. It is important to develop that regional approach if we are to focus and to enable all the regions in England to achieve their full potential.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, asked about the special position within London. We will be announcing details of the timing of the London development agency in the White Paper on government in London and the greater London authority. It is sensible to make specific arrangements around the London assembly, given the plans for a democratic assembly within London which will not be mirrored in regions in the rest of the country.
I turn to rural issues. The noble Lord, Lord Bowness, referred to the resignation of the noble Lord, Lord Shuttleworth, from the Rural Development Commission. I regret that resignation. The noble Lord's service to rural areas is well recognised and perhaps particularly acknowledged in this House. The Rural Development Commission, while supporting proposals to give rural development agencies a rural remit, expressed strong concern about RDAs taking over its regeneration work. While we understand this strongly held view, we believe that our proposals and not those put forward by the commission will provide the most effective way of building on the rural regeneration work.
The Government have made clear that each RDA will serve the need of all its regions. An integrated and inclusive approach is the best way of improving the economic performance of the rural areas as part of the region. The board of each rural development agency will have at least one person with a rural background and rural experience. The RDAs will design rural development programmes targeted on the most deprived rural areas and will monitor, consult and report on rural problems and how the agency is tackling them. The Government's strong commitment to rural regeneration will continue to be reflected in the RDAs' funding for rural areas. We believe that that will meet the concerns which I know exist and will in the long term provide a better focus for the needs of the rural areas.
The noble Lord, Lord Bowness, is wrong if he believes that he interprets a lack of corporate commitment to the policy or a lack of enthusiasm at the centre. He did not have time to go through all the White Paper, but perhaps I may refer him to the preface. It was signed by the Prime Minister, who stated in the final paragraph:
Lord Shore of Stepney: My Lords, I welcome what my noble friend said about regional development agencies. I hope to be able to welcome the White Paper, too, once I have read it. Two important questions arise from the Statement. First, different regions of the country have different problems and needs. On what principles are government resources to be allocated to the different regions to meet those needs? Secondly, what will be done to prevent undesirable competition between the different regional bodies for inward investment and other development?
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