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Mr. Caborn: The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the IOD. Mr. Tim Melville-Ross came to my office to have a wide discussion--

Sir Norman Fowler: He wants to be on a board.

Mr. Caborn: He does not--he said that he did not want to be on the board. He said that now that the IOD understood what the RDAs were about, it would support the proposal--[Interruption.] If the right hon. Gentleman wants a note of the meeting, I can make that available to him. It does the Opposition no credit to make disparaging remarks about every major actor on the economic stage and say that they entered consultations in the manner that he suggested. They are responsible organisations that responded positively to a genuine Government consultation process. I do not think that 1,500 responses should be disparaged.

Sir Norman Fowler: I am quoting from the Government's White Paper. On page 49, paragraph 10.6, it says:

Those words are in the Minister's White Paper, just as the words I quoted previously on inward investment were in his White Paper.

I remind the House of what the Prime Minister said when he was Leader of the Opposition:

In Government, the reality is very different. RDAs represent the most powerful quangos ever seen in this country. Board members will be appointed by Ministers--they will be creatures of Whitehall, unaccountable to the

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local public. None of the board members will be directly elected. Only a third of the board will be councillors, but--this is an extraordinary provision--they will be able to remain on the board even if they are voted out of office as a direct protest against the action of the RDAs.

Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Sir Norman Fowler: I will not, if the hon. Gentleman does not mind.

It is that lack of accountability that runs through so many of the responses to the consultation process. As the Minister rightly said, the responses are set out. The City of Sunderland council said:

Sheffield council--the Minister's council--said:

    "It is imperative that RDAs are democratically accountable within their region."

Kingston upon Hull council said, on the issue of democratic accountability:

    "It is crucial to the operation of RDAs if they are not to become just another quango."

Mr. Blizzard rose--

Sir Norman Fowler: No, I will not give way.

What should really concern local authorities is that the establishment of RDAs marks the start of a transfer of power away from elected local councils.

Mr. Forth: Including planning.

Sir Norman Fowler: I take my right hon. Friend's point about planning. The Bill contains powers for the Secretary of State and the RDAs together to exercise powers of compulsory purchase and to designate areas that they want developed. That point was put into a letter, on 9 January, to the Department from the chief executive of Bromley council. He referred to sections 24 to 27 relating to designation orders and said:

The House should be concerned about that.

The House should also be concerned about the evidence showing how such powers have already been exercised by the Government. As it happens, that sort of development is being forced through on green-belt land on the edge of Birmingham in my constituency. In precis--I want to return to the issue more fully on another occasion--the existing West Midlands development agency applied for planning permission to develop 150 acres of green-belt land under active farming. It wanted the land for industrial use. In fact, the land is owned by Birmingham city council, which will receive a substantial capital settlement for the site.

The proposal was very hard fought locally. I, among others, appeared before the public inquiry and opposed it. We were faced with legal teams, headed by Queen's Counsel, from the agency and from Birmingham council. Nevertheless, we won our case with the inspector. The

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report was with the then Department of the Environment on the day the Government took office on 1 May--but by some oversight, the issue was not decided until a week after the House went into recess in August. Then, on a Friday, the Minister announced that the Government had overruled the inspector and that the development of agricultural land for industrial use would go ahead. According to my recollection that has been the only speculative application affecting green-belt land in which an inspector's report has been overruled in recent years.

I therefore tell hon. Members that they need not speculate about what will happen. Given the Government's position, if regional development agencies decide that sites are required in green-belt land for industrial development, nothing will prevent those sites from being developed, for the good reason that the Secretary of State is the final arbiter of those issues.

Mr. Caborn: The powers in the Bill were vested by the previous Administration in English Partnerships, and the Bill simply moves those powers to the regional development agencies. The right hon. Gentleman knows as well as I do that, before any action can be taken on land acquisition or an application for compulsory purchase, the matter will have to return to the House via the Secretary of State. It would be wrong to infer that the Bill does not contain that protection.

Sir Norman Fowler: Is it not typical that, although the hon. Gentleman presumably listened to what I said, he absolutely failed to answer the point? The point is--

Mr. Caborn: It is irrelevant.

Sir Norman Fowler: The point is not irrelevant. It shows just what the Government will do. It shows that, even when a public inquiry finds for local people--[Interruption.] The Minister tells me not to get excited, but I do get excited about it. He took one of the most disgraceful actions that I have seen in my 25 years in the House. Therefore, I get excited, and I deplore what he has done. I warn the House and the public that, under the Government, the green belt is not safe from industrial development. If the Minister had the courage, I wonder why he left making his announcement until the first week of August, after the start of the summer recess?

Mr. Caborn: If the shadow Secretary of State wants to raise the issue of a specific green-belt application, he has every right to do so. However, he is doing it in the wrong place. The Government are transferring powers to the RDAs that the previous Administration bestowed on English Partnerships. The point that he is raising cannot be dealt with by the Bill. He is making a spurious and personal constituency point, and he is taking the opportunity to do so from the Opposition Front Bench. This debate is on the Regional Development Agencies Bill, and his point should be made in another debate.

Sir Norman Fowler: The point is not remotely spurious. It establishes a case of a development agency applying; it establishes a case of a council that owns the land; and, above all, it establishes the Government's attitude. As for the Bill, the point undoubtedly establishes that the Government will take no notice of the public,

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and that Ministers could not care less about accountability to the British public. The Minister has failed completely to answer the case that I have put.

Sir John Stanley (Tonbridge and Malling): Does my right hon. Friend agree that the point made by the Minister is spurious? Although the powers under the English Partnerships legislation may parallel the powers given in the Bill to the RDAs, the ambit of the English Partnerships powers is completely different from that in the Bill. This Bill, and this Bill alone, applies those powers to every square inch of England.

Sir Norman Fowler: I agree with my right hon. Friend, who has tremendous experience in this subject. In all conscience, I tell him--as I am sure hon. Members on both sides of the House will appreciate--that, because of the Minister's lack of response, we will develop the issues further, both in Committee and on the Floor of the House.

Some advocates of development agencies say that all the issues of accountability will be solved once there are either statutory regional chambers or, even better, regional government, but that is not the answer. The better course is not even to establish the RDAs. What is significant is the chronic confusion at the centre of government on the issues.

On 3 July 1997, the Local Government Chronicle reported that the Minister himself was urging councils to lobby the Government for statutory regional chambers to hold the regional development agencies to account. A chief executive who attended a meeting with the Minister was reported as saying:

A meeting in September between representatives of the Local Government Association and two members of the No. 10 policy unit revealed that the message from Downing street was slightly different. The No. 10 line was that regional governance was not on the agenda, and that a "minimalist" outcome was desired. In that debate with No. 10, the Minister, for some unaccountable reason, found himself to be the loser. There are therefore no statutory regional chambers, although there are lots of comforting words about trains coming along later.

The position on regional government for England is even more unsatisfactory. The definitive position--if it can be so described--is stated by the Deputy Prime Minister in the introduction to the White Paper. He states:

What does that mean? First, it means that no regional government proposals will be made in this parliamentary Session. Therefore, any structure that the House approves today will be unchecked for as long as this Parliament continues. The only promise is that, if the Government remain the Government, they want to introduce regional government on a step-by-step basis.

How can that work? If regional government assemblies are established, they must have powers. Where will those powers come from? If they come from central Government, what will happen in areas where there is no demand for regional government? Will the powers be

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given to existing local authorities? Despite those inconsistencies, that is the path that the Government have deliberately chosen to take.

In his December interview with The Scotsman, the Minister was quite frank. He said, "We are managing transition." That transition is to regional assemblies and to regional government. Undoubtedly that is fine for those who support an England broken into regional assemblies. However, many more people do not want regional government, prefer a solution based on the existing structure of Westminster and local government, and reject the slide to regional government.

The Bill does not deserve support on its own terms. I do not believe that it will lead to increased inward investment, and there is a real danger that it will lead to a reduction in such investment. The Bill is not an exercise in devolution. It establishes ministerially appointed quangos, which, only a few months ago, the Labour party said were quite unacceptable. Even supporters of regional governance might think twice before supporting the creation of bodies that are unaccountable and show every prospect of being unsuccessful.

I believe even less that the Bill deserves support as part of a step-by-step process to regional government in England. The Government evidently want regional government, but Ministers and No. 10 Downing street know that, if they had a referendum on that proposition, they would lose. The public would reject the proposition. They have therefore come up with a half-baked proposal which is that, at some undefined stage in the future, if they are re-elected, they will introduce legislation that will introduce regional government to some parts of the country but not to others.

The proposals are not policies for the development of the English regions. Constitutionally they are objectionable; economically they do not add up; and I believe that the House should reject them.

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