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6.27 pm

Mr. Gerry Sutcliffe (Bradford, South): I am saddened, but not surprised, by the Opposition's approach. The regional debate is not new and many of us who have been involved in regional organisations, such as the Yorkshire and Humberside Development Association and the Yorkshire and Humberside Regional Association in my own area, have sought to involve Conservative Members in debates about the regional approach and we have seen some positive contributions. I am therefore sad that, yet again, the Tories have been consistent.

The Tories want to rewrite history. Listening to what they say, one would not believe that they had lost an election; nor, when hearing them speak about how wonderful the Conservative Government were, would one believe that, as a result of their policies, the proportion of GDP supplied by manufacturing in this country went down from 30 per cent. in 1979 to less than 20 per cent. today, or that we are now a net exporter of investment. After their election defeat on 1 May, they have conveniently forgotten their legacy, but many of our communities cannot avoid that legacy in the form of high unemployment and deprivation.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions and his ministerial team on their work and on bringing the Bill to the House today. I also congratulate my right hon. Friend on the work he carried out in opposition in consultation with organisations throughout the country. The Opposition have been carping about many of the leading organisations that have been involved in the consultation. They include organisations such as the Confederation of British Industry, the Trades Union Congress and, particularly, local government, which can see the elements that are needed.

In my area, we need jobs for people and we need to regenerate the communities--there are local, national and regional elements to that. In Bradford, we have to create 1,000 jobs a year just to stand still. We lost 22,000 jobs over a four-year period in the early 1980s, which was devastating to our communities. The Government did not want to do anything about that. They came forward with ideas such as city challenge and the single regeneration budget, but those ideas were piecemeal and left

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communities competing with each other. There obviously needed to be a regional approach. There have been good practices and good examples of the regional approach elsewhere in Europe, but if we mentioned Europe to the previous Government, they did not want to know.

I was the leader of the council in Bradford when it became the second largest receiver of European grants in the United Kingdom. We considered the regional approaches in other countries such as France, Italy and Germany and realised that when communities in those countries lost their mainline industries, they could recycle and redevelop other industries, but the previous Government did not want to consider that. I believe that that approach is the way forward.

I am concerned that we are talking merely about regional development agencies. I am committed to regional government and I believe that the partnership approach that we shall see between organisations and communities within the regions will help to develop the long-term objective of getting people back to work.

In Yorkshire and Humberside, a regional assembly has recently been set up through local government--I accept that we shall have to get away from the confusion of titles among regional assemblies. The assembly has set out a framework for Yorkshire and Humberside for the next 10 years. It is a positive document which takes account of various organisations across the range.

I am not concerned about lack of accountability. I could not believe it when the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler) talked about accountability and tried to set himself up as the champion of local government. His Government, the Conservative Government, over-centralised government and decimated local government's ability to react to local needs. The assembly in Yorkshire is made up of all the organisations that want to contribute to a successful region.

We talk about the comparisons with Scotland and Wales; in Yorkshire, we have a population of 5 million people, a diverse community and a diverse geography in terms of urban and rural settings. We see that the organisations from those communities are able to come together and work together. I do not want to see the situation that occurred under the previous Government when we were competing against each other--Leeds against Bradford, and Leeds against Sheffield--not trying to promote the region's common objective.

National Government should set out the strategic plan and regional government should respond; local government should set forward their objectives. There is unemployment in the United Kingdom and in our regions, but there are skill shortages. Those shortages existed at a time when there should have been investment. The previous Government talked about inward investment; it is important, but so is the establishment and development of existing businesses within our communities.

I want the present Government to talk to people and organisations. I know that they will do so because, unlike the previous Government, they are willing to co-operate and to be accountable. It will have to be an evolutionary process; the Government will talk to organisations and people, and will not be deterred by the political dogma that prevented the previous Government from talking to organisations such as trade unions about how to develop.

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Before I entered the House, I was a full-time officer in the printing industry. Towards the end of my time in the industry, printing companies were unable to compete because of regional variations and the problem of lack of support from central Government. The present Government recognise that the Government alone cannot create jobs. It is important that we set up a framework and promote the conditions in which employment can develop. I am sure that the Bill will go a long way towards that.

The organisations that have been consulted have some concerns, but I am sure that they will be met as the Bill progresses through Committee. The involvement of the Labour Government and Ministers over a long period has built up their credibility and trust among those organisations with which the previous Government could not get involved. The CBI, trade unions and local government are happy with the principles behind what we are trying to achieve. I have no doubt that the regional development agencies will benefit our constituents and will prove to be a benefit in the future. I applaud the Government for what they are trying to do.

6.35 pm

Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon): I would be willing to give the new regional development agencies a chance, but I should have preferred it if the Front-Bench team had today answered some of the questions raised when the White Paper was presented. We have had no greater clarification today than we had then on a number of crucial issues.

The organisations will have a substantial competence, a lot of money and a hefty bureaucracy. We therefore need to know precisely how they will function and how they will look after the resources. The first question that has not been answered and which I asked specifically when the White Paper was presented is what the Government intend to do to manage the threat of subsidy wars between the regions, which is a real problem. The problem for England has been the incoherence of the English voice within the British ensemble. People have always spoken for Wales and Scotland with a single voice, but we now have a series of voices apparently competing to represent the English interest, and the present proposals contain a number of dangers.

The first danger is the risk of the fragmentation and dissipation of the programme to attract investment to England, which often leaves confusion in the minds of potential investors. If half a dozen people take the flight to Japan to bid for their regions, does that help or do other people think that we do not have a coherent strategy?

Secondly, the Government have not addressed the perennial problem of Wales and Scotland gazumping for investment. There is no doubt that that problem could get even worse under the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly which will be anxious to prove their virility. Three months ago, the Government said that they would deal with the problem, but as I understand it all we have is a sort of concordat without any idea of how it will work.

Under the previous Government, we had the monstrous situation of £247 million being lobbed in the direction of LG to bribe it into Wales. That resource would be beyond the scope of the English scene nationally, let alone a regional assembly in England. We would not spend that sum on the second coming, even were it to take place in the Dome, although it would be an experience and it would be religious.

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There is the risk of subsidy competition and it is likely to get worse. Japan is in stagnation and South Korea is in crisis. A large proportion of our inward investment has come from those two suppliers over recent years, so the problem of the situation in those two countries has to be addressed. When the White Paper was presented, the Deputy Prime Minister acknowledged that that important question needed addressing, but the Front-Bench team have said nothing about that today.

It is clear that the Department of Trade and Industry has won the turf war over the control of direct subsidy because regional selective assistance is to remain with it. But offers of land, infrastructure and training are also important material incentives and we need to know how they will be brought within a framework of fair competition--the level playing field which, I understand, is one of the Government's favourite expressions.

The next big question involves the future of regeneration policy. The fourth round of the SRB is currently being bid for--I think that the bids have to be in soon. But there is a great deal of speculation about the Government toying with the French concept of "Contrat de Ville". It is interesting that the Government should be tempted by that concept just as the French are becoming disenchanted with it. Do the Government intend to move towards a more targeted form of regeneration such as the city challenge model? Do they intend to retain competition? What will the funding be? What is the timing?

If the Government say that regeneration is at the heart of the development agencies, we need to know what that regeneration, which is to be at the heart of the strategy for the regions, is going to be. The Minister for the Regions, Regeneration and Planning is in charge of regeneration as well as regional strategies. It would be helpful if he would tell us what he is planning to do on the regeneration prospectus.

To continue with the same stream of thought, there is a possible link between regeneration, the development agencies and another Government initiative: the education action zones. I applaud the education action zones, but we all recognise that unless regeneration is comprehensive--the Minister repeatedly uses the concept of the comprehensiveness of the approach--and unless that education regeneration takes place in the context of a wider regeneration, it will not work.

Will the education action zones be incorporated within bids for the regeneration budget? Will wider social and economic regeneration take place alongside them to make them work? I asked that question of education Ministers when they presented their White Paper and there was no response whatever. I hope that the Minister is talking to his education colleagues and can explain how things will work.

There is an argument for maintaining English Partnerships to make the important process of land regeneration accountable and to ensure that there is an approximately level playing field. There is an argument for getting rid of English Partnerships, on the ground that those functions are being transferred elsewhere. I find it immensely difficult to see the validity of the present proposal, which is to get rid of the overwhelming majority of the functions of English Partnerships but to maintain

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it for things such as the millennium dome--which I believe is wittily described in the White Paper as a national asset. English Partnerships is being reduced to an ineffective rump to manage a limited number of programmes. The Minister must make up his mind whether to back it or get rid of it.

Then we have the problem of the representation of regional interests. The White Paper says that the ideal board numbers about 12. The hon. Member for North Devon (Mr. Harvey) spoke about the south-west. I have had enough experience of Cornwall to know that Cornwall recognises almost nothing that is this side of the Tamar, so it will be very difficult to link Cornwall with Bristol and rest of the south-west.

My region, Yorkshire and the Humber, will take in Hull, South Yorkshire, and the West Yorkshire conurbations--which are almost over the Lancashire border--and extends into the north of Yorkshire, which borders on Teesside. It will be difficult within a board of 12 to achieve a representation that not merely covers people's different functions and expertise but gives them geographical coverage. We need to know how that will work, especially given the demise of the Rural Development Corporation.

The Minister constantly uses the phrase, "They are going to be business-led". What does it mean to be business-led?

It is important that we explore the relationship between the Government offices and the regional development agencies because the agencies will draw staff from the Government offices, from English Partnerships and from the Rural Development Commission. How many staff will they draw? What is the Minister's concept of the officialdom that will be needed to run the regional development agencies?

I now raise a point raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir J. Stanley). The Thames gateway development in the south-east has been crucial. Will the Minister ensure that, within the regional set-up for that part of the world, the specificity of the programmes for the Thames gateway is maintained so that we can maintain the momentum of a remarkable development programme based on common action and co-operation between people?

I am no fan of regional assemblies, but I congratulate the Deputy Prime Minister on creating--however reluctantly--a disjuncture between the creation of the development agencies and the regional assemblies. The idea that everyone is foaming at the mouth to get regional assemblies misreads the popular mood. The number of people who come to my constituency surgery and say, "Mr. Curry, I just wanted to tell you how eagerly I am waiting to have an elected regional assembly" compared with the number of people who come to me with worries about housing benefit or disability benefits is actually rather small.

The problem of accountability remains. If the regional offices are to be partly subsumed and if other currently accountable bodies are to be partly subsumed, we need to know how to get a handle on the regional development agencies. It is a very partial response to give them some sort of partial subordination to nominated bodies--the present assemblies that have set themselves up. Those embryonic shadow assemblies are not adequate regional representatives.

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I hope that those issues will be seriously explored in Committee. I do not set off from the assumption that this is necessarily a wicked and silly proposal. I concede the argument for trying to get co-ordination, but it is easy to talk about co-ordination and an integrated approach, and to see a structure as answering a problem.

One must be sure that the structure is sufficiently responsive, sufficiently targeted, sufficiently accountable, able to use public money with sufficient responsibility and sufficiently cost-effective to give people the sense that it identifies local needs and can respond to local needs while being able to co-ordinate in a way that the same people do not regard as offensive--for example because of planning strategies, which may have to go against what a community wants. It is a difficult feat to pull off.

I hope that the regional development agencies succeed because I am as anxious about regional development as any hon. Member, but the Minister will help us greatly if in Committee he explains how in practice these bodies will work, so that we can get past some of the high-sounding phrases and into the nitty-gritty of the operations of bodies that will have immense power, immense influence and, one hopes, a large success.

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