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Housing and Planning Powers

Volume 468: debated on Tuesday 27 November 2007

8. What her expected timetable is for the transfer of housing and planning powers from regional assemblies to regional development agencies. (168028)

The changes need primary legislation and we will set out further details for consultation in the new year. That will include more information about the timetable and more details about the way in which the new arrangements need to work, including the role for local authorities.

Is it not the case that whereas Conservative Members trust local people, Ministers appear to think of them as no more than a nuisance? That view was demonstrated by the decision to transfer housing and planning powers from one distant and unaccountable regional quango to another rather than returning them to local communities, as they should be.

The hon. Gentleman is talking nonsense. The purpose of the changes is to bring together for the first time a regional approach to economic development with an approach to planning, housing and other aspects that need to be dealt with across local authority boundaries and that cover issues that go wider than an individual local authority. It is right to examine those matters at regional level and to ensure that they are better co-ordinated than they have been in the past.

Is not my right hon. Friend concerned that she may concentrate too much power in what are essentially unelected regional development agencies? For example, Tom Riordan, chief executive of Yorkshire Forward, is a fine chap, but the policy risks making him the commissar of Yorkshire. Should not he be more accountable to local government through bodies such as Leeds City Region or perhaps accountable to a regional Select Committee?

My hon. Friend is right that accountability matters. That is why we have said that we want local councils to sign off the economic strategy. We want a stronger role for local councils in the economic development of their regions than they have previously played. That is important. It is also important to emphasise that regional assemblies have always drawn on the housing and planning expertise of local councils. That needs to continue, and we will be clear that it must be part of the new arrangements that we will set out in the new year.

Why does the Minister persist in ignoring the strong view of the overwhelming majority of people in the south-east that the development agency and the regional assembly should be abolished and that there should be democratic accountability for the planning powers? Will she give us a referendum if she does not believe me?

Sadly, the reason the views of the regional assembly and regional development agency are disputed in the south-east, certainly by Conservative councils there, is that they want to cut house building in the region. That is a tragic thing for local councils in the south-east to want to do, given the overwhelming need for more housing throughout the region and the number of first-time buyers who are desperately in need of more support.