Previous Section Index Home Page

17 July 2007 : Column 159

Royal Prerogative

22. Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): To what extent he expects his responsibilities to the Queen for the general administration of the Duchy of Lancaster to be affected by the proposed changes to the royal prerogative. [149815]

The Minister for the Cabinet Office (Edward Miliband): The reform of the royal prerogative is designed to make the Executive more accountable to Parliament in important decisions such as going to war and making treaties. Since the appointment of a Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster raises no such issues, we do not currently propose change in this area.

Tony Baldry: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for that courteous and informative response, but I was wondering whether he is the Minister for the Cabinet Office or the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. If it is the latter, why, at the start of the 21st century, do we require a Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster? If it is the former, will the right hon. Gentleman please ensure that the Table Office has a list of his responsibilities, and those of other Ministers, so that I and other colleagues do not have to dream up questions on the chancellorship and the royal prerogative for his Question Time?

Edward Miliband: The answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question is that I have both titles: Minister for the Cabinet Office and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. As to his suggested reform of the role of the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, it is a personal prerogative of Her Majesty, but I can pass on his representations to the Prime Minister. My responsibilities cover the span of those of the Cabinet Office, such as social exclusion, the third sector, civil service reform, e-government and a range of other matters. As for his question about the Table Office, I am sure that that is not within my area of responsibility.

Third Sector

23. Sarah McCarthy-Fry (Portsmouth, North) (Lab/Co-op): What assessment he has made of recent progress towards meeting the Government's objectives for joint working with the third sector. [149816]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Phil Hope): The third sector and the Government are working more effectively than ever before on a range of shared interests, including creating stronger communities, better public services, a stronger social enterprise sector and a
17 July 2007 : Column 160
more active civil society. Government funding to the sector has more than doubled since 1997 from £5 billion to £10 billion.

Sarah McCarthy-Fry: Many third sector organisations in my constituency complain that insecurity about funding is impeding their ability to deliver cost-effective, high-quality public services. They welcome the funds for capacity building and pump-priming, but often their funds run out before they have delivered what they want to achieve. What plans does my hon. Friend have to move away from short-term funding to more long-term service level agreements?

Phil Hope: I congratulate my hon. Friend on the fact that Portsmouth was a pathfinder in looking at the kind of barriers that confront voluntary organisations, and in developing an action plan to overcome them. That way of working is now being rolled out throughout the south-east, so I congratulate Portsmouth on that. My hon. Friend puts her finger on an important issue concerning duration of funding. The present Prime Minister made a specific commitment in the 2006 pre-Budget report to ensure that three-year funding will become the norm rather than the exception for voluntary organisations. I am working closely with my ministerial colleagues throughout the Government to ensure that that is the case at every level—national, regional and local.

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): I have a new Sure Start centre and two new children’s centres—[Hon. Members: “Good news!”] That is good news, but the problem lies with the funding. It has been withdrawn from the voluntary organisation that used to provide the very services that are now being provided by Sure Start and the children’s centre. Services have closed down and been switched from voluntary status to the state. Is that what the Government intended?

Phil Hope: I guess that what the Government did not intend, when they gave extra funding to support children and families, was that the local Conservative county council in Northamptonshire would then go ahead and cut services for young people there.

Mr. Bone indicated dissent.

Phil Hope: I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that although his party’s Front Benchers may say one thing about support for the third sector, I suggest that he goes back to the Conservative leadership of his local council to ensure that it delivers better services to support the third sector in his area.

17 July 2007 : Column 161

Economic Reform

3.33 pm

The Minister for Local Government (John Healey): With permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to make a statement on local and regional economic reform in England. The Government are today publishing the conclusions of the review of sub-national economic development and regeneration, launched in the 2006 Budget as groundwork for this year’s comprehensive spending review. In this report, we set out the compelling case for reform to give local authorities and communities greater responsibility and opportunity to boost economic growth in their area; to bring consultation and planning for jobs, homes, investment and the environment closer together at both local and regional levels; and to strengthen public scrutiny and accountability of regional plans and the work of regional development agencies, both in the region and in this House.

This report builds on substantial work since 1997 to devolve economic decision making to regions and local authorities. It is informed by Sir Michael Lyons’ comprehensive review, in which he underlined the important economic role of local authorities as part of defining and delivering a vision for the places that they serve. It is also informed by Kate Barker’s recommendations to bring together planning for homes and the environment with planning for economic growth.

The review takes reform a stage further, giving local authorities stronger incentives and greater powers to support economic growth. As the constitutional Green Paper, which the Prime Minister launched a fortnight ago, said, the sub-national review

The report also reflects the Prime Minister’s vision of a modern democracy, in which power is exercised at the lowest level, and those with power are held more clearly to account.

Moreover, the reforms are essential as global economic and technological change places an increasing premium on skills, innovation and enterprise. That means that our Government’s commitment to increase growth in all regions, reduce regional disparities and deliver neighbourhood renewal will, in future, be all the more challenging and important. It means that further freedoms and devolved decision making are required for regions and local areas: first, to respond to rapid economic change; secondly, to deal with persistent local deprivation or poor economic performance, and thirdly, to enable all places to develop to their fullest potential.

Our year-long review has been very open—we have visited every region and consulted more than 300 stakeholders at all levels. I can confirm our main conclusions to the House this afternoon. First, to give local authorities greater powers, flexibilities and incentives, we will consult on creating a focused statutory economic duty for local councils; put economic development and neighbourhood renewal at the heart of the new local government performance framework; and consider options for supplementary business rates, working closely with business, local government and other local experts. We will require regional development agencies to delegate funding to
17 July 2007 : Column 162
local authorities and sub-regions whenever possible so that they play a more strategic role, and we will move funding for most 14 to19-year-olds’ education and skills to local authorities from the Learning and Skills Council, as announced in the recent machinery of government changes.

Let me deal with sub-regions. To reinforce our cities and larger towns as the engines of economic growth in their areas and to recognise that labour, housing, retail and other markets often do not correspond to council boundaries, we will allow local authorities that work together in sub-regions to strengthen management of transport; develop proposals for multi-area agreements to encourage groups of local authorities to agree collective targets and pooled budgets for economic development priorities; and work with interested city and sub-regions on scope for statutory sub-regional arrangements, which could allow greater devolution of national and regional economic functions.

To strengthen, simplify and improve scrutiny of the necessary strategic role of regions, we will combine the regional economic strategy and regional spatial strategy into a single integrated regional strategy. Following consultation, we will bring together the economic, social and environmental objectives for each region and charge RDAs with executive responsibility to prepare the single regional strategy on behalf of the region. In doing so, they will have a duty to consult widely. They will work closely with local authorities and the first step will be for local authorities to set out a vision for the sustainable development of their area. Regional assemblies in their current form will no longer exist.

The spatial and planning aspects of the strategy will continue to form the regional tier of the statutory development plan, which will remain subject to testing through independent examination in public and will be issued as a statutory document as it is currently. We will strengthen the scrutiny and accountability of RDAs, with the House's new regional Select Committees holding RDAs and others to account in Parliament and with local authority leaders holding the RDA to account in the region and approving the regional strategy. We will consult on how best to implement that.

Finally, at the centre, to improve support and reduce restrictions from central Government we will give the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform single-lead responsibility across Government for performance management of the RDAs and lead responsibility for the regional economic public service agreement; simplify the targets RDAs must meet; and appoint a Minister for each of the regions—we have already done this—to provide a sense of strategic direction to their region and to give citizens a voice at the centre of Government.

The report sets out the principles and direction for future policy and the consultation that we will undertake on our reforms. Important Government announcements will follow: implementing the Leitch report, the housing Green Paper and the welfare reform Green Paper and, in the autumn, the comprehensive spending review. My statement this afternoon is the start of further reform, not the final word. I commend the report to the House.

17 July 2007 : Column 163

Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar) (Con): I thank the Minister for his courtesy in allowing me early sight of the statement and of the sub-national economic development and regeneration review.

It is clear that the Minister comes here not to praise the former Deputy Prime Minister, but to bury him. The regional assemblies were the apple of the eye of the former Deputy Prime Minister—now little is left of the old regime but rubble, broken promises and chaos. Once the people of the north-east rejected regional government by referendum, the writing was on the wall for the assemblies.

Will the Minister confirm the words of the Prime Minister’s official spokesman this morning that sub-national government was

This is a rebranding exercise masquerading as localism. The key tests are these: are the decisions taken locally and are the decision makers democratically accountable to local people?

On page 95, the review makes it clear that RDAs will become the regional planning bodies in place of the regional assemblies. The regional assemblies are unelected, unaccountable and unwanted and we will not mourn their passing. However, is not their abolition just a game of musical chairs, passing their functions from one distant regional quango to another?

We welcome the admission that Labour’s tiers of regional red tape are a hindrance to development and regeneration, with the farce of the regional spatial strategies contradicting the regional economic strategies. The RDAs are already failing to deliver on their existing responsibilities, as both the National Audit Office and the Institute of Directors have warned. Yet loading the RDAs with even more responsibility is hardly going to improve the quality of support that local businesses receive.

On page 94, the review asserts that the regional assemblies are not providing a strong voice for their region. Is not the reality that these unloved institutions have ceased to be the Government’s poodle because they stood up for local communities and local people? Now that the regional assemblies are criticising the lack of infrastructure and sustainability in the Government’s building plans, Ministers are seeking to sideline their opposition. The Government’s control freaks’ response is to abolish them and to hand their powers to a super-quango—rather than improving co-ordination, the different tiers of regional bureaucracy have caused confusion.

The regional spatial plans of the regional assemblies contradict the regional economic strategies of the regional development agencies—so much for joined-up government. If the Government wish to speed up the planning system, should the first step not be to scrap the quagmire of regional planning? How do the new regional economic growth initiatives outlined on page 93 square with protecting the countryside, planning against flooding, reducing carbon emissions and improving quality of life? Is not the environment now just a passing fashion for the Government? I fear that the RDAs now have England’s green belt in their sights.

The review concedes that there are too many funding streams. Indeed, there are 50 different, fragmented funding streams for social exclusion, housing and regeneration.
17 July 2007 : Column 164
How many will remain after this announcement? Has Labour not just created a baffling array of conflicting, confusing and inconsistent quangos, grants and agencies? Even the Government’s friend, Lord Rogers, has slammed the overlapping regeneration schemes as diluting effectiveness and reducing the vision of an urban renaissance to “mediocrity”.

We are, of course, receptive to new powers for local councils to fund infrastructure and transport and to promote economic development. Will the Minister guarantee that any additional revenue from a supplementary rate will not be taken into account in central Government grant allocations? Why are local firms not being given a direct democratic vote on any supplementary rate? How high will a supplementary rate go? Will it be 4p on the multiplier or even more? If local businesses can vote on higher rates in a business improvement district, why can they not be given a vote on a supplementary rate? Does the move not risk becoming a back-door way to hike up business rates?

Mr. Philip Hammond (Runnymede and Weybridge) (Con): A stealth tax.

Mr. Pickles: Good man.

Is the measure not just a stealthy means for the Government to pass the buck of providing infrastructure from the Exchequer to the local taxpayer? Is the move not just higher taxation without any representation?

Month after month since the 2004 “no” vote in the regional assemblies, more and more power has been transferred to expensive and distant regional pen-pushers and politicians. Labour has ignored the voice of the people. Regional government agencies, regional development agencies, regional planning bodies and regional Ministers are all about imposing the will of Whitehall on local communities. Much of the analysis in the report is absolutely correct—it is a catalogue of failure. The problem is that it proposes to reinforce failure with more failure. It risks creating a regional tyranny of governance with no mandate, no legitimacy and no accountability. Only our party will dismantle the regional state, restore power to local communities and make government once more accountable to the people.

John Healey: I am slightly disappointed by the hon. Gentleman’s response, but perhaps I should not be surprised. I would urge him and his hon. Friends to read the report rather than simply rehearse their soundbites. My right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) has been one of the strongest and staunchest advocates of regional devolution and of giving greater powers to local authorities. He was one of the architects of our regional economic policy and my announcement this afternoon and the report take significant steps further in that.

The hon. Gentleman really must make up his mind on regional assemblies. Five days ago he said:

Four days ago, and again this afternoon, he said that regional assemblies had stood up for local people and that that was why we are abolishing them, and that:

17 July 2007 : Column 165

Nothing could be further from the truth and, as I have tried to explain, our plans will mean that, for the first time, we are able to bring together the important planning functions within the regions and local areas on jobs, homes, infrastructure and protection of the environment. We will be able to do so better than before and better than through two separate processes. Council leaders will have a stronger role in the new system, not a weaker one—much more so, in fact, than they did through the regional assemblies.

Let me make it clear that we are committed to ensuring that there is strong local authority oversight of housing and planning. The hon. Gentleman’s party called for a stronger role for local authorities, and we are delivering that in the plans that I have announced this afternoon. His party also called for simplified arrangements in the regional and local areas, and we have announced such proposals this afternoon.

We have begun to consider options for supplementary business rates, working with business, local government and other experts. We shall continue with that work and report later in the year. We shall also ensure that there is full and close accountability to business in any of the options that we consider.

Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West) (Lab): I welcome the general approach of the Minister’s statement in bringing together economic planning with housing, employment and spatial strategies. I want to ask him a specific question, however, about the proposals for the accountability of RDAs. He appears to be proposing accountability of the regional Committees to Parliament, and also, separately, to council leaders through some other, unspecified, mechanism. Will he consider the introduction of a hybrid committee to bring together MPs from the region and local authority leaders to hold the RDA accountable?

John Healey: I applaud my hon. Friend’s interest in this area and the work that she does as Chair of the departmental Select Committee. The principle that we are planning to put in place is that, at regional level, the performance of the RDA in preparing the single regional strategy and in delivering its part of the strategy, as well as the content of the strategy itself, should be subject to greater scrutiny in the region and in Parliament. In the region, that should be conducted by local authority leaders, who will be consulted and charged with scrutinising the preparation of the regional strategy. For the first time, they will also be charged with the role of approving the strategy. In that way, without an elected regional assembly, we shall be able to reinforce public accountability and the democratic oversight of this important work that must be carried out at regional level.

Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove) (LD): I thank the Minister for providing advance copies of his statement and his report, although to read the latter in the given time would have required a reading speed of two pages per minute, so if I have missed any of its subtle nuances, I apologise to him.

Next Section Index Home Page