Saturday, March 29, 2014

Ros in the Lords: City to City diplomacy

Sometimes, good fortune allows you to raise a matter just when it might be most effective, and the decision of the Earl of Dundee to ask for a debate on city to city diplomacy allowed Ros to put some of her experiences to good effect...
Baroness Scott of Needham Market (LD): Exactly two weeks ago, I was in Denmark chairing a conference of local and regional authorities from around the North Sea. During my two days in Aalborg, I had an opportunity to reflect on the nature of international co-operation at a local level. I was considering how best to raise these points in your Lordships’ House, so I am very grateful that the noble Earl has given me a chance to do so so quickly.
The North Sea Commission was founded in 1989 as a way of allowing local and regional authorities with a North Sea border to come together to discuss areas of common interest and to see whether, by working together, we could arrive at better solutions. I was a councillor in Suffolk when we took the decision to join. I was involved until 2005 and spent much of that time as chair of the heritage, culture and tourism group. Membership was beneficial to Suffolk. It gave us a ready-made pool of the European partners that we needed to join in EU-funded programmes. These ranged from the promotion of local foods and the creation of local business to sustainable tourism and diversification of jobs in Lowestoft, which had been very badly hit by the decline in the fishing industry.
We went on to discover that there are issues and problems common to the North Sea region which cannot always be tackled by individual councils, regions or member states. The North Sea Commission used its influence to bring together fishermen, scientists, environmentalists and civil servants when previously they would not even sit in the same room. What we had then has now developed into an EU-wide regional organisation with legal powers over fisheries. We shared experience together on how to deal with many of the problems brought about by oil and gas exploration. Noble Lords will remember the Brent Spar. The North Sea Commission still does that work but it is now also heavily involved in renewable energy and the development of a North Sea energy grid. Coastal erosion, flooding and pollution are issues which all suggest that there is a need for a body which looks at the North Sea from a North Sea perspective rather than a local or national one.
Not very much has changed in the nine years since I stopped being involved, except for one big change which I did notice. In 2005, English local authorities from Newcastle down to Kent were members. Now, Southend is the only English representative on the North Sea Commission. Scottish councils are, thankfully, still very active. So what has happened? There is still a need for a body such as this. I saw no evidence that the NSC is less effective. Indeed, the presence of a number of very senior officials from the European Commission suggests that it is highly regarded, and the presence of members from all other countries, including Norway, which is not in the EU, suggests that it still valued. So what has happened in England? I think that there are two factors and they are both relevant to this evening’s debate.
First, public services are increasingly required to demonstrate the outcomes of expenditure of public money. That is absolutely right, but it means that spending on areas where the outcomes are more intangible, such as partnerships, become harder to justify. Secondly, there is the irony that, as the world is becoming smaller and individuals travel more and communicate across the globe, outside, the notion that public servants and elected members might actually leave the country to meet colleagues is viewed with great suspicion and even hostility. To some extent, that is understandable. It is hard for elected members to justify foreign travel, even if it is to a wind farm in Germany, when cuts are being made in public services.

Returning to the narrower context of the North Sea Commission, it became clear to me at the conference that there will be an increased focus on the North Sea, especially in the context of energy. The EU is looking to the North Sea Commission to help to drive progress in these areas and, when that happens, there will be no English voices round the table. I think that that will be a serious omission. I should like the Government to consider what practical assistance can be given to ensure that that does not happen.

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