HL Deb 08 November 2004 vol 666 cc673-86

6.43 p.m.

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

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement made earlier in another place by my right honourable friend the Deputy Prime Minister regarding the elected regional assembly referendum held in the north-east. The Statement is as follows:

"With permission, I would like to report to the House on the regional referendum in the north-east held last Thursday.

"May I first congratulate Ged Fitzgerald, the Chief Counting Officer, and his staff across the north-east, who ran such a well organised poll and count. I also want to thank the police, the Post Office and the Electoral Commission for their cooperation during the referendum.

"Turnout at nearly 48 per cent was a great deal more than many people expected, and has shown that all postal voting can be extremely successful when the ground is well prepared. The ballot was conducted successfully without witness statements and the turnout has increased considerably. It was higher than the turnout in the European elections in the north-east, at 42 per cent; higher than in the London referendum at 34 per cent, and very similar to the Welsh referendum at 50 per cent. I am sure that the Electoral Commission will want to reflect on this.

"Throughout the referendum, the Government have made it absolutely clear that the decision whether to have elected regional government rests with the people. It is their choice, their say. Our policy of devolution set out in our manifesto means giving power to people in our nations and regions so that they can set their own priorities and make more decisions which affect their lives.

"As a result, London now has city-wide government and a Mayor powerful enough to run a global city. The Scottish Parliament enables the people of Scotland to make key decisions without recourse to Westminster for the first time in hundreds of years. The Welsh Assembly has given the Welsh people a powerful new voice to create jobs, prosperity and social justice. Each of these new bodies was voted for by the people and has since proved to be very popular.

"It is worth remembering that proposals for Scottish and Welsh devolution failed to win public support in the first referendum held in 1979, only for the situation to be reversed 20 years later in a new referendum.

"Last Thursday, 4 November, we offered the people of the north-east the chance to benefit from an elected regional assembly. Voters in the region decided by a margin of 78 per cent to 22 per cent that they did not want this, and of course we abide by their decision.

"I confirm to the House that the result of the referendum means, first, that the Regional Assemblies Bill will not be introduced in the coming Session of Parliament; secondly, that under existing legislation there can be no further referendum on regional assemblies in the north-east for at least seven years; and, thirdly, let me make it clear that despite speculation, there will be no reorganisation of local government in County Durham or Northumberland arising out of this referendum result.

"This now raises the question of whether to proceed, as we previously intended, with referendums in the north-west and in Yorkshire and the Humber. We have reflected on the outcome of the referendum in the north-east. We also made it clear that referendums in the north-west and Yorkshire and the Humber would have to wait until the Electoral Commission has completed its work on the 'new foundation model for voting'. This is not due to be published until the end of March 2005. The Electoral Commission has also said that there should be no electoral pilots using the new model until at least September 2005. But in the mean time, under the legislation, our ability to hold referendums based on the current soundings exercise runs out in June 2005. We would therefore need to conduct a new soundings exercise and bring orders to call the referendums before both Houses of Parliament under the Regional Assemblies (Preparations) Act 2003.

"All this would result in a long period of uncertainty for local government in the two regions, which we do not think is acceptable. I will therefore not be bringing forward orders for referendums in either the north-west or Yorkshire and the Humber. If and when, in the future, a region does want to move ahead with a referendum, the House will have plenty of notice of that event.

"I do not want to underplay the importance of last week's decision. But the House should remember that elected regional assemblies are just one part of a wider programme of devolution and decentralisation in England. For a decade or more it has been recognised that there are issues which must be dealt with at a regional rather than a national level, but which need to be co-ordinated over an area larger than any single local authority.

"That is why the party opposite established the Government Offices for the Regions in 1994, and rightly so. We have since strengthened the Government Offices to include more central government departments. We also created the regional development agencies in 1998 as economic powerhouses for their regions. The English RDAs have created or safeguarded more than 160,000 jobs over the past two years alone, and have played a major part in reshaping our regional economies.

"The House will also be aware that every English region was given the choice in 1998 to have a voluntary regional assembly composed of representatives of local government, business, trade unions and other representatives of the wider community. All eight regions chose to have one of these voluntary regional assemblies. All parties are represented on them, and some are even chaired by Conservatives.

"The voluntary assemblies have an important influence on housing, planning, transport, economic development, skills and training in their region. These regional bodies play a co-ordinating, strategic role with the full involvement of local authorities and other representatives of the region.

"The successful Northern Way initiative, launched in February this year, is a good example of the benefits of this approach. The RDAs and their partners in the three northern regions are working together to create more jobs, more prosperity and greater social justice.

"The Northern Way has been warmly received and has really energised the people in the three northern regions. It is one example of how, across the country, regional structures and initiatives will continue to work for the benefit of the regions with the full support of this Government.

"Our continuing agenda of reform and devolution to local government is equally important. This was evident in July, when we launched our document, Local Vision, beginning an extensive consultation about the future of local government.

"It means allowing more decisions to be made in local communities. Along with the modernisation and reform of local government, we have taken several steps to devolve decision making to local authorities. We have removed restrictive controls on local authority borrowing; we have given local authorities greater power to promote the well being of their communities; we have given them freedoms and flexibilities to deliver better services; and we are piloting local area agreements which will streamline funding from Whitehall so that spending can better reflect local priorities, determined locally. All of these measures have been warmly welcomed by the local authorities concerned.

"Our agenda for reform, change and modernisation means we will continue to decentralise and devolve power wherever we can. We have already done a lot, and there is more to do. We have already brought economic stability, lower unemployment and lower inflation—and our commitment to delivering the best possible future for all the regions remains as strong as ever".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

6.51 p.m.

Baroness Hanham

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement made in the other place.

On an earlier occasion, when he was required to announce that the Deputy Prime Minister had made a decision to drop the referendums in the north-west and Yorkshire and Humberside—because it was as plain as a pikestaff that the Government would lose—I suggested that the noble Lord might be embarrassed at having to make such a statement. He denied it emphatically and he denied that he was ever embarrassed. But he should be today. The whole of the ministerial team of the Department of the Deputy Prime Minister, including the noble Lord the Minister, have been extolling the virtues of elected regional government—a policy which has now spectacularly blown up in their faces thanks to the good sense of the electors in the north-east. Theirs was a total and emphatic rejection of the Government's regional policy.

It cannot be stressed enough how overwhelming was the margin of the Government's defeat. The figures speak for themselves: 696,519, or 78 per cent, voted against a regional assembly; 197,310, or 22 per cent, voted in favour. That is a substantial rejection.

To give him his due, the Deputy Prime Minister does not try to say that this is a partial endorsement of regionalism or elected regional government. He sees, as well as we can, that the people of the north-east—and it is the people, not the politicians—have spoken, and they have spoken clearly against elected regional assemblies.

They knew that they were being sold a dummy. They could not be fooled into believing that the assemblies would have meaningful powers devolved from central government; rather that the reality was of responsibilities being sucked away from local government. They sussed out that the assemblies would have no powers, would bring more highly paid politicians with little to do, more bureaucracy, higher council tax bills and that the well tried and tested structure of local government would be destroyed. It is little wonder therefore that they chose the only viable option open to them and voted in droves to reject such an ill-judged and half-baked idea.

All of this—I do not want to dwell on it too long—was rehearsed as being the reality of the outcome of the Government's regional policy over and over again in this House and in the other place. But the Government did not listen and now have only themselves to blame for the result they have now achieved.

The Deputy Prime Minister, having read the runes, now opines that he will not be bringing forward orders for referendums in either the north-west or Yorkshire and Humber—a truly inspired and wise decision, particularly, as he acknowledges himself, since he now has little authority to do so. Equally, as demonstrated, there is no electoral support for doing so. This policy is a duck so dead that it has mortified.

In light of the clear indication from the north-west and Yorkshire and Humberside, it is time to ask some searching questions about the whole fiasco. In going forward with this policy in this one region, were the Government aware that the Electoral Commission would spend more than £100,000 of taxpayers' money on the accredited "Yes" and "No" campaigns? Were they aware that the Boundary Commission would spend a further £6 million on publicity and an unnecessary complementary local government review? Were they aware that the Minister's department would spend another £5 million on advertising its "Your Say" campaign? Were they aware that unknown sums would be spent on supporting visits by Ministers to campaign in the region?

Taken together, the minimum cost to the Exchequer of one regional referendum campaign was around £ 11 million. Does the Minister appreciate that for this money the north-east alone could have employed an extra 518 teachers, an extra 382 policemen or paid for an additional 2,450 hip operations, or the Deputy Prime Minister could have bought 227—and a half—brand new S-type Jaguars.

With this rejection of regionalism, will the Minister confirm that the Government will not embark on any new plans for new legislation for any form of regional government?

In his Statement the Deputy Prime Minister drew attention to the fact that the previous government created the Government Offices to co-ordinate issues over an area larger than any single local authority. Indeed, but it was to co-ordinate the work of government departments as outposts, not to create and oversee planning strategy, not to impose policies such as the siting of hundreds of thousands of new houses, and not to manage the fire service.

Therefore, will the Government now say that regional fire authorities, regional housing boards, regional transport bodies, regional planning bodies, together with all the other regional quangos and nonelected bodies, will be restored to the current and proper structures of local government?

Local government needs to be acknowledged for the work that it does, given the tasks to do and the wherewithal to do them. The Government need to be far more forthcoming about devolving more responsibility under the current structures of the bodies I have outlined. They need to recognise that the reversal they have suffered over this flagship policy is not just a little problem to brush over and pass on. The north-east electors can rejoice, but the Government cannot.

6.58 p.m.

Baroness Hamwee

My Lords, I, too, thank the Minister for repeating the Statement.

One must acknowledge that the Government started their devolution programme seven years ago with great energy. The result last week may have something to do with that energy appearing to have run out. The Deputy Prime Minister referred to devolved government in the city region of London, in Scotland and in Wales. Indeed, although the Welsh would like more powers and although he said that London has a Mayor powerful enough to run a global city, I do not think the Mayor or many members of the Greater London Authority would consider their powers nearly wide enough. They want powers as great as those which were on offer to the north-east.

One of my disappointments about the result is that we will not have the vehicle with which to argue that powers for the current devolved governments might be widened. That is an opportunity we will have to seek elsewhere.

The Deputy Prime Minister talked eloquently about the programme of devolution that is encapsulated in the quangos. That is not devolution, it is decentralisation. The term "co-ordination", which the noble Baroness has just used, is very telling. It is the co-ordination of central government policy at a regional level rather than true devolution.

The government offices have been mentioned. The Government Office for London has grown since devolved government was put in place. Having said that, I hear what the noble Baroness said about devolving powers down to local government. I cannot resist saying that this comes well from the Conservatives. They are comfortable with government from the centre, but I think that all of us—I include the Conservative Benches—need to recognise that devolution will not go away. It will not go away, in part because of the existing regional bodies which are not democratically elected.

Our sadness is that the Government have failed to pursue the regional agenda with sufficient enthusiasm, which must have, inevitably, communicated itself to the electors, along with the lack of powers on offer.

The campaign was inadequate; no message is much easier than that advocating a new body, but even its proponents seemed to have relatively little faith in it. I cannot help drawing comparisons between this campaign and the seven and a half years in which the Government have failed to campaign for the European ideal. We believe that that is wasted time, too.

I have heard from those who have been closer to the north-east campaign than I was able to be that although turnout was indeed respectable—it is, however, a sad reflection that we think 48 per cent respectable—the postal ballot was regarded as something with which people were fobbed off. They thought that it was not good enough for the other two regions, but it was used for theirs. I remain sceptical about relying on mechanistic measures to deal with turnout.

It is incumbent on all of us who believe in regionalism to apply our minds—and I do not mean that we should dismiss the voters' verdict on this proposal; far from it—to advocating the democratic way. We on these Benches are prepared to explore what we might do to support a good regional delivery over the next few years.

I suspect that in years to come academics and commentators will be looking at what has happened in the past week in the context of attitudes to government generally. The irony is that perhaps the people of the north-east simply did not trust government enough to feel that this was a robust enough proposal for them to support.

7.3 p.m.

Lord Rooker

My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, asked me about embarrassment. No—what she misunderstands is that we spent a lot of time extolling the virtues of letting the people decide. I know that that sticks in the craw for the Tories, but that is what we did. The White Paper was called Your Region, Your Choice; what we extolled was letting the people decide, and they have decided that they do not want what is on offer. I freely accept that. But the people decided that, which makes it a more substantial decision.

The noble Baroness asked me a series of questions about whether the Government knew that the Boundary Commission spent X, the Electoral Commission spent Y and our department spent Z. The answer is yes—of course we knew what was being spent. The figures she quotes are correct; they are subject to public examination. There is no problem about that. It is a bit unfair to say that the overall costs should be divided by the one referendum in the north-east, because some of that expenditure covered the soundings for the other two regions, such as the information campaign. But that is a minor point.

Yes, that money could have been spent on other things, but I am not taking any lectures about an increase in the number of teachers and police officers under this Government from the Tory Party, which usually opposes us every time we try to increase services. If you are going to ask the people to make a decision, you have to make the money available. It will cost something. Pro rata, it probably cost less than London, which looked cheap because there was a population of 8 million to divide it between. Running a campaign to enable people to make a decision costs money—it cannot be done for nothing. That is part of getting a good decision; the decision is the people's, so it has to be a good one.

The noble Baroness also asked whether we will make changes to the regional boards and the voluntary regional assemblies. They were set up on a voluntary basis—the Government did not force any of the regions to do this—and, as I have already said, some of them are chaired by Conservatives. The answer to that is no. However, we have tried to learn lessons from the past, when local government was abolished by the Tories—the GLC, the metropolitan counties and the Royal County of Berkshire, I think. They never asked anybody beforehand, they just rammed the measures through Parliament. They thought they knew best, rather than asking the people, which, as I have said, I think is probably a good idea.

With regard to the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, I am not going down the road of the euro. There is a point about decentralisation and devolution. Both terms are used in the Deputy Prime Minister's Statement. It is true that government offices are there to co-ordinate central government policy in the regions. We have tried to make sure that it is more joined-up than it was. I am not saying that it is perfect, because it is not. But there were only three such departments to start with, and something like 10 are now involved at the regional level in the government offices. It is much better when it comes to a more joined-up, seamless policy, but it is the co-ordination of central government policy for the regions. I do not deny that. It means that for the foreseeable future there will be quangos, which is not a dirty word.

The regional assemblies consist of elected councillors, business, trade unions and other bodies doing a good job for their community. We should leave it at that for the time being. They are fairly new bodies anyway in the scale of things, and I am glad that the Deputy Prime Minister's Statement has been greeted with such acclaim as a sensible decision based on last Thursday's vote by the people.

7.8 p.m.

Lord Waddington

My Lords, will the Minister, who is well known for being fair-minded, bring himself to concede that the Deputy Prime Minister was, to put it mildly, foolhardy in pressing ahead with his plans for referenda when his own soundings exercise showed minimal support? I remind the noble Lord that only 323 individuals in the whole of the north-east said that they wanted a referendum.

Will the Minister publish details of the cost of the whole of this dismal exercise? That includes the cost of the White Papers, the preparation and passage of the legislation, the soundings exercise, the local government reviews and the north-east campaign? Is it not a crying shame that there is no machinery whereby the Deputy Prime Minister can be surcharged and made to pay back some of the money that he has squandered on this wholly irresponsible exercise? Will the Government now scrap the whole farce of regional government, including the unelected regional assemblies, and concentrate on real devolution to existing units of local government?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, that is an excessively trivial question from the former Conservative Minister. All the costs that he has just requested are from public money, which is in the public domain, either in Government statements, Parliamentary Questions, and perhaps even in Select Committee. There is no hidden expenditure. One may disagree with it, but we cannot ask people to make a decision on the cheap or for nothing.

The Lord Bishop of Newcastle

My Lords, the referendum result in the north-east showed that the people of that region were not convinced by the offer on the table. The north-east is a region with a strong identity. We have a strong sense of who we are. It is the land of the northern saints. The people of Northumbria—if I dare call it that—are suspicious of innovations, especially if they think they will not make a significant difference to their lives. As someone who lives and works in that region, I understand that the proposals did not give any significant powers to the Assembly. There was considerable fear that it would become nothing more than an expensive talking shop, which would do little to address some of the deep-seated economic and other problems that the north-east faces.

I live and work in the city of Newcastle, which, as the regional capital of the north-east, is an exciting, vibrant and thriving place. But get past all the visible signs of really good and often culturally led regeneration and one will still find some of the most deprived estates and some of the most deprived former pit villages anywhere in the country. They are places that, in a sense, have lost their raison d'être.

The limited powers that would have been given to the proposed Assembly were not such that convinced the people that they would make a difference. We still have double the national rate of unemployment in the north-east, and there is little sign that that will change in the immediate future.

If the Government are serious about plans for regionalisation, devolution, decentralisation or regional government, I urge them to rethink their policy. They should come back to the people only if they are prepared to give significant power to the people of the regions. I believe that if the people in the north-east had felt that they had been given a real opportunity to exercise some real power to shape their own destiny, the vote might well have been very different.

Lord Rooker

My Lords, the people of the northeast will not be troubled again on this issue for at least seven years. That is what the Statement said and what the legislation requires.

I fully accept what the right reverend Prelate said about Newcastle. I am told when I am in the area that I have to look at Newcastle and Gateshead together as a whole. There has been a renaissance beyond belief, compared with what was happening 10 or more years ago. One of these days our London-centric press will find out about that and the countryside of Northumbria. We shall have to make sure that they do not wreck it.

I freely admit that the people did not like what was on offer and they have spoken. That is their choice.

Lord Hanningfield

My Lords—

The Earl of Onslow

My Lords, I was up first. Could the reason why the proposal was turned down be that people looked at devolution in Scotland and Wales and found it wanting? Is it not also true that the Government were completely misinformed about the general state of opinion? If they had had any idea of how people were thinking, they would not have held the referendum if they thought they would lose at that level.

On the issue of local government, the counties and boroughs should have the power. That is the old system and one that Ethelred the Unready got right when he abolished the heptarchy and created the shire system. That has stood the test of time. Let us not adopt newfangled ideas that do not work, but give power properly to the local authorities as opposed to using them as agents of government. We should allow them to raise their own taxes when they have to so that they are responsible to their people for the money that they spend. We should do it through the old and well tried system of local government rather than adopt newfangled ideas that were thought dotty by Ethelred the Unready.

Lord Rooker

My Lords, that was a much more thoughtful question that that of the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, especially the point made by the noble Earl about local government.

There is not time to go through it, but the Statement gives examples of what we have done to devolve issues to local government. On borrowing, there is much more freedom in local government to do things for the well-being of the community rather than only doing things that are set out in Acts of Parliament. It will become apparent in the near future how much more freedom local government has. It is true that people in the north—in two counties anyway—had a choice that if it were to take place it would be done only on the basis of unitary government. We did not want to impose an extra layer of government, and understand the consideration and complaints on that.

It is up to the people of Scotland and Wales to say what they think of the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament. But, as a complete outsider, I venture to say that given a choice they would not want to go back to the status quo prior to 1997.

Lord Shutt of Greetland

My Lords, this has been a very sad occasion indeed because the proposition was timid in the first place. I do not want to say, "I told you so", but I did. There has been no enthusiasm and the whole thing has been loused up by the local government changes that were to go alongside it.

This has nothing to do with local government, but is about devolving from the centre to the regions and taking matters away from quangos to give to proper elected bodies.

I also think that it was a matter of timing, which was hinted at by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee. The publication of the salaries and emoluments of Members of Parliament came at the same time as the ballot papers, and people may have thought, "We are paying enough. We don't want another crowd", even though great goodness could have come from that group of elected people.

It is also very sad that for a strange reason people may have referendumitis. I do not understand why, but that genie is out of the bottle. If that is so, we are told that we shall have to wait 20 years. I shall be 82 in 20 years' time. It beggars belief. I had hoped to see devolved government in my lifetime. But only 22 per cent voted on what some of us believe were the right lines, so does the Minister have any ideas on how that corner will be turned, whether it is 20 years or somewhere between seven and 20 years? What will light up the debate so that people will say that there is a good case for democracy at the regional level? Does the Minister have any ideas about that?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, no, but in your Lordships' House, there is nothing wrong with being 82. I hope that in 20 years we are still here debating this issue. I suspect that we probably will be. That is the only controversial thing that I shall say tonight.

During the debates on the Bill, I remember the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, saying that we had not gone far enough with the legislation. He said that he wanted to be enthused. We failed to enthuse him, as he rightly said. The hares are set off running—

The Earl of Onslow

My Lords, will the Minister abolish chasing them?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, not if I have anything to do with it.

The powers were coming not from local government but central government. Those powers are currently being exercised by unelected quangos, some of which consist of directly elected politicians, but they are there on a representative or delegatory basis. We were basically collecting them together so that for the people in the region there would be an elected, democratic element in some of those decisions. We were not taking the powers from local government; they were powers that we were letting go from the centre.

Lord Grantchester

My Lords, I have two questions for my noble friend, in the spirit of moving forward. In doing so, I declare an interest as the director of the Cheshire and Warrington Economic Alliance.

My noble friend drew attention to the RDAs and the good work that they do. Can he say what plans the Government now have to make RDAs more democratically accountable? He also drew attention to the Northern Way. It is my understanding that it will focus development initiatives on cities; can my noble friend say how that will not act to the exclusion of rural areas? There is anxiety in Cheshire that that may be the case, as there is no city within the regional or sub-regional area, but a network of strong market towns.

Lord Rooker

My Lords, the answer to my noble friend's first question is that we need a period of reflection. The fact is that the referendum result has ruled out the plans for democratising some of the quangos, which include the RDAs. That was what was on offer. My noble friend asks how we will make them more democratic—well, it will not be by direct election, that is for sure. We need a period of reflection, but what has happened has put that democratisation on the back burner. I cannot give any other impression.

On the point that he made about cities, there is a host of schemes and programmes on at the moment, one of which is the "core cities" scheme—or, as it prefers to be called, the "city regions" scheme, for the eight city regions of the country. Those city regions would not include the particular area that my noble friend mentioned, but they do include the rural hinterland around those cities, because an interaction is perceived between the city and the hinterland. I know that to be the case, because I visited three or four of them in the summer as part of a city regions exercise by Ministers.

With those activities, one must take account of the areas not covered by the city region, which will essentially be rural areas and market towns. I do not want to be glib about this, but the work of the Market Towns Initiative and the other work that we have underway as part of the plan will ensure that the rural areas are not left behind. The communities plan is not a south-east plan or an urban plan; it is a national plan, for the north, south, east and west of England, and is both rural and urban at the same time.

Lord Hanningfield

My Lords, I ask my question tonight as the leader of a local government with more than 30 years' experience, rather than as a Front-Bencher in this House. I agree with what my noble friend Lady Hanham said and with what my noble friend Lord Onslow said, despite competition over who was going to speak.

In this country, we have no regions—England is England. There was one potential region, which was the area based around Newcastle; if anywhere was going to vote for a region, it was that area. I would have said that at any time when I have been involved with local government. The rest of the regions are artificial, and no one will ever vote for them. If they would not vote for the north-east, they will never vote for any of the others. All the countries that have regional government have historical regions. No government of any kind can invent regions and get people to support them. England is a country of 2000 years' history, and people will not support artificial regions. We have counties, and our counties are bigger than the average region in Europe. The county that I lead, Essex, has 1.5 million people and is bigger than the average European region.

I believe passionately in devolvement to local government. I have argued with my own party on the matter and, fortunately, a future Conservative government would have a totally different policy from past Conservative governments on devolvement to local government, particularly if my noble friend Lady Hanham and I had anything to do with it. It is very important that we support the local government that we have and devolve powers and money to it, so that it delivers services. We should all be passionate about local government. Regional government was never going to solve problems with education systems, care for the elderly or anything like that—it is local government that can do that.

What concerns me about all this is that the Labour Government will now say, "Well, we have dropped our regional policy, so let's go ahead and reorganise local government". That is what the Conservative Party did, and I was opposed to the Conservative Party suggesting that we should reorganise local government. The United States has had the same system of local government since the declaration of independence, for 200 years. Most European countries do not reorganise local government. We have a passionate desire in this country to reorganise local government every 15 years. So please let us get on with delivering services. The Minister said that the Government would not reorganise Durham and Northumberland because of the ballot, but I would like an assurance that there will be no local government reorganisation and that they will be committed to local government and to delivering services to our people. That is what it is all about.

Lord Rooker

My Lords, anything I say at the Dispatch Box seems not to convince other parliaments or governments. We have no plans; what was on offer was tied intrinsically to the decision to have an elected regional assembly. We have made it absolutely clear that what was on offer in respect of local government in those regions would not happen if there was a "no" vote and that there would be no further reorganisation of local government at all. We have no plans in that regard.

I do not disagree with much of what the noble Lord said about some of the issues relating to local government. There are better relations between central and local government now than there have been before in my experience, from 30 years' service in the other place and my short service in this place. We are working extremely well together, in partnership. We have given local governments more freedoms and powers, so that they are not operating just as agents of central government, which would go right against the idea of a degree of independence for local government. There are far more freedoms and flexibilities now, and we hope that they are put to good effect in the near future.

Baroness Maddock

My Lords, in line with my noble friends, I am very disappointed about what has happened. It is particularly disappointing, given that it was Britain that set up in Germany after the war a very good devolved system of government, precisely to stop power being centralised. Yet we have somehow failed to do that in our own country, through a lack of enthusiasm. The other point that I feel most sad about is that people have become very cynical about politicians and democracy itself. We need to think how we can enthuse people back into thinking that democracy and accountability are important.

I have two questions for the Minister. I have lived in the north-east for four years, having lived in the southeast for most of my life, so I know how forgotten that corner of England is. I relate very much to the remarks made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Newcastle. Even when we were discussing how the postal ballot would work, the Minister told us that there would be drop-off points in every constituency for every 50,000 people. In Northumberland, that means absolutely nothing; people would have to go 30 or 40 miles to vote. That just illustrates how people do not understand the problems of the north-east. Do the Government have any plans to ensure that the voices of people in places that are farthest from London and our Westminster village are heard?

Secondly, in the planning Bill that went through this House, planning powers were not taken down from central government but up from the counties. I think we are owed an explanation from the Minister about what the Government will do about that.

Lord Rooker

My Lords, I do not know the turnout to the exact decimal point, but it was something slightly over 47 per cent. I have not read, heard or been briefed on any complaints from people who could not drop off their ballot paper if they wanted to do so in person. There was a postal ballot, but if people wanted to take their ballot paper to the returning officer or polling station, we made sure that was available. That was consistent with the pilots for other postal ballots for local government, and the turnout was substantially higher than what we would normally get in local government.

On the noble Baroness's second question. I have to disappoint her. There is an, ongoing debate on the matter, and it is true that the structure plans from the counties will be done on a regional, spatial planning level. However, planning decisions as Mr and Mrs Public understand them—in other words, who decides whether a planning application is agreed or disagreed—remains with the local authority, the district council.

Lord Kilclooney

My Lords—

Lord Evans of Temple Golfing

My Lords, it is a time limited debate and the 20 minutes is up.