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12 Jul 2005 : Column 231WH—continued

Regional Government

12.30 pm

Andrew George (St. Ives) (LD): I am particularly pleased to have secured the opportunity to debate the Government's policy on regional government. I am especially pleased to debate the matter with this Minister. We have experience of close team work on the football field, and I hope that today we can demonstrate that constructive team work can result in a beneficial outcome. It did so for both of us on the football field, when I laid on a number of goals for him to score for the parliamentary football team. I hope that if he were to follow my critique and analysis of where the Government's policy is going and where it should go, I might be laying the ball on for him to score some goals and improve his career prospects in the Government.

My Liberal Democrat colleagues and I strongly support the Government's proposals to devolve power, which have been successful in Scotland, Wales, London and, we hope in time, Northern Ireland. The Government know that we have given them strong support during the development of that policy. Many who were keen to promote the continuing devolution of power to the nations and the regions of the United Kingdom are concerned to ensure that despite the referendum in the north-east in November last year, this flagship policy does not fall off the radar, is not kicked into the long grass and does not become a policy that the Government would rather forget.

I intend to analyse the status of the Government's policy, to offer a critique and a constructive approach, to mention Cornwall— I would not want to let anyone down, nor surprise them—and to raise several questions. I have already furnished the Minister's office with those questions, admittedly only yesterday afternoon; however, I have given him advance notice of some of the questions I intend to ask.

With regard to the status of the Government's policy, we must look back to the Deputy Prime Minister's statement from 8 November last year. The no vote in the north-east referendum was disappointing but clearly overwhelming. I shared the disappointment of others, including the Deputy Prime Minister, at the outcome. He said that

In other words, there will be no more opportunities to hold further referendums, because as of the end of the last month, the soundings exercise effectively is no longer a basis for them. He also said:

Further, in response to a question that I asked about whether the Government were giving up on devolution as a result of the no vote in the north-east, he replied that

However, the Government have shown every sign of giving up. There have been no new Government proposals to address the democratic deficit regarding the need for directly elected regional assemblies to take on the responsibilities of decision-making powers in the
 
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regions. I am a member of the Standing Committee on Regional Affairs, which is always keen to consider new subjects, but the Government need to bring such subjects forward. The Committee has not been called since last November. Despite this issue having been raised by me and others in business questions, there are no proposals for the Committee to debate the aftermath of the north-east referendum.

The Government will come unstuck if they continue to see devolution as something over which they can have absolute control and to think that they can determine the agenda completely. Fundamentally, devolution is about letting go, rather than holding on for dear life. One needs to understand why we devolve power. The problem with the Government's approach is that they want to dictate precisely what, how, where and when. What powers, organisations, structures, membership; how to proceed, resolve local issues and reorganise local government; where the boundaries should be. They want to dictate these absolutely, as well as the time scale of it all.

I offer an alternative approach, for which the Regional Assemblies (Preparations) Act 2003 could be used as a basis, in which the Government propose a menu of powers and invite regions, as defined by themselves—that would mean local authorities and community groups coming together—to propose business cases to the Government arguing for referendums to bring powers to their regions. That differs from the Government's zone approach, in which the Government decide the zones and dictate how and when bodies come together, what powers they have and when referendums are held.

If the process were one of letting go and allowing regions to define themselves and to come forward with business cases, based on the limitation of a menu of powers set out by the Government, and of recognising that the whole thing is a process, rather than a single event, I suspect that there would be a different response. Such a process would engage regions and allow them to bring forward proposals, rather than mean them responding as they did in the north-east to what they feel are entirely Government-sponsored proposals. There was quite a strong reaction against that.

It would be remiss of me not to mention Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly. I know that several city-region proposals are being worked on in other areas. Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly is seen as a region for European funding purposes; it is an objective 1 region. With a population of just over 500,000 people, it is not a large region. The Cornish constitutional convention has produced some excellent proposals and several policy documents, all of which have been circulated to the Government.

In November, the Deputy Prime Minister responded to the cynicism of the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Angela Browning) about not getting a positive response in the south-west by saying:

That shows his confidence that if a referendum were held in Cornwall alone, the Government would have a far better result than in the north-east.
 
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Critics will inevitably say, "Well, you couldn't possibly have regions the size of Cornwall," but all we have to do is raise our eyes above the narrow horizon of the British Isles and look internationally at the many successful regions and nations elsewhere in the world with populations of a similar size to Cornwall's or even smaller.

Size is not the most important feature, but the Government have developed an obsession with reaching critical mass to deliver a number of services. Cross-boundary partnerships need to be established and transport networks need to be planned for. We are not talking about cutting ourselves off, but about working in partnerships and establishing joint boards. Wherever we draw the boundaries between one region and another—with transport arrangements, for example—we still need the ability to hold a dialogue with other places.

The need to establish that level of planning could be addressed and is well articulated in the plans and proposals from the Cornish constitutional convention. Not only that, but two years ago local people were invited to sign declaration sheets. More than 50,000 people signed in favour of a Cornish assembly, which represents more than 10 per cent. of the adult population in Cornwall. A small number of supporters were people who were visiting Cornwall, but the figure still represented more than 10 per cent. of the adult population.

There is a question of whether it will be possible to review the boundaries of the Government zones. I prefer to call them zones instead of regions, because the internal integrity does not really exist in the south-west, although for all I can tell it might do in the north-east. Paragraph 6.5 of the regional assemblies White Paper of 2002 says:

There were proposals in that White Paper and the Government have acknowledged that in the longer term there might be opportunities. I urge the Minister in the review of policy to allow for the opportunity to consider again the integrity of the Government zones and whether the boundaries are appropriate.

I said that I had a number of questions for the Minister and they are as follows. What plans do he and   the Government have following the north-east referendum to devolve power to the remainder of the UK? With the benefit of hindsight, which factors would he say primarily contributed to the heavy no vote in the north-east referendum? Does he share my critique and does he have any response to my alternative approach? What assessment has he made of suggestions at business questions and in another place to recall the Standing Committee on Regional Affairs to debate that very subject? Perhaps it should hold a series of debates to assist the Government to explore the opportunity of resurrecting plans for the devolution of powers to regions.

What departmental—in other words the ODPM—or Cabinet-level reviews have taken place on Government policy on devolution since the north-east referendum? If
 
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there have been any such meetings, will the minutes be published in the interests of open government? Why was the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford) sacked as Minister with responsibility for regions in the post-general election reshuffle and what can we interpret from that? I thought that he did an excellent job and, clearly, was engaged in the process. He did not entirely agree with me on everything, but he was sincerely behind the cause itself.

No doubt the Minister and his Department are aware of the proposals for city regions and of the many papers published by the Cornish constitutional convention. What assessment has the Department made of them? What plans does it have to address the democratic deficit at regional assembly chamber level? Can he confirm that there will be no further attempts to siphon off powers to unelected regional bodies at Government level as was the case with, for example, strategic planning powers? Finally, will he agree to meet a delegation from Cornwall to discuss the emerging plans and the need for devolution of powers to a region such as Cornwall?

12.45 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Jim Fitzpatrick) : What a pleasure it is to see you, Mr. Marshall, presiding in the Chair today. I thank the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) for his kind words about my football skills and our previous experiences playing together. I am not sure that we are playing on the same team today.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising the question of regional government, particularly in Cornwall, and for giving me an opportunity to restate the Government's continuing commitment to decentralising and devolving power wherever we can. This Government have made radical changes since first being elected in 1997. London now has a city-wide government and a Mayor powerful enough to run a global city. The Scottish Parliament enables the people of Scotland to make key decisions without recourse to Westminster for the first time in hundreds of years. The Welsh Assembly has given the Welsh people a powerful new voice in the creation of jobs, prosperity and social justice. Each of those new bodies was voted for by the people and has since proved to be very popular.

The Government have followed a programme of devolution and decentralisation in England. For a decade or more, it has been recognised that some issues must be dealt with at a regional rather than a national level, but need to be co-ordinated over an area larger than any single local authority. The Government offices for the regions were established in 1994 when the work of three central Departments was brought together. They now do work for 10 Departments and have a programme budget of nearly £7 billion.

This Government created regional development agencies in 1998 as economic powerhouses for the regions. The English RDAs have created or safeguarded more than 160,000 jobs in the past two years alone and have played a major part in reshaping our regional economies. Following the outcome of the referendum in the north-east last November, the Government indicated that they would not proceed with the introduction of the Regional Assemblies Bill and set out why they were not proceeding with referendums in the north-west and in the Yorkshire and Humber region.
 
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In response to the hon. Gentleman's question, it is not the Government's intention to recall the Standing Committee on Regional Affairs. We do not believe that a post-mortem would be that valuable as an exercise in furthering future policy. However, there are many challenges ahead. When the Committee meets again, it can focus on them and look forward to how improvements to the regional architecture can be achieved. Of course, it is open to Members to propose subjects for the Committee to consider, and I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House would be prepared to consider them.

The Electoral Commission said that there should be no further electoral pilots using the new model until at least September 2005, but that in the meantime, under the legislation, our ability to hold referendums based on the sounding exercise would run out in June 2005. That would have created a long period of uncertainty for local government in the regions. My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister and the Government did not believe that that was acceptable. If and when a region wants to move ahead with a referendum, the House will be given plenty of notice of it.

In each of the eight regions outside London, there are now regional assemblies that are comprised of members from local government, business, trade unions and other representatives of the wider community. By bringing people together from across the region, such assemblies are able to provide a focal point for regional activities and to act as a voice for the region. They have an important influence on housing, planning, transport, economic development, skills and training in their region. They are involved in a range of regional strategies, so that their broad interests can help to ensure that there is consistency between them.

Andrew George : Is the Minister therefore saying that the Government would carefully consider any proposal advanced by an assembly in one of the eight Government zones to hold a referendum for a democratically elected regional assembly if it so wished, and that they might concede to it? What time scale does the Minister envisage, given his earlier remarks? Is this likely to happen within the next 12 to 24 months, or are we talking about four or five years away?

Jim Fitzpatrick : I am not sure of the exact time scale, but everything is always under review, as the hon. Gentleman knows. I shall refer later to future suggestions for devolution.

Questions have been asked about the legitimacy of the voluntary assemblies. The members are not directly elected to assemblies, but up to 70 per cent. of the membership are from the local authorities in the regions. That gives the work of the regional assemblies a measure of democratic accountability.

All the regional assemblies have been appointed as the regional planning body for their region, and are responsible for producing the regional spatial strategy, the objective of which is to contribute to the achievement of sustainable development. Each RSS provides a broad development strategy for its region for a 15 to 20-year period. Regional spatial strategies set out the strategic policies and proposals, including infrastructure proposals and management polices, that
 
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govern the future distribution of regionally or sub-regionally significant activities and development in a region.

The strategies also provide a spatial framework to inform the preparation of local development documents, local transport plans, and regional and sub-regional strategies and programmes that have a bearing on land-use activities, including air quality, education, energy and health, and on strategies to adapt to the effects of climate change. This is a two-way relationship, as the RSS should also take account of the strategies and programmes as they evolve.

We recognise that regions are actively responding to pressures where appropriate. In the south-west, for example, we have launched "The Way Ahead", under which the South West of England Development Agency, the Government office and the regional assembly will work to meet the particular needs of the region.

The advisory group has held its first meeting as a step towards refining and delivering the proposal set out in "The Way Ahead". That document was a significant step towards a regional vision for growth, and the Government will continue to work closely with the RDA and regional assembly as they continue to develop it into a coherent strategy for linking economies in the region.

The successful "The Northern Way" initiative, launched last February, is a good example of the benefits of that joint approach. The RDAs and their partners in the three northern regions are working together to create more jobs, more prosperity and greater social justice. The initiative has been warmly received, and has energised the people in the three northern regions. It is one example of how regional structures and initiatives will continue to work throughout the country for the benefit of the regions with the full support of the Government.

Andrew George : I respect what the Minister is trying to do, but he is not answering my questions. I appreciate that "The Way Ahead", "The Northern Way" and various other "ways" might well be doing their own thing for all these various quangos and unaccountable bodies to which they work, but will he say when and how there will be referendums, and how we will solve the problem of the democratic deficit in these so-called regions?

Jim Fitzpatrick : If the hon. Gentleman will allow me to continue, I hope to answer at least some, if not all, his questions later. If I miss any, I will write to him to try to address any deficit in my responses to his questions.

We have a continuing agenda of reform and modernisation. In our election manifesto, we stated our commitment to devolving

We are considering responses to consultation exercises on regional funding allocations, and to the merger of regional planning bodies and regional housing boards. We will announce our decisions once we have completed our considerations. We will decentralise and devolve power where we can.
 
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We have done a lot, but as the hon. Gentleman said, more can be done. The Government recognise the unique position of Cornwall; we support the Cornish language and have taken action to assist in its continued development. Only last month, my hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government announced the level of financial support for the Cornish language.

I note that, in previous speeches, the hon. Gentleman called for Cornwall to be given more regional identity, and today he mentioned the high level of support for a Cornwall assembly. The Government have always said that, to be viable, proposals for an elected assembly must cover more than one local authority area. I realise that the people of Cornwall consider that they have a separate identity, but that alone does not justify creating an assembly for Cornwall. Cornwall already has a county council. That body covers the whole county, and it can speak on behalf of the people of Cornwall. In our view, creating another body cannot be justified.

The hon. Gentleman has called for a Cornwall development agency. I have already said that regional development agencies are the powerhouses for economic development in our regions, and the RDA for the south-west plays a full part in supporting the entire region. Introducing another body only for Cornwall would not be cost-effective.

The Government recognise the acute pressure in the south-west for affordable homes, and the region will benefit from the highest increase of all English regions in its regional housing pot up to 2007–08.

Andrew George : The Minister seems to be saying that the Government will not give people what they want, but will simply give the people of Cornwall what they want to give them. In other words, he seems to have closed his ears to the settled will of people in Cornwall. However, the Government's proposals for devolution in the north-east—they were supposed to be popular—have been overwhelmingly rejected. Should the Government not listen to the people a little more?

Jim Fitzpatrick : We are listening to the message being sent to us by the people of the north-east; they say that they are not prepared for, or willing to have, a regional assembly. My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister has said that Scotland was initially not in favour of a Scottish Parliament, but some years later the idea was passed by a majority. We are saying that Cornwall is a county; it is a separate entity and not a
 
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region, and it does not fit our plans for regional devolution. We believe that the county is adequately covered by the county council for many of the issues raised today.

The south-west housing body recommends providing considerable support in order to allow Cornwall to produce additional affordable homes as and when required.

Through our links with Europe, we have ensured that Cornwall receives support to meet the needs of Cornwall. Negotiations on the structural fund regulations commenced in September 2004, and are likely to continue into early 2006. They cannot be finalised until the overall EU budget for 2007 to 2013 has been agreed. The position is that all funds should go to the new poorer EU member states, with richer member states funding economic regeneration from domestic resources. It is too early to give any indication of how much funding the south-west, or any other region, is likely to receive for domestic or European funding.

We are aware that partners in Cornwall are thinking about priorities for future programmes, and we are pleased to hear that that is linked to wider preparations across the south-west. It is good that that work is focusing on strategic issues and drawing on good practice from the current programmes.

Our continuing agenda of reform and devolution to local government is equally important, and I assure the hon. Gentleman that it is a continuing agenda. We have been engaged in extensive consultation on the future of local government. We are devolving further powers to the Mayor of London and the Assembly, hoping that it will encourage other cities to consider that example. It would allow more decisions to be made by local communities.

Along with the modernisation and reform of local government, we have taken several steps to devolve decision making to local authorities. We have removed restrictive controls on local authority borrowing; we have given local authorities greater power to promote the well-being of their communities; and we have given them the freedom and flexibility to deliver better services.

In his statement to the House on 8 November, my hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister set out the reasons why we were not proceeding with further referendums to establish elected regional assemblies. That remains the situation. However, we do have an agenda of reform and modernisation. When we can, we will decentralise and devolve power.
 
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