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Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): The question that the Deputy Prime Minister poses is one that many people in the business community are putting to me. They do not have doctrinaire views on the issue, but they are willing seriously to consider a regional assembly if they can be satisfied that it will make a difference on things that matter to them, such as skills—through the Learning and Skills Council—and transport infrastructure. Can the right hon. Gentleman go further and give them the assurance that the assembly will be able to do the things that they care about?

The Deputy Prime Minister: That is an important point. The assemblies will have real powers, such as planning, and I shall come to that in a minute.

The Opposition need to work out where they stand. I believe strongly that regional assemblies offer a great opportunity for bringing more jobs and growth to the north. We are offering an alternative to the status quo. Those who do not want change have to answer for the

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status quo. If the north had had the average growth of the English regions, it would have meant a difference of about £30 billion. Do those who defend the status quo want the regional disparities in our economy to continue to grow? They need to make that clear.

We believe that the assemblies will create extra jobs and prosperity and reduce the north-south differential. A recent publication on core cities by Professor Parkinson pointed out that a regional dimension is essential so that those cities can operate more powerfully. We tried to reflect that in the recent publication "Making It Happen—The Northern Way". We are trying to put Government social and economic investment into the development of a new growth area. We believe that we can achieve less bureaucracy and more democracy.

Regional assemblies will be small and efficient. Each will have between 25 and 35 members. And each will be elected by proportional representation. I am not in the PR camp, but I brought it in for London. I am bringing it in for a very good reason—not for the Liberals, though I understand why they might welcome it. On strategic matters, with smaller groups one needs consensus, which means having a different way of voting. That is important in big regions particularly where political representation may dominate and there may then not be the proper balance of discussion on strategic issues, which are so crucial to the region.

Mr. Edward Davey: The right hon. Gentleman is being too modest about his conversion to proportional representation. In a speech on 22 January in Manchester he said:

The right hon. Gentleman was so right, and I hope that he is converted on the case of PR more widely.

The Deputy Prime Minister: I can guarantee that if one mentions PR in the House the Liberals will jump up in their dozens wanting to say something about it.

I do not deny what I said then, and I have just repeated it. Consensus and stability, particularly on strategic decisions, are absolutely critical. I do not accept the same argument at a further stage, but I leave that aside for the moment. I am being driven bit by bit down this course. One has to do what is right, and it is my job to make a decision and be accountable for it.

There has been a great deal of talk about the cost. We have said that it will be 5p a week for each household, but there will be offsetting efficiency savings. There is a figure of £25 million at the establishment, but the figures will have to be finally decided when the boundary committee says what the organisation of local authorities will be. Some applications have been for the county to be the unitary authority. I think that is the case in Durham and to a large extent in Cheshire and Lancashire. The situation will be different if it is necessary to establish a number of unitaries. As that matter is out to consultation, we cannot say exactly what the final cost will be. We shall come out with a final cost before the referendum, so that we can say what we believe the cost of the changes will be.

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The cost that we have quoted now came from the boundary committee, which has produced costs showing that there can be considerable savings. But let us come to that when we have more detailed information, which will be based on the kind of local government structure that there is to be in the first tier.

In the White Paper we set out the minimum powers that elected regional assemblies will have. They will have responsibility for regional and sub-regional issues that the local authorities cannot handle on their own. We need to take forward jobs and growth, the promotion of social justice and improving people's quality of life. Most of the decisions are directed at those areas.

The assemblies will also have specific functions to help deliver their own priorities and decisions. That is an important issue, and we should not dismiss it. They will make decisions about housing, transport, land and planning in the region, strategic issues at present dealt with by civil servants. The assemblies will produce the regions' spatial strategy, which puts all these matters together, as we have just announced in our "Northern Way" document.

The elected assemblies will also take over from Whitehall responsibility for the regional development agencies, which in the three northern regions have a budget of almost £700 million. This means that the RDAs will be business-led, which business likes, but democratically accountable, delivering the assemblies' priorities for jobs and growth and implementing the strategy that the elected members for the region decide.

Mr. Mark Field rose—

The Deputy Prime Minister: I have to make headway.

The assemblies will also have an important role in improving skills by working in and with the learning and skills councils. They will take responsibility for investment in housing—this is a change that we have made—and influence the billions of pounds being invested in the northern regions under the sustainable communities plan, which we highlighted in the recent "Northern Way" programme.

Elected assemblies will make recommendations to the Secretary of State for Transport on the allocation of funding for local transport in their regions, working with the Highways Agency and the Strategic Rail Authority. The House will be aware that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport made it absolutely clear on 19 January that he wanted more public transport decisions devolved to the regional level.

The situation is evolving, which will have to be reflected in the Bill when I bring it to the House. I shall come to that a little later.

The assemblies will also have responsibilities for public health and bio-diversity, as well as being responsible for regional arts, sports, museums and promoting tourism. Those powers are not set in stone. I was asked whether the situation was changing, whether I was saying in the regions things that I have not said in the White Paper. It is true that the powers have been taken further than in the White Paper, but we said in the White Paper that the assemblies would evolve over time.

Already, we have announced that the elected assemblies will be responsible for the £500 million that is spent in the north on regional fire and rescue services

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every year. We did not say that in the White Paper; we have learned over a period, and certainly during the dispute, that fire services should be delivered locally, but that we certainly needed a strong regional dimension to common procurement and the use of equipment, as well as when responding to major emergencies and to the responsibilities under the civil resilience programme, which deal with terrorist attack. All of that cannot be done by a local authority. Indeed, at the moment, any of those incidents are subject to a gold command procedure, where people get together and reach an understanding. That is not equivalent to a regionally agreed strategy, but it allows people to operate outside their areas of operation. To that extent, the regions will make that arrangement better.

Let me say that the assemblies will also have new power from central Government, just like the Mayor of London—again, this was not said in the White Paper, but it is policy now—to direct local planning authorities to reject planning decisions that contravene their regional spatial strategy. We will give them the power to reject that planning application. Indeed, the Mayor of London has that power. If people want to have a regional strategy and planning applications go against those regional plans, as determined by an elected authority, it makes sense that those people should have the power to veto such decisions. That power was not mentioned in the White Paper, but we have now made it clear that we will allow local planning authorities to exercise that veto.

The right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon said that

Well, after his contribution today, I imagine that he would not want to get into them anyway. So he does not believe in talking to the people. Perhaps if the Conservative party had talked to the people, we would not have had to correct so many mistakes so quickly, such as the poll tax, which cost £30 billion and involved many civil servants—such confusion, such cost and an increase in bureaucracy. We will take no lectures from the Opposition on how we should handle decisions in the regions

We believe in asking the people what they think, so my ministerial team and I will hold hearings in the three northern regions over the next few months. We will discuss with the people the powers that we have proposed for the elected assemblies, and we plan to publish a Bill before the House rises in July. I take on board that the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon said that that should happen in June, but he only said that because he believes that we already know what those powers are. As I said, an active discussion is going on with the people at the moment, and we will present and reflect those views in our Bill.

We believe that elected regional assemblies offer a great opportunity for the northern regions. We want to take power from Whitehall and give it to the people of the regions. We want greater prosperity, more growth, more jobs and more investment in our regions. Elected regional assemblies represent a new form of government, which is smaller, more focused and involves elected and non-elected stakeholders in decision making; a new vision, strengthening the

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prosperity of the north, increasing employment and reducing the present and continuing economic and political deficit in decision making; and a greater democratic accountability, providing more democracy and less bureaucracy. They will give the regions a greater sense of pride and a new political voice, but it is up to the people to decide. It is not Parliament's decision. It is not the Government's decision. It is the people's decision—their say, their choice. Just as we did for the people of Scotland, the people of Wales and the people of London, we are now offering that choice to the people of the north.

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