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 3:30 pm on 26th April 2004.

Alert me about debates like this

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) 3:30 pm, 26th April 2004

My Lords, I did not mean the officials. However, I shall take it with a strong pinch of salt next time I see letters signed by the elected leaders of the LGA and the County Councils Network. It was not officials who wrote letters saying, "We're content with this", but the elected leaders. I am not arguing about officials; we are talking about elected leaders. I am not in the business of blaming either civil servants or officials outside—far from it. My remarks are headed towards the elected leadership outside.

I want to give some examples to highlight the sort of things said by the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford. As I said, I agreed with him, and there is a common view on the matter. I have three examples of where regional planning is tackling issues that county plans could not. In the east Midlands, work has started on the development of a sub-regional strategy for Derby, Leicester and Nottingham. Those are, of course, traditionally very much competitor cities in the area, although each is in a different county. The regional assembly and development agency have identified an opportunity to build on existing interrelationships, and to develop complementary roles and services that will promote a more sustainable pattern of development and improve the economic performance of each city. That could not be done if one did not have a regional package with a sub-regional agenda underneath it. In the past that would not have been a runner as each city is in a separate county.

In the south-west, the regional planning body is promoting a "city region" approach that recognises the cross-boundary links. It is not an area of the country that I know, so I shall stick to my brief; others are more expert than me. Structure plans have historically allowed development in west Wiltshire and north-east Somerset towns that has fed Bath's labour market and created unsustainable patterns of movement. Looking at that area as a single sub-region is allowing strategic choices to be made to ensure that development is sustainable.

My final example is the south-east. Studies in the western corridor and the London fringe have been undertaken to provide coherence across regional boundaries in a manner that simply did not exist beforehand. Although there was liaison across the London boundary between authorities, it was not translated into effective and co-ordinated interaction. The studies are still at an early stage but they are already demonstrating the value of the approach.

To say that the Government made a concession is too strong, because it looks as though it had to be dragged out of us, but I suppose that in some ways it did. The point is that we always knew, from day one, that there was a sensitive issue about county councils. We understand that; hence what was proposed alongside a programme of possible elected regional assemblies, as one cannot be certain. We need to get ownership of the spatial strategies because two bodies claiming ownership is a disaster and a recipe for inaction. Conservatives—with a small "c"—might want to conserve what we have and not change anything. That is a very unfair attitude to put on the radical Conservative Front Bench. Nevertheless, we want some movement. The present system of planning in this country does not serve our fellow citizens. The provision is a contribution to making substantial changes and progress.

Our approach is that the regions need planning policies specific to their circumstances. I forget who made the point, but someone referred to the Secretary of State wanting to do everything; he does not. The provisions in Clause 1(2) that specify that the regional spatial strategy must set out the Secretary of State's spatial policies do not prevent such an approach. Those provisions are not a straitjacket. They are not the Deputy Prime Minister saying, "This is what will happen".

The relationship between the Secretary of State's national planning policies and the regional spatial strategies needs to be clarified. Clause 5 requires regional planning bodies to have regard to national policies in preparing a draft revision of a regional spatial strategy. That relationship is also true of regional planning guidance. We want the regional planning bodies, which are much wider than the elected areas—that is why the point about 30 per cent is important—to articulate in the regional spatial strategy a spatial vision of what the region will look like at the end of the period of that strategy. That vision should be unique to that region, not the next-door region. It is not simply a subset of the national picture, so is not the Secretary of State laying down what he wants.

The regional planning bodies have the freedom to set out the policies that will work in their regions to turn the vision into a reality. The national planning policies are there to provide a framework. They are the big picture, not a straitjacket. The existing system allows for significant flexibility between regions. When preparing revisions of regional planning guidance now and regional spatial strategies in future, the regional planning bodies may, if they wish, depart from national policy and make the case for a variation at the examination in public. I repeat: this is not the Secretary of State laying the law down from the centre.

It is true that Ministers will reach a view on the final form of policies and have to take into account the case made and the report of the panel from the examination in public. Amendment No. 2 is therefore neither acceptable nor sensible. The Secretary of State has regional planning policies and is accountable for them now and under our proposed new regional planning system, because that is the best approach of the current governance arrangements. If the elected regional assembly were in place to play that role, the Secretary of State would not need any regional spatial strategies. That in no way takes away the important role of staff of the county councils. They will play a vital role, although the point is that it will not be the role that they had previously.

The issue is to get ownership of the regional planning strategies so that they are owned by one body and there is transparency and accountability. If we try to act any other way, two bodies will end up claiming ownership of the strategies. That is a recipe for not only disaster, but basically total inaction. No one outside would thank this House for that.