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Andy Burnham (Leigh) (Lab): I am interested in finding out the right hon. Gentleman's policy on regional government. Last week on Radio 4's "Any Questions?" he said that if powers


When did it become Conservative party policy to favour stronger regional government than that which is currently on offer? Precisely which powers would he transfer to the regions?

Mr. Curry: The hon. Gentleman listened to "Any Questions", which came from Stockton-on-Tees. He will be happy to know that Jonathan Dimbleby conducted a poll of the audience immediately after the question. He asked how many people were in favour and how many people were against: 20 were in favour and more than 200 were against. That is in the Labour heartland of Stockton-on-Tees. My position has always been clear. To save trouble in future, I have always said that if the regions were offered devolution in the same way as Scotland, we would be bound to consider that to ascertain whether we could benefit from it. However, as

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there is not a snowball's chance in hell of the Government offering anything like that, the question is purely academic.

The Deputy Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman mentioned that perhaps the referendum Bill or the regional assemblies Bill does not appear in the proposed legislation. He must be well aware that I have promised that after the referendum takes place a Bill will be brought before the House that spells out the proposed powers. That is the proper way to proceed. [Interruption.] It makes sense to proceed in that way after people have voted, rather than introducing proposals beforehand. The right hon. Gentleman will have a chance to tell us whether the proposed powers are sufficient for him to give them his endorsement, along with the regional assemblies and regional Bills.

Mr. Curry: The right hon. Gentleman has said something absolutely extraordinary. He has said that people will be invited to vote and then will be told on what they have voted. It is like going to the polls without being told what parties are in contention to form a Government. That is what the right hon. Gentleman has said.

The Deputy Prime Minister: The position is exactly the same as in Scotland and Wales. We have produced a White Paper that spells out the proposed powers and how things will be done. We have promised the House to produce the Bill in the July before the referendum takes place in the autumn. That is precisely what happened in London and it is precisely what happened in Scotland and Wales. That is the proper way in which to proceed.

Mr. Curry: The right hon. Gentleman has spent a lot of time today talking about planning. I invite him to consider the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill, which will conclude its passage in this place next week. Let him consider the initial shape of that Bill and the concluding shape. The two shapes are almost unrecognisably different. If people must come to a conclusion on whether they want regional assemblies, they must know clearly what they are to vote for before they vote. They will then discover what a meagre and puny bunch of assemblies they have been offered. We know that because we have a little document from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister that tells people in Yorkshire and Humberside about elected regional assemblies. It is a profoundly misleading leaflet. It was produced at public cost and it argues only one side of the cause. The only suggestion that people might say no is a handful of little thumbs pointing down.

Of course, there are some things that will set pulses racing in Skipton. There is the reference to a regional cultural consortium. That certainly has them seized in Skipton. We are told that there might even be a civic forum. I am sure that we will all be grateful for small mercies. However, the document is misleading when it comes to powers. The impression is given that there will be executive decisions. It is misleading as to the competence of the assembly because it is said that there will be a Government grant. The Government always refer to Government money. They seem to forget where the money comes from. There will be a Government grant so that expenditure of £570 million can be

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controlled. That is £1.5 million a day. Identifiable public expenditure in Yorkshire and Humberside in the year 2001–02 was £25.5 billion, and it is ignored. That is £70 million a day. In other words, the assembly will control, to use the Deputy Prime Minister's words, £1.5 million out of £70 million a day, which is 2 per cent. of public expenditure. That shows how flimsy, insubstantial and token these bodies will be.

The Deputy Prime Minister has even hinted at a great northern alliance to squeeze more money out of the Government. Whether the Chancellor of the Exchequer has approved of that is not very clear. The situation is also misleading when it comes to accountability. The councillors who are nearest to the people are district councillors. What happens when there are 30 to 35 regional members who represent constituencies? I am taking the Scottish example, on which I assume the electoral system will be based. They would each represent about 250,000 people. In north Yorkshire, for example, there would be two assembly people representing an area stretching from the Cumbrian border to Scarborough.

The Deputy Prime Minister: I think that the right hon. Gentleman was a Member of the European Parliament. How many people did he represent as one person?

Mr. Curry: One reason why elections to the European Parliament have always been disappointing is that people do not make a connection between them and anything being at stake, such as a change of power. The right hon. Gentleman knows that is the case, given that the Government and everybody else are currently anguishing about election turnouts. I invite the Deputy Prime Minister to accept a wager—what turnout does he think there would be at the second set of elections for regional parliaments? That turnout would make the turnout for European Parliament elections look positively torrential.

Mr. Betts: I should like to find out where the right hon. Gentleman stands on regional government. A few minutes ago, in response to an intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham), he said that if the Government offered the English regions the same powers as the Scottish Parliament the Opposition would have to take that seriously. However, as that is not going to be offered, he said that he would not deal with the question. Is he therefore suggesting that a future Conservative Government whom he served as Secretary of State would offer the English regions the same powers as the Scottish Parliament? Does he favour a stronger position on regional government than he has been advocating?

Mr. Curry: No. I was asked about the views that I had expressed on the subject, and I told the House honestly what they were. It is as simple as that. The policy of the Conservative party is to be against regional assemblies and reinforce the power of existing councils. I am entirely happy with that policy.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): The right hon. Gentleman has been a local government Minister in the past and knows all about the costs of reorganisation. One thing that concerns me is the fact that we are going

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to embark on a hugely expensive reorganisation of local government. Does the right hon. Gentleman have any idea of how much that reorganisation will cost; and does he agree that when voters come to put their cross on the ballot paper there should be an estimate of the cost to local government of the reorganisation?

Mr. Curry: That should certainly happen, and the Government should spell out clearly what will happen if there is either no consensus in the ballot on the shape of local government to succeed the two-tier system or if there is only a small majority on a low turnout. When we debated the issue in the House the Government's reaction to the possibility of such a turnout was utterly obscure. We need to know how they would respond before people go to the polls.

Mr. Peter Pike (Burnley) (Lab): Does the right hon. Gentleman not accept that the Northwest Development Agency is doing excellent work in the north-west and is involved in many important projects in constituencies such as mine? There is only one fault at the moment—there is no democratic accountability. I welcome the opportunity for democratic accountability that my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister is proposing.

Mr. Curry: The total amount of public expenditure in the north-west is £36 billion. Nobody pretends that the regional assembly would have more than a tiny fraction of that sum, nor do I accept that that there is no accountability for that money. There is accountability to Parliament, where the estimates originate. I do not buy the hon. Gentleman's argument, even though I usually have a high regard for him.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Curry: I shall make some progress before accepting interventions.

The Deputy Prime Minister said that the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill would create a fairer and faster planning system, with greater community participation. Nobody can object to that ambition, but can it be delivered? After all, the Bill has been around for a long time. It is supposed to democratise planning, but does the regional framework make that process more, rather than less, remote? The right hon. Gentleman dismissed concerns that the removal of the county role would reduce local democracy, and did not spell out whether there would be any statutory consultation role for councils. He said that they would have their say, but that should be a practical consideration, not merely an aspirational goal.

The measure is supposed to speed things up, but there is an extraordinarily complex web of schemes, including a local development framework, a local development scheme, a local development scheme document, local development plan documents, and development plans and policies, each with their own timetable for community involvement, revision and appeals. The unhappy Minister for Housing and Planning is no doubt the parliamentary porter who will have to carry all that excess baggage through the House next week.

The Bill, of course, is not the last of the major planning changes. I am glad about what the Deputy Prime Minister said about proposals to commute

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section 106 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 and give developers the option of paying a fixed tariff. It was not clear whether he intended that to be covered by the Bill, because the consultation, I believe, does not finish until 8 January. It is therefore not clear whether things that flow from the consultation will come into the Bill.

As the hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts) said, there are enormous implications for the provision of affordable housing. If a developer can buy himself out of the right to put a certain proportion of affordable housing into a development, there will be a danger that he will buy the right to deal with the easier developments, while the housing associations will be left to deal with the more difficult ones and will find that their ability to cross-subsidise has been affected. We do not want to return to the ghettoisation of social housing.


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