Previous SectionIndexHome Page

26 Nov 2002 : Column 222—continued

6.37 pm

Mr. Graham Stringer (Manchester, Blackley): Everybody on the Labour Benches recognises that this country is massively over-centralised. That over-centralisation gives some cause and effect to the wealth, income and health disparities between the regions and the south-east and among the regions. Those problems should be solved, but we will not find the solution in the Bill, which, as previous speakers have said, is quite weak.

I shall come to what should happen, but I must say first that I think the Government believe that the Bill is quite weak. They would be much stronger advocates for it if they were more open about the subjective tests that the Deputy Prime Minister will go through in deciding whether there is to be a referendum, and the Bill would be much clearer if it contained a definite threshold on democratic support. It would also be clearer, and may well get more support, if we were not on such a one-way street, as we often are with referendums. We are not told of the powers that will exist. Quite simply, the Government look shifty in making their case, as they will not tell us those things, or what is in the Deputy Prime Minister's mind or what support they consider appropriate to determining whether there should be a referendum on establishing a regional assembly.

Elected regional assemblies and regional government are not the solution because they run counter to the grain of the history of this country, which is distinguished from its European counterparts by its demography, the history of its local government and its urban areas, towns and shire counties. We should be supporting those cities and making them work.

It is always interesting to hear Conservative Members talk about how much power should be in the hands of local government, as they spent 18 years taking powers from it. They should be returned.

Mr. Dawson: If we truly went with the grain of history, Manchester would be part of the county of Lancashire, whose county town is Lancaster.

Mr. Stringer: Three hundred years ago, Manchester was a small market town, but I am talking about its post-industrial position. Manchester has had local government for 150 years, so that is going with the grain.

Mr. David Borrow (South Ribble): Will my hon. Friend reflect on the Commonwealth games that were held in the City of Manchester stadium this summer? Many of us in the north-west outside Manchester felt that it was a regional event in that a sense of regional pride was very much evident. Does my hon. Friend accept that there is a sense of regional pride in the rest of the north-west outside Manchester?

Mr. Stringer: I viewed the Commonwealth games as a national event. It had a lot of support throughout the country. There was a great deal of support locally, and I

26 Nov 2002 : Column 223

was grateful for that, but if my hon. Friend is asking whether there is a north-western identity, no I do not think there is. I think that there is a Merseyside-Liverpool identity and a Manchester-Preston-Lancashire identity, but I do not believe that there is a north-west identity. When I watched television in the 1960s, we were in the north. As Granada diminished in size and the structure of the BBC changed, we were suddenly in the north-west. The north-west is a relatively recent concept. The regions are an artificial construct. Manchester does not have close cultural or sporting ties with Leeds or Liverpool, but because they are tied by the M62, it is economically at least as close to Leeds as it is to Liverpool.

My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister alluded to the fact that in 1993 the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) said which regions there would be when he launched the Government offices for the regions. I served on many of Labour's working parties examining regional government, and the one problem that we could never solve was where the boundaries should be, because there are no natural regions. Salisbury and Southampton, amalgamated in the same chamber of commerce, are in two completely different regions. There are no natural regions in this country, but the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal solved that problem.

One of the more bizarre claims that is made for regional government is that decision making will be better. My experience—I am talking mainly about the north-west, but I do not believe that it would be different in the south-east—is that we will end up with lowest common denominator politics, especially given the democratic system that will be used.

The greatest economic generator in the north-west is Manchester airport. It creates more jobs and brings more wealth to the area than anything else. When I was the director of Manchester airport and leader of Manchester city council, I was involved in the scheme to build a second runway at the airport. I went all over the region trying to get support, but because of local pride, especially on Merseyside which put in planning objections that were supported elsewhere in the north-west, we could not get it. I suspect that in regions where there is no natural majority we will get lowest common denominator politics. My hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central (Mr. Lloyd) said that the university of Manchester institute of science and technology and Manchester university should be amalgamated, and I agree, but I am not convinced that that would come about more easily with regional government than under the current structures.

Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): I cannot let my hon. Friend get away with saying that there are no natural regions. There is no doubt that the north-east of England is a natural region. We have our own culture, and we require a Bill such as this so that we can get on and make the decisions that need to be made in the north-east, instead of their being made in central London.

Mr. Stringer: I bow to my hon. Friend's knowledge of the north-east, but I have heard my hon. Friend the

26 Nov 2002 : Column 224

Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell) give a completely different view of the nature of the north-east from that of my hon. Friend.

Mr. Peter Atkinson: Perhaps I could give the hon. Gentleman another view of the north-east. The right hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson) was right: people who live on the south side of the Tees believe that they come from North Yorkshire, and people in Cumbria would like to be part of the north-east.

Mr. Stringer: Other hon. Members have referred to the voting system for the proposed regional assemblies. I cannot think of anything more likely to put people off voting than constituencies of a quarter of a million, a list of representatives whom they will probably never see and a system that in the north-west and possibly in other regions will almost guarantee a British National party representative on the regional assembly. We must think about that when we set up electoral systems. Our electoral system has kept extremist parties out of Parliament by fair means. It seems strange to set up a system for regional government that will give the BNP and other racist and extreme groups a platform.

I said that one of the bizarre claims was that decision making would be clearer under a regional system. Another claim concerns the core issue of how we deal with regional disparities. It is claimed that regional assemblies and regional development agencies will be the drivers of economic performance. In the north-west, which I know best, the major economic regenerative budget is the single regeneration budget. Why did it drop by £100 million? That is a measure of the commitment to devolution at the centre. It dropped by that much because there was to be no increase in costs to the Government and some of the regions that were created had to have new budgets, so there was a transfer from those areas of need to areas that had not required those resources before because a regional structure was to be established. I do not believe that this measure will be a driver of change. There simply is not enough money.

The amount of money in Scottish Enterprise and the similar body that deals with the Scottish islands is equivalent to that for three RDAs. Even if that money were put into those regional structures, I doubt whether they would relate to commerce and industry.

I do not want to be completely negative about the Bill.

Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar): Is the hon. Gentleman intending to vote for it?

Mr. Stringer: Of course I shall vote for it, if only to give people the opportunity to reject the idea. That is one of the good things about the Bill. The people whom I represent are looking forward to the measures promised in the Queen's Speech to deal with bad private landlords and terraced property. I would much prefer to be dealing with a measure that my constituents are desperate for, because their lives are being made miserable from hour to hour and day to day. That would have a direct impact.

What would a real regional policy look like? We would recognise it because central Government would not allow the synchrotron at Daresbury to be moved to

26 Nov 2002 : Column 225

Oxford on the basis of poor reasons. We would recognise it because 80 per cent. of transport spending would not be directed at London as at present. That would make a real difference to the regions. We would recognise it if it got rid of the Barnett formula, and if the surplus of highly paid civil servants and others who do not need to be in London were dispersed to the regions. We would recognise a regional policy that made the London cost adjustment fairer. And we would recognise a real regional policy—a policy that took account of democracy, giving local democracy power as well as responsibility. That would mean ending the system whereby 80 per cent. of local government income is determined by central Government grant, and allowing local authorities to collect it directly in the form of taxes so that they could make real decisions on what happened in their communities.

I am sad about the Bill. The House needs to get to grips with the problem of regional disparities—why we have them, why there is so much poverty in the regions and why gross domestic product per head is not as high as it is elsewhere—but I am afraid the Bill does not deal with that problem. It will not help anyone.

Next Section

IndexHome Page