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Going back to the issue of housing, the Minister will know that I wrote to the department following a Statement in the House about the new housing that is to be built around the country. I asked what role the regional assemblies would have in deciding where the houses should be built because the Government have predetermined that the area between Stansted airport and the East End of London shall be covered in houses. I discovered that that is a matter for the Government. Housing associations have their area of responsibility and district and county councils have theirs, so will the Minister please tell the Committee what the regional assemblies will be able to determine? If they are not able to determine anything, they will become glorified talking shops. They either will or will
Lord Rooker: That is the most extravagant language I have heard. It is deliberately misleading to say that the land from Stansted to Cambridge to London will be covered in housing. That is absolutely preposterous and the noble Baroness is intelligent enough to know it. It is designated as a growth area. The amount of land that we will take for the extra housing will be infinitesimal; it will be in single digit percentages. To talk about the land being covered in housing is ridiculous. The noble Baroness must know that from the figures we have published in the sustainable communities plan. It will be properly delivered through vehicles such as urban regeneration companies, the local authorities involved, and sometimes the UDC. It depends. Those discussions are ongoing. But the use of such extravagant language, frankly, destroys the rest of the noble Baroness's argument. I repeat: no statutory powers are being taken from local government to give to the regional assemblieswhich makes the amendment unnecessary.
Baroness Blatch: I should like the noble Lord to hear what the people around the Stansted area, in the swathe of green land that extends down to the East End of London, have to say about the new housing. The Minister might like to mention the figure for the housing that will be built in that area.
Even that side-steps the point. Even if I have exaggerated in the way that the Minister says, he has still not answered the key question: what will the regional assemblies be able to determine in the areas set out in paragraph 4.1 of the White Paper? If they have no powers from local authorities, and no powers from national government, what are they there to do; what will their powers be; and what will they be free to determine that is not the policy of central government or that of local authorities?
Lord Rooker: The noble Baroness continues deliberately to talk up the regional assemblies. Frankly, that is disingenuous. She is talking up the organisations that she does not want to exist. I am deliberately not talking them down, but going out of my way to make it clear that the Government are not misleading anyone. There will be no new powers, and no new money. The noble Baroness may not like that. She can talk all she likes about the powers that they will have. They will have the powers of democratic scrutiny of those working on a regional basis, from the Government Offices to other organisations. They will not be service delivery organisations. We have said that. It is nothing new.
So it is no use going on about what new powers the regional assemblies will have. They will not have any new powers. They will have the power of democratic scrutiny of a level of government that is operating now in the regions by and large, as we have set out, in a way that is not subject to democratic scrutinybecause
There will be different issues relating to the boards that become regional planning boards for special strategy, but that is dealt with in another Bill; it is not dependent on this Bill. So I repeat: the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill, which will come before this House in due course, is not dependent on this Bill passing into law in the sense of having elected regional assemblies. So the amendment is a complete red herring. The noble Baroness is using extravagant language about the growth area, and it is grossly misleading of her to do so.
Baroness Blatch: This is positively my last word on this amendment. I shall continue to use the language that I have used. If the regional assemblies are nothing, if they are simply talking-shops with no new powers and no new money, why are we here debating them? Why must a very high price be paid for them; namely, a major upheaval in local government in order to establish them?
It is not true to say that the assemblies will have no new money. They will have precepting powers; and if that is the case they can obtain more money. We have seen that with the GLA. It has managed to get a good deal more money out of local taxpayers. The Minister is admitting that they will have powers of scrutiny, but so does the Audit Commission, so does the National Audit Office. When a body has powers of scrutiny, it has powers to do something about what it finds as a result of the scrutiny. We shall return to this point on another day, in other ways. In responding, will the Minister tell us what powers the regional assemblies will have, having exercised their powers of scrutiny, if they find what they have scrutinised to be at fault?
Lord Rooker: The noble Baroness uses a dangerous example; namely, the National Audit Office. She referred also to the Public Accounts Committee. They do not scrutinise policy. They look at where the tax pounds are going and at whether we are getting value for money. The perfect example is that Ministers do not appear before the Public Accounts Committee. That is not the function of the committee. It is not looking at policy; that is decided elsewhere. Policy is the role of government, the House and support. The PAC is looking at value for taxpayers' pounds. The Audit Commission is looking at matters in a slightly different way, in terms of the local government level, because people get confused between the two bodies. The scrutiny by the assemblies will be quite different. It will vary according to the function the assemblies are considering because they will be new bodies. Small groups of people, between 25 and 35, will be working in large regions of between 2 million to 6 million people. The assemblies will look at the best way of scrutinising and bringing to democratic account the people who are making decisions on a regional basis about strategy, not their service delivery.
Lord Stoddart of Swindon: Can the Minister answer a short question? If the assemblies are to have no further powers and they are simply there as scrutinising bodies, why do they want precepting powers? If they are not going to do anything more, why do they want more money with which to do it? Why do they want precepting powers?
Lord Waddington: I am indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, because I was about to make very much the same point. The Minister is most eloquent, and I am impressed by his argument. His argument is simple: we have nothing to worry about because the Bill is pointless. I have served in Parliament for a certain amount of time and have seen plenty of pointless Bills. I have seen firearms legislation go through Parliament to meet a perceived threat, and it has achieved nothing. I have seen dog-biting legislation go through Parliament to meet a perceived threat, and it has achieved nothing.
Lord Rooker: I am getting really worried now. It must be firmly placed on the record that I did not say what was attributed to me. This is an excellent Bill; it is full of good ideas and good clauses. It is well thought out and has been carefully scrutinised in your Lordships' House. At the end of the day, the electorate will decide whether they want to proceed down this road. That is my answer to the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart. I cannot give him the detailed response he wants; it goes way beyond this amendment. I must try to stick to answering the amendment.
Baroness Hamwee: I hope that readers of Hansard will apply their own degree of irony to some of these exchanges. I am grateful for the Minister's confirmation that this is not big local government, to take us back to day one. I share concerns about what the assemblies will doall of us on these Benches have made that clear. I do not want to develop the point tonight, but I am concerned that the Minister talked of scrutiny. Of course, that is an important function but the assemblies are to be strategy-making bodiesthe White Paper tells us so. We regard strategy as very important. We distinguish it from service delivery and see a very important role for the assemblies in making strategy. That is at the heart of our belief in regional government. Having said thatand we will return to the issue of powersI beg leave to withdraw the amendment.