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Regional Policy

Volume 480: debated on Tuesday 14 October 2008

5. What recent discussions she has had with Cabinet colleagues on co-ordination of Government policy for the regions. (226341)

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that response. There is now apparent cross-party consensus that it is better that decisions taken locally and regionally are taken democratically rather than by Government appointees. Bearing in mind the obvious vacuum that has existed since the north-east referendum nearly four years ago, will the Secretary of State now welcome proposals from local partners in any part of the country that will provide a route map to allow regional decisions to be taken democratically?

Yes, I am well aware of the hon. Gentleman’s long-standing record on campaigning, particularly in relation to Cornwall and to the convention in Cornwall. He is right to say that there is a recognition that decisions are best made at the appropriate spatial level in our country, where we can actually get practical change. That applies to planning matters, as well as to regional economic issues. He is also right to say that there is a gap in terms of accountability at regional level. We are taking a number of measures to address that, involving regional Ministers, regional Select Committees, and the scrutiny of regional organisations. He will also be aware of the multi-area agreements that we signed in the summer. These allow democratically elected local authorities to have a bigger say on planning, transport, housing and skills, which are significant issues in our country.

I do not want to be unhelpful or unkind—[Interruption.] Seriously. Will the Minister tell us what the regional Ministers do, bearing in mind that, when I tabled a written parliamentary question asking what my regional Minister did or intended to do, the Secretary of State answered it? There is no scrutiny, and I genuinely do not know precisely what they are supposed to do. We are now told that there are to be assistant regional Ministers as well. Those of us in the minority who have never been invited to do anything are beginning to wonder what we have done wrong. I want to know what the link-up is between these regional Ministers and housing and communities. We do not know, and we apparently have no opportunity to ask questions. Why not? There is a problem of so-called “joined-up government” in relation to the Thurrock urban development corporation, which is part of a key Government policy. I want to address the person who can answer—

I may be forgiven for my heart sinking when my hon. Friend said that he did not wish to be difficult, but—yet he asked a pertinent question. He is right that there should be wider awareness of the role of regional Ministers. I think that regional Ministers have done some excellent work across the country over the past few months as regional champions for their areas—[Interruption.] Hon. Members might not take regional issues seriously, but if they were genuinely in touch with the issues being raised in their communities they would know that regional Ministers have helped to bring together the regional development agency and the strategic health associations—and have made a difference. To my hon. Friend, I would say that the Government may not have utilised his talents sufficiently in the past—

I do not think that I can afford my hon. Friend. Very shortly, however, he will see greater recognition of the role of regional Ministers with the establishment of the regional Select Committees, providing the opportunity to question regional Ministers, which is exactly what he is looking for.

Regional development agencies, which are extremely patchy in quality throughout the company, are with the disappearance of the regional assemblies soon to acquire significant new powers, notably in housing, yet it is very difficult to assess the quality of outputs from the development agencies. How do we assess whether a job has been created or a job safeguarded—two of the most popular claims of the regional development agencies? What will the Secretary of State do to enable us to develop a proper methodology with which to judge the value for money of the regional development agencies, as this is contested, and to make sure that accountability goes beyond local council chiefs being filed in for the occasional audience?

The right hon. Gentleman, as ever, makes a good point from an informed perspective. We shall shortly respond to the consultation on the sub-national review, the results of which he is perhaps pre-empting. I promise him, however, that the results will be available soon. He is right that we need to bring regional development agencies and local authorities together to ensure that we have an integrated view of housing, planning and economic development.

I believe that many regional development agencies have made a very positive contribution. The response to the recent flooding of some of our regional development agencies, along with their local councils, was extremely impressive. If we look at the number of jobs created across the country through the good investment decisions of the RDAs, we clearly see that they have been good for this country. The right hon. Gentleman is right that there is more work to be done to ensure that we have better accountability and better scrutiny, but the RDAs’ role has been crucial in building the economy over these past few years.

My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) made a good point in saying that regional Ministers are not yet subject to sufficient scrutiny by the House. Does my right hon. Friend agree that regional Select Committees are absolutely vital to that scrutiny, and can she give us some indication of when they are likely to be set up?

My hon. Friend is right. He has taken a tremendous interest in regional matters, particularly those regarding the north-west. I think that regional Select Committees will provide better scrutiny—the ability to question regional Ministers about their work is essential. I can tell my hon. Friend that those Select Committees will be set up very soon, although I cannot give him a specific date here today. I realise that he is pressing to ensure that they are.

Will the Secretary of State tell us how these Select Committees will be manned and where the Clerks who are to serve them will be found? This is the most appalling piece of meaningless window dressing that the House has been presented with for a very long time.

As the hon. Gentleman will know from his extensive parliamentary experience, the regional Select Committees are a matter for the House, and their establishment is being considered by the Modernisation Committee—again, on an all-party basis. He need only have listened to the contributions that have been made today to appreciate that Members in all parts of the House want more scrutiny of regional affairs and a closing of the accountability gap in relation to regional matters, and I believe that that view has widespread support throughout the House.

Has my right hon. Friend considered the impact of retrospective rate increases, backdated by three years, on businesses in the port of Liverpool in the context of regional maritime policy?

I am very conscious of that issue. Meetings are taking place as we speak to assess the impact and establish what steps might be taken. My hon. Friend raises an important point, particularly in relation to retrospection, and I will undertake to keep her informed as the discussions continue.

It would be interesting to hear what discussions the Secretary of State has had with her right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs about the perverse effect that the regional spatial strategy for the south-west may have on an area of outstanding natural beauty in my constituency, given its requirement for 48 new pitches for Gypsies and Travellers in the constituency. The planning inspectorate decided last week in the Minety case that Gypsies may set up their caravans anywhere they please until such time as the county provides that imaginary number of sites. What is the Secretary of State going to do about the perverse effect on the countryside?

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that if appropriate plans are in place to enable Gypsy and Traveller sites to be organised properly, that is far the best option. When no plan is in place, we must often resort to enforcement action, which is more costly, takes more time, and has a bigger impact on the area concerned.

The hon. Gentleman asks whether I have talked to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs about the issue. I have not talked to my right hon. Friend about the specific issue in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, but I think he is as aware, as I am, that proper planning for Gypsy and Traveller sites is far the best way of dealing with such matters.

To what extent have the Treasury and the Secretary of State’s Department been co-ordinating the advice given to the regions and to local authorities about their investment policies? Given that the credit rating agencies have been drawing attention to the weakening financial position of the Icelandic banks since February 2007, and that many months ago Moody’s downgraded them to a BBB rating—extraordinarily low for a western bank—how has it come about that local authorities have apparently lost vast sums of council tax payers’ money?

Perhaps he has other sources, but the hon. Gentleman may be referring to a report in The Daily Telegraph about the credit rating agencies’ assessment of the banks. That depiction is not wholly accurate, and I am sure that when he sees the full picture the hon. Gentleman will recognise that for a considerable period the credit ratings were relatively high in terms of local authority investments.

The guidance that we issued in 2004 tells local authorities that they must give priority to security and liquidity, and that only in that context must they look for where they can obtain the highest return. I consider our guidance to be entirely prudent and responsible. Local authorities that have followed it and ensured that they spread their investments, while at the same time prioritising security and liquidity, will have made good and well-informed investment decisions.