Regional Economic Development

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 9:30 am on 13th February 2001.

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Photo of Andrew George Andrew George Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) 9:30 am, 13th February 2001

As far as I am aware, the Western Morning News has not disclosed the identities of the 45 businesses that took part. It consulted a wide range of businesses in the area, but whether they were representative is a matter to which the RDA will no doubt address itself. However, to question the validity of the poll is not an appropriate response for responsible politicians in Cornwall and Devon. The hon. Lady will understand that the survey findings ring true with the experiences of businesses in my constituency. One chief executive said:

"The RDA is bureaucracy gone mad. It is inefficient and is just an organisation that pursues its own ideas for its own sake."

When is it appropriate for the RDA to intervene? I raised that in a letter to the Minister about the South Crofty tin mine, which was recently purchased by Baseresult. Is it appropriate for the public sector to compete with the private sector, raising the hope value of a site and undermining a commercial proposal? The Minister wrongly described it in a recent debate as

"a waste-to-energy plant, using the mine to dispose of the power station ash and debris".--[Official Report, 31 January 2001; Vol. 362, c. 416.] Mr. Williams, who is the managing director of Baseresult and a constituent of mine, was not unnaturally very disappointed by those comments. He is bringing forward plans in a new and innovative way to develop South Crofty as a tin mine.

In a statement to me yesterday, the RDA said:

"we will not stand in the way of their development of South Crofty." But it has already tried to do that. It went on to say:

"We continue to believe that tin mining is incompatible with progress to prosperity." But turning Cornwall into a replica of everywhere else by covering that site with conference centres, shops and offices closes off opportunities for the future. It is not the appropriate way to respond to a commercial organisation--a private sector body--that is trying to bring forward proposals despite the interference of what is effectively a public sector body.

A further example involves a company in my constituency that needed to restructure. The RDA sought to purchase the factory unit from under its nose, thereby increasing the market value of the factory and almost putting the company out of business.

There is also the issue of unfulfilled promises on a number of projects. The Hypatia Trust in Penzance is an internationally renowned charity. It intends to establish an important project geared at promoting the understanding of women. The project would be based in Penzance, and would offer the prospect of bringing hundreds of thousands of pounds in investment to the town centre. For many months, the trust was convinced of the RDA's intention to support that project, but shortly before Christmas it received a letter saying that the RDA had changed its mind. That has thrown the whole project into serious jeopardy.

The RDA should be playing a strategic role. The south-west continues to go through tremendous turmoil. It is appropriate that we should have an organisation dealing with strategic issues such as transport. To travel to my constituency--which is a five-and-a-half-hour rail journey from London--one has to get off the train at Tiverton or Exeter and take the bus, adding a further hour to the journey, as well as the inconvenience. There has not been a squeak from the RDA on issues such as transport, on which it is appropriate to have a body with a wide-ranging remit. The RDA should be taking the lead on issues such as transport, instead of interfering--as it has been doing--and telling Cornwall that it should not have its own brand image.

Cornwall has a strong brand image. Frankly, the south-west as a region exists only in the minds of people who work on the basis of bureaucratic convenience; it has no brand value whatever. The RDA should not be getting in the way of Cornwall's brand value; it should offer support and allow Cornwall to build on its strengths.

The RDA has the right idea in respect of devolving decision-making power and allowing the Government to let go and enable people in the regions to take decisions that affect them. The problem is that the idea has been wrongly executed. The Government preside over 30 or more regional quangos, and they all take their lead from Westminster or Whitehall--not from the business community. Their members are all Government appointees and are answerable to Ministers and not to local people.

We need a distinctive approach. The Government must let go a little, and give control freakery a holiday. They must marry decision making in Cornwall to the objective 1 region and let distinctiveness flourish. They must also realise that in Cornwall there is genuinely a new spirit and a will to succeed, which is already producing some excellent projects. That initiative does not need to be strangled by inappropriate Government interference, red tape and complexity. The Government must give more control to Cornwall and provide opportunities for more exciting, innovating, cutting-edge projects. That would be risky, but it would be less risky than not letting go--as the Government are still holding on to regional development in Cornwall. There is initiative and drive in the region, but it is being killed off by the dead hand of too much Government interference, placelessness and a lack of recognition of its distinctiveness and identity. Cornwall can compete, but not by trying to be the same as everywhere else; it must be different and distinctive. It needs to get away from the RDA model, which is suffocating that distinctiveness.