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5.54 pm

Mr. Derek Foster (Bishop Auckland): It is a bit rich for Labour Members to be lectured about taking powers away from local government by the party that emasculated local government over an 18-year period and put it in such a financial straitjacket that it became simply an agent of central Government. The industrial policies of the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler) sounded like an awfully tired trail through the failed policies of the 1980s. They reminded me of what Lord Healey used to say when we used to lose elections: the play was a huge success and the audience was a failure. There was an election in 1997 and some of us want to move on.

The Bill will have wide acclaim throughout the northern region. We have been campaigning for a regional development agency for 25 years. When I was chairman of the North of England development council in 1974, it was painfully obvious that we were at a distinct competitive disadvantage compared with the Scots and the Welsh in respect of inward investment.

The right hon. Gentleman seems to think that we are discussing only inward investment. The regional development agencies have a far wider agenda. We are talking about the regeneration of indigenous industry, the

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stimulation of small business, and regions trying to sharpen their competitive edge as we approach the 21st century when the information age will be upon us. The right hon. Gentleman's speech sounded like a tired tale and that is how it will appear to the entire country.

When I was chair of the NEDC, I learnt a great deal about economic development from the Washington development corporation. At the time, I was one of the lonely individuals in the Labour party who sought the transfer of new town development corporation powers to solve the urban regeneration problems; I was in favour of urban development corporations. In my view, the Tyne and Wear urban development corporation has been a great success. The Government are combining the powers of the existing agencies for inward investment with those of the urban development corporations and locating them on a regional basis.

In the north, we have a successful inward investment agency--the Northern Development Company. It was the successor to the body that I chaired and it has operated for a decade. It was set up on a tripartite basis with equal representation of the trade unions, the local authorities and business. It has enjoyed the support of the entire region throughout a decade of successful operation. It is a little sad that an organisation that was set up on a tripartite basis will be succeeded by an organisation with diluted trade union representation. My colleagues, Joe Mills, Tom Burlison--now in another place--and Bob Howard, the regional secretary of the TUC, worked extremely hard to make the NDC a success. The northern region could have had extra trade union representation, but I would not go to the wall over that.

For the entire 25 years that I have been involved in regional politics, Cumbria has been included in the northern region. I know that this is a sensitive issue--I shall not dwell on it--but we believe that Cumbria should remain in the northern region. We know that it will not happen immediately, but we shall return to the matter because most of the people in Cumbria want to belong to the northern region and not to the north-west, although that is not a universally held view.

I represent 600 sq miles of rural territory. The Rural Development Commission was a very successful organisation and I want to add my compliments to its effectiveness during the 70-odd years of its existence. Factories in Barnard Castle, Middleton in Teesdale, Evenwood, Cockfield and other parts of my constituency would not have existed without the far-sighted policies of the Rural Development Commission.

I hope that my hon. Friends have got it right and that they will ensure that in what will be an urban-dominated body--dominated by urban business people, urban local authority representatives and perhaps even urban academics and trade unionists--the interests of the rural areas will not lose focus.

As my hon. Friend the Minister said, there is a huge opportunity to integrate urban and rural policy. I look forward to that happening and, to that end, consideration might be given to the MAFF presence in our region being beefed up and given a locus in the regional office of the north-east. That would ensure that the Government can put some strong advice from a revamped MAFF into the regional development agencies.

I very much enjoyed reading the report of the Select Committee co-chaired by my hon. Friends the Members for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) and for Crewe and

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Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody). I fully endorse all their recommendations. We are delighted with the regional development agency, but it deserves additional powers. We are also delighted that the Bill enables additional powers to be provided without the need to return to primary legislation.

In particular, I should like to endorse what my hon. Friend the Minister said about training. I do not think that he repeated in the House what he said in evidence to the Select Committee. We are bidding for a model rather like Scottish Enterprise where the training and enterprise councils or local enterprise companies in Scotland are overseen by the development agency which monitors their activities. I would advocate such a model and I hope that my hon. Friend will look favourably it as the policies develop.

It is just as important to co-ordinate the response of further and higher education to regional regeneration. Some universities in the north already make an outstanding contribution in that respect and I hope that they will continue to be encouraged in that role. I am envious of the 30,000 jobs at Cambridge university that resulted from the involvement of higher education in information technology. I hope that institutions in the northern region will enjoy such development over a period of time.

The structures of devolution are of secondary importance. Devolution is about releasing the skills, energies, commitment and creativity of the people of the regions. It has always been wrong that the man or woman in Whitehall knows best. I have held that view in great contempt although it originated from a Labour Cabinet Minister all those years ago. There is a great deal of wisdom in the regions and it is the business of Government to release that skill and talent.

These days, government is not about controlling: it is about enabling, facilitating and empowering. We want the regional development agencies to release all the skill and talent in business, universities, further education, local government and communities and galvanise it so that people themselves can renew their communities and regions. If we succeed in doing that--I dearly hope that we shall--the Bill will be the huge success that my hon. Friend the Minister and my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister wish and which all Labour Members look forward to.

6 pm

Sir John Stanley (Tonbridge and Malling): The Minister for the Regions, Regeneration and Planning and I have at least one thing in common, which he and I may find deeply amazing: we both became Ministers of State at the Department of the Environment shortly after a change of government. In the light of his comments about what he inherited, I mention to him that in 1979 I took a helicopter flight from Tower bridge virtually down to the Thames estuary. The vista from the air, which could never be fully appreciated from the ground, was mile upon mile of dereliction, emptiness and inactivity.

Less than 20 years later, the view from that same helicopter journey is the most staggering visual transformation. It is probably the most staggering transformation that has taken place in any urban area anywhere in western Europe. For that, enormous credit

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is due to the London Docklands development corporation and the previous Government, who created it.

I mention the London docklands not to make a party political point but to say that as someone who was responsible for the new town development corporations in England for four years, and from my experience in Northern Ireland of the excellent work of the Industrial Development Board there, I need no persuading that the setting up of development corporations and agencies, even on the basis set out in the Bill, is justified and can turn out to be a proven success where they have a limited job to do in a limited area. I am in no doubt about that.

My difficulty with the Bill is the Government's quantum jump from the proposition that it is valid and effective to create such bodies to the proposal that they should be imposed on the whole of the territory of England, which is the effect of the Bill. There may be parts of the regions of England in which hon. Members feel that such bodies are justified. As a Member from a south-east constituency, I feel that development agencies are least justified in the south-east, which for the purposes of the Bill excludes London. It is nonsense to suggest that an organisation that covers the area from my coastal county of Kent to as far west as Oxfordshire and from the Isle of Wight to Milton Keynes has some commonality of development and planning requirements.

Mr. Brian White (Milton Keynes, North-East): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Sir John Stanley: I shall not give way, if the hon. Gentleman does not mind, in view of the shortage of time.

The Bill rests on a fundamentally false premise. The Government cannot be justified in taking such powers over the length and breadth of England unless they can demonstrate that the development and planning process was a failure, not only in specified areas but throughout England. I do not believe that that is demonstrable. I can speak only from my constituency and county experience. In my constituency, I have at Kings Hill one of the most important high-tech industrial park developments anywhere in western Europe. That has been achieved entirely without a regional development agency by the normal commercial process and the democratic planning system. I believe that that experience is true of the greater part of England.

The Bill takes enormous powers on the premise that the existing industrial development system and democratic planning process has failed throughout England. I simply do not believe that that premise is sustainable.

I have three specific, deep concerns about the Bill. Previously, where compulsory purchase powers and powers to override the normal democratic elected planning authorities have been taken, as they were in the new towns legislation by the post-war Labour Government and in the urban development corporation legislation by the previous Conservative Government, the bodies involved had a finite life. The bodies set up by the Bill are permanent. It is not justifiable to take such powers for a body which under statute will be permanent.

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Let us consider the ambit of the combination of compulsory purchase powers and designated area order-making powers given to the Secretary of State. They are powers of the most enormous geographical width. They extend through the whole of England. Indeed, no other legislation in the post-war period has given such wide powers to the Secretary of State to override and supplant the democratic planning process. That is the reality. The powers are given not merely on a wide geographical basis but with the maximum discretion as to how they can be used.

The House will be aware that in legislation the phrase

That is a huge discretionary power--the maximum that can be given by the parliamentary draftsman--and it covers the whole of England. I hope that it is clearly understood by hon. Members on both sides of the House and by people outside that the planning suspension powers, which is what they are, will become available not only in every constituency in England but in any part of every constituency.

My remaining point reinforces what my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler) said. The protection given to rural areas is inadequate. I should be much less worried about the Bill if, for example, it were limited to urban areas or urban areas plus so-called brown-land areas. It is not. There is no protection against the use of the powers in rural areas. There is no protection against the use of the powers in the green belt. My right hon. Friend gave an alarming illustration of the use of such powers by the Government. There is no protection from the use of the powers in areas of outstanding natural beauty or national parks. That is not acceptable.

There is a significant omission from the Bill. It is having its Second Reading the day after the conclusion of the Second Reading debate on the Scotland Bill. In that debate, the Government failed--as always--to answer the West Lothian question. Their response is to offer the English part of the United Kingdom the mere sop of regionalism. The Scotland Bill contains reserved powers for the new Scottish Parliament to have exclusive legislative control over the main areas of domestic Scottish legislation. Reciprocal reserved powers should be contained in the Regional Development Agencies Bill so that non-Scottish Members of Parliament at Westminster have equal exclusive control over the same domestic legislation governing England and--

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