Previous SectionIndexHome Page

26 Nov 2002 : Column 198—continued

Mr. Davis: I will return to the constitutional aspects of what the right hon. Lady said, because the Deputy Prime Minister was disingenuous in his comparison between these regional proposals and the arrangements in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. For now, I am simply talking about the economic arguments, which do not support her case. She is a north-east Member, and business people in the north-east are worried that the proposals will hinder rather than help them and will over-politicise the RDAs regeneration work. That was said in The Economist not that long ago, quoting Stephen Rankin, director of the CBI in the north-east.

Dr. John Pugh (Southport): The right hon. Gentleman has said first, that the new bodies have done untold economic damage, and secondly, that they are expensive talking shops. Either they are institutions that do damage, or they are talking shops—they cannot really be both.

Mr. Davis: I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that talking shops can do damage: over-regulation is one of

26 Nov 2002 : Column 199

the most damaging things in Britain today, and it largely arises from talking shops. He seems to think that hyperbole will make his argument. The onus of proof is with the Government—they are the ones who say that the Bill is justified by the significant changes in productivity that will be wrought by it, which is sheer unmitigated nonsense. I am demonstrating that it has not worked before.

Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield): The right hon. Gentleman has obviously been trawling the evidence, so would he like to comment on that produced by the Work Foundation, formerly the Industrial Society, on the contribution that decentralised Government structures can make to economic performance by boosting productivity and in the development of industrial clusters? If he has not seen that evidence, may I refer him to the foundation's submission to the Select Committee on Trade and Industry a few months ago?

David Davis: I should be happy to see the evidence, as I used to be a director of the Industrial Society. However, all the major business organisations are against the hon. Gentleman's argument. The business clusters to which he refers do not require regional assemblies of any sort.

What will be the next aspect of the economic impact of regional assemblies? How much will they cost? They will cost the taxpayer billions of pounds. In his speech, the Deputy Prime Minister tried to dance around the proposed abolition of county councils, but that will entail sizeable, one-off local government reorganisation costs. He of all people should remember the abolition of Humberside county council, as both his constituency and mine are within the area that it used to cover. The one-off cost for the abolition of that council was £53 million. The council left behind relatively impoverished public services, as the right hon. Gentleman will know because we both suffer from them. The former Humberside police force had few assets, for example, so that £53 million represented only the visible cost.If the costs of regional government are in the same league, the abolition of the remaining 34 county councils could cost up to £1.8 billion in 1999 figures. The current equivalent would be about £2 billion.

Mr. Parmjit Dhanda (Gloucester): Could there not be efficiency savings? At present, for example, one authority might be responsible for roads while another is responsible for road calming; or one authority might be responsible for pavements, while another is responsible for shrubbery and trees. Would not unitary authorities be able to make savings?

David Davis: The hon. Gentleman confuses agencies with local authorities, but, in any event, such economies of scale do not work well in government. What matters more is that there should be a reflection of local opinion and local democracy.

In London, the Greater London Authority spends £34 million a year on administration. Based on its per capita cost, regional assemblies in England outside London would cost more than £300 million a year. That excludes programme expenditure, which would involve additional waste.

26 Nov 2002 : Column 200

The total long-term cost of the lease of the GLA building is £120 million. The Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly buildings are both over budget and it is estimated that they will cost about £210 million and £50 million respectively—although no doubt the final amounts will be much more.

Can the Deputy Prime Minister assure us today that if the north-east or the south-west took the regional option, they would not want new assembly buildings, just like those in Wales or Scotland? Of course he cannot, because it is certain that they will want those buildings—at massive extra cost to the taxpayer.

The Deputy Prime Minister will remember the following pledge from Labour's 1997 manifesto. He may even have been its author. The manifesto stated that regional assemblies would be established only following

However, many regions will believe that they would receive more money from the Treasury to fund regional government, so can the Deputy Prime Minister confirm to the House that the pledge still stands? I shall allow him to intervene if he wants to do so—obviously he does not. There is no economic reason to introduce regional government.

Matthew Green: In Shropshire, the Conservative party supports the unitary principle, which would involve the abolition of five district councils and setting up a unitary Shropshire authority. That would make savings such as those described by the hon. Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda). Is the right hon. Gentleman saying that the Conservatives are wrong to support a unitary authority in Shropshire?

David Davis: That decision is for Shropshire, not for this place. The hon. Gentleman made the same point 20 minutes ago and it carries no more weight now than it did then.

Let us move on to the Deputy Prime Minister's next point. He claims that people want to feel part of a region, but regional government will do nothing to give power to local people; instead, it will take it further away. Decisions currently made by county councils, which are close to local communities, will be transferred to regional assemblies, which are further from local communities. A body of about 35 to 40 people will take decisions that have huge ramifications for thousands of people, and what is right for one part of the region may not necessarily be right for another part. Regions will be unable to square the circle of interests between urban and rural areas.

The Deputy Prime Minister's plans threaten to set region against region—each one fighting for economic advantage over the other. The most successful regions could do well, just as in Europe, but the less successful will lose the young and the ambitious to the more successful. At the same time, regional government will force the abolition of the one unit with which people identify—the county. Under the proposals, planning decisions now made in Hereford will be taken 60 miles away in Birmingham. Decisions now made in Kendal

26 Nov 2002 : Column 201

will be taken 75 miles away in Manchester, and those now made in Truro will be taken 90 miles away in Exeter. Why?

Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire): Does my right hon. Friend agree that the removal of decision making from county councils to regional bodies will be accompanied by a dilution of democratic accountability? I have calculated that in the east of England, whereas 6,000 or 7,000 electors are represented by each county councillor in my constituency, about 160,000 electors would be represented by each of the directly elected members of a regional assembly. The electors would never see those people or know anything about them.

David Davis: My hon. Friend hits the point exactly. The areas involved would be at least three times the size of parliamentary constituencies.

The Deputy Prime Minister has talked about the democratic deficit, but why does he want to introduce the proposals? Could it be because the counties tend to vote Conservative, so they will be gerrymandered into what the Government hope will be Labour-run regions instead?

Our counties have legitimacy because they are organic communities, established by tradition, history and custom. Regions will be nothing more than lines on a map drawn by the stroke of a bureaucrat's pen. They will have no legitimacy whatever, especially if they are imposed on counties against the will of those who live in them.

Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre): What legitimacy does the county of Lancashire have since being denuded of Blackpool and Blackburn under the previous Conservative Government's legislation?

David Davis: I should think that the county of Lancashire has much more legitimacy in the eyes of those who live in it than the new north-western region will have if it ever comes into being.

The Deputy Prime Minister: This is all about choice.

David Davis: Let us deal with the major problem with the Bill. The Deputy Prime Minister says the Bill will bring about more democracy, but, in a democracy, voters have to know what they are voting for. They need to know what the choice is, to use his own word. For that to happen, the proposition has to come before the vote, but with the Bill, it will be vote first, proposition afterwards. The Bill proposes that referendums should be held without voters knowing the structure or powers of the assemblies for which they are asked to vote. Even the Deputy Prime Minister would have a hard job to convince anyone that that is democratic. [Interruption.]

Next Section

IndexHome Page