The Government have no present plans for giving more powers to local authorities in Northern Ireland, but would not rule out any workable proposal here, provided that such a proposal guaranteed fair and equitable treatment for everyone in the local authority area and seemed likely to receive widespread acceptance.
We are not having difficulties with the Anglo-Irish Agreement—[Interruption.] I pay tribute to the determination of my right hon. Friend to bring all the political parties together round the table. He has made considerable progress in that regard, although deep difficulties remain. But my hon. Friend should be in no doubt that when we say that we are determined to seek ways to give locally elected representatives a greater say in the decisions that affect the lives of their constituents, we mean it.
Does the Minister agree that councillors should have more input into road and planning decisions in their areas? Is he aware that if councillors had that greater input, it might stop planners allowing industrial estates to be built, for example, on top of hills in the middle of areas of special control? Is he further aware that it might even persuade the public to accept that it is not true that if one has money, one can build wherever and whatever one likes and then take the matter to court and fight it, but that someone who has no money will face the full majesty of the law that is ranged against him?
The hon. Gentleman knows that I have started an undertaking to meet local authorities in Northern Ireland to hear their views, as has the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Wiltshire, North (Mr. Needham). We listen to what locally elected representatives tell us and I refer the hon. Gentleman to earlier remarks that I made on the issue. A necessary precondition for the return of greater powers to local authorities would be a system of ensuring fair and equitable treatment to everyone in all local authority areas.
The hon. Gentleman knows that we have already taken steps in that matter. Although I have some sympathy with his position, the issue goes much wider than the question.
The hon. Gentleman knows that we have been seeking with great dedication—again, I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend—ways to put in place some sort of structures. I suspect that the hon. Gentleman agrees that it is vital for locally elected representatives to have a greater say in the decisions that govern the lives of their electors. That principle will have to guide us in the days ahead, not least if we are unable to overcome the difficulties that presently confront us.