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Directly Elected Neighbourhood Councils

Volume 115: debated on Wednesday 29 April 1987

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3.39 pm

I beg to move,

That leave to given to bring in a Bill to give residents of British cities the right to establish directly elected neighbourhood councils and to make consequential provision for their constitution and resources.
The Bill will facilitate the process of parish review which was envisaged in the Local Government Act 1972. It will remove from city councils the sole responsibility of initiating the parish or neighbourhood review procedure. It will give residents the right to petition their district council to initiate the review and it will provide for a fixed timetable with which district councils must comply in initiating parish reviews under their present powers.

The legislation is designed to boost the urban parish movement. After the reorganisation of local government in 1974, urban areas in England were left without the degree of representation or participation that was adequate to secure effective and convenient local government. The Local Government Act 1972 established larger local authorities and remoter local government. Fortunately, the Act also provided the means to remedy the position—the parish review. But, sadly, the public, and even Members of Parliament, may not be familiar with this term or with the enabling part of the legislation.

The Local Government Act states that assessments of the establishment of new parishes are determined by the aptitude of such parishes to secure "effective and convenient" local government. Such assessments must be made initially by the district council, recommended by the Boundary Commission and sanctioned by the Secretary of State. However, it is clear from the legislation and Department of the Environment circulars that there is a firm intention that these reviews should be taken seriously.

The Department of the Environment circular of April 1983 reiterated to district councils that they had not been released from their obligations under the Act to conduct parish reviews. Despite all the benefits that accrue from the establishment of parish councils in urban areas, few have been established. In the north-west I can think of only two which have been established in this way—Prescot town council in the borough of Knowsley and Shaw arid Crompton town council in Oldham district council. Indeed, the Shaw town council was largely established as a result of the vigorous efforts of Saddleworth's Chris Davies who is also campaigning to establish one in Littleborough, and he should be congratulated on that. Hon. Members may know of others which have been established more recently, and some go under the name of "town council". Yet, there is disappointment and bafflement that the urban parish council movement has not developed adequately.

Unfortunately, much depends on the district council. At present there are several reasons why many district councils have failed to undertake these reviews. District councils are invariably reluctant to divest powers, and many do not agree with the view of our joint alliance commission on constitutional reform, which states:
"no decision should be taken at a higher level of government which can with equal or greater effectiveness be taken at a lower level."
Given that the legislation imposes on district councils a duty to review the position of parish councils from time to time, it is not surprising that those district councils which are hostile to decentralisation and devolution should have chosen to delay their reviews again and again. New legislation, such as this Bill, should lay down a specific time, and my Bill suggests every five years.

A further complication is that under present arrangements any district council recommending that a parish should be established will have to show that it, the district council, does not already provide effective and convenient local government. As Joan Perrin of the Association for Neighbourhood Councils points out, this is an "unlikely prescription for change. "The phrase, "effective and convenient" is open to some criticism as there is no uniform understanding of its meaning." Guidelines should be laid down.

The sole responsibility should also be removed from district councils. Local residents—and I suggest this in my Bill—should have the right to initiate the review by petitioning the district council. The Urban Parishes Bill 1978, a private Member's Bill introduced by the late Graham Page—and I am glad that his successor, the hon. Member for Crosby (Mr. Thornton), is one of the sponsors of my Bill today — proposed that 100 local government electors would suffice. I think that that number is about right.

These moves would give added impetus to the growth of urban parish councils. In a city like Liverpool—the Bill is specifically aimed at cities — good people have drifted away from the complex and often soul-destroying job of being a city councillor. Neighbourhood councils would be a nursery for rearing a new generation of local councillors. They would also ease the burden on city councillors. The case loads of most of our inner city councillors—I served as one for eight years—are so vast that the councillors spend most of their time solving problems and little time acting as true representatives of their community.

The neighbourhood council would not require a vast bureaucracy or infinite sums of money. As the Merseyside Association of Local Councils and groups like the Southern Neighbourhood Council in Liverpool have proved, small is not only beautiful; it is often better as well.

A century ago, Liverpool had a network of mini town halls. The old Wavertree town hall in my constituency still stands, although these days it is used as a restaurant. Without highly localised decision making, the sense of community and civic pride which once existed throughout that network of town halls has sadly become another dim and distant memory.

My right hon. and noble Friend, Lord Grimond, once said that
"if politics is about power and Liberalism is about people, then we are for power to people."
Therefore, it is not surprising that Liberals are wholeheartedly supporting the Bill, but I am glad to say that hon. Members from all other parties are backing it, too. They, like me, believe that neighbourhood councils should be able to spend the equivalent of a 2p rate, commensurate with the population of their area.

We also believe that by being able to develop the local community facilities, by ensuring proper use of existing amenities and by championing local causes which are important to people, such neighbourhood councils will help to recreate the bonding of the community and establish a new sense of neighbourliness. Surely the principles of the village are good for the city as well. More than anything else, it is the anonymity, the powerlessness, the lack of a clear identity and of cohesion which have threatened the vitality of city life. No one else will reverse those trends but city dwellers themselves, and they need the structure and the power to enable them to do it.

The parish is the truly local level of government in England, the only one with a statutory status. It was created by the Liberal Government in the Local Government Act 1984. As such, it is perfectly placed to be the bedrock of devolutionist plans. The recognition of the need for a national system of parish councils. neighbourhood councils, town councils, community councils — call them what one will — as the building blocks of government is our starting point for the reform of local democracy.

3.47 pm

If the problems referred to by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) could be resolved by councils and committees and reports—which is the line that he takes—we would have no problems in Liverpool. The hon. Member talks about city areas. Between 1968 and 1973 Liverpool had the education priority areas study, in 1969–70 the sheltered neighbourhood action, between 1969 and 1973 the Brunswick neighbourhood scheme, between 1969 and 1975 the Vauxhall community development project, between 1972 and 1976 Her Majesty's Government carried out various studies, including the inner area study, and we had the Department of the Environment priority estates project survey in 1984. All those studies have shown what people knew already—or at least any honest person — that the fundamental problem was and is the need for an urgent injection of finance into deprived areas, not the setting up of bogus committees to deal with the problem. The Liberal party's solution is to set up councils and committees, which will be starved of finance, and by that particular device spread the responsibility away from their particular door to the deprived areas that have been mentioned already.

The Red Russian leader, Vladimir Hitch Lenin, said that an ounce of experience is worth a ton of theory. The theory expounded by the hon. Member for Mossley Hill may seem attractive. However, in my view it is blatant electioneering by the Liberal party. Set against the background of social deprivation in places such as Liverpool, it is an abrogation of the responsibility of any administration, and a failure by councillors to face up to their legislative duties as elected community representatives. That is the theory.

The experience has been referred to by the hon. Member for Mossley Hill. The Southern neighbourhood council, a typical example of what he is talking about, has been in existence for 10 years in Liverpool. But it has only glossed over the needs of the people of Liverpool at a time of deprivation.

That deprivation has been referred to in reports Europe-wide. The constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mr. Parry) has been described as having the worst environmental and housing conditions in Western Europe, yet it is watched over by one of the neighbourhood councils that the hon. Member for Mossley Hill wants to implement. Blocks of flats in Caryl Gardens and King Gardens were listed on a demolition programme in 1979 in the area of the Southern neighbourhood council. In 1981–82, the Liberal administration cancelled those plans. It took a Labour administration in 1983, through the injection of finance and the urban regeneration programme, to deal with the environmental problem. Sad to relate, one of the first tasks undertaken by that council when it came to power through the decision of the Law Lords, when the 47 Liverpool councillors were removed, was to halt the project that would have dealt with the problems that the Southern neighbourhood council should have been dealing with.

The matter has been referred to in the House before. On 27 April 1983, the then Minister for Housing and Construction — the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Mailing (Mr. Stanley), now Minister of State for the Armed Forces—said:
"I must point out to the hon. Gentleman and the Liberal Party in Liverpool that Liverpool city council has been a conspicuous underspender. The crucial need in Liverpool is for full utilisation of the resources that have been made available."
Not setting up bogus councils, as the hon. Member for Mossley Hill proposes.
"The Liverpool city council underspent in 1981–82 and it appears that it has produced an increased underspend in 1982–83. The local authority should make better use of its stock and full use of its resources."—[Official Report, 27 April 1983; Vol. 41, c. 848.]
When the hon. Member for Mossley Hill was Liverpool's housing chairman in 1978–79, the housing investment programme was underspent by £6 million. That would be a hell of a lot of money today. In 1980–81, the Liberals in Liverpool had a housing allocation of £47·2 million: they spent £40·2 million—an underspend of £7 million. In 1981–82, they had an allocation of £40·8 million and spent £35·4 million—an underspend of £5·4 million. The total resources made available in 1982–83 amounted to £106·3 million; the council spent only £74 million — and underspend of £32 million.

We talk about power to the people, but it is power to the people without the resources to deal with the problems with which the council is supposed to deal. There are 33 wards in the Liverpool area; ideally, we should like more. We in the Labour party campaign to involve people in the communities in what is going on in Liverpool. But we must understand that councillors are democratically elected to the local council. They are accountable for the allocation of finance and resources to the entire city as a community, with public watchdogs to ensure that it takes place.

The question that must be posed against the recommendation is whether the problem is organisational or structural, or whether it is exacerbated by past Liberal administrations in the city of Liverpool, financial deprivation by central Government and the underspend that has been referred to. We cannot take in isolation the pseudo-populist charade engaged in by the hon. Member for Mossley Hill.

In a debate in the House on 18 March, it was made clear that, apart from underspending money made available for the people of Liverpool and designated for housing areas, this caretaker authority had already cut £50 million from the needs of the people of Liverpool.

In that debate the hon. Gentleman asked the Government to allow the district auditor to conduct an efficiency audit survey and to highlight areas in which savings could he made. That means cuts in services and jobs. The community councils would be unable to help to try to resolve those problems. Traditionally, the Labour party and workers have achieved everything through struggle, but all that the Liberal party wants to do is to stand aside from its responsibilities to the people of Liverpool as a whole and to the electors nationally. It pretends that problems can be solved by setting up a few bogus committees and councils. The Labour administration in Liverpool stood up to the bully boys on the Conservative Benches, and our achievements will stand for all time.

For 10 years a Liberal-Tory community council glossed over the deep-seated problems that face my city. For a period of three and a half years, by injecting cash, which is the key to all the problems in our neighbourhoods, the Labour administration in Liverpool started to put right some of the abnormalities. The Liberal resolution cancelled all that we had done. If this bogus exercise is allowed to become a reality, valuable time will be wasted. Liverpool's problems can be resolved only by the injection of some of the wealth that has been created by the people of Liverpool. Decent housing must he provided, as of right, together with services and jobs. Only in that way shall we improve the conditions that have been created by the Tory Government and their bedfellows, the Liberal party.

I shall not divide the House on this issue, Mr. Speaker. However, I am highlighting the audacity of these people and the experience of neighbourhood councils in Liverpool, just to expose them for what they are.

The hon. Gentleman must follow his words with a shout of "No" when I put the Question.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Richard Wainwright, Mr. Archy Kirkwood, Mr.Malcolm Thornton, Mr. Dafydd Wigley, Mr. Terry Davis, Mr. James Wallace, Mr. John Cartwright, Mr. Cyril Smith, Mr. Michael Meadowcroft, Mr. Simon Hughes and Mr. David Alton.

Directly Elected Neighbourhood Councils

Mr. David Alton accordingly presented a Bill to give residents of British cities the right to establish directly elected neighbourhood councils and to make consequential provision for their constitution and resources: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time upon Friday 3 July 1987 and to be printed. [Bill 144.]