My Lords, the Government believe that a regional approach is necessary to ensure that planning and investment decisions are properly integrated and to co-ordinate sub-national issues that extend beyond the boundaries of even the largest local authorities. For this reason, we have given regional assemblies the roles of regional planning body and regional housing board.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for her helpful reply. But given that, first, the regional assemblies themselves cost some £20 million each year in administrative costs alone, that, secondly, even the Government’s own local government White Paper gave scant attention to these organisations, and that, lastly, if we are quite honest, these assemblies have zero public support, in reality should not these regional assemblies, if they are not directly elected, be abolished and their powers sent back to principal local authorities?
Absolutely not, my Lords. Regional assemblies are performing a critical function. In our local government White Paper, we stressed a strong role for the regions. We are of course in favour of devolving as much power from Whitehall as possible, and regional assemblies are critical to that. As for what they actually contribute, let me just quote from a recent letter to the Daily Telegraph from a Conservative councillor who serves in the assembly for the south-east region. He pointed out that the assembly had brought,
“£500 million of transport and housing investment into the region yet the assembly only costs 50p per person per year”.
We believe that that is a wise investment and that bringing housing and planning together is an essential part of growing prosperous economies at local level.
My Lords, further to the Question, is the Minister aware that we live in probably the most over-governed country in the world? Would she therefore not agree that any increase in assemblies, county councils, district councils, parish councils and borough councils is wholly deplorable?
No, my Lords, I do not agree, strangely. It is very important that, as in the rest of Europe, we ensure that the decisions that we take and our governance are based on the right level of decision-making. That is the thrust of our local government White Paper. That is why we want to strip out the performance frameworks so that we have fewer targets, clearer objectives, clearer leadership and more powers for local government to actually deliver the sort of society that we all want to see.
My Lords, does the Minister not accept that there is a principle of democratic accountability, which increasingly seems to be undermined? These regional assemblies are not democratically accountable. In the week when it has emerged that 1,000 Parliamentary Questions were simply not answered by the Government, should not the Government look at this whole question of accountability and perhaps, in doing so, recognise why people are becoming so disillusioned with the political process?
My Lords, I agree with that in many respects. What I would argue—and I think that this would be backed up by every Conservative councillor who serves on the regional assemblies—is that there is an inbuilt democratic mandate. Five out of these eight regional assemblies are chaired by Conservatives; 70 per cent of the members are elected, which is to say that they have a democratic mandate; 75 per cent of them are either leaders or deputy leaders of their local authority; and 60 per cent of them represent the local planning authority. This is a direct influence that local authorities have on the way in which the region plans its productivity, housing and planning. It is an extremely transparent and democratic system.
My Lords, will my noble friend reassure me that she will not be led astray by claims that we are over-governed in this country? In fact, we compare very favourably with most other developed countries. The real problem in Britain is that, because we do not have a regional government structure, we are unable to get through some of the major infrastructure developments, such as those in housing, which are managed much better in continental Europe. I accept that at the moment people are not ready to have elected regional structures—although, in my view, they would be better for the country—but it is very important that we do not go on with a system that does not allow us to develop on a regional basis in the way that has been done in continental Europe. That is why we get left behind on many public sector infrastructure issues.
My Lords, my noble friend is absolutely right. Let us take examples of regional disparities that already exist: the north-east has a 70 per cent employment rate, whereas in the south-east it is 78 per cent; in terms of skills, in the north-east, 26 per cent of the working-age population have NVQ level 4 qualifications, whereas in London the figure is 40 per cent. We are still looking at the situation and we have to address regional disparities. Because we have a triangular system of government offices, regional development organisations and regional assemblies, in recent years we have been able to see a significant reduction in those disparities, so we are moving in the right direction. That is not over-government; it is ensuring that labour market failures are tackled at the right level.
My Lords, is not the problem with this country not that it is over-governed but that there is an inadequate level of democracy in many parts of the public sector? Is it not the case that, far from being the wonderful democratic organisations that the Minister described, the existing regional assemblies are totally unknown to most people, they operate in secrecy and they are gaining more and more powers over local authorities, particularly in planning, housing and similar areas, but they are not at all accountable to those local authorities? What is needed is proper elected regional government in this country with powers that are devolved from here and not taken from local authorities.
My Lords, I am interested in what the noble Lord says because sometimes it is difficult to work out where the Liberal Party stands on the question of regional assemblies. On the one hand, members of the party say that they want regional assemblies and, on the other hand, people ask for their abolition, so, as I said, it is confusing. With regard to transparency and visibility, to an extent it is up to the regional assembly to show what it does, but the planning function, for example, is extremely transparent. Every stage of the regional spatial strategy is out for consultation and it is an iterative process. People will very easily get to know what the regional assembly does at the local level.
My Lords, the term “co-ordination” was mentioned. Although it is laudable to take things as close to the people as possible, my experience of dealing with India, for example, is that there is often duplication among the regions or that one region does something and another region does not even know that it is going on. What are the Government doing about co-ordination between the regions?
My Lords, is not the Government’s case for strong regional bodies getting stronger all the time, given, as my noble friend said, the growing economic disparities between regions and the growing powers and success of devolution in Wales? Whatever uncertainties there may be in the ancestral history of the Liberal Democrats on this matter, is it not the case that, since the time of RH Tawney, the Labour Party has always stood for strong regional government?