HC Deb 21 July 2004 vol 424 cc316-8
3. Mrs. Lorna Fitzsimons (Rochdale) (Lab)

What assessment he has made of the effects of the Northern Way growth strategy on growth in the north. [185309]

The Deputy Prime Minister (Mr. John Prescott)

In February, I invited the three northern regional development agencies to produce a joint plan for driving up sustainable economic growth in the north, and I expect to receive that report shortly. The three northern regions, which are home to 15 million people, have excellent prospects for economic growth. To help boost the economic revival in the north and elsewhere, the spending review has increased the funding of RDAs from the current £1.8 billion to £2.3 billion in 2007–08.

Mrs. Fitzsimons

I thank my right hon. Friend, whose personal commitment to regeneration in the north is welcome, for that answer. Is he aware that the fastest economic growth in Britain is in south Manchester? He might miss a trick by not joining up the huge pools of Government investment in the regeneration of north Manchester around Rochdale and Oldham with organisations such as the Knowledge Capital Group, which maximises research and development in universities. Will he do everything in his power to make sure that we maximise public investment in north and south Manchester to make sure that we are the engine in the Northern Way?

The Deputy Prime Minister

I agree with my hon. Friend. I recently visited her constituency, where we have made a substantial investment in housing in low-demand areas through the pathfinder programme. The Northern Way is not taking over cities' roles, and it coordinates the economic assets and advantages that exist in the three regions. Rochdale has an extremely important part to play, and I was pleased to learn about its development plans, which fit into the Northern Way. The Northern Way will not replace the RDAs, which will work together for the benefit of north Manchester and Rochdale.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con)

Will the right hon. Gentleman join me in expressing disappointment that the RDAs in the north failed to deliver a rural-proofing policy in the Countryside Agency report? What progress can he make through the Northern Way growth strategy to answer that criticism?

The Deputy Prime Minister

The hon. Lady makes an important point. We develop not only urban areas but rural areas, and we have given that objective to the RDAs. I recently attended a meeting in Cumbria, where the representative from the rural board, which was the set-up before the RDAs took over, was keen to point out the increase in resources for rural areas in Cumbria. Rural areas are important parts of the region; we will not ignore them and the RDAs are directly responsible for implementing the plans that we have given them.

Mr. Peter Pike (Burnley) (Lab)

This afternoon the Northwest Development Agency will announce decisions on the aerospace innovation centre that is to be sited in Lancashire. Is that not an important part of the Northern Way policy, along with the housing renewal pathfinder project? Will it not eventually make the north-west the place to be, and make Burnley a good place for people to live and work in?

The Deputy Prime Minister

I agree with my hon. Friend, whose area benefits from the pathfinder proposals. We have also given new powers to the regional development agency to ensure that decisions on jobs, housing and infrastructure are brought together. I think the RDA has done well in that regard. The Northern Way will unite all those decisions across the three regions, and will begin to develop the assets of the north rather than allowing them to become liabilities. It is really a matter of the sum of the parts.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex) (Con)

Does not the Northern Way strategy underline two huge conflicts at the heart of the Government's entire policy? First, whatever the Deputy Prime Minister is planning to spend in the north of England, will it not be utterly dwarfed by investment in the massive 1 million homes that he plans to build in the south, east and south-east of England? Secondly, what is the purpose of setting up elected regional assemblies in the north if the Deputy Prime Minister is going to impose a strategy of his own? What is the point of the cost of all those extra politicians and bureaucrats if he is going to stick his own strategy on them and tell them what to do? That is not devolution; it is fake devolution.

The Deputy Prime Minister

The hon. Gentleman often reveals his ignorance of what is actually going on. He needs to recognise that housing problems in the north are different from those in the south. We have a lot of empty houses in the north, because there is less demand. The opposite is true in the south. If we have to deal with different problems at different costs, we must make the appropriate decisions. More resources may be used in the south, but we have made it clear that the distribution will be balanced fairly.

The Northern Way is a very imaginative idea, which came from the north itself. It was not imposed by the Government; it was presented by the three regions. We now await the taskforce report.

The regional development agency has played an important role in all this. A week ago, the hon. Gentleman said in the House that he had no intention of abolishing the RDAs. He said: We have not said that we will scrap the regional development agencies."—[Official Report, 13 July 2004; Vol. 423, c. 1262.] I do not know whether he was using the royal "we". The Tory party manifesto stated that the party would "abolish Regional Development Agencies". Is that the position of the Tory party?