Previous Section Index Home Page

17 July 2007 : Column 166

We do not share the phobic hatred of all things regional expressed by the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles). There are aspects of the statement and the report that we welcome, particularly the recognition that it is important to re-empower local authorities if we are to deliver strongly on the economy and other important features for our local communities. We very much appreciate the intention to encourage co-operation between local authorities, allowing them to take up additional powers devolved from the regions and, we hope, from central Government. It is also good news that there is at least an intention to bring some of the thousands of quangos—including the Learning and Skills Council budget, the Highways Agency and Jobcentre Plus, with which many Members have recently had difficulties—back under local democratic control.

There are also aspects that cause real concern, however. There is nothing substantial in the document or the statement about environmental sustainability; it is all about growth and expansion. For example, I notice that a regional economic public service agreement is to be signed off by the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, yet there is no regional sustainability agreement to be signed off by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs or agreed with central Government. Will the Minister therefore undertake to add environmental sustainability as a key objective of any regional policy reform?

I also note that the regional Ministers will

We could put that another way and say that this will involve a totally top-down process. Will the Minister explain how such a Minister—perhaps the Minister for the North West or, even more to the point, the Minister for London—will form a view about what the strategic direction for the region should be? Will he take his cue from the Secretary of State, from the regional development agency, from local authority leaders or just off the top of his head? The Minister may well feel that the loss of the regional assemblies is not a great one, but surely he would agree that any sense of strategic direction should come from the grass roots, from local communities and local authorities, rather than being imposed on high through ministerial edict.

Reference is made to moving towards a single integrated regional strategy. We have some difficulty understanding precisely what the Minister has in mind, so perhaps he can provide further explanation. Surely there has to be a diversity of strategies for different regions, and, within regions, the strategies need to be flexible enough to take account of the differences between the centre of Manchester, Carlisle and rural Cheshire. How, indeed, will a single integrated regional strategy apply to the region of London, in particular?

To summarise our view, we see this as a severe case of top-down, economic-growth-centred thinking that is some 30 years out of date, with the environment forgotten, democracy overridden and diversity scorned.

John Healey: I was encouraged by the hon. Gentleman’s early remarks, but somewhat taken aback by the latter ones—especially as I consulted a Lib-Dem policy document published a week ago today, which states:

17 July 2007 : Column 167

Perhaps I should have borrowed those words and incorporated them directly into my statement, because that is precisely what our plans are designed to achieve.

Everyone in every constituency and in every local authority area is concerned about more jobs and more homes, particularly for young people, as well as about taking proper account of the local environment and finding ways up front to fund the infrastructure necessary to support such growth and prosperity for the future. It is by bringing plans for those functions together that we stand the greatest chance of achieving that.

On the environment, let me remind the hon. Gentleman that regional development agencies, which seemed to be the focus of his concern, operate under the legislation that set them up in the first place. They are under a statutory responsibility to pursue sustainable development in the regions. As part of the new arrangements, local authorities will take the first step in the preparation of the new single regional strategy. As I explained earlier, that first step will be to prepare, for their area, their vision of future sustainable development, taking strong account of the needs, pressures and concerns of the environment.

On the question of Ministers, may I gently explain to the hon. Gentleman that the Prime Minister has appointed some first-rate female as well as male regional Ministers, so it is not just a male preserve? If I know anything about my good friends and colleagues who are now the regional Ministers, it is that they will not take their cue from anyone in particular. They will consult and listen carefully, but they will come to their own views and make their own contributions to the debate about what is best for their regions.

Finally, to be as clear as possible, the proposals set out in this afternoon’s review do not apply to London, which has its own arrangements on economic policy planning and its own arrangements for democratic control. The regional strategies are, of course, precisely that: they are strategies for the region. If the hon. Gentleman looked into existing regional economic development strategies, he would find that in many cases they place at their centre the cities and sub-regions that are driving economic growth and prosperity within the wider region, creating new jobs and bringing in new investment. That is precisely what this afternoon’s proposals are designed to reinforce.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): I hope my hon. Friend recognises that some of us feel that the establishment of regional Select Committees is overdue and welcome this commitment to them, but will the Government ensure that they have real teeth? Will they ensure that the Committees have power to oversee the activities of regional development agencies and all the other quangos, and that Government Departments and agencies are answerable to each of them? If we are going to do this, we must give the Committees teeth and power and make the system effective.

17 July 2007 : Column 168

John Healey: As the Prime Minister said two weeks ago, it is important to ensure that those who hold power are called clearly to account. The House has a much greater potential to play a strong role in doing just that at regional level.

I welcome my hon. Friend’s support for the principle of the proposed reinforced scrutiny and accountability arrangements, but I should tell him that the setting up of regional Select Committees, their remit and the way in which they conduct their inquiries are a matter for the House. No doubt he will play a big part in discussions of those matters over the next few weeks, but it is not for me, as a Minister, to pass direct judgment.

Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton) (Con): If the newly empowered RDAs are to be accountable to council leaders in the region, what thoughts has the Minister had about appointments to them? At present it is common practice for council leaders to apply for vacancies on RDAs. Is there not a conflict of interest, in that those who are to scrutinise and hold to account see such vacancies as job opportunities?

John Healey: Our report does not propose any changes to the process of appointments to RDA boards, which are conducted entirely in line with the established code of practice for public appointments. However, the hon. Lady makes a fair point and an interesting suggestion. In future it will be for Select Committees and those who wish to hold RDAs firmly to account in the regions to consider how they might contribute to, influence or in other ways become involved in the process of appointments to RDA boards.

Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge) (Lab): I welcome my hon. Friend’s statement. The changes he has announced have the potential to provide a stimulus to encourage renewed regional co-ordination and activity, and will be welcomed in the north-east if they provide the clarity and the new vision that they promise.

The regional assemblies brought together local government, business, voluntary organisations and trade unions. Is my hon. Friend satisfied that the new structure he has announced will preserve the best of that inclusiveness, while also improving accountability and effectiveness at regional level? What powers will localities have over bodies such as the Highways Agency?

John Healey: I am satisfied that the Government have set out the right principles and the right direction for the reforms that are necessary to ensure that the work of RDAs and other agencies at regional level is held to account to a greater extent both in the House and in the regions. If I were not, I would not have announced them today. We are ready to consult on precisely how best to implement the arrangements, and will do so later in the year.

As my hon. Friend will appreciate, the appropriate arrangements for local authority leaders in particular to exercise their role in scrutinising RDAs’ work and approving regional strategies in his area will differ from those in the south-east, where there are 74 separate councils. It clearly makes sense to identify, through detailed discussion and consultation, the arrangements that best suit the circumstances of each region.

17 July 2007 : Column 169

Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon) (Con): The Minister delivered his statement with such pathos that I thought we would hear the theme music from “Schindler’s List” at any moment. I agree with him that city regions are very important, and they may well be the bit of regional geometry that is coming, but why is he so reluctant to endow them with effective powers? There is still a kaleidoscope of delegated responsibilities and conferred duties. Would it not make sense simply to ask city regions rather than the RDAs to deal with such matters as skills and economic development, so that they have real meaning?

If the Minister wants the system to work in Yorkshire, will he note that the parts of north Yorkshire that used to be in the West Riding and wish to be part of a city region should not be imprisoned in a unitary North Yorkshire council, and thus incapable of performing their duties and meeting their responsibilities?

John Healey: I shall take the right hon. Gentleman’s last point as a late submission or representation on the local government restructuring that I am currently considering.

During the review, we were urged in some quarters to impose new formal arrangements in sub-regions. We took the view that the best approach was for there to be greater devolution of powers and freedoms to local authorities, and that they should collaborate where their city or region requires an economic effort that goes beyond their city council or borough council boundaries. We want to encourage such collaboration. Where that takes place, there should be opportunities for greater delegation of powers and management control in respect of transport—and also in respect of economic development, planning, housing and some of the 14-to-19 skills plans. If local authorities together wish to move to statutory arrangements—without pressure or prescription from central Government, because it must be their decision to do so—that will open the door for us to consider devolving more powers from national Departments and national agencies and to give sub-regions greater certainty and longer term funding for some of the transport functions that can best be delivered at that level.

Mr. Richard Caborn (Sheffield, Central) (Lab): First, may I welcome this timely statement? The regional development agencies were set up a decade ago—in 1997-98—and some of the Opposition’s arguments then are the same as those voiced against my hon. Friend today. The RDAs addressed an economic deficit that existed at that time; we inherited a dysfunctional regional policy in 1997, and the RDAs have addressed that. There is now a democratic deficit, and the report and today’s statement start to address that through the establishment of Select Committees and through empowering local authorities to play a proactive role. Therefore, I welcome that report and I hope that my hon. Friend will take no account of what the Opposition say. In the 1990s, the electors of Bradford chucked out the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles); he holds no sway with local authorities and I suggest that my hon. Friend continues in the direction that he mapped out in his statement.

17 July 2007 : Column 170

John Healey: Alongside my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott), my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Central (Mr. Caborn) was perhaps the principal architect of early moves to devolve economic policy making to the regions. Indeed, he steered through this House the legislation that set up the regional development agencies. He played an important role during his years in government, and I am glad that he welcomes the further moves that I have announced to devolve more to the regions and local authority areas. If we are able to bring together in a single regional strategy those policies that are currently produced by two different processes and two bodies, often using different bases of information and analysis, we will have the basis for a strong regional vision and strategy that allows us to address at the one and the same time policies on jobs, homes, investment in infrastructure and protection of the environment.

We will also have the basis for achieving what my right hon. Friend continues to want: stronger partnerships at regional and local level and a better alignment of central Government and departmental spending that can help economic development and regeneration through the learning and skills councils, Jobcentre Plus, the new homes agency, the Highways Agency and also the Environment Agency.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): Why in a relatively small country such as England, where we already have well established counties and districts that people relate to, are the Government persisting in developing an unwanted, remote and undemocratic regional tier which people do not relate to?

John Healey: Quite simply, if matters are left at local authority level, there will be concern about equity across regions. As well as that, some projects and priorities need to reach beyond local authority boundaries to foster strategic development in terms of jobs, homes or infrastructure. That is the simple answer, and I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will accept the relevance and importance of some regional level functions. I hope that he will also accept that that is combined with a clear expectation and requirement for RDAs to devolve the funding to local authorities and sub-regions wherever possible and, by doing that, to reinforce the hand of local authorities to play, for the first time, a greater role in shaping the economy and prospects for their people in their area in the future.

Several hon. Members rose—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. Many hon. Members wish to catch my eye and, as always, time is limited. I ask for brief questions and answers, so that more hon. Members will be successful.

Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab/Co-op): I welcome the recognition of the importance of local authorities, but will my hon. Friend continue to stress the importance of policies decided at a regional level to address regional disparities? Does he commend the north-west’s efforts to invest major funding in Daresbury, which has resulted in the region having one of only two centres of excellence for scientific research in the whole country?

17 July 2007 : Column 171

John Healey: Yes, yes and yes.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): As someone who wishes to see the South East England Development Agency bite the dust alongside the Assembly, may I ask the Minister to explain why it is that those regions of the UK that have had well financed RDAs for longest—and strong regional planning and intervention for longest—have become progressively less well off compared with areas that have not been blessed with such organisations?

John Healey: Perhaps I should send the right hon. Gentleman the results and the figures that demonstrate that in recent years the progress on skills, employment levels and general prosperity has been faster in the poorest regions than the more prosperous regions, in part because of the economic leadership that RDAs and some local authorities, especially in the cities, have been able to provide.

Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab): The statement has many welcome aspects and I certainly look forward to further discussions in relation to the accountability arrangements for RDAs. When my hon. Friend talks about the welcome new flexibilities for local authorities, both joined together and on their own, will he address the fact that some of the bigger local authorities at city level, while important as a powerhouse for the region, can be remote from local areas? It will be vital for such authorities to be encouraged to devolve what powers they can internally inside the area, so that community regeneration may accompany economic regeneration.

John Healey: Indeed, and my hon. Friend is the first advocate that I have heard in the Chamber for triple devolution. That is an important principle and it is entirely consistent with the Prime Minister’s statement two weeks ago and the Green Paper on constitutional reform. It is important that local authorities do just that, and I hope that my hon. Friend will contribute to further debate and discussion on these matters and consider offering his services to the regional Select Committee in the west midlands.

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): What does the phrase

mean in plain English?

John Healey: In plain English, it means that local authorities that cover a wider city area can come together, pool budgets and decide on the priorities that they think are most important for economic development, transport and some of the skills aspects. They can agree those between themselves and with Government, and that will be how we will judge them, how local people judge them and it is what we want to see for the future.

Next Section Index Home Page