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6.44 pm

Mr. Jim Cousins (Newcastle upon Tyne, Central): The Opposition's arguments tonight have been extraordinary. The right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) criticised the proposals because they did not include training and school education. That is extraordinary, given that the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir J. Stanley) criticised the Bill because a stray planning power, given to English Partnerships by the previous Government and never used, is incorporated in the Bill.

What an extraordinary contrast of criticisms: one type of criticism that says that a tiny power that has never been used has been incorporated into the Bill and another type that says that the Bill should have swept up into regional strategies, under the command of a regional development agency, even matters such as school education. It is absurd.

The right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon gave the game away when he spoke about gazumping and competition between regions. That began under the previous Government. It all took place behind closed doors and was never rehearsed before the House of Commons. It was never brought under any political control. The Bill will enable those issues to come out into the open and to be dealt with openly and democratically, for the first time.

Perhaps the two most decisive arguments that were made in favour of the Bill were made by the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler) when he spoke about inward investment into regions and took the example of Nissan in my region, in the north-east of England. He is right: the north-east of England has been staggeringly successful at attracting inward investment. Nissan's was the first of those major investments. It was a spectacular achievement.

However, those inward investments were occurring in what was--and still is--one of the most disadvantaged regions in Europe and which, with Wales and Northern Ireland, bumps along at the bottom of the table of every social and economic indicator that one could mention,

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despite those spectacular inward investments. One could not have a better presentation of the case for a regional development strategy that would go wider of these spectacular jewels in the economic crown and really address the disadvantage of people--the dreadful cycle of low opportunities and low hopes that affects many people in regions such as my own.

Inward investment jewels in the crown of the type that the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield mentioned do not by themselves tackle those problems. A wider regional development strategy is needed.

We must address environmental problems that cannot sensitively be dealt with unless they are dealt with regionally. We must develop occupational health dimensions that cannot sensibly be developed unless they are developed regionally.

The right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield mentioned that the agencies would be quangos. That is a peculiar argument to hear from the Conservative party. If any party created a massive number of quangos it was the Tory party. The Bill, for the first time, will bring out into the open political and economic processes which have hitherto been hidden. Indeed, it will begin a cull of quangos, because for the first time we shall be able to control the raft of economic development agencies that have been springing up on every side in a chaotic manner. For the first time, too, we shall be able to relate economic work to education and health matters, which are so important to economic success.

The Bill is a bold beginning, and I would have expected no less of the Minister of State and the Deputy Prime Minister. The Bill has great potential--but it is only a beginning. In the Government office for the north-east region of England, the tasks of economic regeneration, modernising the state and renewing democracy cannot be separated: they must be tackled together. The hopes of our people have been lowered by so many decades of systematic disinvestment, both in industry and in the social infrastructure. Aspirations in the area are not nearly as high as they could and should be.

The Bill cannot possibly attempt to solve these problems in their entirety--it does not aspire to do so--but it is at least a beginning. I have a great regard for the Minister of State's talents, but I repeat to him that the Bill must be seen only as a beginning. We must move decisively forward and set up the regional chambers that will facilitate open accountability as between the RDAs and stakeholders in the region.

We must then move beyond that and set a course that will lead, for the regions that want it--not for those that do not--to the possibility of democratically elected regional assemblies. They were part of the democratic renewal project offered by the Government when they came to power. I strongly believe in the idea; I hope that the Minister will assure us that that course is still open to the regions that want to pursue it.

More needs to be done. If we are to have regional development agencies, they must at first be built on current spending allocations by the Government. None of us argues with that. Looking to the future, however, we see two things: first, the need to examine regional spending across the board--health, education and environment programmes, not just economic development programmes. Secondly, we need proper assessments of the needs of the various English regions. Scotland and

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Wales cannot be exempted from that process--although I know that my Liberal colleague on the Treasury Select Committee, hailing as he does from Scotland, fiercely opposes that idea. I take some comfort, however, from the fact that his colleague, the hon. Member for North Devon (Mr. Harvey), who is from England, shares my view, which is that we must scrutinise regional and national needs--including those of Scotland and Wales. I see the hon. Gentleman nodding in agreement with that, a gesture which I shall bring to the attention of the hon. Member for Gordon (Mr. Bruce), who happens to be the Liberal party's Treasury spokesman. It was once said of the Liberal party that it had two or three hearts that beat as one, although they voted as four or five.

One of the great advantages that Scotland and Wales have enjoyed--I do not seek to deny it to them; I want it for every English region, too--is a block allocation capable of being switched around to meet regional priorities. I hope that the Minister can offer us some hope of the Government's moving in that direction. Once we have achieved regional chambers and are closer to democratic assemblies, we should have block allocations which stakeholders and democratic regional assemblies can move around to suit regional priorities.

My one last hope--

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin): Order. Time is up.

6.54 pm

Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden): My particular concern relates to rural interests. It is well illustrated by the geographical position of my constituency, which consists mainly of green belt land sandwiched between the urban centres of Birmingham and Coventry. Under the Government's proposals, it would fall into the west midlands regional development agency area. Although the RDA contains other rural areas such as those in Warwickshire, Staffordshire, Shropshire, and Hereford and Worcestershire, no one would deny that the vast majority of the population live in urban areas; and it is not clear from the White Paper how the Government can guarantee that rural areas such as Meriden will receive the attention and priority that they require from the RDA.

Even if a duty were placed on the Secretary of State to put rural appointees on the board of the RDA, they would be unlikely to constitute anything more than a minority voice in an urban-dominated region.

Allow me to illustrate the type of problem that my constituents anticipate from the new powers granted to the RDAs. Among the functions envisaged for them is the administration of the single regeneration budget. Until now, Meriden has benefited from substantial sums from that budget for the areas of deprivation in the north of the borough of Solihull. But those funds might be regarded from the standpoint of a different set of priorities in the west midlands region; the needs of inner-city Birmingham or Coventry might be regarded as more pressing, and the sheer size of the proposed RDAs will make it more difficult to accord priority to small pockets of deprivation in apparently sound semi-rural areas.

The role of the local authority--in my case, Solihull metropolitan borough council--has been vital in ensuring that regeneration resources are most effectively targeted.

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If it is undermined or overshadowed by its big brother, Birmingham city council, the refinement of accurate targeting of resources may be lost.

We have already seen that in other policy areas such as health. I know that health falls outside the remit of the RDA, but the problem is illustrative. Average health indices for the whole borough apparently show a high prevalence of good health, and the funding formula is calculated accordingly, but that disguises the fact that beneath the average figures are significant areas of poor health to which far more resources need to be directed.

A further risk involved in the functions to be attributed to the new RDAs concerns transport, planning and housing, areas in which the RDAs are to play a special consultative and advisory role. What my constituents most fear is that the rural voice will be drowned out on the RDA, and that that will result in a further erosion of the green belt by urban encroachment. That has already happened with the expansion of Birmingham international airport, the national exhibition centre and the Birmingham business park--all built on green belt land in my constituency. That reinforces the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler) about the Padmore industrial development. It is the idea of that sort of decision being taken away from the local planning authority which we most fear. All these developments were justified on the ground of regional economic development, but they brought extra pressures to bear on the countryside, especially in the form of traffic congestion and demand for housing. That tension reveals how difficult it is on a regional basis to resolve the urban/rural balance. There are inherent tensions in the main purposes of the RDAs that may not be resolved to the benefit of rural areas.

There is a specific concern in my constituency about the provision in clause 20 for the RDAs to be given full powers of compulsory purchase of land. My constituency has seen many bad examples of the present compulsory purchase order system. People's homes have been blighted by the motorway and the airport expansion. The Bill may not be the right place to try to sort out the compulsory purchase order system, but paragraph (1) of schedule 5 would permit the Secretary of State to confirm part of the land in a compulsory order and to postpone consideration of whether to confirm the compulsory acquisition of the rest of the land. That would lead to confusion and controversy over which bits of land were blighted by the development.

Another illustration of the "poor cousin" position of the rural areas in the new RDAs concerns the aim to promote employment and enhance the development and application of skills. In an urban context, it is easier to provide training facilities and subsequent employment opportunities, as those are often to hand, whereas in more remote rural areas there are often no training facilities at all, and transport systems are often inadequate to help people living in the countryside to get to training centres or jobs. The unit cost of providing training for rural inhabitants is much higher, and they are often discriminated against when decisions are taken in a wider regional context.

The White Paper states that the RDAs will take on the regeneration programmes of the Rural Development Commission. I seek an assurance from the Secretary of State that the expertise and initiative of the RDC will not be lost as its functions and property are absorbed into

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other public bodies. Over several years, the RDC conducted work of great value to the rural economy, which it would be a tragedy to lose. Can the Secretary of State assure Parliament that rural areas will receive the same level of resource in future as they did through the RDC?

My constituents fear that the creation of the regional development agencies will lead to the federalisation of the United Kingdom and ultimately to a Europe of the regions. When that risk was discussed by the West Midlands Economic Consortium, of which I am a member, representatives of all parties saw the danger of the region's losing the structural funding that it now receives from the European Union. As Europe is enlarged, our region may no longer qualify for structural support, as there will be other regions with greater needs.

Can we be assured by the Secretary of State that the Government will approach such negotiations as a nation state with real clout and voting power in a greater Europe? Subsidiarity should ensure that decision making will take place at the appropriate level. The strategic advantage of speaking for a population of 58 million and reserving the right to allocate funds secured on its behalf should not be traded for the delivery of an ill-conceived manifesto pledge to deliver regional government, which would undermine the national interest.

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