Devolution: England

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:10 pm on 21st March 2001.

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Photo of Lord Whitty Lord Whitty Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions 5:10 pm, 21st March 2001

My Lords, that is precisely what I am saying. At the moment a substantial part of national government's regional responsibilities--operating to some extent through the Government Offices--is not subject to any degree of accountability at the regional level. We intend to pass those powers down to the regional level. Of course, standards and some regulations will be set at national level. However, the idea of democratising structures is not to give a new empty structure of local and regional government but to provide a real and effective devolution of power.

There has been some discussion on what the scope and the size of those regions should be. I believe that I have replied to that point in general terms. However, there will be queries about particular aspects concerning which county is within which region. Before the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, spoke, I had thought that Essex was already a glorified county council and--I hesitate to use the term--kingdom even, particularly in the light of his irredentist remarks about wishing to take back London. I recognise that there will be tensions within the regions. We believe that the Government Office boundaries that we have set are sensible and we have taken government decisions to consolidate those boundaries. However, in the course of the democratisation process, other options may arise.

My noble friend Lady Rendell referred to Cornwall. Cornwall is a special case. It is a special county and perhaps deserves special status and special respect. A degree of creativity is involved as regards the Cornish convention, almost as much as in the case of the North East, the Yorkshire, and the North West conventions. It is not, however, in the terms that I have described, a region which can on its own determine its economic, transport and planning infrastructure. Nevertheless some aspects of devolution will apply in relation to Cornwall.

I have no difficulty in defending the fact that there is an asymmetric development of devolution. It is asymmetric in two senses in that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all have different kinds of powers. The English regions will have different powers from the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament. The development is also asymmetric in terms of time-scale. Some English regions will take powers before others. We would not devolve those powers to those areas which were not subject to directly elected assemblies. There are other European examples of asymmetric devolution. Spain has been cited. If the north-east of England had the same degree of success in its devolution as the north-east of Spain, in the context of the Catalonion government and the City of Barcelona government, I am sure that the right reverend Prelate and his flock would be well pleased.

I believe that we are on the right track. It is not as tidy a track as some noble Lords might wish. Progress may not be as rapid as some people, particularly in the northern regions of England, would like. None the less, as the Deputy Prime Minister made clear in Glasgow recently, we are committed to bringing forward the opportunity for English regions directly to elect their regional governments. At that point, the responsibility for various aspects of economic, strategic and planning policies would fall to those regions. We would hope that all the English regions would eventually take up that option. However, the decision will be theirs and it will be facilitated by this Government. We intend within the next few months to bring forward a Green Paper on these issues: the scope, structure and nature of devolution; and the nature of the electoral process for the English regions.

I welcome the debate. I thank the right reverend Prelate and all noble Lords who participated in it. We have touched on a number of issues which are of great importance to the English regions, many of which will no doubt be discussed during the coming months and years as we debate, region by region, how fast and in what manner we shall go down the road of further democratisation of our hitherto somewhat centralised constitution.