HL Deb 01 December 2004 vol 667 cc512-40

5.37 p.m.

Lord Hanningfield rose to call attention to the current status of the regional agencies and bodies, and to the case for returning their responsibilities to elected local government; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I am pleased to have this opportunity to raise an important and significant issue that goes right to the heart of how we in this country are governed.

It is clear that both by stealth and by more transparent means the Government have systematically stripped away powers from our democratically elected local government and placed it in the hands of an unaccountable, unelected, regional quangocracy. This is a regrettable and unsustainable development. I should like to go more into that issue.

The timing of this debate could not be more appropriate. Less than a month ago the people of the north-east overwhelmingly rejected the Government's proposal for a regional assembly in that area. That was not just a rejection of a regional assembly, it was a rejection of the Government's entire regional agenda. Indeed, even the Government realised that there was no support for regional government anywhere in the country when they thankfully pulled the plug on the other two referendums in the north-west and Yorkshire and the Humber.

As an aside, I add that the entire exercise seemed to have cost around £10 million, which was enough to pay for 500 nurses or 350 policeman, when I, and I think others, had said that it was a waste of time anyway.

However, today I am trying to help the Government. I hope the Minister will respond in that way by saying where we might go in the future. Indeed, in initiating this debate I am keen to provide the Minister with an opportunity to set out where the Government go from here on the whole approach on regional issues.

Do the Government intend to carry on introducing more and more regional bodies and agencies against the seeming will of the people; or do they now recognise the strength of local government and the fact that people would rather have local people, who are accountable and democratically elected, representing them and taking decisions on their behalf?

Noble Lords may ask why this matters. That is a pertinent and important question and one that deserves a full and—I hope—considered response by the Minister. However, rather than try to answer the question myself immediately, I shall briefly cite the words from a letter to a newspaper last week. It read: We have, and now will continue for some time to have, regional government conducted in piecemeal fashion by civil servants, quangos and next-steps agencies appointed by and responsible to ministers, with minimal accountability to the regions they serve. In voting against what they perceive as bureaucracy, the people of the North East have in fact entrenched it".

The Minister may be aware of from where that quote came, but for the benefit of the House, those words were penned by Sir Jeremy Beecham, Labour leader of the Local Government Association. It is striking that such a concern should have been expressed by such a senior figure in the Labour Party and one of the most senior Labour people in local government. Perhaps the Minister could enlighten us about whether that sentiment is shared equally by colleagues in government. Although Sir Jeremy and I come from very different angles on the issue—he is in favour of regional government and, as most people will be aware, I am pretty much opposed to it—his point is valid and needs to be addressed.

We are now left with no chance of regional assemblies, certainly not for the foreseeable future, and yet with a multitude of agencies and bodies intended to be controlled and scrutinised by those assemblies but now free and unhindered to go their merry way with virtually no checks or balances. As I have mentioned several times, the areas of the so-called regions are not really in keeping with the facts on the ground, especially in England.

There is a clear democratic deficit that is now evident in a range of services that previously rested firmly in local government. Indeed, the Government have been busy in recent years removing powers and responsibilities from local authorities—we saw this in the recent planning Bill—to place them in the hands of unelected regional placemen and bureaucrats. We now have unelected and undemocratic regional housing boards, unelected and undemocratic regional fire management boards, unelected and undemocratic regional cultural consortiums, unelected and undemocratic regional development agencies, unelected and undemocratic regional observatories and unelected and undemocratic regional public health observatories.

If that was not enough, we have all these Government departments falling over themselves to get in on the regional act with bureaucratic regional offices. We have regional public health groups; regional rural affairs forums; the Housing Corporation, with four regional offices in England; the University for Industry, with an office in each region; the Sector Skills Development Agency; the Learning and Skills Council, which established a network of regional directors in January 2004; and recently, regional emergency planning services.

As the leader of a large local authority, I am especially concerned about the regional ideas that the Government have about procurement. My county, Essex, is supposed to co-operate with Norfolk, when all our procurement issues are relevant to London boroughs or Kent. That is a costly exercise as well as an undemocratic one.

No one has voted for those things; in fact, in the north-east, they voted against them. No one has asked for them to be established and no one is really sure why they are necessary and what they are going to do. It would be much best left to the counties, districts, local authorities, London boroughs and unitary authorities to get on with their job. Perhaps the most galling for all of us is the continued existence of the unelected regional chambers—rather bizarrely, after the events in the north-east, some of them are called regional assemblies.

The Minister for Local Government said in another place: The Regional Chambers are … not agencies or arms of the Government. … The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister does not hold information on the staffing and infrastructure costs incurred by each Chamber".—[Official Report, Commons, 5/5/04; col. 1604W.] However, I can reveal to your Lordships that careful analysis of the chambers' annual reports, corporate plans and accounts has revealed that the eight regional chambers in England spent £23 million in 2003–04. That expenditure is not accountable to local people. There are no direct elections to those bodies. There are no means to challenge their decisions or expenditure. One-third of the chambers are made up of community stakeholders, who have no pretence of having any democratic mandate whatsoever. Yet they vote on issues in the chambers and can change the decisions of those chambers against the political balance, as I am only too well aware in the east of England, which means that decisions are made without any democratic accountability.

Those chambers possess a variety of powers through various Acts of Parliament. No doubt the Minister will deny that they have many powers, but we shall come to that in a moment. Those powers were granted on the presumption that elected regional assemblies would follow but we now know that that will not happen. Something must therefore be done to redress that democratic deficit and make certain that decisions are taken by democratically elected people. I hope that the Minister will agree that that issue needs to be addressed urgently. Obviously, the Government should consider what has happened because of the recent vote in the north-east, with no possibility of any regional assembly being created for a long while.

I know that the Minister would like to get up—I am surprised that he has not so far, but he will soon—to say that many Conservatives are actively involved in those assemblies and chair some of them. However, now that each chamber has some statutory powers, such as planning, people feel that they should be involved in the decisions taken, even if they do not wholly approve of them. As the Minister has said several times, those bodies are voluntary—perhaps we will talk about that later. I know that several local authorities are wondering about not participating in them, although they would still have to be involved in planning decisions, because that is now the law of the land. There is debate among local authorities about the desirability of participating in those regional forums.

Given the choice, we would all scrap those bodies and return the powers to local councils. We have heard many times that the Conservatives created the Government Offices for the Regions. However, I remember talking to John Gummer when he created them. They were created to be an arm of the Civil Service. We have always had government departments sited out of London and they were put together to make things work better. They were there to establish a light-touch, interdepartmental co-ordination and nothing more. In the eastern region, we had a highways office in Bedford, an agricultural office in Cambridge and an educational office someone else, which were brought together. Those offices had been there for many years and were put together not to pervert local democracy but to make things work.

Even the Government admitted in a Cabinet Office report: among the array of separate regional and sub-regional bodies, the purpose and remit of some of these can be unclear, incomplete and sometimes overlap with others without clear reason". The running costs of the Government Offices for the Regions for 2003–04 was £124 million, compared to £86 million in 1997–98, a rise of 44 per cent. The programme expenditure budgets have similarly grown in size, with ever greater interference in the work of local councils.

I cannot remember a time when councils could get on with delivering quality public services to local people without some kind of government interference. I admit that my government did plenty of that. Fortunately, Conservatives have seen the light. I thought that the Labour Party had when it was in opposition, but governments tend to want to get too involved with local government and not let it get on with the job. That is evident from what we have seen in the past few years.

The fact remains that there is a remoteness of regional government. As I said, if one wants regional government, let us consider most of Europe, where the regions are smaller than the average size of counties in this country. It is only in countries such as Germany that they are as big—and the Länder, were ex-countries anyway, such as Bavaria or Hanover and in Austria and Spain. The regions of all the other countries in Europe, including France, are smaller than most of our large counties.

There is no evidence that the regional government that the Government proposed would have delivered any services better than democratically elected local government—county councils, district councils, London boroughs or unitaries. There was no reason to create artificial areas rather than our existing natural areas. Genuine decentralisation should be to local councils, not regional quangos and so on. Regional government is distant from local communities. In my county of Essex, we have 11 district councils and about 30 communities. It would be much better if more decisions could be taken in each community, so that people could judge what they wanted for themselves. It is much better to decentralise downwards than to centralise upwards.

The result in the north-east is a clear mandate that the people of this country do not want regional government. I hope that the Government will accept that now and try to remedy the situation. I hope that we all want to roll hack centralism and let local people make their own decisions. I ask the Minister today to make a commitment on behalf of the Government to abandon the regional idea and give powers back to local government, where they rightly belong. I beg to move for Papers.

5.51 p.m.

Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank

My Lords, when the outcome of the north-east referendum was declared and the Government made their statement, the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, was entitled to say "I told you so". The Conservative Front Bench is entitled to say that once again in the context of this debate.

Unlike the noble Lord, with his distinguished record, my direct experience of local government was brief. For four years, I was a councillor in the old St Marylebone Borough Council, before it merged with Westminster and Paddington, and the arrival of the GLC. But as a child I learnt to read on the proofs of the Liverpool council agenda when my father was a local government officer. I mention that only to establish my modest credentials.

I want to look at the history of the north-east referendum and its lessons. The outcome had been anticipated in the closing days of the campaign, but the majority "No" vote was much larger than expected, and on a respectable 48 per cent of the electorate. For those of us who hoped that the north-east would choose the limited regional government on offer, there is no point in ducking the result. It was my own strong preference, as it had been for 40 years.

In 1964, when I was a junior Minister in the Department of Economic Affairs (DEA) in Harold Wilson's new government, I began to set up the regional economic planning councils and boards. They were to cover the whole of England; Scotland and Wales made separate arrangements. The momentum grew from the problems of the northeast. I was the Member of Parliament for Stockton-on-Tees and fully aware of the high, persistent unemployment that had characterised the 1930s with the so-called "distressed" areas. Now the long postwar years of economic growth had come to an end, and we were again comparing between the relatively prosperous south and the accelerating decline of the north.

George Brown, my ministerial boss, Deputy Prime Minister and First Secretary of State, a role parallel to that of John Prescott, was preoccupied with the national plan and prices and income problems. I was allowed a good deal of freedom to put the regional structure together and commend the appointments of the economic and planning councils. Within 18 months, my task was almost complete, despite the scepticism of the Treasury, the hostility of the Board of Trade and the jealousy of the Ministry of Housing and Local Government. They had virtually no executive powers, and there was no absence of democratic accountability; but it was, I thought, the tentative beginnings of regional government, and the north-east would always take the lead.

Even before the end of the first Wilson government, regional planning lost momentum. Ministers began to worry about urban decay in London and major cities, and serious pockets of economic, industrial and social deprivation, even in prosperous areas. There was no real enthusiasm among most Cabinet members. In 1970, there was a change of government. Regionalism persisted but the possibility of regional government drifted away. It was almost a whole generation before the Labour Party began to take the regions seriously again.

I tell this story because it is relevant to the events leading to the referendum. Clearly, there was a lot of cross-voting in the region, which is still overwhelmingly Labour in parliamentary elections. Some Liberal Democrats, too, may have voted "No", despite a firm and longstanding commitment to regional government.

It would have been entirely legitimate for the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, to score points against the Government but I doubt whether the outcome of the referendum will have any significant influence on how votes fall in the general election. The referendum was a special event, a one-off. But, as the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, said, there are certainly lessons about government—at all levels—and what the public and voters want. Those who applaud the verdict may not be wholly comfortable about the reasons.

Voters in the north-east referendum do not appear to have been enthusiastic about local councillors or anticipated regional councillors. That may be unfair, as most work hard and well, but voters did not want more of the same, with councillors seen to be going from one committee to another, collecting their expenses. There was scepticism about costs, including capital costs, given the building costs of the new Scottish Parliament—although it may be a fine building—and other recent capital projects. Taxpayers did not believe that the running costs of the assembly would be transferred from Westminster to the north-east with a zero net outcome.

But the central question was: what was the assembly for? The voters had not been convinced by an adequate reply. The people of Tyne, Wear, Tees and adjacent areas came together in the 1960s and 1970s because they shared in longstanding economic and social problems. But that political imperative is perceived to have declined. Among 100 constituencies with the worst unemployment, there are only six in the north-east. There is serious unemployment and deprivation—for example, in South Shields, Middlesbrough and Tyne Bridge—but, broadly, the north-east feels that it shares in Britain's current impressive prosperity. There is confidence and optimism, and the cloth cap has gone.

In passing, I mention in particular the regeneration of the Tyne, which has been a great success. The new music centre, The Sage, in Gateshead, with its concert hall designed by Norman Foster, has just been opened. The Baltic arts centre has already been working for several years.

I hear the argument in today's Motion that the responsibilities of non-elected regional agencies and bodies should pass to existing local authorities, as regionalism has, apparently, collapsed. However, we should not take it for granted that voters would trust in the transfer of those powers, when local government is so often unpopular. Nor am I convinced that the functions of such bodies are necessarily appropriate to the locality, rather than to the region.

When the Government decided to pursue regional government, they adopted a modest and limited proposal: they would give the regions only the minimum powers to justify their creation. The Government did not choose, as they should have done, the optimum powers that would be most effective in serving the regions. It is not surprising, even in the north-east, that there was no enthusiasm for change, in the absence of any new political imperative. Next time—a time will eventually come—there must be a real agenda of substance, demonstrating that cost-effective powers can be transferred from Westminster to the regions to meet the relevant needs of the regions.

6.1 p.m.

Baroness Byford

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Hanningfield for giving us a chance tonight to debate this important issue. As the Minister will know, there can be nobody in the House who supports local government at the lowest level more than I. My rural brief is part of my Defra brief, and it is important that government is as local as it can be. The Minister will not be surprised to hear that I said, "Thank goodness", when I heard that the north-east had given a big thumbs-down to what was being proposed up there.

It was interesting to hear the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank, say that he thought that the assembly would not have had enough powers. I suspect that, even if more powers had been on offer, the electorate would still have said, "No". That is something to which we will, no doubt, return.

Three quarters of the 48 per cent who voted in the north-east said "No". I believe that people considered that the assembly would be a waste of money. The exercise of organising the referendum cost £10 million—how very much better that money could have been used.

The regional development agencies are still there. They were created in 1998. I come from the east Midlands area, which links Lincolnshire, Leicestershire, Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire and, I think, Northamptonshire—I hope that I am right about that. People in places that I visit in Lincolnshire are still concerned that, within the RDA area, they are the losers. The big conurbations tend to command more of the money because that is where more of the electorate lives. The role of the RDAs ought to be re-examined. They cost £1.8 billion a year and employ 1,800 staff. Yet, as others have said, we still have eight Government Offices in regions outside London.

One of my questions for the Minister—he will be grateful that I do not have 17 on this occasion, unlike the previous time that I debated with him—is whether the Government have considered making better or slightly different use of those eight Government Offices, after what happened in the referendum in the north-east. Do the Government envisage that they will continue as they are? Will the Government consider examining the RDAs as they are now? As my colleague said, they are unelected, unaccountable and made up of a variety of people, including councillors, trade unionists, cultural networks, pressure groups and others. Will the Government question the purpose of what they do?

One of the aspects that worries me is on the planning side. There are planning issues that perhaps need to be considered on a basis wider than county level. That is just one of the minor issues, but there are issues about the responsibilities of the RDAs. Could they be transferred to the Government Offices? Have the Government considered that?

As my noble friend said, the Government Offices cost £124 million in 2003–04, compared with £86 million in 1997. One has to wonder what on earth they do and what extra responsibilities they carry that have made that figure go up so radically. Did they—do they still—overlap with the RDAs? Are there things that could be separated from them?

As I said, I am a great believer in local government. I was born in the village in which I live. My brother is a parish councillor and a county councillor. My other brother—sadly, he has died—was also a county councillor. Most of my early working life—as a volunteer in this instance—was with the WRVS in Leicestershire. We were very involved in local community activities and did a tremendous amount of work across the board. The one thing that came out so clearly was the value of community living and community links, in addition to the services that we provided. When I talk to people who live in towns about what goes on in villages, they say, "You are so lucky that you still have a community spirit". I worry that that will be dissipated, if the Government do not rethink where we are going.

The Minister and I have debated the role of parish councils at some length. I know that the Government are concerned that, in some areas, parish councillors are thin on the ground and parishes struggle to get people who are willing to stand. For me, that is no answer. I am sure that the lowest electoral level is where many decisions could be made.

Planning is still a worry for many in the smaller rural areas. In some villages, a large amount of growth has been allocated. However, in some smaller villages, there is a possibility that two, three, four, half a dozen houses could be approved to become affordable housing. Sometimes, that can be difficult. The parish council will suggest it, but it will be overruled elsewhere.

I toss two suggestions to the Minister. The first is that the Government should consider declaring that ex-farm buildings could be treated as brownfield sites. That would help to relieve matters and encourage some sort of new build. Secondly, I encourage the Minister to consider ways to continue to support post offices in the rural network. They are a hub. In fairness, I acknowledge that the Government have put some money towards that.

As noble Lords will gather, I believe very much in local government, but my noble friend's asked the Minister the right questions: having had the result in the north-east, where will they go from here and what will happen? Obviously, the Government set the ethos as regards the services that should be provided locally and then pass responsibilities down—at the moment predominantly to county councils or metropolitan districts. The one thing that has worried us over the years and is still relevant is that, although local communities are willing to undertake the work, there must be sufficient funds to ensure that they can carry out their extra responsibilities properly.

One of the things that will exercise the mind of electors when they go to vote in May will be the huge increase in the local government taxes that they pay. One of the difficult things that local councillors have to explain is that they are carrying extra responsibilities as a result of national policies. They must carry those responsibilities out and, at the end of the day, somebody has to pay for it.

There is an opportunity here for the Government to think again and determine whether they can see ways of returning more responsibility to the local level—be it at county, district or parish level. I hope to encourage the noble Lord to consider that. In humility, perhaps I may suggest that that could be done in the most flexible way. We sometimes become too rigid.

I shall give one small example of post offices. In some villages, it has become very difficult to maintain sub post offices. Indeed, last year in Leicestershire, a church opened a sub post office on Tuesday and Thursday mornings for only three hours. That may be just a drop in the ocean, but it is much better to maintain something that is valued not just for the service that it provides, but also for the social link and community work in which it is involved.

I hope that the Government will stand back, will not sulk—I know that this Minister will not because he is far too practical—will reassess where they are and will address where we should go in the future. I thank my noble friend for this opportunity.

6.11 p.m.

Lord Greaves

My Lords, this is the first time that have had an opportunity to say anything about regions since the ill-fated north-east referendum. If Members on the Conservative Front Bench are saying to the Government, "I told you so", I certainly also say, "I told you so". The referendum was a complete botch the whole way through and the Government got exactly what they deserved.

I kept well out of it. I took the view that it was not my job to interfere with what my colleagues in the north-east might or might not wish to do. But had I been an elector in the north-east, I would have voted "No". One of my reasons for that is that I am a passionate believer in devolution to the English regions, particularly to those regions in the north of England. Devolution to the north-east was simply not on offer in the referendum that took place. I disagree with many of my colleagues on that but, at heart, I think we agree on what we want to see.

It is interesting that not very long ago regions were at the top of the political agenda and many noble Lords attended debates in this House. Such debates have obviously dropped to the very bottom of the agenda now judging by the number of people who wish to speak today. However, for some of us the regions will remain an important political issue, which we will keep on the agenda. I hope that we will continue to fight hard for proper elected regional government in England, exercising powers that are devolved from Westminster and Whitehall and not taken from local government. I should remind the House that I am an elected member of Pendle Borough Council.

Originally, there were going to be three referendums—in the north-west, the north-east and Yorkshire/Humber. The Government dropped two of them. They did not dare to go to the polls without an all-postal ballot because they thought that no one would be interested, which I think has been proved wrong. Two of the referendums were scrapped supposedly because the Electoral Commission thought that it would not be safe to have all-postal ballots in Yorkshire and the northwest.

Your Lordships will know that I am fairly strongly against all-postal ballots. In fact, I am very sceptical about widespread postal voting of all kinds because it is wide open to fiddling in all sorts of ways, as I have experienced. My noble friend Lord Roper on the Front Bench is laughing. So, to be absolutely clear, perhaps I should say that I have been on the receiving end of it.

The idea that people would spend a lot of time rigging a poll on regional government was nonsense. The elections that people rig are marginal seats, particularly in local government. There, incomes or councillors' allowances of £5,000, £10,000, £20,000 or more a year might be at stake, which is very important, or there may be other reasons for someone desperately wanting to be a local councillor. A poll may be rigged by getting perhaps only 100 or 150 votes in illegal ways, thus changing what happens in a ward. The idea that that could be done across a region was always rather fanciful.

The real reason the referendums were scrapped was that the Government believed, on the basis of private polling and other measures, that they could not win a referendum in the north-west or in Yorkshire. They did believe that they could win in the north-east because early polls suggested that that would be the case. Interestingly, the more that people found out what was on offer and what was going to be done, the fewer the number of people who were going to vote for it.

I agree entirely with my noble friend Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank who, in what I thought was a most distinguished speech, pointed out that the main reason people were not sold the assembly in the north-east was that they thought that there was nothing on offer worth voting for. There were other reasons, such as the poor campaign. I have friends in the north-east who wanted to campaign for the "Yes" vote, but they found that it was very difficult to do so as part of the very centralised, tightly organised and fairly incompetent campaign that was run. There was also a lack of enthusiasm on the ground in some areas where the existing local government structure was to be torn up and replaced.

It is interesting that that does not appear to have been a major factor in the proportion of voting in the referendum. There is not a correlation between the proportion of voting against and the type of local government. The real correlation that seems to exist is that the further one moved away from Newcastle, the more people voted against. So the highest proportions were in places such as northern Northumberland, which is two tier, and Cleveland in the south, which is already unitary.

It is an interesting thought that people really were not concerned about decision making from London; they were concerned about decision making from the main city within a region. Living in a peripheral part of the north-west, I think that that would have happened in the north-west as well.

The question is: will regions go away? This is where I differ from the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, and the noble Baroness, Lady Byford. I do not think that regions will go away. It is true that there is a proliferation of bodies in the regions; some of which perhaps could be rationalised, some of which could be done away with. There are government offices, regional development agencies, boards, agencies, trusts, partnerships, various corporate charities, networks and foundations—a whole plethora of new Labour "quangocracy" is taking over this country at regional, local and every level.

Nevertheless, the question we ought to ask is whether regions should go away. I accept that in the south-east there are problems of defining which regions there should be, but in the rest of the country there is no doubt that regions exist. The north-west exists. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, will not agree with me on that as we have had many debates.

But there is no doubt whatever that regions exist in those areas. There is a legitimate level of decision making at that regional level which is greater than the locality. If it is not exercised at regional level, it will be exercised here in London. I believe that even if they are unelected and even if it is a matter of bureaucracies, the people making decisions in the north-west will make better decisions if they live and work in the north-west than if they live and work in the south-east and in London. That is a difference of opinion, but to me it is fundamental.

What is the way forward? Some of my Liberal Democrat colleagues have suggested that perhaps we should convene a new convention of the three regions in the north, which should come together on the lines of the Scottish Convention and decide the way forward. My view is that that is at least premature and would not have any value at the moment. We have had conventions—we had a convention in the north-west which came up with proposals for much better and stronger devolution and regional government than the Government were prepared to concede. If there is not the political will in the Government, going through that whole exercise again would be a waste of time.

In addition, we have to rethink ourselves. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, that if we had referendums now in any of the northern regions, even for the sort of proper regional government that I and my party would like to see, we would find it very difficult to get "Yes" votes.

We have to go back and rethink this from scratch. In my view, the basic principles are that decision-making should take place at the lowest appropriate level. However, it is clear that the Government do not adhere to that policy, given how they are putting local government into an ever tighter stranglehold of control almost week by week. They try to tell people what to do and to micro-manage the whole of the public sector in the country through the complex new quangocracy which has been set up. We do not agree with that. We want to devolve far more power to the local level.

Surely one of the preconditions of getting people to accept, support and be enthusiastic about regional government in the future has to be a strengthening of local government rather than the threat that local people have so far perceived regional government to be. We have an initiative in the north of England called the Northern Way which the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, is pursuing and which is typical of the way the Government now deal with regional policy. It is all top down. The only way in which local authorities, for example, are involved is by being called to occasional conferences to be told what is happening. There is no consultation, no involvement and absolutely no democracy.

I shall make two brief points. First, let us reinvigorate local government before we look again at regional government, otherwise there will be no chance at all of getting people to agree to it. Secondly, given that these unelected regional assemblies already exist and are now taking on very important powers, particularly in the planning area, and that they will have an increasing influence over regional issues such as regional plans, we have to look hard at their composition and role. It is entirely wrong that one-third of the representation on these bodies is made up of what someone described as "community stakeholders". "Stakeholder" is a word I would not use myself although, with some reluctance, I will quote someone else using it because it sums up everything that is wrong with new Labour's approach to community government.

I do not object to these organisations being involved but they have no democratic mandate—even if it is a secondary mandate through councillors being indirectly appointed to the bodies—and it is entirely wrong for them to have the powers which they may be given, certainly in planning terms.

In order to try to give regional assemblies more democratic credibility, I would reorganise them and put all the MPs for each region on to the assembly and give local government an equal number of places and votes to those held by the MPs. If we want to make regional government and regional assemblies genuinely important— and regarded as such by local people and properly reported by the local media—the main tier of elected officials ought to be represented on them.

Moreover, once we do that, given that MPs are elected to Westminster, if they go back to their regions and take part in decision-making there, we shall see a sort of organic devolution implicit in that. I think that that proposal ought to be taken very seriously indeed.

Having said that, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, for introducing this interesting debate.

6.23 p.m.

Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville

My Lords, it is a privilege to follow the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, whose experience of local government is voluminous. Although in the 1960s I served for 18 months in the London Borough of Camden, in the years when 18 months on Camden Council were worth 18 years elsewhere, I bow my knee to the much greater knowledge of the noble Lord. I have consistently admired his independence in your Lordships' House and, indeed, within his own party. I strongly agree with his remarks about taking decisions at the lowest possible level, and I also strongly agree with him on the sterility of the concept of stakeholders.

One of the historians in my party said in his chapter on local government that my party's local government policies lost their way for a while in the last half century when they were no longer conceived and guided by those senior members of the party who actually had long experience of local government themselves. The Burkean wisdom of the ages in delegating power downwards was upset by the present Mayor of London in the late 1970s and early 1980s when he put together an alliance of 20 or so major local authorities to challenge the ancient concordat that it was the Treasury's responsibility to set overall national economic policy, but that local government could otherwise have considerable local spending freedom. I fear that centralised control on local government and local government spending was the unfortunate consequence of that breakdown in the concordat.

It is therefore a profound relief, certainly to me, that my noble friend Lord Hanningfield, whom I have known in the local government context for nearly 20 years, and my noble friend Lady Hanham, who led the Royal Borough so ably as a neighbour to the Cities of London and Westminster which I represented in the other place, should have such salient positions today in the formulation of our party's local government policies. I congratulate my noble friend Lord Hanningfield on the passion with which he spoke last month on the Government's Statement after the referendum result in the north-east, just as I congratulate him on his dual successes today in securing this debate which he then so relevantly opened.

And the wisdom of the ages remains important. When the Minister, whom your Lordships' House so admires—those are very genuine words—moved on 20 February last year the Second Reading of the Regional Assemblies (Preparations) Bill, his opening speech lasted 21 minutes with no interventions, but his wind-up speech lasted 37 minutes with 17 interventions—and all the more credit to him for that. I did not myself intervene, but he had kindly responded to my remarks about the wisdom of the ages in that debate by saying that: The noble Lord is right: we should learn lessons from the past for when we go in for such changes. In the forthcoming period … I hope we will be able to show that we have done that". —[Official Report, 20/2/03; col. 1330.] The purpose of tonight's debate is to test how far that is true.

In the Reader's Digest atlas of the 1970s, a page is devoted to the colour of hair which shows a precise contemporary correlation with how far the Vikings got. At about the same time as that atlas was published, a friend of mine went to live near Cambridge. After he had been there for around 18 months, he found himself at a cocktail party talking to a military looking man who said, "Haven't seen you before. Where are you from?". My chap replied, "We have been here about 18 months, but before that we lived in Somerset for several centuries". "Ah, Royalists, are you?", said the military looking man. "You'll find we're mainly Cromwellians around here". The English are a slow-moving nation.

Although at least one relevant Minister in the present administration thought that they owed their defeat in the north-east—which I understand is known in Whitehall as "4/11"—to not having moved fast enough, I think that regionalisation by stealth was probably always the Government's best bet. Whether it was or not, it has now saddled us with empowered regional planning boards and regional spatial strategies and, incidentally, with the chaos that now underlies the Government's essay into regional planning policy in relation to the Gambling Bill where top down now rules again. The structure, in the absence of an advance on a wider front through an adverse majority of four to one in the north-east, is inevitably beginning to look like a house of cards, and a pretty ramshackle one at that.

I realise that regionalism is the Euro-flavour of the decade, but I have always had my doubts since the Commission decided that the heart of London was the richest area in the European Union by the process of dividing the GDP that was created there by the number of residents in the area and ignoring the hundreds of thousands of workers who commute into the capital every day to work. They come in either from the rest of London, the Home Counties or, nowadays, even further afield.

When we were planning the long route march to normality in Northern Ireland, we always had to secure base camps at each level of that Everest before we could contemplate the next ascent towards the summit. I suppose that the Government have had a similar concept about regionalism, but we are now condemned to shiver on a freezing saddle or a frozen shoulder after the apocalyptic rejection of regional assemblies, and it will be for the party on these Benches to restore the blood circulation to demoralised local government in due course.

The great Winston Churchill, whose memorial gates were dedicated in the crypt of St Paul's yesterday, was no great enthusiast for local government. He turned down the presidency of the Local Government Board in the Liberal government after 1906 on the grounds that he was not prepared to be cooped up in a soup kitchen with Mr and Mrs Sidney Webb. But he did understand, when he returned to office in 1951, what his government had to change and achieve—like the building of 300,000 houses a year, to give a single example in the area in which we are talking. His first Leader of the House in that Parliament, Captain Harry Crookshank, said in winding-up the first Queen's Speech debate, that most returning governments, roaming the rooms of the departmental Ministries that their predecessors had just deserted, find skeletons in the closets, but in their case they had found them swinging from the chandeliers.

If on our return to office we are not true to our traditions of trusting the people and restoring authority to well-tried channels of local government, we shall be condemning the local government arena to the sterile fate of the character in Saki, who had to have his 21st birthday three years running because until his mother moved off 35 any other action would have embarrassed her.

Finally, there is another consideration, which has not been alluded to in any of the speeches so far, that has a wider dimension than local government in tonight's debate. If English regional government is going nowhere, what is the new answer to the West Lothian question? We shall not even have a fig-leaf to match the precision of one of my favourite military heroes, the Scots private in a military hospital in Iraq in the First World War who, when asked by a visiting general the ambiguous question as to where he had been wounded, replied that he had been wounded three miles the Ardnamurchan side of Baghdad. He gave a precise answer to an ambiguous question. By comparison, time is slowly and silently running out on any answers at all to the precise question that Tam Dalyell posed a quarter of a century ago, and that silence is in due course bound to have repercussions for this Government at the United Kingdom level.

6.32 p.m.

Baroness Scott of Needham Market

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, for securing the debate today and for so ably introducing the topic. I also thank all other noble Lords who have contributed. The noble Lord and I are both county councillors from the East of England. We are both passionately committed to local government, but at that point, agreement between us would probably stop. I am sure that he is mightily relieved that after the wilderness years of the last government in which powers were dragged away from local authorities to the centre, that his party has now seen the light and undergone a Damascene conversion. I am touched by the faith that he and the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, demonstrate in their party's change of heart.

A friend of mine recently showed me his very first election address. As a rather gawky 21 year-old he stood as a Liberal candidate in the first 1974 general election for a seat in the north-west. He showed me his election address and there was his commitment to fight for regional government for the north-west. I was rather pleased to hear some more of the historical context for this debate from my noble friend Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank. It makes me reflect on why Liberal Democrats and their predecessor parties have always had such a passionate commitment to regionalism. To my mind there are three elements that are related but can be separated out.

First, as we heard from my noble friend Lord Rodgers, there is the question of regional disparity with regard to housing costs, labour markets, transport links, health outcomes, poverty and so forth and his remarks demonstrate how many years of the centralising policies that characterised successive governments in this country have created this situation. We passionately believe that devolving decisions down to the regions in question would help to break this vicious circle. In some areas, policy-making which can work with the grain of regional diversity instead of trying to create a national one-size-fits-all policy would be hugely helpful.

The second element is to determine whether services that are currently delivered nationally would be more effective and efficient if they were delivered regionally. In certain areas we believe that the answer is an emphatic "yes"—they would be better delivered regionally. To use transport as an example, there is a growing feeling among many providers and academics in the transport field that we would be better served if transport were looked at regionally in terms of major projects and investments with councils dealing with smaller-scale items. As an example, within the rail industry a national perspective would inevitably lead to the dominance of the south-east commuter markets over all the other regions, to their detriment. Devolving transport expenditure to the regions would allow them to make priorities according to their own needs.

Thirdly, a need for regionalism arises because there are areas in which it makes sense for regions or sub-regions to act as strategic co-ordinators of local policy. In the case of inward investment, for example, does it really make sense for a lot of local councils individually to be spending money on poaching business from the council next door when by co-ordinating their efforts genuinely new investment could be created? A lot of valuable work is going on at regional level in developing links with foreign investors. It helps to break down the tendency that investors have to look no further than London and the south-east.

Local councils working together can create a critical mass. Just this week, we have seen what councils working together in the South East England Regional Assembly have been able to do in terms of reducing the housing figure imposed on them by central government—or at least challenging it.

The noble Baroness, Lady Byford, is the champion of power to local government. On these Benches, so are we, but that does not stop us recognising that certain decisions are not best made by local councils alone. Even the noble Baroness has recognised that in the case of strategic planning, for example, local authorities need to be working together. Sometimes, even a county council is not sufficiently large to do that. She was rather dismissive of strategic planning as an issue, but it does not come much more important than housing, roads, water supplies and all the things that make up strategic planning.

Even if we were to agree on the factors that point in the direction of regionalism, there may not be agreement between us on how best regionalism could be set up to deliver it. At one end of the spectrum one could have directly elected regional assemblies with tax-raising powers, like mini-parliaments. We could have indirectly elected bodies, co-operative arrangements or decentralisation and the creation of quangos. There is a lot of nuance running through all that.

As the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, said, for the English regions there is no real history of devolution, and there is no English equivalent to Scottish and Welsh nationalism except perhaps in Cornwall. English regions will be of use and will command public support only if they are substantial and have real powers that can demonstrate proper value to the citizens. It is rather ironic that it was the creation by a Conservative government of regional government offices which opened this whole Pandora's box. I accept that at the time they meant nothing really beyond the disbursement of central administration. It was not devolution in any sense and it barely qualified as decentralising. Nevertheless, it was a significant step in establishing current regional boundaries and moving in a direction of travel towards regionalism. I do not believe that they can absolve themselves of responsibility for that.

The incoming Labour Government, to give them credit, recognised the need for greater regional economic development and created the regional development agencies. Those bodies have done some valuable work and have significant budgets: by 2008, their combined budgets are due to rise to £2.6 billion. The problem is that they are still creatures of central government, by and large—their funding and targets are set by central government, and they are only marginally linked to the voluntary regional assemblies, which face the task of attempting to link their economic development strategies with the much wider social and environmental objectives, which the local authorities working in the assemblies have to face.

The whole picture is further muddied by the vast number of quangos responsible for investment in a range of areas, from housing to pollution and from theatres to European grants. Yet it is the voluntary regional assemblies, with no real powers or budgets, which have the sole link to the electorate, by virtue of being composed of elected councillors. The fact that they are not on any real statutory footing means that when the Government need a statutory body, such as the regional housing boards, they have to create a new one from scratch rather than use the assemblies. The only exception has been planning, when the Secretary of State can decide that a regional assembly can assume statutory planning powers. So the one real power given to the regional assemblies has been filched from local government and not passed down from central government.

It is no wonder that people are baffled. What is so amazing is that the current regional morass is not the result of an accumulation of historic factors but has been created in something less than a decade. It is no wonder that people in the north-east felt unable to vote for the weak assembly that was on offer to them, particularly when their choice was muddled by an enforced local government reform. It is very sad that the Government pressed ahead with those proposals despite a clear warning from noble Lords on these Benches and others that building a convincing campaign with such a poor regional vision would be nigh-on impossible. Indeed, some Liberal Democrats, such as my noble friend Lord Greaves, found themselves unable to support the chosen form of assembly because it was such a pale imitation of regional government as we understand and believe in it.

All the evidence is that public interest in political institutions is directly linked to the powers that they are perceived to have. That is why turnout in parliamentary elections is higher than in others. As it is, the prospect of directly elected regional government has now faded into the far distant future, leaving behind a morass of regional arrangements that fail the basic tests of accountability and transparency. Our party is currently reviewing all aspects of the regional agenda to see how joint working between central and local government, between quangos and the private sector, can best be achieved. It may be that there is a role for Members of Parliament—even, goodness knows, a role for Members of your Lordships' House—in a reformed system.

We agree with the Conservative Benches that the role of local government should be strengthened—but, unlike them, we have always believed that to be the case. But it is still wrong to assume that all functions can be carried out at a local level. Some sit very comfortably at an intermediate regional level. It is all very well for the noble Lord, Lord Hanninglield, to refer to Essex but, as we have heard, it is a huge county. Very few local authorities can match it for strategic capability and they cannot be judged against it.

We accept, with sadness, that the prospect of directly elected regional assemblies has faded into the distant future. We hope that as we move on the Government will avoid a one-size-fits-all policy and that they will reflect the variable needs and demands across the country. Future policy should build on existing voluntary arrangements and seek to strengthen, not diminish, local government. All decision-making should be based on structures that are transparent and in some way democratically accountable. Within those parameters, on these Benches we shall work towards a sustainable framework of regional and local government in future.

I notice, with regret, that there is not a single Labour Back-Bench speaker present at this debate. The Government must resolve their own internal dilemma on this question. Surrendering the levers of power once they have their hands on them is a difficult thing for any government to do, but partial reforms in that direction, hedged with caveats, apologetically put to the public, have resulted in the mess that we have now. I urge them either to leave things alone or to have the courage of their convictions and do the job properly.

6.43 p.m.

Baroness Hanham

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Hanningfield for leading this important debate. It has not aroused the greatest attention of the Members of this House. It has aroused no attention at all on the Minister's Benches, as the noble Baroness, Lady Scott of Needham Market, pointed out, but it has flushed out one or two extremely thoughtful and helpful speeches.

I should also like to thank very much the noble Lords on my Benches who supported us today. The noble Baroness, Lady Byford, has plenty to do without joining in on an issue such as this. She carries in her experience a great deal of knowledge about rural life, which becomes extremely important in terms of local government and who administers it. It is not the first time that she has drawn attention to the issue of "small extensions" to villages. I am sure that we will keep returning to that issue. I think that the issue of post offices also will be in everyone's mind for some time, particularly as it is very relevant at the moment.

My noble friend Lord Brooke has saved me having to declare my interest as a sitting local government councillor. I thank him for his kind comments and also for one of his unique contributions. One of the great pleasures of this House is to listen to people such as my noble friend, who brings not only erudition but humour and great common sense to our debate. He raised in his contribution a problem that, as things stand, will never go away—the West Lothian question.

Most of the speeches have drawn attention to the unacceptable aftermath of the Government's frolic into referendum campaigns for elected assemblies. The defeats from which the Government suffered—having to abandon two of their chosen regions because of an evident lack of support and confidence in the delivery of the electoral system, and the subsequent rejection by a substantial majority of the electorate in the northeast of the proposition—have left this policy initiative in tatters. Mercifully, however, it has left England intact, something for which I think we are all heartily grateful.

I was extremely interested in the historical recollections of the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers. Most of us probably did not know or appreciate what he told us—that, originally, he was at the heart of all this. The base of regionalisation was certainly not, as the noble Baroness, Lady Scott of Needham Market, maintained, the Conservatives' move into Government Offices. That was a move to pull together administration in order to make it more efficient, not to make a political contribution to our system.

As a number of speakers said, the results of the referendum have also left unanswered questions about the proper tiers of government and diverted attention from the insidious transfer of decision-making to regionally based quangos.

Since 1997, each piece of legislation from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, and there has been plenty, has created ever more regional bodies—regional development agencies, regional chambers, planning hoards, housing boards, fire and rescue authorities—all of which have a powerful role in deciding the strategy associated with their particular remit, and those are just the ones associated with the Minister's own department. As my noble friend Lord Hanningfield said, there are innumerable other bodies, spawned from other ministries including the important learning and skills councils.

Regions are a cuckoo in the nest of local government, as is their strategic role which overrides elected local government at other tiers. The regions include counties, cities, towns, villages and parishes, all of which already have democratically accountable local government and have competing interests and concerns. The decision by the electorate in the northeast and the manifest lack of interest in regional government in the other two putative but abandoned election areas should have caused the Government to reel back their enthusiasm for regionalism and reconsider whether there was indeed any future for it.

For years, this country's—and I suppose that for today's purposes I must speak only of England—elected local government has been based on historic county and metropolitan areas, districts, boroughs and parishes. They are recognised accountable entities with accepted roles, responsibilities and powers. So should the Government not now be considering, as indeed has been alluded to by my noble friend Lady Byford, how they can reinvigorate them as the true representatives and voices of local communities?

Had it not been for the efforts of this House, counties would have been stripped not only of their planning responsibilities, but of having any role at all in the future planning of their areas. It was not only these Benches, it was the Liberal Democrat Benches as well; but between us we managed to draw some common sense into that situation.

Heaven knows, little enough is now left to counties but an input into the strategic plans. The Government's sustainable communities plan and Kate Barker's report on housing envisage proposals for huge increases in housing, mostly across the south-east but affecting the northern parts of the country as well. Indeed her report recommended that regional strategic planning and housing boards should be combined, creating a mammoth of unelected power. It is our view that decisions about matters as important as these should not be taken at either national or regional level, but by elected local government. Education, planning, and housing are matters either for individual local authorities, or for a combination of one or two working in partnership. It will be instructive to see what the Government's response is to the South East England Development Agency's response to the insistence that 750,000 houses should be built in the south-east. It has rejected that number and told the Government that it will not build that many. It will be interesting to see who wins that titanic battle.

Local government powers have been consistently eroded while their reliance upon the beneficence of central government has increased. The standards of their services are constantly under review or inspection by a myriad of outside bodies and their structures are dictated by local government Acts. The Government do not welcome variability or variety in local authorities' performance, seeking to ensure that each is as good as or similar to the other. But doing that creates a situation where local authorities' accountability is to the centre, rather than to the local electorate who might find more enthusiasm for supporting or rejecting the standards that they attained if there were more room for creativity and flexibility.

The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister has had a fine couple of years with legislation, but is now apparently, exhausted or has run out of prime ministerial credibility, for this is a fallow year. I do not complain about that, but believe that with this enforced leisure, it is time that the Government started to think, not what they could do to tie local government up in knots, but what they could do to release it from the Gordian chains.

So what do the Government propose for the future, a question that every speaker has asked? What is their response to the rebuttal by the electorate in the northeast, other than the Deputy Prime Minister's reply to do nothing at all? How do they intend to strengthen the role of democratically elected local government, which currently exists, rather than messing around with new untried structures, which have neither the virtue of consistency nor acceptability nor accountability.

The Government should dismantle the whole regional edifice, give back the quangos' responsibilities to local authorities, create a clear distinction between the powers and responsibilities of central and local government and decentralise to historic local government. Such policies might just breathe new life into local democracy, rather than suffocate it with more bureaucracy and targets.

The policy of electing some regions and not others was never going to work. It was incomprehensible and unfocused. Either the Government should have had the courage of their convictions and proposed comprehensive regional government across the country or they should have left it alone. We would have disagreed with that. We would have argued against it. But at least it would have been a coherent policy. We should address the real problem, that the Government have created a spider's web of unaccountable bodies in regions, and restore their responsibilities to the elected local government.

I do not doubt that the Government regret that they ever embarked on their ill-advised journey into regional government, but by doing so they have neither strengthened nor enhanced democratic local government. They have left a fund of unanswered questions.

6.55 p.m.

The Minister of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Lord Rooker)

My Lords, there will not be many answers tonight. I shall start as I mean to carry on. I have come to your Lordships' House to answer the issue on the Order Paper, that is, to draw attention to the current status of the regional agencies and bodies, and to the case for returning their responsibilities to elected local government. From my point of view, there is no useful purpose in trawling over the matter that has permeated virtually all noble Lords' speeches, that is, the referendum on 4 November. We said, "Let the people decide". An offer was on the table and they rejected it substantially, by 4 to 1. That has put the issue to bed for a long time, maybe for most of our political lives. We must face the situation as we find it and I do not want to spend any more time on it. I made the position quite clear during the passage of the Bill. I was a bit worried about the quotes from debates on the Bill last year that the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, was going to use, but nevertheless, I can live with what he said tonight.

Do not get me wrong. I am not knocking the speeches that have been made. It has been very useful and there are some key issues to be raised, notwithstanding the long-term answer to the West Lothian question. There is no doubt about that. But I was not sure that it is the policy of the Conservative Party to abolish the Scottish Parliament. It is obviously not in favour of regional governments so I do not know what its answer to the West Lothian question is. We did not hear anything about that, so I am not going down that road either.

I declare an interest as I have never been a councillor but I remember that when I was a child in Birmingham the council ran the bank, the buses, the water and the police. All those responsibilities were removed to regional bodies by Tory governments. There were regional planning bodies long before we came on the scene. I understand that the substance of regional planning bodies started in 1962. I believe that they were called regional planning conferences. So this has not happened overnight. But I do not want to make any cheaper points than that. This did not all happen in the past few years. There have been changes going on. But there are some very important issues to address for the future of local government, notwithstanding the great largesse of government funding that will be announced for its operations tomorrow. But we will wait until we hear the Statement.

However, I sincerely thank the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, for securing this debate as it is useful to get these points on the record, if only the point that we do not need to have any more debates about the north-east referendum in the future.

I want to set out the Government's views on the current status of the regional agencies and bodies and why we need them—that is certainly our view—and what they have achieved. I think that it has been accepted that everything cannot be done by local government. That was touched on in a few speeches but I do not want to make points about individual speeches. People live, work and learn across local government boundaries and there are some issues that transcend local government boundaries as we know them at district council and county council level. We need to make sure that things are joined up. The role of local government is important in working towards better standards of living across the country but its rope is different from that of regional agencies. There is no question about that.

I want to touch on our agenda for local government because we have made some announcements in the past few months that have not generally been taken up in the House but which are, nevertheless, on the record. I do not want to get into a row about this, but our argument is that the regional institutions have not generally taken powers and responsibilities away from local government, although I accept that they did take some on the borders of planning and housing. So I say to the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, that there is little scope for returning to local government responsibilities that are operated by the regional agencies because the vast majority of regional agencies have their responsibilities, and, in some cases, powers, from central government as it is currently set up. Our intention is that the regional agencies and local government will complement rather than duplicate each other and will provide effective government at sub-national level.

It has already been pointed out that the Government Offices were set up for administrative purposes—and I agree—in 1994. In 2002, we set out the position in the English regions, outside London, in the famous White Paper, Your Region, Your Choice: Revitalising the English Regions. We have developed and strengthened the role of the Government Offices. They now cover the responsibilities of 10 government departments in the regions, when originally it was three or four. So there has been a substantial change in that respect. They deliver the responsibilities of central government departments in the regions and work as a team.

The Government Offices also work with partners to align national, regional and local priorities for investment decisions so that decisions can be made out of Whitehall, nearer to where they will have effect. There is also the question of managing local relationships at a local level on behalf of central government. So the Government Offices perform a valuable role.

On my fairly infrequent visits to Government Offices, I have noticed that their finger is on the button of what is happening locally in the region, which I pick up from other visits. They raise issues; they are all briefed and know exactly what is going on. It is very useful for central government to have this body out in the regions. So there is a regional knowledge that comes back to the centre to inform the development of policy at the centre.

In addition, we wanted to create an economic powerhouse for each region. That is why the regional development agencies were set up separately in 1998. Their budgets are large enough for them to make a difference. By 2007–08, their budget will be about £2.3 billion. For the first time in our political lifetime, bodies in the regions are developing a regional economic strategy for each region. We have inherited those regions—we have not looked at regional boundaries. We all have our own views on that; it is not currently an issue but can be considered in the future.

The regional development agencies across England—including the London Development Agency, which operates slightly differently but is nevertheless part of the family—have, over the past couple of years, created, saved or enhanced some 160,000 jobs and are playing a major role in reshaping the regional economies. We want to be in a position, in a fairly short time, where people are not disadvantaged by where they live. We must look at regional disparities to see what we can do at a regional level. Major disparities among the regions mean that we do not perform anywhere near as well as we should compared with our economic competitors, our partners in Europe. We can do a lot better than we are doing at present.

More than one speaker has mentioned housing. Whether we are talking about housing for key workers, families or vulnerable people, I take no pleasure in what is implied in supporting lower planning numbers for housing, because, in a way, it means less housing for local people. People would be driven away from the villages and market towns where they were raised; there would be no places for young children; people would be driven away to take up education or look for jobs: families would split up and caring relationships would break down. All kinds of issues would be raised if there were not enough affordable housing, of all ranges, for key workers and for vulnerable, local and young people.

The issue has to be solved. It cannot always be done at local authority level. I do not want to start another debate, but local authorities have failed to use their powers to create enough sites for travellers. Those local authorities will not take these politically dodgy decisions. They would rather the Government said, "You have to do this". The local authorities can then say to their electorate, "We have to do this: central government have changed the law". That is an abdication of responsibility. If local government want responsibility and accountability, they have to take some hard decisions on occasion. That is just one example.

Our view is that not all the housing challenges in an area can be addressed by one local authority or solved within one council's area. We saw the need, a couple of years ago, to create a strategic approach. That led to setting up the regional housing boards. Where the homes should go, whether it is social housing, private, or a mixture of tenures, cannot be taken in isolation. Building on the opportunities presented by the strength and experience of regional institutions, we can have integration of the different processes. We have embraced the idea of merging the regional housing board with the relevant regional planning body, as recommended by Kate Barker. We have said that we will not come back in detail on the Barker review until towards the end of next year; we said that we needed 18 months. If the election was 2006, we would have pronounced on Barker. It has nothing to do with an election cycle; we said that we needed 18 months. We accepted the recommendation to merge the regional planning body and the regional housing board. It is well known that the consultation on that finished yesterday, 30 November, and we are starting to consider the responses.

For regional development and regional economic prosperity we need skills in the workforce. We have massive disparities in the skills of the workforce, as shown up by the census. Joining up the regional economic strategies of the regional development agencies, we can also introduce regional strategies for employment and skills; we must marry the two. It cannot be done at national level, and it is certainly not something that can be done at local authority level. We are going to up-skill the workforce in our regions so that we can perform better. We have also introduced regional directors to the Learning and Skills Council so that it can contribute fully at a regional level and engage directly as a key member of the regional skills partnership.

There has been a lot of criticism in your Lordships' House of the voluntary regional assemblies. To be effective, regional approaches need to be co-ordinated, and different regional bodies need to be scrutinised. That is one of the reasons why we offered elected scrutiny, but that is on the back burner now. There are other ways of scrutinising. To do this, we have recognised the voluntary regional assemblies in each region.

These are composed, as has been said and criticised, of representatives from local government, business, trades unions and the wider community. All parties are represented on them, and some are even chaired by Conservative councillors, who are doing a good job. There is no argument about that; they are taking their role extremely seriously. These voluntary assemblies scrutinise the work of the regional development agencies. They are the regional planning bodies, and they will become the regional housing bodies. They play a co-ordinating, strategic role with the full involvement of local authorities and other representatives of the regions.

All the wisdom does not reside in any one body, which is why we need—I know that there has been resentment of the word "stakeholders", and if you like I will not call them that—the other bodies that represent the community, whether it be business, trades unions, the voluntary sector, or the work of business in the community. All those need to be fully reflected in the strategic decisions co-ordinated at regional level. We see no difficulty about that whatever. They are playing a full, responsive, co-operative and positive role, which we want to build on. The presence of local councillors provides a degree of democratic accountability. No-one is saying that they are fully democratic. We are not making that claim in the first place; but we want them to be a microcosm of the region, to ensure that local authorities and regional bodies work together.

There are many operations of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister where we have introduced schemes such as the Housing Market Renewal Pathfinders, for example. They cover nine areas of the country where we need to get a grip on the collapse of the housing market. Every one of them covers more than one local authority; either two, three, four, or in one case five local authorities. They are working well together across the boundaries, and not with big bureaucracies either. I was in south Yorkshire the other day, which covers four authorities. The central team is only 14 people, and the work is being done by local authorities.

Fire and rescue services are another example of where co-operation at a regional level will deliver better results. We are encouraging local fire and rescue authorities to work more closely together through regional management boards. That will be to everyone's advantage. We are using the integrated fire risk management plans for local authorities to decide their own priorities.

As I explained at the outset, the successful regional institutions need not and have not taken away powers from local government. On the contrary, we want to complement their decisions. For example, we have done many things to encourage local government. We have repealed restrictive controls on local authority borrowing. That was done through your Lordships' House through the legislation. We have given local authorities greater power to promote the well-being of their communities. We have given them freedom and flexibility to deliver better services more in tune with their local priorities. Higher performing authorities—the excellent authorities—are benefiting from an extended package of freedoms with virtually no ring-fencing, plans or inspection. Moreover, we are committed to continuing the devolutionary agenda, as evidenced by the launch in July of our document, Local: Vision. It carries out an extensive consultation about the future of local government, looking at the options for enabling more decisions to be made m local communities.

Over the next six months, we will take that debate forward in a series of daughter documents. The first of them was a prospectus for local area agreements, a radical idea for streamlining all the funding that we can get from Whitehall into local areas. Twenty-one local authorities will be used for a year, with publications all around the country; there is more than one in each of the regions. We want to see what we can do with the central government pot. Some areas are excepted—"Supporting People" and some education matters—but much of the central government pot in those areas will be divided up within the local strategic partnership area so that funding priorities can be changed to reflect local circumstances. If successful, we will roll it out in years to come.

Other key decisions and issues such as neighbourhood management, local leadership and the performance framework will be discussed in more detail. We will produce documents on those.

The Government remain committed to improving economic performance and quality of life across the country at every level. It does not require elected regional assemblies to do that; that was an opportunity, but it would never have been all-in-one in any event, as we accepted. That does not alter the fact that many of the key decisions at sub-national level need to be made at regional level. That does not take away the powers of local government, which gets enhanced powers from central government in some of the examples that I have given. We will continue local government reform and an active regional policy.

If we say, "As the model is today, can it continue for the next 10 or 15 years?", I suspect that the answer is no. However, there are degrees of consultation through which we want to go with our colleagues in local government and both Houses to find answers to some of the questions, and to get more decisions locally. We need to provide better value for money, and will seek to do that through opportunities in local government and local councils, working across the boundaries. The boundaries are there for reasons that we all understand; nevertheless, people do not necessarily live, work or have care arrangements fixed within them.

Some issues were raised, but they were nearly all relevant to the referendum. As I said, I did not really want to debate all that. I am not embarrassed about it—we can debate it till the cows come home—but it does not get us anywhere. We will not have elected regional assemblies; the idea has been put on the back burner, probably for many years to come. We have no plans to resurrect it. We need to have a look at the effect on local government, get more decisions made locally, and enhance the role, where necessary, of regional agencies so that they can perform better. Then we can encourage the voluntary regional assemblies, in particular, to carry out roles of scrutiny. They are fully able and equipped, intellectually and financially, with the capacity to do that. I see no problem with that. Simply because they are not directly elected does not mean that they cannot have a role.

To involve the wider community beyond local government is very important, whether it is through local strategic partnerships or regional assemblies, so that people can bring something positive to the table. We get better decisions, a better framework, and better delivery of services to our fellow citizens. After all, that is what it is all about.

7.13 p.m.

Lord Hanningfield

My Lords, I thank everyone who participated in the debate. It was very interesting, with many useful contributions. However, I am disappointed that the Minister could not give us a few more answers. It was very telling that he said that things cannot stay as they are and that, in 10 or 15 years' time, things will have to be rather different. He did not tell us what the answers might be, and he said that there will be a lot of confrontation. One thing that disappoints me is that in this country we seem to be obsessed about governments reorganising local government. Instead of getting on and providing services, local government continues to be in turmoil. Other countries do not do that.

I thank all noble Lords very much. It has been a fascinating debate. We do not have all the answers that we want, and I am sure that we shall revisit the issue in due course. With that, I beg leave to withdraw the Motion for Papers.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.

House adjourned at fourteen minutes past seven o'clock.