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7 Feb 2007 : Column 275WH—continued

That is the varied and complex environment in which the RDA must develop its regional economic strategy, which is a comprehensive plan for the economic
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development of the region. The plan risks being everything to everyone, but at the same time it must be bought into by as many as possible in the region. Is that an impossible task, as my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley (Graham Stringer) suggests? Perhaps, but that may be why not every MP is universally taken with RDAs. As the saying goes, they cannot please everyone all the time—nor should they try.

If the first RESs were imperfect, I think they can now be seen only as having improved. Most have been through at least three iterations. The basis for developing a RES is core to the ethos of every RDA: it must be inclusive. Even the RDAs with the largest budgets—those with several hundred millions of pounds at their disposal—cannot directly drive the regional economy from their own spending. Their power comes from their ability to influence through their programmes the mainstream spending of others in the public and private sectors in a coherent and planned approach consistent with the objectives of the RES.

Development of the RES must be an open and consultative process, and EEDA’s engagement has been open and consultative. There are of course key relationships such as those with the voluntary regional assemblies, which are indirectly accountable and largely made up of elected councillors. The East of England regional assembly has played its role positively through periods of differing political leadership, and is crucial in working to align the RES with other statutory plans for which it has responsibility, such as the regional spatial strategy and the regional transport strategy.

EEDA’s RES is based on a robust analysis of the region’s strengths and weaknesses. The regional observatory, established in the early days of EEDA’s existence, supplies much of the data to provide evidence for policy formulation, and sub-regional partnerships enable the RES to be fed with local sensitivities. The board’s policy of holding board meetings in the headquarters of various regional businesses and other organisations gave its members the wider perspective necessary to engage in preparing such a wide ranging and important document, and all the board papers were publicly available on EEDA’s website—it was open and accountable.

As I suggested earlier, it was critical that the Government placed the sustainability criteria at the heart of what the RDAs do. I am encouraged that that has led EEDA to support a number of sustainability objectives. EEDA can rightly expect, resource and support the best of sustainable development in spatial development, it can encourage green industrial development and it can promote energy efficiency through the projects it supports. I would have talked about a couple of those, but I do not think that I have time.

Let me bring the role of the RDA up close and personal and talk about its contribution in my constituency, Ipswich. Our global economic competitiveness sits close behind global warming as a priority for our nation and our region, so that our businesses can work smarter and be competitive on the strength of the intellectual value that can be added to goods and services we market. We recognise that we lack a university in Ipswich and that is something that I have worked to correct for the past decade. EEDA,
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with its role in setting a skills agenda for the region, has rightly supported the campaign for University campus Suffolk—I believe it did something similar in Cornwall. Its £18.7 million contribution to a new £150 million campus located on the Ipswich waterfront has been catalytic. The facility is a joint venture between the university of East Anglia in Norwich and Essex university in Colchester, showing a truly regional role of the RDA that I am not sure could have been achieved by efforts at a more local level.

University campus Suffolk will be on the Ipswich waterfront, aiding its regeneration. That regeneration has already been supported by £5.5 million of EEDA investment, including the purchase and decontamination of the Cranfields Mill site, which kick-started the multi-million pound investment in the area that will see 330 apartments, an 80-bedroom hotel, restaurants, bars and a dance house for the regional dance agency DanceEast. That can be added to the investment of £8 million in IP-City, a high-tech incubator for start-up businesses, and £1.25 million in the Centre for Integrated Photonics at nearby Adastral park.

I unashamedly end on the role that our RDA has played in leading and co-ordinating regeneration in my constituency. I may be biased, but it has recognised that Ipswich has deprivation and potential and has invested in dealing with both. In conclusion, RDAs have demonstrated a strategic overview that provides a context for the investment of regeneration activity and coherence in that investment. Physical and social regeneration have been brought together to improve the quality of life for all in our region. Different regions have different needs and that is why it is right we each have our own RDA.

RDAs have developed their own approach. They have sought to be dynamic and responsive, and that is why they are business-led. In the east of England, EEDA was able to react rapidly to major employment restructuring in Luton following the closure of the Vauxhall plant and to respond to the needs of local business following the fire at Buncefield. RDAs are a different breed of agency and the Minister should encourage them to stay so. I could have made the case for more investment in RDAs through the comprehensive spending review 2007, and in EEDA in particular, but I shall rest the case as self-evident and only encourage the Government to continue to support RDAs wholeheartedly.

Frank Cook (in the Chair): There are only seven minutes left, with four contenders.

10.23 am

Mr. Anthony Steen (Totnes) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) on securing this excellent debate. Although some hon. Members have taken advantage of the time that they have had, I hope to finish within three minutes.

I have had few dealings with the South West of England Development Agency, but I am having dealings with it now. I shall tell the Minister about it,
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and I want her help. Dartington college of arts has been on the Dartington estate for 45 years, and the agency is funding a report on its future and paying one third of the cost. The report, which will be out by the end of February, will deal with whether the college, which has 700 students, teachers and postgraduates, should stay on Dartington or whether it should move to Falmouth, where it can get objective 1 money, Plymouth or Torbay. That is because the buildings, which are owned by the Dartington Hall Trust, are at the end of their life and a sum of about £15 million or £20 million is needed to renovate the whole place for the college. It is one of the best colleges in the country, and one of the most innovatory—everybody knows the Dartington college of arts—and it is at a crisis point.

I want to ask two questions, and I would be grateful if they could be answered, even though I might not be here to hear those answers because I have to go to the Electoral Commission. First, in view of the fact that the regional development agency paid for a third of the report on the future of the Dartington college of arts, will the Minister ensure that since public money is involved, the report will not be kept secret and will be available to the public? The director of the college has indicated that he will keep it secret, that it will be given only to the college governors and that no one else will see it. Bearing it mind that I chaired a meeting last Friday of some 300 concerned people in Totnes who were shouting from the rafters that they wanted to be involved in the decision-making process, there is no point in a regional development agency giving money for a report that is then kept secret.

Secondly, is it correct that the Government give the South West of England Development Agency some £110 million a year? Is it within their terms of reference to give £5 million a year for the next four years to ensure that Dartington college of arts stays in Dartington and is not forced to go to Falmouth because of objective 1 money? I am now involved with the regional development agency, and this is its chance to prove to me that it is worth while and should continue. It is up to the Minister to help me to find a way to save the art college for Dartington and to ensure that whatever the RDA does is kept public and not private. That took three minutes.

Frank Cook (in the Chair): There are four minutes, and three contenders.

10.26 am

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I shall be brief. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) on securing the debate. I am glad that the official Opposition are warming towards RDAs, although I am seriously worried if he is still wedded to the idea of road building, which is a concern of mine.

I wish to make just one point. To me, the key role of an RDA is site compilation. In my area, that includes the Littlecombe site in Dursley and Cam, and the work that the agency has done in acquiring sites for the Cotswolds canal and the Stroudwater canal. If the RDA was not there, who would take those sites on? My worry is that although the sites would be taken on, it would be by avaricious developers who would come and put market-oriented housing there. With the
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Littlecombe site, I am pleased to see that we have kept to the line of providing jobs, affordable housing and environmental improvements. I wish my right hon. Friend the Minister well in ensuring that the RDA delivers on its commitments and, in the case of the canal, that we work in tandem with British Waterways and the voluntary sector to deliver results. If we can do that, RDAs will have proved their worth.

Frank Cook (in the Chair): We have three minutes and two contenders.

10.27 am

Mr. Andrew Pelling (Croydon, Central) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) on securing the debate. I did indeed serve as a member of the London Development Agency board for four years.

The one thing that has struck me about the setting of national targets for regional development agencies is that they are often irrelevant to the areas concerned. In London’s case, targets were set for national vocational qualification level 2, when London needed the provision of basic and higher skills training, reflecting the great division in the London economy when it comes to job opportunities. The job targets that were set were often the responsibility of other organisations, such as the Learning and Skills Council and Jobcentre Plus. I would like to hear what work is being done to give development agencies more discretion to set their own targets.

I am pleased that the Government are giving European social fund discretion to London government, but there is a complication in that there is a reluctance to take on responsibilities because of liability risks and to let go, which means that European social funding in London is overseen by the European Union, Departments, the Government office for London, city hall, the London assembly, the London Development Agency and sub-regional partnerships. I am surprised that money manages to get down to those who need it when so many people have oversight.

I have concerns as a south London MP about the amount of money that comes to south London. In many ways, the LDA could be dismissed as the east London development agency. My constituency is 14th in terms of the number of lone parents seeking benefits claims, which raises some issues when the LDA has delivered only 94 child care places across the whole of south London.

My main concern is to ask what the Government are doing in the comprehensive spending review to give RDAs more discretion. Perhaps London is different and sits in some sort of democratic accountability that is different from the obscurity that many hon. Members face when dealing with their local RDAs.

10.30 am

Mr. John Grogan (Selby) (Lab): I shall make a modest speech, Mr. Cook—a view from God’s own county. A speech that I gave on this subject to the Selby Labour party—it is the highlight of my parliamentary career—features in the House of Commons Library briefing, so hon. Members can read that. I make one point to the Minister.

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I follow my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley (Graham Stringer) in praising city regions. Yorkshire and Humber saw their rise. Selby is a member of the Leeds city region, which deals with economic development, transport and skills development. Indeed, one of the great drivers of economic development in the north-west has been the strength of the Greater Manchester city region. If city regions are successful in Yorkshire and Humber, should not they be making decisions on the spending of £300 million for the Yorkshire and Humber regional development agency, Yorkshire Forward?

I bring news to the House today that, following my modest speech to Selby Labour party, which was reported by the Yorkshire Post, the agency decided last Friday to consult on whether councils should restructure the single pot, and instead of doing it for West, North and South Yorkshire, to use city regions. The local authorities have to respond by 23 February. If they say yes, should they not be deciding how the money is to be spent? The logic is that city regions would be best because democratic decision making is better than bureaucratic decision making.

I thank you for allowing me to speak, Mr. Cook, and I finish on this point. I have a great deal of time and respect for Mr. Tom Riordan, the chief executive of Yorkshire Forward. I tipped him for the top many years ago, but in his heart of hearts I think he realises that he should be accountable not to Ministers in Whitehall once or twice a year, but to local politicians. The quality of his decision making would be so much the better if he were to be so.

10.32 am

Mr. Dan Rogerson (North Cornwall) (LD): I am grateful, Mr. Cook, for your excellent chairmanship, which has secured me such an abundance of time. I am aware that other hon. Members have had to make do with much less time than me, so if there are points that they have not had the chance to make and they wish to intervene on me, I would welcome it. I shall also seek to ensure that the Minister has as much time as possible to sum up and to answer the questions that have been raised today.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) on securing this important debate. We heard a wide range of views across all parties on how well individual regional development agencies are working and whether the project has been a success. The hon. Gentleman hit the nail on the head when he said that the accountability and scrutiny of RDAs is fundamental—something that I am sure we all agree should be addressed. We heard many different views, including from my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Andrew George), to which I shall return.

The Liberal Democrats have long supported the work of regional development agencies. Indeed, we are far more supportive of the concept of regional organisations than Conservative Members are. RDAs are more accountable than some quangos, their administration costs are minimal in comparison with those of the average county council, for example, and they have the potential to deliver strategic change at a regional level. However, as the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East said, those costs are rising.

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Perhaps arbitrarily, given the RDAs’ significant role in many areas, but especially planning, their responsibility to the Department of Trade and Industry has meant that although the business voice is clearly represented, other organisations in local communities feel that they are not fairly represented on RDA boards. The Liberal Democrats support the current system of a 2:1 ratio of non-elected and elected members, as far as it goes, but the composition couldbe looked at more carefully.

The viability and credibility of RDA boards is also undermined by a perception among those in the community that because the agencies represent such large areas, as we heard from Labour Members, they have to reflect communities of interest within those regions. As my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives said, that can cause conflict. It does so in the area of Cornwall that we represent, about whether the south- western area is a recognisable region.

The systemic considerations and problems about which we have heard ought not to detract from the very real achievements of RDAs. For example, in the south-west, the regional broadband access project has ensured that 99.8 per cent. of exchanges in the region are enabled for broadband internet access. That, of course, is a vital lifeline, as has been echoed in the work done in Cornwall by actnow under the objective 1 programme.

Other success stories from the South West of England Development Agency that I have been discussing with local government colleagues include the Royal William yard at Gloucester docks and the science park in the Bristol area, which I understand is progressing. The agency has also taken the subject of challenges to the environment as one of its main driving forces for the coming years. With that in mind, it has taken the brave step of investing in research and development for a wave hub alternative energy project off the north coast of Cornwall. If I am not careful I shall be accused of focusing too much on Cornwall, but I should also mention that the RDA rather than the Government office for the south-west will now deal specifically with the delivery of the Cornwall convergence programme; it is crucial that we monitor closely how it delivers that new role.

The work of regional development agencies is too often undermined by a combination of factors. First and foremost is credibility—or the lack of it in terms of make-up and lack of democratic accountability. As to their relationship with local government, we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives how that can impact on planning matters, and how relationships that ought to be positive and driving forward economic regeneration for their regions can be soured by the introduction of different agendas. Local authorities consult widely and heavily, and have democratic accountability when determining their strategies; it could be argued that the lack of an elected form of scrutiny affects RDAs in that regard.

Regional development agencies have a vital role in delivering big-picture projects and other such initiatives that do not fall neatly into the remit of other organisations, including projects such as that mentioned by the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew). RDAs are taking steps to invigorate regional
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economies and communities, but all too often they are thwarted by an understandable lack of faith in their democratic accountability and sometimes by a lack of transparency in their aims and objectives on particular projects. To deliver regional objectives, we desperately need bodies that have real power because they are constructed along democratic principles.

10.38 am

Mr. Mark Prisk (Hertford and Stortford) (Con): I add my congratulations to those given by other right hon. and hon. Members to my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood), who kicked off the debate extremely well. I hope that the leaders of the regional development agencies were listening, because although some positive points were made, language such as “arthritic”, “old-fashioned”, “unaccountable” and “remote” will not, I trust, have passed their notice.

This is a timely debate. It comes as concerns are increasing about widening variance in the national economy, not least between the greater south-east and the rest of the United Kingdom. Although some less competitive regions are becoming more prosperous, the gap between the most and the least successful is growing. The most recent figures show that that gap widened by 25 per cent. between 2004 and 2005. Numerically, that means that the London economy, at £165 billion, is now worth five times that of the north-east of England. That is not good for the north-east, and it is not sustainable for the UK economy. Our goal should be to understand why that gap is so large and still growing, and to consider why, after nearly 10 years, the Government’s policies are failing.

A welcome contribution to the debate came only two days ago, when the Local Government Association published a report entitled “Prosperous communities”. Some hon. Members alluded to the fact that it has analysed the sub-regional markets in goods, labour and services. It found that all too often the regional boundaries and agencies do not reflect those markets. I know that a number of colleagues are concerned about that issue.

The Local Government Association has suggested that it is now time to consider the issue in the context of the devolution debate. Hon. Members from all parts of the House share that agenda, apparently, and it is important that we debate the issues raised in the context of the agencies themselves. It is clear that local communities and authorities want to play their part, and that is why the LGA report is an important contribution. I hope that the Minister will set out the Government’s view and response to that report and their view on the role of sub-regional economies.

As hon. and right hon. Members have mentioned, the nine regional development agencies of England were established in 1998 and their original aims, to quote the Department, were to

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