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26 Nov 2002 : Column 253—continued

Mr. Lansley: I am astonished by the hon. Gentleman's argument. How is it more democratic for planning, transport and the structure plan or the local transport plan of a county council to be taken out of the hands of those who were elected by several thousand people and given to members of a regional assembly who will be elected by 250,000 people? That is distant and undemocratic, not democratic and accessible.

Mr. Dawson: I am delighted to answer that. The regional assembly is democratic because the functions of remote county councils—I mean no disrespect to those who work for them—will be devolved to unitary authorities that operate on a smaller geographical scale and use the flexibility that the Government introduced in health and social care to engage properly with vital functions outside such bodies. It will also bring the regional powers on planning guidance and transport strategy, and the functions of regional development agencies, within a democratic remit. The proposals will do away with county structure plans and transfer some of those powers. However, I firmly believe that such powers are not currently effective at county council level. The crucial, meaningful level at which to intervene is regional and very local.

Mr. Dhanda: Does my hon. Friend agree that the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) needs to be more familiar with the planning process? All complex planning applications are currently decided by central Government and take a long time to determine. It would be far better to determine them locally or regionally.

Mr. Lansley: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Dawson: No. This is my speech. I shall continue to make it, if I may.

Regional government is profoundly important, and by using the opportunity that the Bill gives us, we can strengthen and refresh democracy. We have

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encountered a number of red herrings tonight, the most notable of which was that the form of government to be used in regional assemblies would allow obnoxious bodies such as the British National party to hold sway. We defeat fascism on the streets and fight it through campaigning. We should not deny ourselves the opportunity for new democratic institutions and new forms of government because of the threat of fascism. We must take those racists and fascists on.

We have a tremendous opportunity here to affect 6.9 million people in the north-west, and regional government can be a unifying factor for those people. It will ensure that power is used throughout these very large regions, and give an effective voice to both urban and rural communities. It will also ensure that we have a pluralistic democracy in which we are not competing with other regions or with fine towns and cities within the region. Rather, we shall be co-operating and working together effectively for the whole region, and redressing the historic imbalance in terms of powers that have been taken to the centre, and of the economic success that has come to regions such as the south-east and been lost to the north-west.

I shall be here tonight firmly supporting the Bill, and I very much want to see it go through. As a Northumbrian who is now an adopted Lancastrian, I would like to see the home of the regional assembly of the north-east in the city of Durham, where my father and daughter were both educated. There is a real parallel between Durham and the city that is at the historic heart and geographical centre of the north-west. That is, of course, the city of Lancaster.

8.48 pm

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West): I am pleased to be able to take part in this debate. I am, however, astonished that we are talking about this matter at all, on a day on which the fire brigade is on strike—and we may be facing that industrial action for several months to come—and on which school teachers across London have been on strike and schools have been closed. Yet here we are, talking about something that is not of the faintest interest to any of our constituents.

I have never heard from a single constituent who supports regional government for the north-west. It simply is not an issue. It is not something that my constituents want, nor is there any demand for it across the rest of the region. My constituents are interested in the state of the health service and the quality of schools. They are desperately interested in whether the Government are about to slap top-up fees on young people going through higher education. They are also concerned about the transport infrastructure, which is grinding to a halt. They are not keen to see the establishment of a new tier of government, a new set of politicians or a new regional bureaucracy. There is simply no demand for that.

Only 18 months or so ago, we went through a general election in which there was a dramatic collapse of interest among the British public. Politicians from both sides of the House returned saying that the fact that so few people wanted to vote had provided them with a salutary lesson and that we had to learn to talk about

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what matters to the British people, yet here we are on another frolic—a constitutional fancy that is of no interest to anybody.

Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge): The hon. Gentleman says that his constituents are not at all interested in regional government and he may be right. We may have a referendum in the north-east, but the proposal may be rejected—who knows? However, we are not afraid of the test of a referendum in the north-east. What is he afraid of?

Mr. Brady: The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point, as he has exposed one of the Bill's most basic flaws: even if it receives a Second Reading—Labour Members who properly opposed the whole principle this evening none the less suggested that they will be loyal Back Benchers and troop through the Lobby—and completes its parliamentary progress, we shall not know whether there will be a referendum in the north-west of England, as the Deputy Prime Minister has not been good enough to explain to us how he will judge the demand for it. We have a bizarre proposal before us.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) is not in the Chamber, and I would be careful in making this remark if he were: there may be some interest in the proposal in the part of the country represented by the hon. Member for Tyne Bridge (Mr. Clelland), but there certainly is not in mine.

The hon. Member for Manchester, Central (Mr. Lloyd) made a point about the synchrotron investment decision, which was made a couple of years ago. That was the biggest scientific investment in this country, involving £500 million, but this is the acid test for the north-west: would that £500 million have been more likely to come to Cheshire, rather than go to Oxfordshire, which is where the Labour Government chose to send it, had there been north-west regional government? The answer, simply, is no. Such government would have made no difference. The decision was for central Government and it was taken on central grounds involving strategic planning, economic interests and various ideas about agglomeration of scientific facilities. It had nothing to do with the voice from the region.

Mr. Dawson: Does the hon. Gentleman understand why people feel that the Conservative party has so little to offer? He is promoting a strategy of hopelessness.

Mr. Brady: Absolutely not. The hon. Gentleman is quite wrong, because I am the north-west Member who brought the synchrotron issue before the House for debate. That was done not by one of his colleagues, but by a Conservative Member. I believe passionately that Members of Parliament are sent to Westminster to represent their constituents and the interests of their regions. That is what we should be doing, not considering silly tinkering with the constitution and setting up new tiers of government in which there is no interest.

The hon. Gentleman said in his speech that the Opposition are less than enthusiastic about the Bill, but I wonder whether he shares the assessment of his colleague, the hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley (Mr. Stringer). He is referred to in yesterday's Manchester Evening News, which says that

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There, it quotes the hon. Gentleman directly and, following my conversations with Labour colleagues from the region, I think he is probably right.

As far as I can see, regional government is a minority interest among Labour north-west Members and not a single Conservative north-west Member supports the idea. If the Deputy Prime Minister is serious about consulting the elected representatives of the people of the north-west about whether there is sufficient demand for regional government there, the idea will not get off the ground. I very much hope that that is the case. Why? As I said when I intervened on the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre, there is no real support for it. There is no support from the business community.

Mr. Tom Levitt (High Peak): That is not true.

Mr. Brady: The hon. Gentleman apparently now has a great knowledge of these matters in the north-west. He says that that is not true, but I would rather listen to the north-west director of the CBI, Mr. Chris Clifford, who is also quoted in the Manchester Evening News. He says:

The hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre would not speculate on why business is not interested in having regional government in the north-west. I do not think that anyone could encapsulate the reason better than Mr. Clifford. Business knows that it will involve more costs and more bureaucracy, and will add no value for those who are trying to run effective, efficient, profitable businesses in the north-west.

There is also the question of regional identity. We do not have a north-west regional identity. The hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley rightly made the point that before the ITV franchise was split no one used to talk about the north-west. Perhaps we should amend the Bill and dub the north-west XGranadaland", as that may be a more accurate reflection of the region. No regional identity unifies Manchester, Cheshire, Liverpool and the part of the north-west represented by the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre.

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