Regional Development Agencies

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Alan Johnson: The hon. Member has raised his point effectively. I was on holiday in Dawlish last year, and I know what he is talking about. I am sure that the RDAs will pore over every word said during this debate, and I shall certainly make sure that they focus on that problem.

Mrs. Ellman: To what extent does the Minister think the RDAs are dealing with the skills gap? Is he aware that a recent report, ''Productivity in the UK: the Regional Dimension'', published by the Treasury and the Department of Trade and Industry, cited the skills gap as a main reason for economic disparities among the regions?

Alan Johnson: I can confirm that the skills gap was cited as one of the major reasons for economic disparities. All RDAs have the same focus because problems such as transport, which we have mentioned, skills and planning are common to them all. I can write to my hon. Friend to indicate the various initiatives that have been taken, but the learning and skills councils are very new. They were introduced last April and are coming up to their first anniversary. The important priority at the moment is to establish a relationship among the learning and skills councils, the RDAs and other stakeholders. As I understand the situation—it is not my Department—the DFES is

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moving on to another phase to try to resolve the skills problems. The RDAs placed skills training at the top of their agendas both before and after the creation of the learning and skills councils. I shall write to my hon. Friend with the details of the many initiatives that they have taken.

Andrew George: The Minister rightly pointed out the complexity of both agencies and funds, and the difficulties with which local partners have to grapple in bringing forward successful economic development schemes. I draw his attention to two parliamentary questions that I put to the Cabinet Office, which were answered on 25 February. I asked how many Government agencies, non-departmental public bodies and others there were across all sectors, what their budgets were and for that information to be broken down by region. I tabled two questions of that nature, both of which were answered with:

    ''This information is not held centrally and could be provided only at disproportionate cost.''—[Official Report, 25 February 2002; Vol. 380, c. 876W.]

That worries me, and I want to ask the Minister an unanswered question. If the Government have not got a handle on the extent of the complexity of agencies, agencies' budgets and how agencies interrelate to one another, how can they expect local partners on the ground, who these days are expected to have a PhD in understanding how that complex system works, to bring forward their proposals when those partners have to double guess how the whole system operates? What will the Government do to break that problem down?

Alan Johnson: I agree that it is very confusing for local people. There are many non-departmental public bodies and there are also many voluntary bodies. There are many organisations on the same patch, which can make things rather difficult. The RDAs have a role to play in that. The Confederation of British Industry tried to put all the different elements of support on to a chart, but it gave up because the diagram got very busy. The RDAs have a role as the principal, first stopping-off point. If there were a problem in my region and I needed to access funds, business support and best practice, I would go to the RDA first. It might pass me on to another body because it would not want to duplicate that body's work or because that body's role fell outside its specific responsibilities. It would, however, have a role.

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman received that reply from the Cabinet Office, but, thinking about my region, the issue is complex. Perhaps we can make it less complex through the RDAs.

Mr. Steen: I am grateful that the Minister has agreed to ask the RDA to review the Dawlish problem carefully. If a major aim is economic development, he should also draw the transport system to the RDA's attention. My concern is that the south-west will not develop as a major region if it does not have an efficient and effective transport system. It is a transport backwater. It has an airport at Plymouth, which is on the edge of Dartmoor. If one buys a ticket for Plymouth, one ends up in Newquay, Cornwall. It is like buying a ticket at Paddington to go to Plymouth but ending up on the bus. I am waiting for a time when

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one can buy a ticket for the bus and end up on the train.

A region's economic growth will be determined by its transport system. If rail is not reliable and planes that are supposed to land elsewhere end up in Newquay—not that often, according to the Minister—that leaves only travel by road. Beyond Exeter, the road is not a motorway, and there are no motorways in Cornwall, although there are some dual carriageways. The region's economic growth depends on real investment in the infrastructure. Will the RDA make recommendations on how economic development is affected by the lack of transport infrastructure?

Alan Johnson: It is not one of the specific roles of RDAs, which is why they made their concern clear a couple of weeks ago. However, such issues are bound to be raised when RDAs draw up regional economic strategies with stakeholders and develop corporate plans with local people. Whether they are used to influence the 10-year transport plan—other Government Departments meet the RDAs on a regular basis—is another issue. The fact that transport is not ostensibly part of the four targets that we have set under the single pot does not mean that RDAs cannot lobby for transport in their regions.

Andrew George: The Minister drew attention to the new criteria by which RDAs will be judged under the single budget for the next financial year. The most important aim is to promote economic development and regionally balanced growth. I understand that the prime measure of that will be the trend of growth, or otherwise, in gross domestic product per capita, and that the fundamental aim in setting up RDAs was to make regions that had been falling behind more competitive. In the light of that, why do each of the regions have targets for managing growth rather than increasing it further, but the south-east and London do not? Their growth is putting other regions at a disadvantage. If that is the measure, why did the January European GDP report show that GDP had dropped by 2 per cent. from 67 to 65 per cent. below the European average in Cornwall?

Alan Johnson: That is a difficult question. The problems of the south-east and London are different from those of other regions, but that does not mean that parts of them do not need attention. For example, Thanet and Hastings in the south-east need to be brought up to the level of the rest of the region—that is what much of the work is about—and, in London, some parts have been terribly blighted by population changes.

Perhaps I will write to all hon. Members about the issue. The GDP part will be a consequence of what we hope the RDAs achieve. The principal targets involve restoring hectares of brownfield land to use, creating or protecting jobs, supporting learning opportunities and developing new businesses. We set those real and palpable targets under the single pot budget arrangements, and the growth in GDP should be a natural consequence. In Scotland, the success was remarkable under the targets set by the Government under Edward Heath. I am not absolutely sure, but I believe that Scotland's GDP rose from the seventh

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highest in the whole of the United Kingdom to the fourth highest. At any rate, there has certainly been measured success. However, that is not a central part of the targets that we are setting, but is a consequence of their success in other areas.

Mrs. Ellman: Does the Minister accept that successful regional economic development depends greatly on good planning decisions at a regional level, for example in housing development and land use? Does he agree that a directly elected regional assembly would ensure that such decisions that are taken regionally have legitimacy and are democratically accountable?

Alan Johnson: I agree with my hon. Friend's first question. Planning is central. She will excuse me if I do not get into a discussion about the White Paper that will shortly be published, as I am sure that there will be enough debate on it then. I believe that that will be in the spring, which, in political terms, can run anywhere between April and December.

Mr. Steen: I want to move on to sustainable development, which the Minister tells us is one of the RDAs' objectives. I do not know who coined the phrase, but I have a feeling that we should pay tribute to the Liberal Democrats, as it has become meaningless. It fits well with their ideology to use such weasel words that mean nothing.

I do not understand what sustainable development means in relation to RDAs. Will the Minister elucidate? Is it sustainable to build what I believe are 357,000 new homes when the transport system does not quite work, sewers overflow and there are insufficient school places? There will be mayhem in the south-west if another 357,000 homes are built.

Alan Johnson: I am not responsible for coining the phrase, and I do not know who was. However, it is important. The sort of development that occurred in the 1950s and 1960s paid no attention to the damage to the environment or to the beauty of the landscape. Sustainable development takes into account that economic development is necessary, but that it must not be environmentally damaging. That is the most common use of the term, and the RDAs must bear that in mind. I do not recognise a use of the term that means that one cannot sustain a housing estate in the south-west because of its transport links.

Andrew George: The hon. Member for Totnes should be more worried about the sustainability of his own party than about the ability of a politician of any party to define what we mean by the word. That is well recorded.

To follow the eloquent question from the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman), will the Minister say what guidance is being given to RDAs to ensure that they monitor their performance against sustainability indicators? I understand from a briefing from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds that RDAs should contribute to the strengthening of environment data held by the regional observatories. It must be possible for the RDAs to set up several indicators by which sustainability can be measured annually.

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