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the new Regional Select Committees of the House—

most members of my Committee have a view about the likely effectiveness of those Committees, but we shall see—

The Bill, and the House generally, is creating a pig’s breakfast through the approach on regional and local matters.

As I said in an intervention, this report was the first for which my Committee thought it necessary to insert a lengthy glossary at the beginning, because as Committee members considered the Chairman’s draft, they got completely bewildered by the alphabet soup of initials. The array of terms includes EPBs, LALBs, LALFs, RSSs, RDAs, REP PSAs and SNRs, not to mention the single pot budget. Our constituents do not understand the system in operation now, which I am slowly getting my head around as I wrestle with the South Worcestershire
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joint core strategy and the regional spatial strategy. I cannot begin to think how they will ever understand the new mechanisms, which have major problems with accountability.

I want to talk particularly about the role of regional development agencies, although I shall not take too long because several colleagues wish to catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker. We have serious reservations about the existing responsibilities of RDAs. We have heard about the Government’s tendency to add endlessly to RDAs’ responsibilities. They are Christmas trees on which baubles are regularly hung, with people saying, “Oh, there’s a task. Who shall we give it to? I know, the RDA.” Such an approach is already diverting RDAs from their core task of helping regional development.

I have changed my view on RDAs. When they were set up, I had one of the worst in the country: Advantage West Midlands. Everyone acknowledged that it was appalling, but it has now got its act together and does useful work locally. It did a fantastic job after the closure of MG Rover on the Birmingham-Bromsgrove borders and following last year’s floods in my constituency. It does good, important work by keeping major employment in my constituency and that of the Under-Secretary of State for International Development, the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr. Foster).

During the Committee’s evidence gathering, we were struck that we heard only one single voice against the existence of RDAs, which was in the evidence given by the TaxPayers Alliance. However, no one else, including the Forum of Private Business, the British Chambers of Commerce, local authorities and non-governmental organisations, was critical, even though the volume of evidence was thick. We did not hear just from the usual suspects, such as Government Departments and quangos. Business itself said that they wanted RDAs, even though they had concerns about many aspects of their work. I have concerns about their overseas work, while local authorities have concerns about boundaries. I am glad that my party’s policy is now not to abolish RDAs, but to give a voluntarism about boundaries to local authorities. Essex made a particularly powerful case to our Committee about the inappropriateness of the boundaries of the East of England Development Agency, which are extraordinary, given that the furthest reaches of Suffolk, as represented by my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal, have little in common with Essex. Such large discrepancies need to be addressed.

I commend the Committee’s report to the House—I would—and it is tagged to the debate. It has a useful summary although, in view of the time, I will not examine it for as long as I had hoped. One of the report’s overarching themes is the extent to which the proposals lack clarity and detail—a point ably made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden. The provision in the Bill about the local authority leaders’ boards says nothing. It does not tell us who will be on the boards, what they will do or what criteria the Secretary of State will apply. Although there are a lot of words in the Bill, they mean very little. Time and time again the Bill lacks clarity. It should have a proper Committee stage so that such clarity can be put in place, but that will not happen because of the time that is being allowed.

A section of the summary sets out the overarching theme of the Committee’s report:

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We are the Business and Enterprise Committee, so it is our job to promote economic development and to do what we can to create the business environment for it. However, the message from the business community to us was, “We know better than other people where houses and jobs should go. We have a superior view to the ordinary citizen casting his or her vote at election time.” I understand why it said that—it wants certain things, which I respect—but, in a democracy, people have a right to express themselves, to see that view expressed by their local representatives and then to be proved wrong. In fact, more often than not the opinion would not be wrong, because when people are treated like grown ups and involved in a process intelligently, communities will take the right decisions. The idea that decisions should be imposed on them, which lies at the heart of the Bill, is deeply offensive.

The regional strategies have, at present, tenuous democratic accountability. I never was a fan of regional assemblies, but they achieved something. If we were to abolish them, the right thing to do would be to create a forum of local authorities, which would have responsibility for planning policy. There used to be the south-east forum; what was it called? I cannot remember. [Hon. Members: “SERPLAN.”] It was SERPLAN, the London and South East Regional Planning Conference. That was the right way to do things. The same was done in the west midlands. That is the way to provide accountability, to avoid too much nimbyism, and to get democratic buy-in, but that just has not happened. That is what worries me. The Bill, particularly in parts 4, 5 and 6, does not address the underlying issues.

There were a host of details in the report. I do not know what the Government response to them is, because we have not received it. We have not had a response on Second Reading, either; I asked the Secretary of State about one specific issue, and she was not able to answer me. It is an important issue, because if an economic prosperity board—by the way, let us call it an economic partnership board; let me suggest that amendment to the Government, because “prosperity” is a difficult word at present. If it were called an economic partnership board, it would have the same initials. If an economic partnership board is composed of willing volunteers, it will work, but if one of them changes political control and is no longer a willing volunteer, and starts being a drag anchor on the rest, it will not work any more. What are the mechanisms by which that unwilling partner can be excluded from the process? It is not clear. The Secretary of State said that we could look at the issue in Committee, but it needs to be looked at now, urgently, because the new bodies—I am very sceptical about the need for them, by the way—must work perfectly from day one. The nation faces an awful challenge in recovering from this dreadful recession, and bureaucracies that do not quite know how they function will not help us to get out of it.

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Finally, I should just like to speak up for the Woodland Trust. This point also goes to the heart of one of my Committee’s concerns. The trust’s submission to Members about the Bill says:

Given the inadequate democratic structure of the Bill, the cumbersome local authority leaders’ board arrangements, and the subsuming of power by regional development agencies over planning policy, which I abhor, it is all the more important that the voices of organisations such as the Woodland Trust are heard. My Committee, in one of its recommendations, said something along the same lines. The trust also points out:

I agree with the trust, which does marvellous work in my constituency and around the country. If such organisations feel excluded from the Bill, its lack of democratic accountability is even more worrying. It is a great duty to vote against the Bill’s Second Reading later this evening.

8.21 pm

Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): Despite her current difficulties with The Daily Telegraph, with the Prime Minister and with various other people, I confess to sometimes having a bit of a soft spot for the Secretary of State. Anyone who can run for the deputy leadership of the Labour party under the slogan “I’m nuts about Hazel” deserves some credit for adding a bit of colour and life to British politics. She was absolutely right in some of her opening remarks. There is anger at politicians at the moment, and it should be channelled, if possible, into practical changes. We do need a vibrant and thriving local democracy. We do need more empowerment and civic participation, and she said all that.

However, the Secretary of State and her Ministers must understand that those words sound appallingly hollow to people in my constituency, who have enjoyed endless opportunities to “have their say” during the five-year progress of the south-west regional spatial strategy, from development through to, we hoped at some stage, implementation, and then abolition. There has been an extended, extravagant, and doubtless very expensive pantomime of consultation, which has had virtually no impact at all on the strategy as it has developed. Sadly, my impression is that the Bill will make regional government less democratic, less accountable and even more vulnerable to diktat from the Secretary of State and Ministers.

As the Secretary of State and her Ministers have refused to discuss the impact of individual regional spatial strategies in detail, perhaps they can be forgiven for not actually knowing what really happened in the south-west, and why they have 35,000 public comments, most of them objections, on their desks for consideration. That is part of a total of nearly 100,000 comments—again,
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mostly objections, as far as Government offices for the regions can tell—nationwide. That may be why the Bill does not remotely address the real problems of local democracy.

Let me explain what has happened locally during the progress of the south-west regional spatial strategy. In 2005, we had our first opportunity locally to “have our say”, in the words of a document produced in Cheltenham. It set out some of the direction of travel of the emerging regional spatial strategy. I went along to a consultation meeting that was held, before I was even elected as a Member of Parliament. There was pretty much unanimity among local community and elected representatives there. We supported more affordable housing, resulting not just from a trickle-down from the private sector, but from giving powers to local councils and, in our case, arm’s length management organisations such as Cheltenham Borough Homes, to buy and build more council housing. There was acceptance that quite high numbers of houses should be built in urban areas such as Cheltenham.

I baulk sometimes at accusations of nimbyism from Labour Members who talk about us opposing all new development. They ask, “Where will people live?” but we have accepted consistently the numbers that were set out in RPG10—regional planning guidance note 10—which suggested that as many as 8,100 new homes be built in the urban area of Cheltenham. That figure has received fairly wide acceptance across all parties. It is a very challenging number, but we believe it is potentially deliverable.

What we opposed were the absence of environmental considerations, and the discussion of growth that went far ahead of local population growth. It was apparently based not on population growth in our immediate area, but on a general model handed down from on high that seemed to imagine enormous migration into the south-west, presumably corresponding to some kind of depopulation of the north of England, which would be concentrated around only specific towns and cities.

We specifically opposed the extra housing going into urban extensions. As I said, those urban extensions do not equate to all the extra housing, so it is possible to oppose the urban extensions and still support a great deal of extra housing. The original consultation document about those urban extensions contained comments such as this about the green belt between Cheltenham and Gloucester:

Apart from being staggeringly patronising, that is fundamentally wrong. The importance of green belts and other treasured spaces that have been repeatedly rejected for development was not that they were chocolate box Cotswold villages— [Interruption.] It would be great if Ministers could listen to this part of the argument, which is important. The importance of green belts is not that they are chocolate box Cotswold villages, but that they are sometimes modest green spaces next to urban populations. In my constituency, it is the urban populations of areas such as Leckhampton, Up Hatherley,
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Swindon village, Springbank and Hesters Way, which include at least one of the most deprived areas in the south-west, who value the green belt spaces.

Mr. Gummer: Is it not also true that the towns themselves value that gap? People in Felixstowe in my constituency do not want the Trimleys to become part of Felixstowe. They want the gap not just for Trimley St. Mary and Trimley St. Martin, which are small villages, but they want it because of Felixstowe itself, which feels itself to be a town. That bit of land may not be the most beautiful in a beautiful county such as Suffolk, but it is theirs. They recognise the beauty of it and they do not want pompous people from outside suggesting that it is not as good as someone else’s.

Martin Horwood: The right hon. Gentleman puts it extremely well. I agree with him entirely on that point. In fact, the places that I listed were not villages. They are parts of the urban body of Cheltenham. It is the modest green space next to them that separates them from Churchdown and from the city of Gloucester. I have nothing against Gloucester. Some of my best friends live in Gloucester, but I do not and I do not wish to, and neither do the people of Cheltenham. We do not want to become part of one great big agglomeration, and the green belt performs a vital task in keeping them apart.

The hon. Member for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins), who is no longer in his place, said that perhaps every case should be looked at on its merits in terms of the loss of green belt and green spaces, but the whole point of the green belt is its permanence. If it becomes negotiable—if every case can be looked at on its merits—that gives a green light to greedy developers to make a beeline for green belt areas that will deliver them more profit. If Cheltenham were an island, it would be obvious where the environmental constraint lay and there would be no question of impinging on the spaces beyond it. Because what we are trying to defend is not sea, but treasured green space, it suddenly becomes negotiable. The real value of that green space to local people, to the environment and to local food production sometimes gets lost.

Through 2006 and 2007 consultations rolled on. We had workshops in Swindon, which were great fun. We had lots of community and elected representatives going to them. Once again, we were pretty united in our opposition to urban extensions. In 2007 the area was flooded and we expected that the housing numbers might be re-examined, and certainly that the urban extensions in flood risk areas such as Cheltenham and Tewkesbury might be looked at again, but no. As the regional spatial strategy lumbered on, the numbers kept on going up despite the flooding. The proposed urban extensions got bigger and bigger, impinging entirely on green belt on one side of town, and entirely on areas that Government inspectors and planning inquiries had repeatedly rejected for development on the other.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Ind): As the hon. Gentleman is talking about safety and flooding, does he share my disappointment that the economic assessment duty on local authorities does not extend to parish and town councils, such as Canvey Island town council in my constituency, and does not give equal weight to
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environmental, social and safety issues that affect Canvey Island, such as flooding and major accident hazard sites?

Martin Horwood: I have a lot of sympathy with what the hon. Gentleman says. Parish councils in my constituency have actively tried to challenge the regional spatial strategy, but they have been ignored along with everybody else.

The Government have failed to include in the Bill a rigorous definition of “sustainability”, so we face a ridiculous situation whereby the Government’s own advisers and the Foresight report explain that increased urbanisation increases the risk of flooding, but, yet again, a wider economic priority as defined by the regional development agency is handed down and seen to be far more important than conditions of sustainability. If the Bill does not include such definitions, it will make the situation much worse.

In 2008, the progress ground on and we had the grandly named examination in public. “At last,” we thought, “we will actually be consulted in public, so maybe that will make a difference.” We all wrote, lobbied and sent postcards and e-mails, although MPs were excluded from the examination in public hearings, apparently because we had a vested interest in speaking. However, I made a lengthy submission, and I am sure that constituency neighbours from other parties made submissions of one length or another.

We again argued against urban extension into our green spaces; that the various communities, which I have already mentioned, had repeatedly rejected and opposed any construction there; that those objections had been supported in repeated votes by local authorities on both sides of the boundary and by local planning inspectors who had considered past planning appeals; and that the 750,000 to 1 million empty homes in this country were more of a priority than building on greenfield sites. We argued also for more regeneration in urban areas, and I quoted the Communities and Local Government Committee’s inquiry of a couple of years ago, which heard from the west midlands regional development agency. Ironically, it pointed out that concentrating more development around already affluent towns such as Cheltenham undermined its efforts to attract developers to urban centres.

We even agreed with the emerging strategy for rural housing suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and St. Austell (Matthew Taylor), who said that if we had to build on greenfield sites, it was better to do so on a small scale, with local and sustainable communities that are isolated from existing communities—to preserve the green space around them—but linked by good public transport. That strategy would help to support rural post offices, schools and shops that are dying because of the lack of people using them.

One interesting thing about the consultation in Swindon was that, while the regional government representatives did not listen, some representatives from local areas did listen to each other, and I was impressed to hear even Conservative members, from counties such as Wiltshire, supporting more housing in very rural areas to help the growth of villages and to sustain local communities. We found unexpected common purpose on the issue.

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