1ABecause it is not appropriate to restrict the application of a regional spatial strategy only to regions which have elected assemblies.

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:06 pm on 26th April 2004.

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Photo of Lord Rooker Lord Rooker Minister of State (Regeneration and Regional Development), Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, Minister (Office of the Deputy Prime Minister) (Regeneration and Regional Development) 3:06 pm, 26th April 2004

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do not insist on its Amendment No. 1 to which the Commons have disagreed for their reason numbered 1A.

For the sixth or seventh time, I want to make it absolutely clear that the Government are committed to the reform of plan-making in England, including a two-tier development plan, with strategic planning at the regional level.

These amendments would deny our regions strong and effective strategic plans. I find it difficult to believe that they would therefore be accepted. Those in favour of strong regional government, be it elected or otherwise, surely must want the regions to be strong enough to have effective strategic planning. The amendments would also prevent the streamlined two-tier planning system where the most up-to-date level—strategic or local—prevails when there is a conflict. That has to be taken into account.

The amendments would also have far-reaching knock-on effects. On the one hand, they anticipate arrangements for planning by elected regional assemblies but, rather than real devolution, they would leave those bodies only with responsibility for preparing draft revisions. The Secretary of State would still publish the final regional spatial strategy, including his proposed changes, and would still have regional planning policies of his own.

On the other hand, the amendments would leave uncertainty and muddle. The law would say that there would be regional planning bodies, consultation in line with published statements and an examination in public only where there was an elected regional assembly. We have to ask ourselves what this would mean for our existing regional planning bodies and the comprehensive arrangements we have now, which include an examination in public, for regional planning guidance. The amendments agreed by this House do not retain structure plans, but county councils would advise on strategic plans only if there were an elected regional assembly.

We can all understand the attraction the amendments have for those Members of this House who do not want to see any regional planning under any circumstances—indeed, any regional government under any circumstances—even though they were responsible for setting up regional government offices. In due course, they hope to persuade the regional electorates to vote no in the referendum on the elected regional assemblies. That is their choice. But for those who recognise that many planning issues need to be tackled at regional level as well as at local level, this is a recipe for inaction and failure. It flies in the face of the many examples of regional planning bodies coming forward with solutions to cross-boundary problems that have bedevilled us for many years. It is quite frankly farcical to suggest that we should abandon all that and rely instead on county-based structure plans.

I hope noble Lords accept that the Government have listened very carefully to the arguments put forward during the passage of this Bill. Indeed, I have come to the Chamber today supported by a list of all the concessions that the Government have made. We are a listening Government and we want to get consensus on this matter. However, there are some issues on which we believe that it would be a major mistake to depart from the provisions in the Bill.

There has been concern that there would be too little democratic input, particularly by county councils with their strategic planning expertise. We accept that; I believe that I said, way back at Second Reading, that it was probably the thorniest issue we had to deal with when we were planning the Bill in detail at the time when I was the Minister responsible for it. We have responded to that concern by giving county councils a statutory advisory role. I still take the view that that has been found acceptable outside this House; I have not seen anything to contradict that.

There has been concern that people and interests in each region would not have sufficient say in the process. That was a genuine concern, raised at many stages of our debate. I accept that the concern is absolutely genuine and sincere. We have responded by requiring the regional planning bodies to prepare, publish and comply with a statement of their policies for the involvement of the community and the public. However, we cannot accept the other arguments that have been put forward.

We have heard that strategic planning should continue to be with county councils through their structure plans. That is despite support from the Local Government Association and the County Councils Network for our regional planning arrangements with a guaranteed role for counties, unitary authorities and other authorities with strategic planning expertise, and despite the mismatch in many cases between county boundaries and areas that are interdependent in strategic planning terms.

We do not agree that it is wrong for regional planning bodies to have a lead role in regional planning because they include representatives from stakeholders in the region as well as local authorities. Those social and economic partners bring an important dimension to the regional planning bodies' work and are particularly well placed to foster a true region-wide perspective. Local authorities are in the majority on regional assemblies, which will continue to be the regional planning bodies. There is a view out there, which is not shared by everybody, that only the elected councillors should take the key decisions, whatever level they are elected at. That is not the reality, however. Local strategic partnerships and the regional assemblies are involving a much wider spread of opinion and achieving greater consensus about the way in which government takes place.

Where there is considerable consensus on what the plans for the region should be, we can expect that consensus to hold sway. That is quite legitimate; we do not take the view that it is wrong that the stakeholders should be involved. We also do not agree that it is wrong that, until we have elected assemblies, the Secretary of State should be ultimately accountable for the policies in each regional spatial strategy. That is the best democratic safeguard consistent with our current governance arrangements. If an elected regional assembly were in place, the Secretary of State would not need any spatial policies for that region. I have repeatedly made that clear; there will not be any need for the Secretary of State to have any policies for that region. That will be the job of the elected regional assembly. We are not seeking to second guess those bodies. It would be contrary to the spirit of devolution for the Secretary of State to have his own planning policies for the region which the elected assembly had to have regard to in formulating its policies for the region, as proposed by noble Lords. It would also be thoroughly confusing to have two sets of planning policies for the same region. That is a barmy idea by any stretch of the imagination.

We do not agree that we should delay the reforms in Part 1 until the elected regional assemblies are in place. That takes us back to the regional assemblies elections preparations legislation. As is well known, referendums are due in three regions; I believe that I gave July 2006 as the earliest possible date by which an elected regional assembly could be set up if there was a "yes" vote. If other regions were to be brought in, there would need to be a process and a mechanism for that. It would be bad public administration, to put it at its mildest, to seek to delay Part 1 until elected regional assemblies were in place. There may be some regions that do not want elected regional assemblies and never have them; one must consider that as a possibility because it is the people's choice. We are not imposing elected regional assemblies on the regions. The people will always be given a choice in the regional referendums beforehand. The effective strategic plans at regional level and a full part of the development plan are needed now, and need to be endorsed by the Secretary of State. Without that endorsement there is neither democratic accountability nor the assurance that central government will play their part in the delivery of regional plans. That is fairly fundamental at present.

We are not taking away democracy, which is another argument that has been trotted out—although not necessarily in your Lordships' House. Noble Lords are much more in touch in some ways with what is happening than is sometimes the case elsewhere in this building. What really matters is that people should have their say and have their views listened to in the planning process. I do not believe that anyone could now argue, as the Bill stands, that it is not a vast improvement on the present process in allowing people a say at the earliest possible stages of the planning process. Central to our reforms, both at a regional and a local level, is greater and earlier community involvement.

Our amendment—that is, the amendment that the Government wish to place in the Bill—will require the regional planning body to prepare, publish and comply with a statement of its policies for involving interested parties in preparing draft revisions of the regional spatial strategy. Draft regulations will require the regional planning body to consult a wide range of bodies while the draft revision of the regional spatial strategy is being prepared and after it has been published.

There are many aspects on which it could be argued that we are not squeezing democracy out of the system. There is a much greater involvement of the public and the wider communities in regional planning in this Bill. We have come to a make-or-break point. There is a limit to the amount of time that we can devote in this place to this issue. I do not know how many times we have now dealt with it—I have lost count. I sincerely hope that my argument will find favour with your Lordships at this stage of our deliberations on this important Bill.

Moved, That the House do not insist on their Amendment No. 1 to which the Commons have disagreed for their reason numbered 1A.—(Lord Rooker.)