Regional policy was not a whim, delared minister for local government and the regions Hilary Armstrong. But further steps were needed to achieve greater accountability and scrutiny both regionally and locally.
She was replying to a Westminster Hall debate initiated by former Conservative environment minister Christopher Chope, MP for Christchurch, who said the boundary of the south west region did not serve Dorset well.
He accused the government of discriminating against Dorset, using Hampshire as his comparator. The government had awarded a special cost-of-living allowance to nurses in Hampshire but had denied it to those working in Dorset.
'Indeed, Dorset receives less than its fair share on many counts - not only for health, education and police, but for district council services,' said Mr Chope.
'One is bound to ask whether the government are engaging in pork-barrel politics. It seems that because no Labour MPs represent Dorset seats, the government are taking it out on the Dorset people by starving them of an equal share of resources.'
He said although government had allocated£54m to pay for implementation of its compulsory concessionary fares policy, not a penny had been made available to East Dorset DC and only£20,000 to Christchurch DC. Yet the additional burden of concessionary fares cost about£150,000 in East Dorset and£93,000 in Christchurch.
Mr Chope also claimed the government was ignoring the regional planning conference's and inspectors' recommendations on the expansion of Bournemouth airport and on the A31-Poole road link. The government was imposing rigid, regional boundaries that were creating a host of anomalies.
He declared: 'Regionalism does not work in the south west. We know that it is the means by which the European Commission hopes to destroy the individual nations of Europe: its agenda is to divide the United Kingdom and then to divide England by imposing top-down structures.
'The model that suits Dorset and England better is one in which local communities govern themselves through a network of truly local councils and are represented in parliament by members of parliament who can hold ministers to account. That is what our debate is all about.'
Ms Armstrong observed 'the conspiracy theory survives'. Mr Chope probably could not remember but when his government took power in 1979, there were strong protests from people who sought a more regional approach and the equivalent of the Scottish Development Agency for the English regions. That suggestion was rejected
by the Conservative government.
She said of Labour, 'The regional policy is not just a whim of government but one that comes from a clear understanding of what is going on in the regions now. It is important to address imbalances from a regional perspective. Our commitment to opportunity for all demands a new regional policy.'
Six of the eight English regions had incomes per head below the European average.
'We can ill-afford to view regional prosperity as an optional extra, to be established only after we have established another tier of government.
'There is nothing inevitable about regional inequalities and incomes, employment or opportunity. We can achieve balanced growth and rising prosperity not only in one or two regions but in every region and city. However, that requires a new approach to regional policy,' said the minister.
'It is necessary to back regional and local enterprise and initiative by exploiting indigenous strengths in regions and cities. Regional policy must be bottom-up rather than top-down, and further steps are required to deliver greater accountability and scrutiny both regionally and locally.'
On Bournemouth airport, she said the wording of the regional planning guidance was subject to consultation that would not be completed until 14 March. And on the A31 link with Poole, Ms Armstrong said the government office, Poole BC and Dorset CC had discussed the matter constructively and the councils were now considering how best to take the matter forward.
Hansard 27 Feb: Column 209-217WH