HC Deb 11 July 2000 vol 353 cc686-8
4. Mr. Ken Purchase (Wolverhampton, North-East)

What contribution the regional development agencies are making to the development of regional economies. [128403]

The Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. John Prescott)

The RDAs are emerging as strategic drivers of economic development in their regions. They have had an excellent first year, putting £400 million into regenerating the most deprived areas and creating or saving some 35,000 jobs—including 5,000 new jobs in the west midlands.

Mr. Purchase

My right hon. Friend played an important role in ensuring that RDAs were at the heart of Labour's economic motor in the regions. I pay tribute to what he did well before we were in government. Does he accept that the competitive agenda for the global economy as it applies to the regions is best driven along by further decentralisation to the RDAs, to improve their powers? Does he agree that the more quickly their lines of accountability can be developed, the sooner they will be able to take more control of national budgets, and thus bring about decentralisation from this place to the regions?

Mr. Prescott

I have always believed that the RDAs can play a major part in reducing disparities of economic growth within and between the regions, and in the record level of inward investment that Britain has just achieved. To that extent, I believe that the RDAs should be given more influence—and, indeed, more resources—so that they can get on with their job.

In my hon. Friend's area, the RDAs have played a significant part in regard to the Rover taskforce, which had a special job to do in diversifying the economy and at the same time encouraging new investment by, for instance, Marconi. I believe that they are already a success following their first 12 months in operation, and that the spending review will show just how important we think their future is.

Mr. Archie Norman (Tunbridge Wells)

Has the Deputy Prime Minister seen House of Commons Library research which suggests that the Government have abused the boards of the RDAs by packing them with Labour supporters and cronies? Can he confirm that RDA membership contains six times as many Labour supporters as Conservatives, and that 70 per cent. of all board members with known affiliations are Labour supporters or trade unionists? Is not the real truth that the Deputy Prime Minister has used the RDAs to extend the culture of cronyism, rewarding his friends in failed Labour councils with well-paid positions on regional quangos?

Mr. Prescott

The evidence does not show that. Clearly, we believe that the RDAs properly reflect industrial interests as well as local authority and political representation in the region. About 100 Tory councillors are involved in the regional chambers alone. About four Tory members are involved in the boards of the eight regional development agencies. The Tories did not get many votes in the last election. It was in all the papers. Did the hon. Gentleman not read it? The number is proportional to that.

We believe that the regional development agencies should be retained. Even the Tory councillors are asking us to ensure that we keep the RDAs. If Conservative Members feel so strongly about abolishing them in England, why are they leaving them in Scotland and Wales? Why should the English regions be denied the possibility of keeping RDAs?

Mr. Norman

Can the Deputy Prime Minister now confirm that the RDAs are costing £17 million in administration alone, while spending on the ground on urban regeneration has gone down compared with spending under the previous Government? Does he agree with last week's report by the Select Committee on the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs, which described regional intervention under the present Government as confused and badly co-ordinated?

Is not the real truth that the only thing that has gone up under the Deputy Prime Minister is spending on advertising in his Department, which has doubled; spending on spin doctors—there are up to 40 in the DETR, up 20 per cent. on last year; and spending on bureaucracy, on cronyism and on trips abroad? It is Britain's inner cities that are paying the price.

Mr. Prescott

I think that the House generally agrees that the interventions of the hon. Gentleman, whether in speeches or at Question Time, can lead only to the certainty that the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) will shortly replace him on the Conservative Front Bench. As for the investment of £10 million, I have already informed the House that £400 million in regeneration and 35,000 jobs have been secured by the active intervention of the regional development agencies. On its own, that is a justification for the investment, but, since we introduced development agencies in Scotland, it has seen an improvement: it went from having the seventh highest GDP in the United Kingdom in 1986 to the fourth highest. That shows the success of the development agencies in Scotland and Wales. Why does the hon. Gentleman want to deny that for the English regions, or is it just a promise made in opposition to be changed in government?

Mr. Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield)

My right hon. Friend has mentioned the work of the Rover taskforce and of Advantage West Midlands, the regional development agency there, in the economic strategy for the west midlands. Does he agree that, to deliver that economic strategy, it is vital that there is a transport infrastructure, particularly in an industrial heartland such as the west midlands, which is a major trade route from south-east to north-west and beyond

Given the fact that, between 1992 and 1999, capital investment in public transport in the west midlands was only 5 per cent. of that in the capital, does my right hon. Friend agree that it is vital that we get much more investment into our road infrastructure, our rail infrastructure and public transport in the west midlands area?

Mr. Prescott

I readily accept that there is a strong connection between the two: investment in the infrastructure and the level of economic prosperity in the regions. The RDAs are playing a part. They produced their regional plan within the first year. We are changing our planning mechanism to allow them to influence the regional transport planning structure. We must await the spending review to see how much we are prepared to put into transport.

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