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Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. Time is up.

6.10 pm

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish): I am disappointed to note the sour response of the official Opposition in their amendment and in their speeches so

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far. If they considered the corrosive effect that the rivalry of the past 50 years between Manchester and Liverpool has had on the north-west, they would appreciate that progress is now being made, partly as a result of the Millan commission, partly because of our manifesto commitment and partly because of the way in which discussions have taken place in recent months. There is now a much greater cohesiveness and willingness to act as a region in the area. That is a major triumph.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister for the Regions, Regeneration and Planning on getting the Bill thus far. I should like to refer briefly to the inquiry held by the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee. The House made it clear when it set up the Modernisation Committee that it wants to improve the way in which it scrutinises legislation. Despite a limited timetable, the Select Committee has tried to look at the Government's proposals. I am grateful to our advisers, Professor Alan Harding, Bob Nicholson and Professor Michael Parkinson for their help, and to all the witnesses who submitted written and oral evidence to the Committee. The Committee itself worked hard for a week to go through that evidence and I believe that we have produced for the House a useful report that will do a lot to inform today's proceedings and the subsequent Standing Committee debates.

It was clear that the Committee was divided on party lines and that it would not be useful for it to look at the principles behind the Bill. Once the Committee had accepted, however, that we were to study the Bill on the basis that it would be introduced come what may, it was surprising to note the unanimity that became evident. We wanted the Bill to do the job well.

We stressed that we wanted the work of the training and enterprise councils, business links, the regional assistance areas and that connected with tourism and further and higher education to be co-ordinated in a single strategy. I stress to my hon. Friend the Minister that I hope that such an approach can evolve. He assured the Committee that that is possible. My one reservation is that if the regional bodies are to evolve, they must have high-calibre staff to start with. It is important that they are able to attract the right calibre of staff and that they understand that the process of evolution will take place.

To the doubters on the Opposition Benches, I recommend the evidence that the Select Committee took from Graham Meadows of the European Commission. He emphasised the way in which other regions in Europe were able to compete within the European framework. It is extremely important that we consider the Bill in that context and appreciate that as long as we are part of Europe, Britain must behave in the most effective way when lobbying to get resources from Brussels. The Bill will do a lot to improve that process.

That is all I have to say about the work of the Select Committee; I should like to spend the rest of my brief speech emphasising a few points. Regional chambers are extremely important, but I recognise the concern expressed by Conservative Members about the danger of a democratic deficit. It is important that when those regional chambers are established, the people appointed to them recognise that they must keep in contact with their constituent organisations, particularly the local authorities, and involve them in discussions. The sooner we can move to the establishment of elected bodies to take over from those chambers, the better.

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If we have to wait until the next Parliament for those elected bodies, the House should consider whether it should set up regional Select Committees. It would be extremely difficult for the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee to examine what is going on in the nine regions. It would be possible, however, for the House to establish a Select Committee for each region, composed of Members from that area, to look at the rate of progress achieved.

Almost all the bodies that operate in the regions claim that they have a regional strategy, but it is no good having a planning strategy to deal with housing and industrial location and others to deal with transport and training. Those responsibilities should be integrated in one regional strategy.

Conservative Members have also expressed fears about competition. I accept that there may be problems as a result of competition between the nine regions and between Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. I do not believe, however, that that poses the major problem--the major problem is achieving regeneration within each region. The amount of footloose industry in the world is fairly limited. Some evidence suggests that although such industry can be attracted to a region by good grants and other influences, it stays for a short period only and never becomes a part of the given region. If we are to succeed in our regions, we must ensure that new business are created within them and that new small business can grow. Their growth should not be restricted by a lack of resources.

The Bill is the engine for the regeneration of our regions. I hope that it will reach the statute book soon and that it will be the first stage in the process leading to effective regional government that releases all the energies and excitement that exist in our regions.

6.16 pm

Mr. Nick Harvey (North Devon): I welcome the introduction of a Bill to establish regional development agencies. The Liberal Democrat party has long seen the need for them and we welcome the fact that the Government have introduced them in the context of the wider pattern of devolution to the regions. We hope that that will come about as soon as possible, although we respect the fact that it cannot happen immediately.

The need for strong strategic regional economic players must surely be beyond dispute. Many parts of the country are suffering from an economic deficit, as the Minister has said. My part of the country, the far south-west, which is also represented by many of my hon. Friends, suffers from low income levels, high unemployment and other serious economic problems. To date, the arrangements made to deal with those problems have been incapable of providing an answer.

The creation of strong strategic regional bodies must be a welcome development in trying to improve the economic prospects of regions such as the south-west. To date, confusion has been caused by too many players seeking to create economic development. They have duplicated each other's functions and the bureaucracy that supports them. The need to bring all those functions together so that there is one strong player in each region is beyond reasonable doubt.

If the new bodies are to have the ability to meet the ambitious targets that have been set for them they need the resources to do the job and the powers to go with

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those resources. My party has certain reservations about that. If the new regional bodies are to compete for inward investment and European grants within an increasingly tough global marketplace--more and more parts of the European Community and beyond have established strong economic marketing operations--they need the wherewithal to do so.

I deplore the fact that the RDAs are not to have at their disposal any new funds, but will simply recycle funds that are available through existing schemes, which are inadequate to the task set before them. We would have preferred the prospect of more grant from central Government. When, in the fulness of time, there are democratic assemblies in the regions, which should have their own tax-raising powers and which may determine that it is a political priority that there should be more work on economic development in their region, we want those bodies to be able to set aside additional funds for the RDAs. Given that they are partnerships that include the private sector, we also want RDAs to be able to go out and raise money on their own account. Unless some or all of those solutions are adopted, I seriously question what the RDAs will be able to do.

There are also confusion and contradictions surrounding the whole question of what the RDAs' powers are to be. It makes no sense for central Government, through the Department of Trade and Industry, to retain responsibility for the allocation of regional selective assistance. If RDAs are to be responsible for economic regeneration and given that there is a grant system that aims to help in that process, it makes no sense for RDAs not to be the bodies responsible for allocating those grants. I appreciate that the Minister has had to go out and argue this point with other Departments, but I hope that, as time goes on, the question can be revisited and progress made.

I echo the voices of those who have said that the work of the training and enterprise councils should come under the direction of the RDAs. I welcome the Minister's having said that the RDAs are to have a role in that respect, but if there is to be any sense in the arrangements, they need to have overarching responsibility in commissioning work from the training and enterprise councils and in setting out what they must achieve.

There is a contradiction in central Government Departments holding back certain powers while other bodies--for example, the Rural Development Commission--are expected to hand over theirs. I am concerned that most, if not all, of the new bodies will be dominated by urban interests. The new RDAs will be populated and therefore dominated by urban politicians, urban business men and urban academics and I wonder whether the rural voice can be heard when the organisation that has the experience in expressing rural interests is no longer the channel for those views. I would welcome some clarification from the Minister as to how a voice for rural interests on each of the RDAs is to be guaranteed and enshrined.

The accountability of the new chambers worries me greatly. I appreciate that the assemblies or chambers are not yet in place for accountability to be clearly defined at a regional level, but it is worrying that the new bodies are to be appointed by the Secretary of State and answerable to the Secretary of State. The Secretary of State will be answerable to the House for their work, but that does not seem to follow the principle of devolving power and

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responsibility to the regions. It may not be long before there are directly elected regional assemblies that can govern and supervise the work of the RDAs; but if the interim measure is to be regional chambers of local authority representatives, the Government need to be more assertive in getting those bodies up and running, rather than passively waiting for that to happen. If the RDAs are to have democratic validity from the outset, the chambers need to be up and running from the word go, so that there can be accountability to the regions. Only then can the hopes articulated in the House this afternoon, that economic priorities will no longer be set in Whitehall but in the regions, be given some reality.

I welcome the fact that there are to be local authority representatives on the RDA boards. I hope that the political colour of those local authority representatives will reflect the political balance across the region as a whole and not simply represent the dominant party--whichever it may be--in the region. I note that the Secretary of State is to appoint those representatives rather than inviting the local authorities to elect them. That might result in domination by the Labour party in many areas and by the Liberal Democrats in others. In all cases, we must ensure plurality of political representation on these bodies.

I listened with some amazement as the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler) deplored the fact that people would be allowed to remain on the bodies after being voted off local authorities. He is quite right, of course, but I cannot help but remember that, when the Conservatives were in power, after people had been voted off local authorities they were appointed to quangos. In my constituency and in successive elections, one gentlemen was voted off a parish council, a district council and finally a county council; yet after each of his defeats, he was rewarded with yet another quango chairmanship. The right hon. Gentleman was right, but such views sounded a little odd coming from him.

The right hon. Gentleman's point about the planning powers that it is intended the RDAs should have was well made and was taken up by the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir J. Stanley). I accept the Minister's point that that simply transfers English Partnerships' powers, but two wrongs do not make a right--English Partnerships should never have had those powers in the first place. We certainly want some qualification of the powers so as to ensure the involvement of local authorities.

My last point is that the boundaries of the new bodies worry me greatly. Existing economic boundaries are the product of central Government statisticians--a matter of convenience for the purposes of accounting and record keeping; they do not in any way, shape or form reflect true communities. To suggest that the south-west is a coherent region stretching from Penzance up to Gloucester and across to Christchurch is absolute nonsense. I welcome the signs from the Government that, as we go forward with this process, the Secretary of State will have the facility to vary the boundaries, but I deplore the fact that the number of regions cannot be increased as the regions in the south are far too big. Sensible and coherent regions can be achieved only if there is the facility, first, to change their boundaries and, secondly, slightly to increase their number.

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If we are to embark on a process of developing a regional level of government in this country--a thoroughly good thing, which I entirely welcome and which cannot come soon enough--it will be a disastrous error if the foundations of that regional tier of government are phoney regions that do not reflect communities, cannot win people's loyalties and do not have economic, political or social coherence. I appeal to the Government to keep an open mind on that issue. It is right that the important functions that these bodies are to fulfil should be the priority of our debate--at this stage, we must not get locked into parochial arguments about where lines should be drawn--but there must be the flexibility to allow these issues to be revisited later in a proper and orderly manner.

I welcome the Bill, although we shall seek to make many amendments as it passes through its stages and hope to secure some improvements thereby. We are doing a good thing today and these changes cannot come soon enough.

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