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Baroness Hayman: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for giving way. She confuses me slightly. Is she suggesting that there was absolutely no logic to the boundaries set up for the government offices by her own government? Those are precisely the boundaries that we have used. These are not some administrative, bureaucratic construct; they are the boundaries considered sensible by the previous government for economic development and bringing together the four government departments within the regions.

Baroness Miller of Hendon: My Lords, I was suggesting that the boundaries created previously were created for reasons different from those behind this Bill.

Let us look at the proposed south-east region into which they are lumped. What possible commercial affinity do the regional interests of Southampton and Oxford, for example, have in common? Even the Deputy Prime Minister, in his White Paper, Building Partnerships for the Future, admits that this proposed region is what he euphemistically described as "especially diverse". The local Members of Parliament--my honourable friend the Members for

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Faversham and mid-Kent, and the Member for Tonbridge and Malling, with all his expertise as a former Minister for the Regions, described this particular region as "absurd". Even the right honourable Member for Bishop Auckland was unhappy with what the Government proposed for his area.

But this Bill is supposed to be about creating a new, modern dynamic industrial structure. What excuse is there for the arbitrary putting together of the rural parts of Cambridgeshire and the industrial parts of Southend and Essex? As the honourable Member for North Devon said during the Second Reading debate in the other place, relying on his considerable local knowledge,

    "to suggest that the south-west is a coherent region stretching from Penzance up to Gloucester and across to Christchurch is absolute nonsense.--[Official Report, Commons, 14/1/98; col. 397.]

It is the Government's aim to establish regional chambers,

    "in time to introduce legislation to allow the people, region by region, to decide by referendum whether they want directly elected regional government".

In other words, the Government are planning on the Balkanisation of the country. We on this side of the House would like to be assured that they are not plotting to establish by the back door a fait accompli as to the boundaries of those regions.

It is premature to ask what would happen if in the referendums some of those regions voted "yes" and others voted "no". What is required from the Minister is an unequivocal assurance that the proposed regional development agencies' boundaries will not be used as a precedent for any future regional assemblies of which we have been forewarned in the Government's manifesto. The Minister's answer about giving that assurance may affect what we do at the next stage of the Bill.

I have another reason for asking for such assurance. Clause 25 gives the Secretary of State a blank cheque to alter the boundaries, admittedly after consultations with interested parties. But the Secretary of State is not bound by those consultations. Clause 25(5) states that the Secretary of State "may" cause a local inquiry to be held over any proposed boundary changes. I suspect that we "may" have an improvement to suggest in connection with that very word "may".

Returning to other current issues in the Bill, let me remind your Lordships of its many shortcomings. First and foremost is the establishment of the nine mighty unelected quangos, with no democratic accountability to the localities they are supposed to serve, merely to the Minister--and that from the party which in its manifesto attacked the previous government over "unaccountable quangos". The Prime Minister, when in Opposition, said,

    "We need to roll back the tide of quangos and to have a revival of proper democratic local government".--[Official Report, Commons, 20/2/97; col. 1076.]

Well, the Prime Minister seems to be having the same trouble as King Canute in rolling back the tide; and I shall have something to say soon about his weird ideas about reviving proper democratic local government.

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I referred to "mighty" quangos. Let us look at some of the powers that the Bill proposes they should have. Under Clause 5 an agency may do anything it considers expedient for its purposes--another blank cheque. Who else is given limitless powers like that? Can the agencies order the diversion of a road or a river? Can they order a business which competes with one of their projects for customers or labour to move? We hope that the Minister will give us an adequate explanation of this extraordinary provision in the legislative notes, well before Committee stage.

Agencies can also, with permission of the Secretary of State, grant loans and sell their land for less than it is worth, presumably to subsidise potential investors or form or take shares in companies. They can make compulsory purchase orders to acquire land. The Secretary of State can take land away from public authorities--ratepayers' property, that is--and from other public bodies with limited compensation and give it to the regional development agencies.

Under Clause 21, regional development agencies can issue a warrant demanding entry on anyone's land to survey it or value it and to make bore holes and take soil samples. Anyone who obstructs this invasion of his land can be taken before the magistrates and fined. There is no messing about with civil injunctions in what is essentially a civil matter.

Under Clause 24 a regional development agency can order the local authority to connect any private streets it owns--presumably estate roads in some industrial development--to the highway.

There were even more wide, sweeping proposals which would have turned the regional development agencies into their own judge, jury and executioner by appointing them to be the local planning authority and highway authority in respect of their own property. Fortunately, after strong protests by my honourable friends and others in the other place, the Government withdrew these proposals, which are no longer in the Bill.

Secondly--and I am sorry that I have only just reached secondly--there is absolutely no evidence that these new, powerful quangos will do any better than the existing arrangements for attracting both domestic and inward investment. On the contrary, I believe that by making these nine regions compete with each other, presumably with the aid of discretionary grants and loans and government guarantees under Clauses 10 to 13, they may very well detract from the effectiveness of other regions. "Come to region A, because we are far better than region B": that message--the cry of "stinking fish"--may permanently damage the credibility of region B with other investors.

Perhaps it is appropriate that here I declare an interest--or, rather, a former interest. When I was in business I built a factory in Newport with the aid of a grant from the Welsh Development Agency and subsequently provided work for 11 direct employees, three extra postmen and a number of people in two local factories supplying me with components. The point is that I did not go to Newport because of the availability of a grant; I discovered the existence of grants after

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I had selected my site. Talking of the Welsh Development Authority, why does Wales need only one authority while England is to have nine? North and south Wales are distinct areas with different characteristics. Many of the inhabitants of north Wales do not even regard English as their first language. Would the Government have dared to try to chop Scotland into several parts? Not so long as the Scottish National Party was breathing down their necks!

The White Paper which preceded the Bill was in turn preceded by a so-called consultation. A more perfunctory one it would be difficult to imagine. The consultation document was a mere four pages long. The circulation seems to have been somewhat limited as only 1,500 responses were received, mostly from organisations, not individuals. Of the replies received, there were many from local councils, even Labour councils, protesting about the lack of democratic accountability of regional development agencies, especially vis-a-vis the local authorities in their area. In fact, although the Government in their White Paper selectively quoted about 57 endorsements of their proposals, they carefully omitted the very large number that came from organisations which either opposed the Government's plans or which had serious reservations about them. These included a number of Labour controlled councils, the Local Government Association, the Council for the Protection of Rural England and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. These latter two organisations are concerned that the Government's plans do not require the regional development agencies to place sufficient weight on environmental concerns.

I think it right to say that this problem is aggravated by the geographical format of the regions, which produces a cocktail of urban and rural areas where there are conflicting needs and conflicting concerns. One has only to look at the situation in Germany, in the heaviest populated region of North Rhine-Westphalia. This includes the industrial cities of Essen, Cologne, Dortmund, Dusseldorf and Duisburg, but is otherwise made up of rural areas. Between the two there is constant conflict.

There is a genuine fear that, when considering such conflicts of interests, the regional development agencies will put the needs and wishes of rural communities in second place. Many noble Lords have commented on that this evening. This is because there is a preponderance of influence in favour of the interests of commerce and industry, which is only to be expected given the nature of the brief of the agencies. Clause 4(2) states:

    "A regional development agency's purposes apply as much in relation to the rural parts of its area as in relation to the non-rural parts."

Considering the carte blanche contained in Clause 5(1) enabling a regional development agency to do anything it thinks expedient, what is to stop Clause 4(2) being interpreted as a licence to turn vast areas of countryside into a desert of concrete and hideous industrial buildings? We would particularly appreciate the Minister's comments on this point.

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It is of no less concern that the Government are breaking up English Partnerships, which has been highly successful in attracting inward investment to England and which, as a national organisation, has a team of top calibre staff. It is difficult to understand how fragmenting that team will be of benefit. It points out the folly of the Government in trying to deal with a national objective by parcelling it out amongst nine parochial quangos.

The fact is that the principle objective of this Bill is not the promotion of commerce. The hidden agenda is for it to be a launch pad for its plans to remove power from Westminster and to place it in the hands of these proposed new regional assemblies. The Government have made no secret of their objectives. Apart from what they said in their manifesto, the Minister for the Regions said in an interview with the Scotsman on 1st December that the process was "evolutionary" and that the next stage after RDAs and indirectly elected regional chambers was to give them more powers. He even hinted that the future regional assemblies would be given tax-raising and law-making powers.

I suggest that the Government should try to keep their eye on the ball. The ostensible purpose of these regional development agencies is the promotion of commercial interests. It is not to serve as the thin end of the wedge, or as a Trojan horse, whichever metaphor your Lordships prefer, for the grandiose plans to revolutionise--and I use that word advisedly--a whole tried and tested constitution.

The Local Government Association in its briefing paper, which many of your Lordships will have seen, complains that it is far from clear how the functions of the regional development agencies will sit alongside the functions of the local authorities in their area. In fact, it is abundantly clear that they will only be required to consult, and not necessarily to take the slightest bit of notice of the views expressed in such consultation. Such is the disregard of the Government for the views that the democratically elected local councils may have on the operations of their nominated quangos that, if any of the token councillors who are placed on them loses his seat, he is not required to resign or to forfeit his place, but can remain there, supposedly to represent the views of the local authority of which he is no longer a member.

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