Previous Section Index Home Page

7 Feb 2007 : Column 269WH—continued

I am aware of your advice, Mr. Cook, but I should like to finish with three quick points. The first is about the casino decision by the independent advisory panel. That is an area where angels fear to tread at the moment, given that there is to be a vote in both Houses on the issue. The Northwest Development Agency did a disservice to Blackpool, Manchester and the whole north-west. I wish Blackpool well and I want it to develop. It has had a bad time over the past 25 to 30 years and it needs conference facilities, but what did the regional development agency do? It said, “We will basically decide where the best place to put this huge casino in the north-west is.” What arrogance. What mattered most was where in the north-west was most likely to beat the dome or Glasgow, not the RDA saying, “It will be Blackpool.” The RDA chose the wrong town, which was not going to win, but not only that—it made its decision on the basis that Blackpool
7 Feb 2007 : Column 270WH
was going to be a conference centre. At the same time, the RDA was putting a second conference centre in the north-west in Liverpool.

Where is the intellectual coherence in an RDA that does that? The people who do that are playing games. They have odd views about the world that simply do not stack up. If I were the chairman of an RDA that had made such a profound mistake—trying to suppress investment in Manchester, while making a huge error with Blackpool—I would consider my position. I would be off—I would be resigning today. The episode has done a disservice to the whole north-west.

That was not the first time, however. The Northwest Development Agency has tried to pick winners and said, “We need to subsidise air routes out of Carlisle and Blackpool.” What the north-west needs is more international routes to Japan and China, to compete with Heathrow, so that business people in the north-west can get out of the north-west as easily as people in the south-east or in Denmark can get out of their areas. But that was not a priority.

I could go on for a long time, but I will not. Our regional development agency is undemocratic and is trying to suck the lifeblood out of local democracy. It is doing badly and not serving the people of the north-west very well at all.

Several hon. Members rose—

Frank Cook (in the Chair): Order. There are 32 minutes left and eight bidders for the time.

9.58 am

Andrew George (St. Ives) (LD): Briefly therefore, in an intervention on the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood), whom I congratulate on securing the debate, I made the point that what we are talking about is government zones, not regions. A region implies internal integrity and a community of interest, but the regions in question were created for bureaucratic convenience, not to reflect areas with any internal integrity. The only region for Cornwall is Cornwall.

The Standing Committee on Regional Affairs was set up by the Government in 2001, apparently to deal with the problems that the Government perceived to have been created as a result of devolving powers to Wales and Scotland, and to ensure that the House of Commons had an opportunity to scrutinise the Government’s regional policy properly. The only times that the Committee sat, it discussed relatively flimsy and rather unimportant issues that the Government had tabled for debate. Interestingly enough, since the result of the north-east referendum two and a half years ago, the Committee has not met. I have requested, on the Floor of the House and of various Ministers, that it should meet to ensure that the Government’s policy is properly scrutinised—particularly at this time, as it is clear that their plan to establish regional assemblies has fatally failed. Surely the support of right hon. and hon. Members is required to assist the Government in trying to find a way forward in the vacuum of policy left as a result of the failure of the north-east referendum.

7 Feb 2007 : Column 271WH

I seriously question the role of RDAs in relation to planning. I have been corresponding with the area manager of the RDA for Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly about conversations that it has had with ING, which owns Hayle harbour in my constituency. The RDA strongly recommended that the company develop 1,000 houses on that site. The developer was proposing a lower number, but the RDA decided that about 1,000 houses would be a jolly good thing.

Of course, in providing that advice to the developer, the RDA was entirely usurping the democratic process. It gave that advice without consulting Penwith district council or its councillors on whether the proposal was at all sensible. I have closely questioned the RDA about the assessments that it has made about the impact of the proposal and the rationale for it. It has not been able to give me anything other than the most flimsy assessment and basis on which the advice was given and the decision taken.

In a letter to me dated 18 August 2006, the regional manager stated:

I asked him for reasons why that assessment had been made. No discussion has taken place with Penwith district council. If the councillors so much as catch the eye of a developer, they find themselves fettered. Yet in this case, the RDA is effectively usurping the development process by deciding—as a statutory consultee, ultimately—that it is able to dictate, over the heads of local democratic decision makers, how the whole thing should operate.

I have serious concerns about the role of the RDA in respect of the future of objective 1 and convergence funding. It has been given a significant role, but it is not democratically accountable. As far as the future of convergence funding in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly is concerned, it should recognise that it can provide some professional assistance and secretarial support, but that executive decision making is not a matter for the RDA. It is there to advise and support, not to do anything else at all.

Apart from creating problems in the Government zone of the south-west, the fundamental question that needs to be addressed today is what added value RDAs bring.

Frank Cook (in the Chair): Twenty-seven minutes remain. There are seven contenders. I call Linda Gilroy.

10.3 am

Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op): Thank you, Mr. Cook. I welcome the opportunity, created by the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood), to talk about RDAs. Arguably, in our region of the south-west, we face one of the greatest challenges in addressing regional disparities. Such disparities are greater internally, within our region, than between our region and others. On average, the gross value added per head is 93 per cent. of the UK average. Devon’s is only 82 per cent., and Cornwall’s 69 per cent. Bournemouth’s is above the regional average at 96 per cent. My hon. Friend the Member for
7 Feb 2007 : Column 272WH
Plymouth, Devonport (Alison Seabeck) and I inherited some of the poorest wards in England. In fact, I inherited the poorest ward in England from my Conservative predecessor.

I was present at the launch of the South West of England Regional Development Agency in Exeter in 1998. The idea was to get every region’s economy firing on all pistons and that that should be business-led. Others have made it sound as if RDAs were large unelected local authorities, and they have talked of their confusion about all the organisations that the RDAs sponsored. I was a little confused about the arguments of the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East because that sponsorship is a response to a strong agenda that our regional development agency has set out.

In the early years, I had criticisms of the agency. People in Plymouth felt that it was not engaging with the big challenges that we faced because of the reasons I outlined. However, the hon. Gentleman is probably aware of December’s National Audit Office report, in which our regional development agency was assessed to be performing well. The report particularly noted that our RDA had “good vision” for developing the regional economy and had taken a “bold step” in articulating how the region can work together to make sure economic growth takes place within the very important environmental limits particular to our region. In reaching its findings, the NAO assessed the agency under a number of headings: ambition, prioritisation, capacity, performance, management and achievement. As I say, the agency came out of that very well.

Perhaps that is not surprising. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman had the same briefing from the RDA as I did; I was pleased that he was able to attend the meeting hosted by my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport last week. The briefing lists exactly the RDA’s added value that Members were saying they could not see: strategic added value and influence in developing the regional economic strategy and making a powerful case on our behalf in respect of the comprehensive spending review 2007.

The hon. Members for St. Ives (Andrew George) and for Bournemouth, East had an exchange about how they could not see what bound our region together. I should like to mention our strong coast; we probably have the strongest geographic identity outside Wales and Cornwall. There is also marine engineering and marine science, and we have the largest defence industries of the whole United Kingdom outside the south-east. The hon. Member for St. Ives said that there was no distinct identity. In fact, our region takes the lead on defence issues in relating the interests of the various regions to national Government. I should also mention that we have the marine skills network. The Plymouth marine centre supporting skills and development in that key regional sector opened in December and the agency is investing about £3 million in it. Given the money available to the regional development agency, the list that it provided for us in that briefing is impressive.

I should like particularly to mention the Tamar science park in Plymouth, which the RDA has consistently supported from the beginning. It is recognised as one of the leading science parks in the country, on both health and marine sciences. Furthermore, SWRDA has built
7 Feb 2007 : Column 273WH
links in China. It has an office in that country, which is one of the most important markets in the world and is developing rapidly.

The one-sided picture given by Opposition Members so far has been a poor reflection of their understanding and reading of the briefings provided for us. I shall finish on this note. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East on his choice of topic, which is important to all our constituents’ prosperity and quality of life, particularly at our end of the region. As I say, I inherited the poorest ward in England from my Conservative predecessor. The hon. Member for St. Ives and all Members with constituencies in Cornwall inherited great poverty after virtually 20 years of Conservative Governments. We will not take any lessons from the Conservatives on regional regeneration.

Frank Cook (in the Chair): Twenty-one minutes are available. There are six contenders. I call David Heathcoat-Amory.

10.9 am

Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells) (Con): Thank you, Mr. Cook. I very much support the observations made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood). I find regional development agencies incredibly old-fashioned. They remind me of the National Enterprise Board, for which I briefly worked. In those days, people thought that Governments produced economic success, but surely we have moved away from that. The concept of picking winners and giving certain sectors privileged access to Government funding belongs to another age, but the attitude is alive and well, certainly in the South West of England Regional Development Agency, as I found over the issue of Morlands business park, which I mentioned in an intervention.

The site was nationalised—in other words, we all own it now, in theory at least—some six years ago, and the press release at the time was encouraging. It stated that the site would be

That turned out to be completely untrue. The RDA said that it wanted the site for high-technology businesses. Several local firms wanted to relocate to the site but were told that they were not good enough. Such a snobbish attitude towards local employment is absolutely repellent. All right, some of the firms are not in the top league, but they provide valuable local employment.

I took the matter up with the RDA and was told that the problem was that the firms did not fit into certain key sectors such as emerging environmental technologies, creative industries or aerospace. Of course, Glastonbury would love to have a rocket factory, but we are a little more modest. However, we did have—and still do, I am glad to say—a plastic extrusion company that makes products for the automotive industry. I call that high-tech, but it was not thought good enough. I understand that the RDA has had a rethink, but it did not give an inch in the
7 Feb 2007 : Column 274WH
initial correspondence. It was absolutely adamant that it knew what was best for my constituency and the region.

Sir John Butterfill (Bournemouth, West) (Con): Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the reasons for that attitude is that the RDA exists to distribute cash from the European Union, and the causes that it espouses are decided in Brussels rather than locally? That means, for example, that south-east Dorset gets nothing from the RDA under its current programme.

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: My hon. Friend makes a telling point. In other words, the decision making is getting further and further away from the market. In my case, it moves right away from Glastonbury up to the RDA, then probably to Brussels. The officials and officers think that they know best, and we must fit in with their key sectors rather than their fitting in with what market signals tell us about future investment priorities.

All that is reflected in the reports that we get, which are all about strategic catalysts, scenarios, partners and stakeholders. This is a quote from one report:

I do not know what that means.

On funding, perhaps the Minister will explain what happened to the regional venture capital fund, which was set up by the Treasury. We never hear about it now. I understand that it has very few viable projects, and that a great deal of public money is being wasted. I gather that the one for the south-west is run from somewhere in the north of England. That Government money is supposed to be part of the integrated, cohesive business support network, but no businessman that I have spoken to is aware of it.

In conclusion, we need rather less of the old-fashioned approach and rather more attention given to cutting taxes and reducing regulation. My positive suggestion is that we shut down all the RDAs and use the hundreds of millions of pounds that they are spending to reduce corporation tax and at least halve the burden of business rates on small businesses.

Frank Cook (in the Chair): There are 16 minutes available and five contenders.

10.14 am

Chris Mole (Ipswich) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) on securing this debate. I would like to make a contribution in support of the work of the nine regional development agencies in England.

I am perhaps in the unique position—I am sure that someone will put me right if I am wrong—of being the only Member of this House to have served as an RDA board member.

Mr. Andrew Pelling (Croydon, Central) (Con): No.

Chris Mole: I thank the hon. Gentleman for putting me right. There are now two of us. It was an honour to
7 Feb 2007 : Column 275WH
have been a deputy chairman for the East of England Development Agency between 1998 and 2001. Indeed, it would have been an honour to have served the further three-year term that the Secretary of State had directed, had I not been elected to this place.

What also gives me a key insight into the work of RDAs was being there at their establishment, and seeing what they replaced and the progress that has been made since their creation. It was enormously helpful that the Government set it out in primary legislation that the purpose of RDAs was to effect regeneration and regional development within an overall context of sustainability, that the social, economic and environmental dimensions of developing our regions were to be wedded and that the composition of RDA boards was to reflect that. Boards were to be business-led, and include local government representation and other stakeholders such as those from the voluntary, trade union, ethnic minority, rural and other communities.

The diversity of board membership was a strength in its representation of the region’s communities, but it could also be a source of tension. Business board members had their prejudices about other sectors and vice versa. I sometimes felt that it was the local authority members of all parties who felt that it was their role to bridge the differences of perspective and to ensure that progress, albeit at times compromised, could be made.

While the agency was being established, I took it on myself to visit the pre-existing work forces that comprised the Rural Development Commission, English Partnerships and the single regeneration budget team within the Government office for the east of England. That was hugely informative in identifying that the agency with the smallest budget had the largest staff and vice versa. However, it was also interesting to discover the cultural isolation within which Government agencies had existed, and the lack of leadership. Indeed, I was positively encouraged that some civil servants were looking forward to working for an agency that had a board with a purpose. That purpose would be set out in the regional economic strategy and would frame the work that they did in allocating support to businesses in communities, but which until that time had had no coherence or direction.

Clearly, it was right to bring physical and social regeneration perspectives together as part of the purpose of establishing RDAs. As EEDA set about establishing itself in an organisational sense, the regional economic strategy was the board’s primary focus. The east of England is a significant area with a rapidly growing population of some 5.5 million and a gross domestic product of more than £81 billion. The region has a significant concentration of internationally important businesses that are engaged in research and development, and it houses more than 30 of the world’s leading research centres. The region is dominated by small and medium-sized enterprises. It boasts high wages and skill levels in the counties nearer London, but wages are lower in the former agriculture-dominated areas.

Next Section Index Home Page