Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

(". In subsection (2) of section 8 of the Pension Schemes Act 1993 (meaning of "minimum payment" etc.), for the words "section 42A(2)" there shall be substituted the words "section 42A".
. For subsections (1) and (1A) of section 41 of that Act").

18 May 1998 : Column 1290

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, I beg to move that the House do agree with the Commons in their Amendment No. 166A to Lords Amendment No. 166.

I shall be extremely brief. This amendment is consequential to the changes made by Lords Amendment No. 166 to Section 42A of the Pension Schemes Act 1993. It clarifies the definition of minimum payment in Section 8(2) of that Act. I commend the acceptance of the amendment.

Moved, That the House do agree with the Commons in their Amendment No. 166A to Lords Amendment No. 166.--(Baroness Hollis of Heigham.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Regional Development Agencies Bill

3.32 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Baroness Hayman): My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

Just over a year ago, this Government were elected with a clear mandate to take forward a large number of substantial and far-reaching reforms, including many which will revitalise the way we run our country and its institutions. The electorate agreed with us that it was time to take a fresh look at the way government business is done and at how we involve people in that business and to put matters on a footing more appropriate to the 21st century.

In Scotland and in Wales we have, as promised in our manifesto, embarked upon devolution of powers to a Scottish parliament and a Welsh assembly, responding to demands from the Scottish and Welsh people. In London we are proceeding with our plans for a Greater London assembly and mayor, following the "Yes" vote secured in the London referendum. And in the English regions we are taking a first important step towards decentralising decision taking.

The needs and the interests of England's regions have for many years been neglected, particularly during the 18 years of the previous administration. I should, however, acknowledge one positive step. The previous government established the government offices for the regions, so bringing together for the first time four departments of state in a single regional office. In Opposition we very much welcomed that development. It was a relatively small step towards better organisation of government representation at the regional level, but it has provided us with a foundation on which to build when in government.

Generally, the English regions have not in recent years commanded the attention they so obviously deserve. This Bill is intended as a first step to redressing that balance and giving people in the regions the opportunity to influence their own future in a way that has not previously been possible.

This Bill will provide for regional development agencies (RDAs) to be established in each region of England. Its primary purpose is to give our regions the

18 May 1998 : Column 1291

opportunity to bridge the economic deficit which has afflicted them for far too long. RDAs will provide the mechanism to ensure that efforts in the regions to boost skills, promote business excellence and attract new investment will be delivered in a co-ordinated and effective manner, with all interested parties working to agreed and common goals. The Bill fulfils a manifesto commitment which promised that each region would have a development agency of its own to match those that have worked so successfully in Scotland and in Wales since the mid-1970s.

The economic case for RDAs is overwhelming. Most of our regions are performing well below the European average. Indeed, the most recently published statistics from Eurostat--the European Commission's statistical agency--for 1995 show a decline in GDP per capita in every region in England since 1993 compared to the European average. There is now only one region in the whole of the UK which is performing above the EU average. By contrast, in Italy six out of 11 do so; in Germany 11 out of 16.

Much work has already been done in our regions--by local authorities, regional partners and the government offices--to improve regional performance. The problem is that there are often too many disparate organisations delivering economic development in the regions. That leads to confusion, fruitless competition and sometimes duplication of effort. Where people are following a common agenda, this has often been more by good luck than by good judgment. The Government's objective with this Bill is to put in place a framework which builds on the partnership and co-operation which already exist but gives them a clear direction developed through consensus. That is the added value that RDAs will bring.

One striking feature of the past 12 months has been the degree of enthusiasm our proposals have met with in the regions. Our consultation paper, for example, received over 1,500 responses. Throughout England people see in RDAs a real opportunity to improve the fortunes of their regions and recognise the advantages RDAs will bring. The whole process has created its own momentum for regional co-operation and regional partnership, even in regions where traditionally there has been no strong identity. I saw this myself at first-hand when I joined the Eastern region's local government conference earlier this year in Chelmsford which started the process of establishing a voluntary chamber for the Eastern region.

Turning to the Bill itself, the Government's White Paper Building Partnerships for Prosperity published last December set out our proposed agenda for RDAs. The Bill will give them the powers they need to deliver that agenda.

The Government recognise that different regions have different needs. The Bill therefore contains a framework of enabling powers which will allow each RDA to develop its own approach to its unique and individual regional problems and needs.

Clause 1 of the Bill provides for the establishment of an RDA in each of England's nine regions. The areas of the RDAs will correspond to those of the government

18 May 1998 : Column 1292

offices for the regions. The administrative boundaries of the government office areas are well established for economic purposes, and we think it makes sense to base the RDAs on them. We decided early on, for reasons of economy of scale, that the north-west would be best served by one RDA.

I know that boundaries have been an issue of concern for some Members of the House. But I am absolutely certain that my right honourable friend the Deputy Prime Minister was right to decide at the outset that we should not be diverted from the main task in hand by disputes endlessly about boundaries. That would serve only to fuel disagreement and rivalries within regions. Our objective is to get people to work together and sometimes they will need to work together, across regional boundaries as well as within them so as to make our regions and our country more competitive.

Clause 2 of the Bill deals with the constitution of RDAs. It provides for between eight and 15 members to be appointed to the boards of the agencies. The Government envisage appointing 12 members to each board. We are looking for high calibre candidates with experience relevant to the RDAs' purposes to serve on boards which will be business-led and which will reflect the broadest possible range of regional interests. In making appointments, we do not propose to stick rigidly to a set composition of sectoral interests on the board; board members will not act as delegates. We are looking for candidates who can bring a range of experience to the board, including with experience and expertise from local government, further and higher education, trade unions and the voluntary sector. As many of your Lordships will be aware, we have made a firm undertaking that at least one member of each RDA board outside London will be someone with rural knowledge and expertise. We have sought nominations from all interested parties in preparing for making these appointments.

Clause 4 sets out the five key purposes of the RDAs: furthering economic development and regeneration; promoting business efficiency, investment and competitiveness; promoting employment; promoting the development and application of skills; and promoting sustainable development. Clause 4 also provides, for the avoidance of doubt, that the purposes of RDAs apply as much in relation to the rural parts of their area as to the non-rural parts.

Clause 5 enables RDAs, with certain restrictions, to do anything which they consider expedient to their purposes.

The Government intend that the functions of RDAs should be wide-ranging. We want RDAs to have a degree of influence and authority in their regions which will enable them to make a real difference to regional economies and regional competitiveness.

The White Paper Building Partnerships for Prosperity set out in detail the functions we propose for RDAs. It is, as I shall briefly outline, a challenging and influential package: RDAs will be responsible, for example, for the development of a strategic framework for the provision of skills training. We want RDAs, working with TECs and other regional partners, to

18 May 1998 : Column 1293

ensure that the workforce has the capability to meet the needs of business in the regions. To reinforce this, they will play a part in scrutinising the work of TECs and Business Links with a view to advising government how to improve their performance.

Regional development agencies will be responsible for co-ordinating inward investment in their regions. Government funding for inward investment work will in future be channelled through RDAs. They will advise Ministers on regional selective assistance applications.

Regional development agencies will also become the major bodies responsible for regeneration in the regions. They will inherit the regeneration role of English Partnerships, which has, under the skilful chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Walker of Worcester, secured a wide and well deserved reputation for innovative and successful regeneration work, and this will provide RDAs with a firm foundation on which to build. They will also inherit the rural regeneration work of the Rural Development Commission, which I know already is highly valued in our rural areas.

Under Clause 6, which enables Ministers to delegate functions to RDAs, RDAs will be given responsibility for administering the Single Regeneration Budget Challenge Fund.

By bringing together within a single body the separate regeneration programmes of the RDC, English Partnerships and the government offices for the regions, RDAs will be able to provide a better co-ordinated approach to meeting the needs of their regions. They will continue to work with local partnerships, as their predecessor organisations have done.

Clause 7 requires RDAs to formulate and keep under review a regional strategy in relation to their purposes and to have regard to the strategy in exercising their functions. For the first time there will be, in each region, a body responsible for setting a strategic framework for economic decision-taking at the regional level. The strategy will be the first, and most important, task for RDAs.

Much of the remainder of the Bill establishes the legislative framework for governing the activities of RDAs, replicating for the most part the statutory powers and duties of the Urban Regeneration Agency--that is, English Partnerships--in order that RDAs can take on the regeneration role of EP. There are, in addition, provisions for transferring property, rights and liabilities to the regional development agencies in connection with the functions they are to inherit; for example, from EP and from the RDC and the government offices.

Regional development agencies are to be set up in the form of the conventional non-departmental public bodies. They will for the most part be financed from public funds and, in the absence at present of a legitimate, directly elected regional tier of government, they will be accountable to Ministers and to Parliament for their actions in the normal way. But it is important, as we take this first step towards greater regional autonomy, that we make proper provision for RDAs to be responsive to views from within their regions. We have, therefore, made provision in the Bill for scrutiny

18 May 1998 : Column 1294

by regional interests of the work of RDAs. The Bill, in Clauses 8 and 18, provides a mechanism for building on the informal structures that local authorities and their regional partners have already taken, or are taking, steps to set up.

Clause 8 enables the Secretary of States to designate a regional chamber as the focus for regional consultation about the work of an RDA; and Clause 18 allows him to direct RDAs to give an account of themselves to regional chambers. Chambers will therefore have a substantial role to play in the work of RDAs and in ensuring that their work reflects the needs and views of the whole region. We are delighted that local authorities in the regions are actively participating in developing chambers.

This is perhaps an appropriate moment to mention a concern that was raised by a number of noble Lords in the context of the Statement on our White Paper last December--that is, the question of planning powers for RDAs. Noble Lords may be aware that the Government, responding to concerns expressed, in particular by local government, announced at the Report stage of the Bill in another place that we would not proceed with our proposal to give RDAs reserve planning powers. It was suggested that these powers were inconsistent with the partnership approach which is at the heart of RDAs. On reflection, the Government agreed with this.

There are one or two specific matters on which I should like to spend a few moments, since I know concerns have been expressed about them. The first is sustainability and the role of the RDAs in achieving it. I have spoken at some length about the need for our regions to be competitive and for the regional partners to improve the economic prospects of their region through attracting more inward investment, through improving business performance and through economic and social regeneration. But we intend that this will be done in a sustainable way.

The Bill provides for sustainable development to be at the heart of the regional development agencies' work. Indeed, we are striking out on a new pathway in this Bill because, for the first time, the purposes of a development agency will require the agency to treat economic, social and environmental considerations with equal regard. An RDA will be required--for example, when it is acting to further the economic development and regeneration of its area--to do so in a way which contributes to the achievement of sustainable development in the United Kingdom.

This is not, I must stress, an optional extra. The effect of the Bill is to require sustainable development to be a factor in all the decisions an RDA makes. The RDAs will promote jobs, growth and competitiveness in our regions--that is their raison d'etre--but they must do so in a way which is compatible with safeguarding the environment, and with social progress.

The guidance we intend to give the agencies will be important in making it very clear what we expect of RDAs in this respect. It will be vital that RDAs are clear about how they should go about fulfilling their sustainable development purpose. The Bill provides for us to issue guidance on how they might do this.

18 May 1998 : Column 1295

I also want to say a few words about the impact of the Bill on rural areas. The Government believe firmly in opportunity, fairness and prosperity for all, whether they live in the city or the countryside. Rural areas are a key part of the national economy where many people live and work. Our countryside must be both living and working, and we are committed to addressing its own range of problems as much as those of anywhere else.

Regional development agencies will be region-wide bodies, with extensive responsibilities for the development and regeneration of their regions and for promoting the economic well-being of their regions. This means the whole region. They will add value precisely because they will be required to take a coherent and integrated approach to the needs of their regions. This, in the Government's view, can only bring benefits to rural areas and will avoid the risk of rural interests being marginalised in any way.

There are, of course, often very different pressures on our rural areas from those on our urban areas. Indeed, different rural areas face very different pressures. We have said that the guidance we give to RDAs will deal specifically with rural needs and the determination of priorities for rural areas. Government support for rural areas will continue to be reflected in the RDAs' funding. As I have already mentioned, at least one member of each RDA board will be someone with rural knowledge and expertise.

Although RDAs will take over the rural regeneration programmes of the RDC, the Government are committed to retaining a national body for expertise, advice and information on rural matters. On 27th March my right honourable friend the Deputy Prime Minister announced the merger of the Countryside Commission and the Rural Development Commission to form a new champion for rural England and its countryside. It is intended that this merger will be effected under powers in Part II of this Bill. The new body is expected to begin operation in April 1999. Taken together, our proposals for RDAs and a new countryside body will ensure that we understand the particular needs of rural areas, while addressing them within the overall framework for a region as a whole.

I should also like to say a brief word about London. The Government's proposal for a new London development agency was announced in the White Paper on London government. The LDA will have broadly the same powers and functions as the other RDAs. The people of London have voted an overwhelming "Yes" to having their own mayor and assembly. The LDA will be directly accountable to the mayor and will implement the mayor's economic development and regeneration strategy for the capital. As an arm of the Greater London Authority, the LDA will not be established until the mayor and assembly are in place. The LDA's board will be business-led, as with the other RDAs, but it will be appointed by the mayor. In addition, government funds for regeneration, the promotion of inward investment, English partnerships and tourism will be channelled through the mayor.

This Bill has not captured the overwhelming attention of the editors and sub-editors of our national dailies. This is not surprising. Perhaps it is a reflection of the

18 May 1998 : Column 1296

neglect of regional interests to which I referred earlier. But I can assure your Lordships that it is a very different story in the regions themselves, where this first but significant step in our regional agenda has been widely and enthusiastically welcomed. Anyone who visits the regions and meets those who have regional interests at heart will know that people welcome the opportunity to shape their own future which RDAs and this Bill will give them. I commend the Bill to the House.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.--(Baroness Hayman.)

3.50 p.m.

Lord Bowness: My Lords, I thank the Minister for her usual clear explanation of the Bill and its provisions. She will understand that, while we on these Benches share her enthusiasm for prosperity in the regions, we do not necessarily share her enthusiasm for the methods outlined in the Bill to try to achieve it. Our concerns are about whether there is a need for this additional layer of bureaucracy, the effect on local government, the power of the Secretary of State, the rural dimension and how the proposals fit with the Government's intention towards the regions and their proposals for regional government.

Had the Government not climbed down over the planning powers which were originally to be given to regional development agencies, we should have been concentrating on those. Suffice it to say that the withdrawal is welcome, although the fact that an administration committed to open government, the extension and strengthening of local government and the rolling back of the "tide of quangos"--the Prime Minister's words, not mine--should have contemplated giving wide planning powers to centrally appointed, non-elected and locally unaccountable bodies is, to say the least, extraordinary.

Therefore, while we shall not be voting against the Bill, there are nevertheless significant matters of detail upon which it is legitimate for this House to express a view. Is there a need for this additional bureaucracy? A number of questions must be answered. First, will the existence of these bodies attract more investment into England? What is it that leads Ministers to believe that these structures, with the accompanying staffing and administrative costs, will do better at attracting investment into England than in the past?

The Government try to have it both ways. On the one hand, as the Minister has said this afternoon, it says that the measures are necessary because of the state of the regions and their economy. On the other hand, the Government say in the White Paper:

    "The cumulative value of foreign direct investment ... into the UK has risen from $28 billion in 1975 to over $344 billion in 1996. The UK receives the largest share of [foreign direct investment] in the European Union, including about 40 per cent. of US and Japanese overseas investment.

    "In manufacturing [foreign direct investment], accounts for 18 per cent. of employment, 32 per cent. of capital expenditure and 40 per cent. of UK exports. Over the last decade, FDI has not only created over 600,000 jobs but has helped to develop and modernise the industrial base".

18 May 1998 : Column 1297

The question must be asked: will not the proliferation of agencies lead to different and competing voices being heard for England? If competition is no bad thing, then why not leave it to the existing local authorities either individually or by ensuring that they have the means to work together to continue the excellent work that many of them are doing irrespective of their political complexion?

If the regions proposed had a clear identity obvious to the people of England--never mind the foreign investor--I would be less worried as it would then be possible for each region to speak with a united voice in the same way as to a great extent it is possible to speak with one voice for Scotland or Wales. As it is, there will be inevitable confusion for foreign investors as they are faced with competing demands for their business from different parts of what to them is the same country. What protection will the Government provide against an auction of benefits between the regions? If the answer is that this is one of the many aspects which is to remain in the hands of the Secretary of State, why set up the structures in the first place?

The Government represent this Bill as a decentralising measure but, while the agencies may be based in the regions, accountability is to be to the Secretary of State and, through him, to Parliament. He is able to control all aspects of the RDA including from the beginning the central selection of the membership. It is not good enough to answer this by the requirements to consult. The RDAs will be central government bodies created, appointed, guided, reporting to and funded by central government grant and consent. From where will the necessary funds come? How much is to be taken from existing programmes and how much from local government under the pretext that certain matters are now being dealt with regionally?

Local government of all political colours has made enormous efforts in the field of economic development. Partnership deals have been struck, new investment has been attracted and regeneration has taken place. What is local government's reward for this? It is to see the primary responsibility taken away and given to a government-appointed quango operating at least in some cases over an area to which some authorities will feel no loyalty. I have no confidence in government denials that this will not be the case. Among the primary objectives of the RDAs are the furtherance of economic development, employment and business investment.

If there is to be a regional view about all this, then clearly the plans for some parts of the region are to be preferred to the plans of another part. The objectives for the area may not be compatible with individual authorities' own plans. Ministers may well believe that this is right but they should not pretend that the proposal does not impinge on local government. It will be said that the RDA is to work in partnership with the local authorities in its area but the decisions will rest with the appointed regional development agency responsible to the Secretary of State. But it is true that all the objectives of the RDAs are matters of legitimate concern to local government.

18 May 1998 : Column 1298

The rural dimension to which the Minister has referred--or rather the lack of a clear recognition of it in the Bill--is of great importance. Although it is referred to in the White Paper, the Bill needs to be strengthened to protect the rural dimension. The decision to scrap the Rural Development Commission has already caused a great deal of concern. The RDC has a proven track record in rural affairs and the decision to remove most of its functions and hand them over to the new RDAs, which will be largely urban-based, adds to the crisis of confidence in rural England. We shall want to pursue a number of these matters in Committee including a guarantee on the face of the Bill of rural representation on the RDA boards and an explicit responsibility for RDAs to promote the interests of rural areas.

The Labour Party manifesto said:

    "The Conservatives have created a tier of regional government in England through quangoes and government regional offices. Meanwhile local authorities have come together to create a more co-ordinated regional voice. Labour will build upon these developments through the establishment of regional chambers to co-ordinate transport planning, economic development, bids for European funding and land use planning".

Later, in the same section it reads:

    "In time we will introduce legislation to allow the people, region by region, to decide in a referendum whether they want directly elected regional government".

The Government are certainly building on the quango and regional office with this Bill. The agencies will be major organisations, answerable to the Secretary of State, with very considerable powers, including the compulsory acquisition of land. In another place, it was suggested that that should not be the subject of criticism because they merely replicated the powers given to the ultimately-to-be-abolished English Partnerships. But its role was limited in scope compared with RDA's which will together cover the whole of England and therefore be capable of exercising those functions over the whole of the country in the area of every local authority.

We should look at the scope of the RDAs as published in the White Paper, a list which is rather more extensive than in the party's manifesto--leadership in developing regional economic strategies, social, physical and economic regeneration, regeneration of rural areas (a reference in the White Paper, not on the face of the Bill), taking a leading role on European Union structural funds, co-ordinating inward investment, providing advice to Ministers on regional selective assistance support, reclamation and preparation of sites facilitating investments, marketing, technology transfer promotion and improvement of the skills of the region. But interestingly enough, the TECs are not to come within the scope of the control of the RDAs. Added as a footnote to the list in the White Paper it states:

    "RDAs will also contribute to policies and programmes on Transport; Land use; The environment and sustainable development; Further and Higher education; Crime prevention; Public health; Housing; Tourism; and Culture and sports infrastructure projects".

If I were a local government leader, I should not understand why the Secretary of State's White Paper, Local Democracy and Community Leadership, bothers to have a chapter on councils leading their communities,

18 May 1998 : Column 1299

given that in virtually every field of local endeavour, they will be second-guessed by the regional quango which will often be based miles from their community.

I return to that part of the manifesto which spoke of regional chambers and regional government. Your Lordships will know that my party does not favour the division of England into separate regions. But this afternoon we are not discussing my party's policy. We are discussing a major government proposal to establish powerful regional bodies, centrally controlled, exercising important functions, and we are entitled to ask how that proposal fits with other government commitments in their manifesto.

If we do not ask that question, we are enabling the Government to proceed with significant changes to the way in which the regions are governed without being told the whole story. Do the Government believe that the regions, as set out in the schedule, represent the true regions of England? Do they have popular acceptance? The truth is surely that they are based, with one exception--and that is an amalgamation of two government office areas--on the arbitrary boundaries of the Government's own regional offices. It was legitimate to establish those boundaries for the operation of the government offices, but it is not legitimate when trying to create a region which has a genuine community of interest across its whole area. Surely before proceeding, steps should have been taken to try to establish--and I have no doubt it would be difficult--what areas enjoyed a broad consensus that they belonged together.

Certainly if the Government believe that regional identities comparable with those to be found in other parts of the European Union, will spring from the areas specified in the schedule, I fear that they are seriously mistaken. I have no doubt that some of those issues will be raised in Committee, just as they were in another place.

The White Paper speaks of the establishment of voluntary chambers and requires the RDA to "take account of" those views. Presumably at some time in the future, the Government, unless they have changed their mind, will envisage those structures being transferred into statutory chambers and ultimately, regional assemblies.

It is fair to examine the place of local democracy in relation to those proposals. The White Paper expects to draw members of RDAs from a broad range of interests including business, local authorities, the voluntary sector and wider business and employee perspectives. It also speaks of regional chambers being created to provide a regional voice which includes, as well as local councillors, all regional stakeholders. Would a regional assembly retain those unelected elements? If the RDA becomes accountable to an elected assembly, I presume that there would be no role left for the regional chamber. Where, then, is the voice of local government to be heard?

At present, however, not all the areas have voluntary chambers and certainly, when the White Paper was published, where they did exist, they did not necessarily coincide with the proposed regions. Perhaps the Minister will advise the House as to the up-to-date position.

However, it indicates that to start that process without first deciding what are the right areas for the regions is the wrong way to proceed. The Secretary of State has among

18 May 1998 : Column 1300

his considerable armoury of powers the right to change areas. I fear that a great deal of initial energy may be spent by some parties seeking to make changes at an early stage. That is inevitable and, I submit, right since communities must feel included and joined with their natural neighbours, otherwise, within the area of an RDA, there is a great danger of divisiveness and alienation, and possible accusations of unfair treatment will abound.

As for the proposal for elected assemblies, the timetable, if it still exists, seems to be somewhat uncertain. But if it does exist, there seems to be a danger that by this Bill, which will establish the RDAs, which will presumably become accountable first to chambers and then to any assembly which is created, the areas of the regions will have been pre-empted.

The Financial Times this morning reported that:

    "Ministers intend to recall the Commons regional affairs committee. It could be renamed the English grand committee and may, over time, acquire limited law-making powers.

    The committee will be the exclusive preserve of English MPs ... The recall of the committee will take place in the next session of parliament, and its first meetings are expected to focus on the planned regional development agencies for England ... The cabinet is divided on whether to pursue Labour's commitment to elected assemblies in the English regions. Those who oppose assemblies because there is limited demand for them believe that the regional affairs committee could be an effective alternative".

If that is what is being said, reported and spun out of government offices, the House should be told what is the position when we are debating this important Bill on the establishment of those powerful bodies.

Lastly, the RDA for London is to be a special case. It is to be created by this Bill, but, according to the White Paper on London, the RDA will be appointed by and answerable to the mayor of London. I ask the Minister, as I have before, whether that means that the Greater London Authority is to be the regional assembly for London or whether that is something which comes later. The Bill does not appear to deal with the London position. The White Paper speaks of transitional arrangements. There are none in this Bill. If I have missed them, I apologise. But it appears that we shall be setting up the London agency through this Bill and then need to amend the proposals in relation to it when we have the legislation on the mayor and authority for London.

There are reflected in the responses, which the Government claim to be overwhelmingly in support of their proposals, a number of reservations and comments of concern. Those concerns, the apparent inconsistencies, the unanswered questions and, indeed, the important points of principle are matters which we need to expose, discuss and, if necessary, amend in Committee.

4.8 p.m.

Baroness Hamwee: My Lords, I follow the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, in thanking the Minister for her introduction. That is not the full extent to which I support what he says, and I hope that my tone, as well as my words, will be rather more supportive.

The Liberal Democrats broadly welcome the Bill. We welcome it in part because of the centralisation which we have seen over the past two decades, particularly in

18 May 1998 : Column 1301

the 1980s. I have seen that referred to as the fragmentation of the public realm arising from privatisation, the establishment of arm's length agencies and "marketisation"--a terrible word--of public services. Those things are not necessarily bad but they have highlighted the need to improve management at regional level. We also welcome the Bill because, quite simply, we have been losing out in a Europe which organises many of its affairs regionally. We welcome the holistic approach to regional affairs. The jargon term may make this sound no more than a matter of fashion, but there is much criticism of every government when they fail to use the imagination necessary to cross departmental boundaries.

Whether, in practice, the RDAs will meet the tests of devolution and decentralisation, and of common sense breaking through bureaucratic structures, remains to be seen. We would have wished them to have had greater responsibility; for example, for the work of the TECs and Business Links. We are disappointed that the Bill represents only a small step on the road to regional government. The degree of decentralisation may not be as great as has been claimed for the agencies. I use the term "decentralisation" deliberately because I want--indeed, as all of us on these Benches want--to see decentralisation, devolution from central government, not detracting from local government.

I recall how the government offices for the regions were packaged as some form of regional government when they were introduced by the previous government. They were not. Even though we welcomed them, we welcomed them for what they were. They were not a form of regional government. In that period, we were concerned about the remaining central control. I must confess to a degree of concern that central control, or at any rate the scope for central control, can be read into very much of this Bill.

Local government is all too familiar with financial regimes which involve government grants, the Secretary of State's approval of borrowing, with low aggregate limits, and the Secretary of State's determination of financial duties. All these appear in the Bill. That is perhaps fair enough. The RDAs are to be the creatures of central government. As they are not directly democratically accountable, I accept that there is a logic to that type of control. But that control is there and must been seen to be there, as well as being accepted as such.

The other side of the coin is the scope for--perhaps the need for given the retention of central powers--secondary legislation and directions. Again, that is perhaps fair enough, if it is not the RDAs or the regional chambers which are democratically accountable and responsible. However, that degree of central control--the scope for further legislation and directions--reminds us of their true constitutional position. That is pointed up especially in the geographical areas which will make up the RDAs. Both the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, and the Minister referred to them.

The anomalies of the government-designated regions, and in some cases their lack of regional identity, have been much discussed. I do not necessarily argue that the boundaries of the regions should be revised now. I well

18 May 1998 : Column 1302

understand the point that the Minister made; namely, that to concentrate on the boundaries would probably destroy any prospect of establishing the agencies for some considerable time. However, any review can only tinker at the margins. It appears that the boundaries can be revised, but not the number of regions. I wonder whether it should need primary legislation to alter the number of RDAs. If there is a review of the regions, then the numbers must be an issue as well as the fine detail of where the boundaries begin and end. It is possible that the European elections, which will be based on the same regions, will give us an opportunity to see whether they truly represent communities. In my view, especially in the south-east, they do not.

I have mentioned some of the financial constraints on RDAs. In some ways their powers are very wide but in others they are very much constrained. For example, unless I have misread the provision, it is beyond my powers of comprehension to understand why the agencies can only report on what the Secretary of State directs them to report on. Coming from a local government background, I must confess to an envy of each agency's ability to do anything which it considers to be "expedient for its purposes". In other words, it will be the agency's view not, I am happy to say, that of the Secretary of State; nor, more interestingly, an objective view. Nevertheless, I look forward with interest to the probability of conflict between the RDAs and the Secretary of State. The latter may consider that the actions of the RDAs are threatening his position. He may say that what they want to do is not "expedient". In any event, it will be their decision. Indeed, this will be a battle worth observing.

I am puzzled by what the Government anticipate. The RDAs can do what they believe to be "expedient" but, specifically, they cannot provide housing. I admit to a certain amount of confusion in that respect. We all know the links between employment--an objective of the Bill and of the agencies--and affordable housing. To exclude this topic, as the Bill does, is a matter that we may like to revisit.

I particularly welcome the Government's acceptance that to have given planning powers to the RDAs would have been quite inappropriate. However, I still wonder whether the regional planning frameworks will be robust enough to deal with the demands which will come from the RDAs. On Report in another place, the Minister, rightly in my view, spoke of regional planning guidance and the RDAs' strategies being compatible and consistent. She said that the strategies of the RDAs will have to have due regard to regional planning guidance. However, she went on to say that neither would predominate. But surely there is a hierarchy. Is it not the case that regional planning guidance should be informed by, and take account of, the objectives of the RDAs and then do the job of reconciling the competing interests?

One of those interests is sustainability. It is no surprise to me that both previous speakers referred to it. Indeed, I am sure that that will be a topic which features in much of this afternoon's debate. I admit to being baffled by the wording in the Bill which requires each

18 May 1998 : Column 1303

RDA to contribute to the achievement of sustainable development,

    "where it is relevant to its area to do so".

The Minister said that sustainability will be at the heart of the work of the RDAs and that it is not an optional extra. But that is not what the Bill suggests, or at any rate what it suggests to me. I do not know what possessed the Government to put in that limit or to believe that sustainability would ever not be relevant. Similarly, I do not understand why they think it right to retain that limit against the barrage of attack that we have witnessed. Perhaps the difference is in the interpretation of what is meant by the term "sustainable development". Do the Government envisage that sustainable development is somehow a separate category of development? I would prefer to be assured that all that the RDAs do will be sustainable. By that I mean that it will be sustainable environmentally and socially and that it will not necessarily involve "development" as that word is often understood.

References to rural areas also make me wonder whether the Government are perhaps protesting a little too much. Surely it is axiomatic that the RDAs' purposes apply to rural, as to urban and as to suburban, areas; and, indeed, as the Minister said, to the very varied rural areas. I understand that the politics of the day may have led to an attempt to reassure in this slightly odd fashion. I also understand why a number of rurally focused organisations have concentrated on this clause. To include it almost suggests that what is stated may not be entirely what is meant. I think that, logically, rural areas should not have been referred to because rural concerns are so fundamental. To say that there will be an application to rural areas suggests there may have been doubt that the RDAs would address rural concerns.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page