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Lord Dormand of Easington: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for giving way. She mentioned a criticism which the Local Government Association had made. It was not so much a criticism as a suggestion. The Local Government Association strongly supports regional development agencies. A number of us, including some on these Benches today during this debate, have made suggestions as to how the Bill can be improved. That is the normal parliamentary process. I am sure that the Government will take notice of what has been said on both sides. But I feel that the noble Baroness has given the impression that the Local Government Association is opposed to the Bill. It is quite the contrary.

Baroness Miller of Hendon: My Lords, I had no desire to give that impression. I mentioned the

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57 endorsements quoted in the White Paper; the Local Government Association is included in that 57. I was trying to point out that it is among those which commented, in the way that the noble Lord has commented, to the effect that there are other things which, in its opinion, could improve the Bill. That was the point I was making. The point I made about local councillors losing their seats was made also by the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton.

When this obvious farcical position was pointed out in the other place, the Government vigorously resisted making the obvious and reasonable change and used their voting steamroller to defeat the amendment--so much for the Prime Minister's lip service for,

    "the revival of proper democratic local government",

to which I referred earlier.

It is relevant to note that, when the White Paper was published, the first result was the resignation in protest by the admirable chairman of the Rural Development Commission. The Government are entitled and will indeed have their Bill as a result of our self-denying ordinance regarding matters contained in the Labour manifesto. But we believe that it is a bad Bill with many defects that we shall attempt to illuminate in later stages. We hope that that is clear because the noble Lord, Lord Dormand of Easington, was not sure of what my noble friend's attitude was. That is the position of Her Majesty's Opposition.

We hope, but without much expectation, that the Government will not close their ears and collective mind to logical proposals to ensure that their project can be carried out without devastating problems to the economy and the environment--problems caused by the new layer of bureaucracy that they are setting up, whose separate parts will not only compete with each other, but will also be fertile ground for conflict with the democratically elected councils within their bailiwicks.

7.20 p.m.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, I am pleased to have the opportunity to close this debate on the Regional Development Agencies Bill. As my noble friend said in her opening remarks, it is not a Bill that captured many national headlines. But as many of your Lordships will know--particularly those whose principal residence is outside London--the regional media reflected the great interests among regional people in the establishment of regional development agencies. Speaking as an advocate over many years of greater regional autonomy, from my home region of the north-west, I believe that we may come to recognise this Bill as the measure which first gave our regions the opportunity they have long sought to influence their own affairs.

I am pleased too that so many noble Lords welcomed the Bill. Many of those who have spoken have a rich experience of regional affairs and of working to improve regional prospects. This Government have shown that we recognise and appreciate the work that has been done in our regions by organisations such as the North of England Assembly and, in my own region, the North West Partnership. The purpose of this Bill is to build on

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that work, to develop further the regional partnership approach and to give the work of all those in our regions which strive to better regional performance a new focus and direction.

RDAs will be influential new bodies charged with formulating a strategic framework for economic decision-taking in the regions. They will have the powers and the authority to make a real difference to regional performance. For the first time there will be, in each of our regions, an organisation strong enough, and sufficiently broadly based, to make a real mark on regional economies and to give direction to regional and national programmes.

The RDAs first and most important task, as my noble friend said, will be to produce and implement regional economic strategies--strategies which reflect national and regional priorities and (I stress the importance of this in response to questions raised by many noble Lords) express the views and interests of the regional partners, including local authorities. The strategies will cover economic development, social and physical regeneration, competitiveness and innovation. Skills training and employability must also be at the heart of regional strategies. The strategies will be developed in a context that safeguards the environment and promotes sustainable development.

Many noble Lords spoke with support for the principle of the need to ensure that our regions develop, meeting the needs and potential of those regions. Frankly, I fail to see how the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, speaking from the Opposition Front Bench, could claim that, for the purposes of regional development with the functions proposed in the Bill, it is illogical, irrational or unreasonable for this Government to adopt the view that the boundaries created--not to be fixed in stone for all time--by the previous government, including the Department of the Environment, the Department of Transport, the Department for Education and Employment and the Department of Trade and Industry, were appropriate for the early stages and the building of our regional development agencies project.

Lord Bowness: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for giving way. While she is dealing with this point, can she tell us how she sees the establishment of regional chambers? Is she saying that it will be at a sufficiently early stage to use the government office boundaries for those assemblies when they come?

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, I shall come to the question of chambers later in my response, if the noble Lord will allow me to do so.

Lord Bowness: My Lords, perhaps the noble Baroness will deal with the question of boundaries now; it is important.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, the experience so far is that the boundaries of the regions which formed regional chambers have been coterminous, with one exception. I wish to refer to that exception later because it is quite complex; it relates to

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the perception, about which people have made assertions, as to where people living in Cumbria believe they live. I was not clear whether noble Lords were speaking of those who live in Barrow, which those of us who live in Lancashire know is really part of old Lancashire, or those who live in the north of Cumbria. If the noble Lord will forgive me, therefore, I shall come back to that point later.

The strategies will be developed in a context that safeguards the environment and protects sustainable development. This Bill, in some detail, puts flesh on the bones of the policy that the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, seemed to make sound like something produced in a furtive document which we had hidden away and which has come as a great shock to Members of the Conservative Opposition. In fact the document was the Labour Party manifesto. It was widely available. The British public read it and were aware of our proposals.

We are committed to more accountable regional government in England but believe that much can be done within the present democratic structure to build up the voice of the regions. It was difficult to tell from comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, whether he was in favour of a fully fledged, fully accountable, agreed by the Conservative Party, regional form of government in the UK or whether he was opposed to it root and branch.

We were pleased that the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, set the tone for the sort of constructive co-operation on developing this tier of democracy that we welcome. I welcome the fact that my noble friend Lord Burlison referred to the fine record of the Northern Development Company and the support it is giving in principle to going ahead with regional development agencies.

I hope that as a result of this debate and listening to debates during the passage of the Bill, the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, will develop some confidence. It is the experience of those in regions where regional chambers have been together and working for some time that people develop a sense of cohesion and an ability to work together. As my noble friend Lord Dormand of Easington pointed out, there is widespread support, ranging from the CBI to the trade unions, to local authorities for this project.

We recognise that this is an evolutionary process. We must make certain that the development takes with it the wishes of the people. The noble Lord, Lord Bowness, speaking for the Conservatives, criticised us because we were not going far enough in having directly elected regional assemblies for the north-west and he was then critical of the very notion of the need to have them. We believe that this first step, through the creation of the development agencies which will be linked to voluntary regional chambers, will provide a focus for regional consultation and scrutiny.

The noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Hendon, raised the spectre, which I thought the Conservative Party might have dropped by now, of additional taxation

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creeping in by the back-door. I can assure her that nowhere in the Bill is there any plan to increase taxation.

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