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26 Nov 2002 : Column 261—continued

9.14 pm

Mr. Parmjit Dhanda (Gloucester): I very much welcome the Bill, although it is not without its difficulties.

Regional assemblies can do much to reduce the democratic deficit. They will also speed up the planning process, on which I shall elaborate. I am sure that the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) will be interested in my comments on that.

The greatest single benefit of the Bill will be for the many of us who are fed up with the two-tier structure of local government. It is time to move on from that and the ultimate benefit of the Bill will be unitary status for local authorities, although there is a downside. Although a recent Mori poll showed that 61 per cent. of people in the south-west of England favour a regional assembly, I must have spent much of my time talking to the 39 people in every hundred who are not in favour of it.

The hon. Members for Poole (Mr. Syms) and for Salisbury (Mr. Key) both represent south-western constituencies and they hit the nail on the head. Some

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parts of the country have a much stronger regional identity than others—much to my annoyance, because I support a regional assembly for the south-west.

When people in my constituency turn to the BBC regional news, they will see XBBC Midlands". If they switch over to ITV, some of them will be watching HTV West while others will be watching Central. That is one of the regional identity problems for areas such as Gloucester that are on the cusp—on the edge of several regions.

My constituency is an hour away from Birmingham and equidistant from the two national capitals, Cardiff and London, yet it is only half an hour away from Bristol, which is the heart of the south-west. Oxfordshire is the next county along, but it falls into the south-east region, so we are very much on the cusp.

That may be one of the many reasons that the Conservatives did so badly at the general election in Gloucester. Their campaign slogan was XGloucester born and bred", but most people in Gloucester nowadays were not born and bred there. They come from a wide range of areas, including the big cities that I have mentioned. The Conservatives are so local that they have moved from Gloucester to Cheltenham, so perhaps they will not be using that slogan at the next election.

The restructuring of local government that will accompany the Bill will be a major benefit. It is high time that we undertook that restructuring. That is not an attack either on county or district councils, but it is difficult to explain to our constituents that they have to approach one local authority about housing and another about education. Similarly, why should roads be dealt with by one authority, yet road-calming measures, pavements, or the trees and shrubs that border the pavements are all dealt with by separate bodies?

I ask the Minister for Local Government and the Regions to consider the referendum questions. In many areas, such as the south-west, where unfortunately we may not get a yes vote in a referendum, people should still have the opportunity to decide whether local authorities should have a unitary structure. In Gloucestershire, there is a feeling that we could have two unitary authorities, one based in the east and one in the west of the county. Such proposals should not be ruled out during the process.

A regional assembly would bring many advantages to a constituency such as mine. For example, I hope that it would speed up the planning process. St. Oswald's park, a former cattle market in my constituency, is the subject of a mixed site proposal worth a couple of hundred million pounds and will include retail, leisure and housing. The proposal has the support of the city council, the county council, the MP and local residents. The local newspaper has run a vocal campaign in support of the development. There was little or no objection to the scheme, yet it was called in by central Government. We would still expect to go through the inquiry process—we have done so with St. Oswald's park—but the application has had move on to the Government, the wheels of Government have to turn and it then comes back to the local authority before we can get on with the development. If the planning process

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were carried out at a more local, regional level, perhaps we could speed it up and help developments such as those in my constituency.

Matthew Green rose—

Mr. Lansley : I fear that the hon. Gentleman slightly blundered into the subject of whether I had any experience of the planning system as he will not know that, in the past two weeks, I have spent three days at the public examination of the Cambridge structure plan, discussing the green belt and new settlements. One thing that has emerged from those discussions is that the Government have told the regional planning conference that they will determine sub-regional strategies, but we have received a consultation document from the regional planning conference that says that the sub-regional strategy for Cambridge will be determined in the Cambridge structure plan. So, in fact, without the county structure plan, the region would have no idea at all what it was doing.

Mr. Dhanda: Different regions will find different solutions. That is what democracy is all about. We cannot expect to have exactly the same solution in every part of the country. My point is that big plans for developments often get kicked to central Government, and the Government have to deal with a great number of plans. If we could streamline that process, with more plans going through the regional process, we would be better off.

I was about to give way to the hon. Member for Ludlow (Matthew Green), but he is now quite happy.

The key thing is not just regional accountability and addressing the democratic deficit, but doing away with the present two-tier system. Our constituents and many local councillors—I was a councillor for four years—do not understand why we have the current system. This is a fantastic opportunity for us to move to a unitary structure, and I hope that we can do so whether or not people vote for a regional assembly.

9.22 pm

Andrew George (St. Ives): I nearly had a déjà vu experience, having bobbed up and down last week during the debate on the Queen's Speech and not having got in, so I am pleased to have this opportunity to make a short contribution to this important debate. I hope that the many contributions made today will encourage the Government to think again about the Bill, which needs some serious further scrutiny before being allowed to proceed.

I am pleased to follow the hon. Members for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda) and for Poole (Mr. Syms), both of whose constituencies are apparently in my region, although they are about 200 or so miles away from my constituency. I probably share about as much affinity with Poole as I would with Preston or Prestatyn, but such is the nature of this process, which needs to be reconsidered.

I agree with the criticisms made by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey). Every aspect of his criticism of the Bill was absolutely right. I am sorry to say that I will not join him in the Lobby this evening to vote for the Bill because it is not just

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flawed, it is fatally flawed to such an extent that I cannot support it. I cannot vote against it because I am in favour of the principle of devolution, but this is not devolution; it is, frankly, nonsense. It is called the Regional Assemblies (Preparations) Bill, but I fear that it is, in fact, a recipe for chaos throughout the country.

The Deputy Prime Minister criticised the XWhitehall knows best" attitude, and it is certainly true that although the Bill is poorly conceived, inadequate and timid, at least the Government should be congratulated on attempting to make an important development. The Bill really represents two contradictory cultures within the Government: one is confident enough to believe that it can let go of power; the other does not share that confidence, still has a fundamental control-freak tendency, and is not prepared to let go of power in the way that is needed to make this piece of legislation work.

I am pleased that there are many regions—the north-east and others—in which there is some kind of internal integrity and the issue does not arise, but there is such an obsession with boundaries that the policy is at risk of being derailed. I would rename the Bill the emperor's new clothes Bill, as it is propped up on a web of flimsy tautology. Clause 26 says that a region is a region on the basis of the Regional Development Agencies Act 1998. I remember the debate on that Act, and the then Minister for the Regions, Regeneration and Planning, the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Central (Mr. Caborn), said that he would debate anything but the number of the regions or their boundaries, and that we could wait for the Bill on regional assemblies to debate that issue. We now have the basis of that Bill.

The Bill is based on this tautology: a region is a region because it is a region. That is like saying that the emperor's clothes are his clothes because they are the clothes. The issue in the referendum will therefore be whether people like the clothes, not whether they think that the clothes exist. The quicksand on which the palace of regional government will be built will ultimately lead to it sinking. It is undeliverable. As many Members have pointed out, we agree with what the Government are trying to do, but the Bill is fundamentally flawed. A region is a region because it has common identity, shared interests and internal integrity.

If the Deputy Prime Minister means what he says, and we shall have those regions in places where people want them, I can tell him one place that wants one: Cornwall. As has been established, the hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) was at the south-west convention explaining what he found good and bad in its approach. That same morning, I was at the Cornish constitutional convention, and I think that more people attended that than the south-west constitutional convention. Usually, when I ask what we do if we find that the region does not exist, the question is met with stunned incomprehension, as though one is asking to redefine the boundaries of God. The fact is that we must allow a debate on the issue. Instead of running away from it, and feeling that it will unleash powers that result in a derailing of the project, we must recognise that some of the so-called government zones—they are certainly not regions—need to be redefined to allow the project to go ahead.

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