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Regional Development Agencies

4. Mr. Ken Purchase (Wolverhampton, North-East): What contribution the regional development agencies are making to the development of regional economies. [128403]

The Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. John Prescott): The RDAs are emerging as strategic drivers of economic development in their regions. They have had an excellent first year, putting £400 million into regenerating the most deprived areas and creating or saving some 35,000 jobs--including 5,000 new jobs in the west midlands.

Mr. Purchase: My right hon. Friend played an important role in ensuring that RDAs were at the heart of Labour's economic motor in the regions. I pay tribute to what he did well before we were in government. Does he accept that the competitive agenda for the global economy as it applies to the regions is best driven along by further decentralisation to the RDAs, to improve their powers? Does he agree that the more quickly their lines of

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accountability can be developed, the sooner they will be able to take more control of national budgets, and thus bring about decentralisation from this place to the regions?

Mr. Prescott: I have always believed that the RDAs can play a major part in reducing disparities of economic growth within and between the regions, and in the record level of inward investment that Britain has just achieved. To that extent, I believe that the RDAs should be given more influence--and, indeed, more resources--so that they can get on with their job.

In my hon. Friend's area, the RDAs have played a significant part in regard to the Rover taskforce, which had a special job to do in diversifying the economy and at the same time encouraging new investment by, for instance, Marconi. I believe that they are already a success following their first 12 months in operation, and that the spending review will show just how important we think their future is.

Mr. Archie Norman (Tunbridge Wells): Has the Deputy Prime Minister seen House of Commons Library research which suggests that the Government have abused the boards of the RDAs by packing them with Labour supporters and cronies? Can he confirm that RDA membership contains six times as many Labour supporters as Conservatives, and that 70 per cent. of all board members with known affiliations are Labour supporters or trade unionists? Is not the real truth that the Deputy Prime Minister has used the RDAs to extend the culture of cronyism, rewarding his friends in failed Labour councils with well-paid positions on regional quangos?

Mr. Prescott: The evidence does not show that. Clearly, we believe that the RDAs properly reflect industrial interests as well as local authority and political representation in the region. About 100 Tory councillors are involved in the regional chambers alone. About four Tory members are involved in the boards of the eight regional development agencies. The Tories did not get many votes in the last election. It was in all the papers. Did the hon. Gentleman not read it? The number is proportional to that.

We believe that the regional development agencies should be retained. Even the Tory councillors are asking us to ensure that we keep the RDAs. If Conservative Members feel so strongly about abolishing them in England, why are they leaving them in Scotland and Wales? Why should the English regions be denied the possibility of keeping RDAs?

Mr. Norman: Can the Deputy Prime Minister now confirm that the RDAs are costing £17 million in administration alone, while spending on the ground on urban regeneration has gone down compared with spending under the previous Government? Does he agree with last week's report by the Select Committee on the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs, which described regional intervention under the present Government as confused and badly co-ordinated?

Is not the real truth that the only thing that has gone up under the Deputy Prime Minister is spending on advertising in his Department, which has doubled; spending on spin doctors--there are up to 40 in the

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DETR, up 20 per cent. on last year; and spending on bureaucracy, on cronyism and on trips abroad? It is Britain's inner cities that are paying the price.

Mr. Prescott: I think that the House generally agrees that the interventions of the hon. Gentleman, whether in speeches or at Question Time, can lead only to the certainty that the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) will shortly replace him on the Conservative Front Bench. As for the investment of £10 million, I have already informed the House that £400 million in regeneration and 35,000 jobs have been secured by the active intervention of the regional development agencies. On its own, that is a justification for the investment, but, since we introduced development agencies in Scotland, it has seen an improvement: it went from having the seventh highest GDP in the United Kingdom in 1986 to the fourth highest. That shows the success of the development agencies in Scotland and Wales. Why does the hon. Gentleman want to deny that for the English regions, or is it just a promise made in opposition to be changed in government?

Mr. Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield): My right hon. Friend has mentioned the work of the Rover taskforce and of Advantage West Midlands, the regional development agency there, in the economic strategy for the west midlands. Does he agree that, to deliver that economic strategy, it is vital that there is a transport infrastructure, particularly in an industrial heartland such as the west midlands, which is a major trade route from south-east to north-west and beyond?

Given the fact that, between 1992 and 1999, capital investment in public transport in the west midlands was only 5 per cent. of that in the capital, does my right hon. Friend agree that it is vital that we get much more investment into our road infrastructure, our rail infrastructure and public transport in the west midlands area?

Mr. Prescott: I readily accept that there is a strong connection between the two: investment in the infrastructure and the level of economic prosperity in the regions. The RDAs are playing a part. They produced their regional plan within the first year. We are changing our planning mechanism to allow them to influence the regional transport planning structure. We must await the spending review to see how much we are prepared to put into transport.

Brown Trout

5. Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy): What proposals he has to combat the effects of acid rain on the brown trout population; and if he will make a statement. [128404]

The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Michael Meacher): Government measures to reduce acidifying emissions include the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe Gothenburg protocol, the

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proposed national emission ceilings directive, the proposed amendment to the large combustion plant directive and the sulphur content of liquid fuel directive.

Mr. Llwyd: I am grateful to the Minister for that response. I know that he is something of an expert in environmental matters and has a great track record in that area, but may I urge upon him the need to move quickly with regard to intrinsic stocks of brown trout? They are dwindling now. May I suggest that the Environment Agency's remit be extended, so that a full audit is prepared and it can then look at ways of combating the present trend?

Mr. Meacher: The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point on a matter that we are very concerned about. I am glad to say that, as a result of the string of directives that I read out, United Kingdom emissions of sulphur dioxide--which is the main cause of acid rain--have decreased by 57 per cent. compared with 1990 levels, and are expected to decrease by 84 per cent. by 2010. However, I understand that further action is needed.

I believe that liming--which I understand to be the practice of treating acidified waters with calcium oxide--is proving very successful. The latest evidence shows that the river Tywi--which is in south-west Wales, and was almost fishless in 1990--has had an increase of about 600 adult salmon and 2,500 adult sea trout returning to the river each year. However, we shall keep a very close eye on the issue and take account of the hon. Gentleman's comments.

Mr. Bill O'Brien (Normanton): When considering work to improve the environment, will my right hon. Friend have a word with his colleague the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry about promoting research and development and a private finance initiative in clean coal technology--which will help not only to improve the environment, but to secure jobs within both the electricity generating industry and the mining industry?

Mr. Meacher: Yes, I certainly shall. Although my hon. Friend's question is fairly wide of the main question, I am very happy to have such discussions with my colleagues in the Department of Trade and Industry. I think that clean coal technology is indeed very interesting. It is not yet commercially viable, but it has the potential of achieving continued and high levels of coal production in a manner that minimises the impact on the environment. We are certainly keen to see further research done, both in the private sector and in the public sector, to secure that technology.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough): Does the Minister accept that the greatest impetus to a healthy brown trout population is the existence of fishing? Is not the reason why so many Labour Members are enthusiastic supporters of the practice of fishing the fact that fishing is good for conservation? However, if that is true, why do not the same arguments apply to the co-existence of a healthy fox population and hunting?

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Mr. Meacher: That is a very good try. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his ingenuity, but I am afraid that there is no analogy between the two issues.

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