White Paper, "Your Region, Your Choice: Revitalising the English Regions"

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Several hon. Members rose—

The Chairman: Order. We shall have questions until 6 o'clock and debate matters until 7.30 pm. If questions and answers are brief, I am sure that everyone will get in.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold): First, I congratulate the Minister; this is the first opportunity that we have had to face each other across the Committee. I also want to say what a privilege it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. O'Brien.

I have questions for the Minister on three matters in the light of his clear statement. First, will he give us a little more guidance on the timetable for a referendum? If, as he said, he intends to make an announcement shortly, he must have consulted already. Will he give us an idea of the likely outcomes of those consultations? How quickly would he expect the boundary commission to draw up its proposals? Will the normal democratic hearings apply in the drawing up of those proposals for unitary authorities?

Secondly, will the Minister say something about the costs of setting up the regional assemblies? We know from the Green Paper that the administrative cost will

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be £25 million for each, which is £200 million for the eight. Will he comment on the capital costs of abolishing county and district councils and of establishing new buildings in the regions and probably in Brussels and elsewhere?

Thirdly, will the Minister talk about how the country will be managed? If some areas vote for regional assemblies and some do not, we will have a pretty good dog's breakfast. How will regions connect with each other? Several issues such as transport will cross from one region to another, so what mechanism will be used between a region with a regional assembly and one without?

The Chairman: Order. Before the Minister responds, I advise that each hon. Member ask up to two short questions. If we have time, they can ask questions a second time.

Mr. Raynsford: I return the compliment to the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) by congratulating him on his appointment to his position on the Front Bench. I look forward to many debates with him on this and related matters in the months ahead.

Our paper will set out our thoughts on how we might gauge interest in holding referendums in each region. It will be a consultative paper in itself and will invite comments. In the month since the publication of the White Paper, I have spoken to several meetings in the regions and invited comments from the audiences and we will incorporate some of the suggestions made in our proposals. The ideas are developing and there will be a full opportunity for comment on the proposals that we publish later in the year.

The Boundary Committee will decide how it conducts its affairs. It is an independent body and we fully intend its processes to continue independently. We will give it guidance on the broad parameters, including on the fact that the measures should lead to a wholly unitary structure. However, it will be for the committee to decide how it proceeds. I am advised that up to a year should suffice, allowing for normal consultation, but we will obviously take further advice from the Electoral Commission and the Boundary Committee in due course.

The cost of local government reorganisation involved in setting up regional assemblies will vary hugely from region to region, as the hon. Gentleman will recognise. In the northern part of the country, there is already a predominantly unitary structure for local government. In Yorkshire and Humberside, 89 per cent. of the population already live in unitary authorities. Therefore, the costs of reorganisation in such a region are likely to be extremely different from those in, say, the south-west. Many members of the Committee are familiar with the south-west and they will know that the structure of local government there predominantly has two tiers. I cannot give an overall estimate and it would be misleading to do so.

We want to ensure that any change is handled as cost-effectively as possible. We do not wish to repeat the experiences of the early 1990s, when the processes of the Banham committee were long and tortuous, and managed to waste a great deal of time and energy in

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fruitless recommendations that never came into effect. We want the matter to be handled in a proper and cost-effective way.

As far as buildings are concerned, it will be for individual regions to decide whether they need new premises in addition to existing premises that might already be available. That will be a matter for them to decide. We certainly do not envisage this as an opportunity for large-scale construction of grand new buildings. As I said, we expect elected regional assemblies to be small, lean bodies and we want them to be cost-effective.

The hon. Gentleman raised the question of arrangements for representation in Europe and many regions already have such representation. I expect them to continue with that. Whether they would need additional representation in Brussels or elsewhere would depend on whether they considered their current arrangements to be adequate. However, I do not foresee substantial additional costs arising in that area.

Finally, the hon. Gentleman mentioned connections between regions that choose to have elected regional assemblies and those that do not. That is where the proposals in the White Paper for strengthening regional co-ordination and the work of the Government offices for the regions will come into play. The White Paper has proposals for those regions that intend to stay as they are—without elected regional assemblies—as well as those that choose to have them. We do not wish to put either category of region at a disadvantage and we do not want to reduce effective communication between regions, because many issues inevitably cut across regional boundaries.

Mr. Wyatt: It seems incredible, when this is such an important issue, that we should have been given only 48 hours' notice of this debate. Will the Minister explain why the debate was so suddenly added to the Order Paper two days ago?

If universities are going to be our main economic driver, where will they be in the regional assemblies? Will we involve international, national and local universities? We need some understanding of the role of the university in a regional assembly.

Secondly, can the regional boundaries be changed? I belong to the Thames gateway region, which is to the north and south of the Thames. It is a much more powerful entity and it would be the most important agency outside of London. The South-East Development Agency means nothing to anybody because its area runs from Milton Keynes to Margate and down to Bournemouth. Is that boundary carved in stone?

Mr. Raynsford: My hon. Friend makes a number of interesting contributions. The timing of this debate was not of my making. However, I was more than happy to seize the opportunity for a debate on the White Paper and I can only apologise for the fact that other hon. Members were told of the debate at such short notice. It seemed better to have a debate than not to have one.

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We want universities to continue to make an important contribution to the economic activity of their region, as already happens. However, it is a slight overstatement to say that they are the main driver for economic development in the regions. Some of them are important centres of clusters of activity.

Mr. Wyatt: Such as Stanford or Harvard.

Mr. Raynsford: My hon. Friend may cite American examples, but if he claims that Oxford university is the main driver for the south-east economy, he undermines his subsequent point that different parts of the south-east region do not have very much in common. He rightly pointed out the difference between the Thames gateway and Milton Keynes. That point applies very much and it would be inappropriate to consider Oxford university as the main economic driver for the Thames gateway area.

I envisage an important role for economic contributions from universities and higher and further education institutes. That will be part of the overall framework. How that happens will depend on the arrangements that are put in place wherever an elected regional assembly is brought into being, and it will be up to the assembly to decide how it wishes to build relationships with the universities.

I am more than happy to confirm my hon. Friend's observations about the importance of the Thames gateway planning structure, which has enabled a more coherent approach to be adopted towards the economic development of that hugely important area. The gateway crosses three separate regions—London, the eastern region and the south-east—and it provides exactly the sort of cross-regional co-ordination that the hon. Member for Cotswold highlighted. Those sorts of arrangements will be necessary whatever the regional structure, because there will always be areas of economic development that cross existing boundaries.

Andrew George (St. Ives): The Liberal Democrats welcome the fact that the Government are prepared to tackle this unfinished business, but will the Minister take advantage of the relative obscurity of this Committee to be a little more candid about what has been going on behind the scenes?

The contradiction evident in annex E of the White Paper and the hyperbole in its opening chapters clearly demonstrate that the Government favour an asymmetric model, with varying sizes and so on. However, in the meat of the document we find a clearly symmetric and largely control-freak version of devolution. I would be glad to hear the Minister's comments on that.

What will be the future of quangos and Government offices? It is clear that many people will be disappointed that this devolution is very timid, with scrutiny powers only over existing quangos and Government offices. Many people will wonder whether it is worth breaking into a sweat about it. Will the Minister be candid also about the future of quangos and Government offices? Will they be retained, or do the Government have other plans for them?

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