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Mr. Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale): As to the importance of rural areas in the future of RDAs, will the Minister require even one of the RDAs to be headquartered in a rural area?

Mr. Caborn: The hon. Gentleman misses the point about devolution of power: it is about devolving power to those who will take the decisions in the regions. It is difficult for the centralist former Conservative Government to comprehend that we trust people in the regions to make decisions for themselves--but we shall try to convince Opposition Members.

Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire): Does the Minister understand that that is precisely what worries hon. Members who represent rural constituencies? We expect those in urban areas to take decisions that favour them, to the detriment of rural areas. If we make positive suggestions for improving the rural dimension of the regional development agencies, will the Minister consider them sympathetically?

Mr. Caborn: The answer is obviously yes. If the Opposition suggest reasoned amendments--I hope that they will not reflect the amendment on today's Order Paper--we shall consider them.

There is tremendous support for RDAs. As I have said, we received 1,500 responses to our consultation paper. The Local Government Association, the National Farmers Union, the Consortium for Rural TECs, the Council for the Protection of Rural England, and Action with Communities in Rural England support the Government's action in bringing the Rural Development Commission into the regional development agencies. All responses to the consultation process have been deposited in the Library; they are on the record. All major organisations that deal with rural affairs support the Government's position on RDAs. We have discussed it with them. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State and I were discussing the matter with people in rural areas throughout the country last week.

The second principle is decentralisation. Regional development agencies are an important first step in decentralising decision making to the English regions. The Government offices were a welcome initiative on the part of the previous Administration, and that we acknowledge, but they are simply arms of Government in the regions. The RDAs will be led by regional people; they will be influenced by and take account of regional interests.

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The Government are committed to directly elected regional government in the English regions where there is popular demand for it. That remains our intention for the longer term, as we stated in the Labour party manifesto.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): Nobody wants it.

Mr. Caborn: Does the hon. Gentleman want to rise to make his point? If what he says is correct, the regions will not be sanctioning what we have stated to be our intention. Our commitment will be with the will of the people in the regions. I understand that it is difficult for Conservative Members to understand consultation and trusting the people. Those concepts are foreign to them, but the Government believe them to be right.

Mr. Forth: In the context of accountability and the people's wishes, what reassurances can the Minister give local authorities, in the light of clauses 24 and 25, which deal with the designation and transfer of planning powers, that there will not be a move away from elected and accountable planning authorities to a quango dealing with important local planning? Surely that in itself would be enough to give rise to a great deal of apprehension among people in the regions and among Opposition Members.

Mr. Caborn: I shall be dealing with that specific point. However, it is not for the right hon. Gentleman to start lecturing the House about the democratic process and development corporations. If he reads the Bill carefully, he will find that all we have done is take the powers that the previous Administration vested in English Partnerships, and put them into the Bill.

As for planning powers, even English Partnerships, which has never used them, would have to receive the sanction of the Secretary of State. The issue would be decided by the House. That is the area of land use planning that we are talking about.

Mr. Forth indicated dissent.

Mr. Caborn: The right hon. Gentleman may shake his head, but if he reads the Bill and understands its relationship with English Partnerships, things may become a little clearer to him. As a general principle, I ask him not to lecture us about taking powers from local government.

In the short term, we shall make use of existing democratic structures--voluntary chambers--so that decisions taken by RDAs in the regions reflect regional priorities and are responsive to regional views.

The third principle is regeneration. No one who knows our country--our towns, cities and rural areas--can doubt the continuing need for regeneration. That is not simply physical regeneration, although that is important, but the regeneration of communities, to restore a sense of identity and pride.

Regional development agencies will inherit from Government offices the important role of administering the single regeneration budget challenge fund, or its successor programmes. They will take over the regional regeneration roles of English Partnerships, and the rural

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regeneration role of the Rural Development Commission. They will thus be well placed to take a coherent view of regeneration at regional level.

Mr. Paddy Tipping (Sherwood): I am delighted that one of the driving forces of RDAs will be the regeneration of inner-city areas. The single regeneration budget will clearly have a role in that. Will my hon. Friend assure me, and those who are striving to bring new investment into inner-city areas, that local partnerships will be formed, and local voices will still be heard? Will he assure me that the SRB will not be driven at regional level, but will meet local needs?

Mr. Caborn: I can give my hon. Friend that absolute assurance. We want to build on the best of the partnerships, but within a strategic framework. It has been made clear to us by all stakeholders in the 1,500 responses that in the past we have been trying to carry out regeneration in a strategic vacuum. There has been no overview. Indeed, money has been wasted that could have been targeted.

My hon. Friend knows the coalfield communities extremely well, and he will be aware of the initiative that my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister has taken in trying to co-ordinate activities across the areas that have been affected by mine closures. That is one of the areas in which we are trying to take a strategic overview to solve problems. We are trying to achieve that and to bring in partners on a bottom-up process. However, as I said, on regeneration the RDAs will not be able to act alone.

Our fourth and guiding principle is partnership, and it will certainly be a guiding principle of RDAs. There have been some spectacular successes in public-private partnerships in recent years. Co-operation between local authorities, training and enterprise councils, industry, business and voluntary groups has achieved much progress.

We want regional development agencies to build on existing partnerships, and create and foster new alliances too, to make our regions perform better, and to secure better value for money. This will be especially necessary in developing the skills agenda. RDAs will be responsible for developing a regional skills strategy within the regional economic strategy. That will help to ensure that regional economic and labour trends influence decisions about vocational education and training, and provide information to the purchasers and deliverers of education and training in the region.

RDAs will be pivotal in highlighting problems, and co-ordinating efforts to address them, but they will be able to do this successfully only with the involvement and co-operation of regional partners--in particular, the TECs and those involved in further and higher education.

Partnership will be the key to success in tackling the skills agenda. The announcement today by the British Chambers of Commerce clearly shows that we need such organisations to address the skills shortages that it predicts.

Last, but by no means least, is the objective of sustainability. Sustainable development must be a key objective of all our policies. One of the RDAs' five core objectives will be to contribute to the achievement of sustainable development in the United Kingdom. RDAs

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will need to demonstrate in their strategies what they are doing to contribute to sustainable development, and in encouraging others to do so. They will need to demonstrate in their day-to-day work that they are making a real contribution.

Against that background, a Bill to establish regional development agencies was included in the Queen's Speech. Following a major consultation exercise last summer, we published last month the White Paper "Building Partnerships for Prosperity", which set out a bold agenda for devolving decision making from the centre to new bodies in the regions. Our aim is that these new "agencies for change" in England will match the success of the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland agencies.

We will not impose a single blueprint on the English regions. The previous Government tried the prescriptive route, and it did not work; it just created resentment and fruitless competition between the different players. We want to set the scene for an approach that builds on partnership and co-operation. The Bill provides a framework within which we can reflect the particular needs of individual regions, but our core objective is for the agencies to bring together a wide range of functions that are presently carried out by separate and diverse bodies.

The main purpose of RDAs is to address the economic deficit that has bedevilled the English regions for many years. That is the first priority in our regional agenda, and the Bill reflects that. It sets the legislative framework for setting up the agencies as non-departmental public bodies. RDAs will be funded for the most part from public funds, and they will be accountable to Ministers and to Parliament for their actions. It will be the responsibility of Ministers to approve RDA business plans and ensure that they conduct their business with propriety.

We want RDAs to be properly accountable to their regions, too, and the Bill makes provision for that. Consistent with our manifesto, it provides a mechanism for building on the voluntary chambers that local authorities and their regional partners have begun to develop. Specifically, clause 8 enables the Secretary of State to designate a regional chamber as the focus for regional consultation about the work of an RDA. Clause 18 allows the Secretary of State to direct RDAs to give an account of themselves to regional chambers, where they exist.

Voluntary chambers will therefore have a tangible and important role in the work of RDAs, and a real stake in ensuring that their work reflects the needs of the whole region.

I should say a word about London in particular. The Bill provides for a development agency for the capital, but, as the House knows, we aim to have a new strategic authority for London. Subject to the outcome of the London referendum, which we hope will take place in May, the relationship between the new authority and the London RDA will need to reflect the responsibilities of the new authority in London, and of the mayor, for economic development matters.

Our detailed proposals for the London development agency will be set out in the White Paper on London government, which we intend to publish before Easter.

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Let me deal briefly with the remaining provisions of the Bill. Part I provides for us to establish the nine regional development agencies whose areas will correspond with those of the Government offices for the regions. The one difference is that there will be one RDA for the north-west, which will include Merseyside.

Clause 2 provides for the membership of the agencies. We envisage appointing 12 members to each board, although we could appoint up to 15. The boards will be business-led; they will also include people with experience and expertise from local government and further and higher education, as well as from trade unions, rural interests and the voluntary sector. The Secretary of State will be required to consult interested parties before making appointments.

The key criterion for membership will be experience relevant to the RDA's purpose. There will be no political fixers. Let me repeat that: the key criterion for membership will be experience relevant to the RDA's purposes.

Clause 4--not the original clause IV!--establishes RDAs as corporate bodies with five key purposes. Those purposes are to further the economic development and regeneration of their areas, to promote business efficiency, investment and competitiveness, to promote employment, to enhance the development and application of skills, and to contribute to the achievement of sustainable development. The clause specifically provides that a regional development agency's objectives will apply equally to rural and non-rural areas. That underlines the need for RDAs to take a coherent, integrated approach to their work, and recognises the interdependence of town and country.

RDAs will be specifically required by clause 7 to formulate regional strategies and keep them under review. Our aim is for those strategies to reflect a partnership approach involving all the region's stakeholders--as well as Government--in order to provide, in time, the framework for all relevant decision-making at regional level.

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