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Local Government White Paper

Volume 450: debated on Thursday 26 October 2006

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the future of local government.

Local authorities and the services they provide in partnership with others are hugely important to the health and strength of our communities and country. They help to determine the quality of our everyday lives: the schools that our children attend, the cleanliness and safety of our neighbourhoods, the health of families, the ease with which we can travel, and the leisure activities that we enjoy. Many of the biggest social advances in recent generations were led by local government and its leaders. They have served their communities well. But in 1997, this Government inherited public services and institutions that were run down, demoralised and starved of cash and resources. We responded with significant investment to expand capacity and by setting a strong direction nationally. Combined with the hard work and commitment of local councillors, the local government work force and other partners, this has led to real improvements in local public service delivery.

For the next phase of reform, we need to respond to new challenges. The increasing complexity and diversity of these—from climate change to tackling deep-rooted social exclusion—demand more flexibility at local level. Moreover, expectations of citizens are rising fast. They rightly want more choice over the services that they receive, more influence over those who provide them and higher service standards.

The White Paper that I publish today proposes that local authorities and other public service providers have the freedom and powers that they need to meet the needs of their communities and to be more clearly accountable for doing so. Communities must have a bigger say in the issues that matter to them most. We therefore propose a new settlement with local government, communities and citizens. We will give local authorities a stronger role in leading their communities and bringing services together to address local needs and problems. Central Government will play their part in guaranteeing minimum standards and setting overall national goals, but we will step back and allow more freedom and flexibility at local level. In exchange, we expect to see more accountability to local citizens, stronger local leadership, better and more efficient services and a readiness to support tougher intervention when things go wrong. The White Paper sets out how we intend to achieve this re-balancing between central government, local government and local people.

At present, there are as many as 1,200 national targets and indicators for a local area. In future—[Interruption.]

We will cut that figure to 200 indicators with around 35 targets, plus statutory education and child care targets. The targets will be tailored to local needs, agreed between Government and local partners and set out in the local area agreement.

In that way, we will focus on the things that matter to people everywhere, guaranteeing national minimum standards, but encouraging local innovation and local priorities. We will introduce a more proportionate, risk-based inspection regime to cut bureaucracy and more targeted support or intervention when things go wrong.

Our best local authority leaders have made a huge difference to the citizens and communities that they serve. The White Paper sets out measures to ensure that all communities benefit from strong, accountable and visible leadership.

In future, there will be three choices for councils: a directly elected mayor, a directly elected executive of councillors or a leader elected by fellow councillors with a clear four-year mandate. All the executive powers of local authorities will be vested in the leader of the council, with a strong role for the council to scrutinise the leader’s actions and approve the budget and major plans.

The way in which councils choose to govern themselves will be different in different parts of the country. We will make it easier for local authorities to move to a directly elected mayor or executive by resolution of the council, in consultation with local people. When they want to do so, they will also be able to introduce whole-council elections and single-member wards, improving accountability to voters.

We recognise the gains that unitary status can offer in accountable, strategic leadership and improved efficiency. There will be a short window of opportunity for councils in shire areas to seek unitary status. We expect a small number of proposals to meet the value-for-money and other criteria set out in the invitation that we have issued today. In remaining two-tier areas, we will work with local authorities to deliver better value for money and greater efficiency.

Stronger leadership works best if it is balanced by citizens and communities having a bigger say in the quality of the services that they receive and the places where they live. To ensure that services are more accountable, responsive and efficient, local authorities will involve and consult service users more fully and provide better information about standards in their local area. In addition, we will review barriers and incentives to increased community ownership and management of local facilities and other assets.

We will increase and strengthen the powers of local people to demand answers and action through a new community call for action. Councillors should be champions for their local community, able to speak out on all issues affecting their area, including planning and licensing. They should be able to sort out issues on the ground or demand a formal response through scrutiny procedures. Effective scrutiny by councillors is an essential part of robust local democracy. We will strengthen it.

Communities need strategic leadership to help bring local partners, the business sector and the voluntary and community sectors together. Issues such as community safety, public health or community cohesion require all local partners to share the same agenda. Our best local authorities already recognise this—and their citizens and communities benefit as a result. Our proposals will ensure that that happens throughout the country.

Sir Michael Lyons described the “place-shaping” role of local authorities in his report in May. I pay tribute to his work so far. The proposals before the House today provide a clear basis for Sir Michael’s future conclusions on local government funding.

Cities play an increasingly important role as engines of economic growth. In recent years, there has been a renaissance in our towns and cities, thanks to the vision and leadership of local authorities and their partners. However, we need to go further. We must look beyond city and town boundaries to consider the success and prosperity of the surrounding area. Over recent months, we have consulted our towns and cities on the tools and powers that they need for economic development. There is no “one size fits all”. The White Paper provides a response to issues raised by towns and cities on transport, skills, economic development and co-operation between neighbouring local authorities. We will continue to work with them in the coming months. Our clear, overriding principle is that the greater the powers devolved, the greater the premium on clear, visible leadership.

None of our reforms can be carried out without a strong and committed work force. Local government contains many high quality councillors and public servants. It has transformed our towns and cities and, in many areas, it leads public services in partnership working, innovation and efficiency.

Our reforms will give citizens and communities a clearer voice, create stronger and more visible leadership and establish a new settlement with local government and its partners, communities and citizens.

The White Paper is about creating better services and better places. It sets out the tools that will help all local areas tackle the challenges of the 21st century, capture the strength and talents of their citizens and communities and achieve their full potential. I commend it to the House.

I thank the right hon. Lady for letting me have a copy of the White Paper in advance. I have had just enough time to check the number of pages and the price tag, which is £32.50—at least it is two for the price of one.

I shall begin on a note of consensus. I agreed with the right hon. Lady when she said that local government is in much better shape since 1997. The reason for that is that the Conservative party is now the largest party in local government and Labour councillors are an endangered species.

The White Paper prompts many questions, and the logical place to start is on the timing, which is extraordinary. The White Paper comes barely a month before the Lyons review into local government and ahead of the Barker review into planning. How can a local government White Paper mean anything, if it does not deal with finance? Does the Secretary of State agree that the function and finance of local government are two sides of the same coin? If she agrees, will she accept that without the financial dimension, the White Paper is incapable of addressing the real concerns of people outside Westminster? The true test of this White Paper is not whether it delivers enough localist soundbites; the test is whether it will deliver tangible changes for the majority of people, who are not interested in the machinery of local government or its incomprehensible jargon.

I want to ask the Secretary of State about the things that really matter to people who receive services from their councils. What will the White Paper do for those people who are worried about how they will pay for care in old age? What will it do for people who are struggling to pay council tax, which has soared for most people by 84 per cent. under Labour? And what will it do for people who desperately want to have a say about where new housing goes and the character of their neighbourhood? The answer, I fear, is precisely nothing.

The White Paper is toothless, because it is a series of compromises and halfway houses. Does the Secretary of State appreciate that the rhetoric on localism will be treated with scepticism, because of the poisoned chalice that she received from her predecessor’s obsession with regions? Month by month, more power and money is going to regional quangos, bypassing local councils. Until unelected regional assemblies are abolished and powers are returned to elected local councils, those localist pledges are not worth the paper on which they are written.

There are, of course, things in the White Paper with which we agree, because they are harmless. We warmly welcome the decision to cut the number of directives from Whitehall to councils from 1,200 to 200, but we will carefully monitor what that means in practice. It will be good to see power devolved to parish councils to pass byelaws, but where will the resources come from to enforce those byelaws?

What worries me about the White Paper is the level of compromise, which is the symptom of a party that is unsure of its direction. Does the Secretary of State agree that empowering council leaders is a fudge between the Prime Minister’s stated preference for directly elected mayors and the Chancellor’s opposition to them? And will the White Paper delay legislation on new powers for the Mayor of London?

Is not the reduction in the number of performance targets an admission of Government failure? The inspection regimes imposed by the Local Government Acts 1999, 2000 and 2003 were a mistake. Are not city regions just a muddled and ill-defined hybrid between a failing regional agenda and real local autonomy? And how does that fit with the powers enjoyed by the regional development agencies? Is not talk of the business case for unitaries just a strained bridge between the original big idea of the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which is characterised by the headline “Restructure or else”, and the more realistic description by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government of restructuring as “a distraction”?

Does the Secretary of State feel embarrassed because the Prime Minister charged her in an open letter with the need for a radical and devolutionary White Paper, which her own Department now describes as

“more evolutionary than shock and awe”?

Restructuring was in, and now it is out. Elected mayors were in, and now they are out. Targets were in, and now they are out. That is not progress or radicalism; it is the politics of the hokey-cokey.

While the Government chop and change, the real opportunity to improve people’s quality of life is being missed. That is the tragedy of the White Paper. It provides not a crumb of comfort to people worrying about how to pay for their mum’s care home costs. Is not it the case that people who are already scrimping and saving to meet their council tax bills will find nothing in the White Paper to help them? Will not those who want to have a say on the scale and shape of new development in their community still find their views ignored?

The White Paper is a wasted opportunity by a Government who have squandered their third term. A few pious platitudes and a bonfire of past Labour mistakes are no substitute for policy. The right hon. Lady must do better. Councils are straining to be set free. She should not be so timid. She should give freedoms back to local government and local people.

For a moment, I thought that the hon. Lady might have welcomed the Government’s proposals to recast the relationship between central and local government. I am disappointed that she did not choose to agree with the Tory chair of the Local Government Association, who, this morning, with his colleagues, described the forthcoming White Paper as

“heralding a historic deal on devolution in England for local people and those who serve them.”

I shall deal with each of the hon. Lady’s comments. It is welcome that she has not chosen to dispute the fact that the Government have significantly increased investment in local public services by almost 40 per cent. in real terms over the past nine years. Nor did she choose to dispute the fact that the quality and delivery of public services has increased over that period, that local government performance has improved, or that two thirds of local councils are now judged by the Audit Commission to be good or excellent. At least she recognises the role that local government can play in the future. In fact, her party’s recognition of the importance of local government is long overdue. Only recently, one of her colleagues confessed that

“it is true to say that the last Conservative government was not always kind to local democracy.”

It is a pleasant change to hear some words of substance from her right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition. I could not agree more with his comments.

The hon. Lady made a point about the timing of the local government White Paper. She argued that we cannot consider giving more powers to local government, giving it more flexibility over the use of its resources, or slashing targets for local areas from 1,200 to 200, without at the same time reopening the debate and considering proposals on local government finance. It is a bit rich for her and her party to lecture us about the council tax. Most people would agree that it is right to think about what local government does before we think about how we raise finance. As the hon. Lady also knows, Sir Michael Lyons will consider local government finance in his independent report and make recommendations later in the year.

To argue that the White Paper is a damp squib that does nothing for local people, however, is completely and utterly wrong. The White Paper slashes targets, and moves to a new inspection regime, away from a rolling programme everywhere to proportionate, targeted, risk-based inspection. It is devolutionary on byelaws, on which the hon. Lady has changed her mind just this morning. It is devolutionary on single- member wards, all-out elections, parish councils and, yes, the standards regime for local councillors. It gives new flexibility over funding—[Interruption.] If the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) will listen for a moment, he will learn that, currently, £520 million flows through the local area agreement. In future, the figure could be up to £4.7 billion.

The hon. Lady asked about city regions and the regional agenda. What matters to us is not trying to scrape together £21 billion of unfunded tax cuts, but securing the right powers at the right levels. That is why we consider these issues seriously. The hon. Lady argues for more devolution in housing. We know what Tory devolution means: it means not building the homes that people need.

The White Paper sets out a Labour view of devolution. It means central and local government working together to set minimum standards, but also to deliver local services, better places, more involved citizens and more prosperous local communities. Our proposals stand in stark contrast to the legacy of neglect and cuts that we inherited from the Conservative party. We now know what Tory devolution means: not fairness for all, but a free-for-all.

The Liberal Democrats welcome the White Paper, and I am pleased that the Secretary of State came to the House to make her statement. Nevertheless, the White Paper represents a significant missed opportunity.

Does the Secretary of State share our view that local communities are too often cut out of decision making—that they are too often forced to accept the standards and prescriptions of central Government, and that their voice is not being heard? Does she agree that public alienation, anger and apathy are all fuelled by a sense of disconnection from local government and from decision making? Despite all her head-scratching, the White Paper does not convince me that she agrees with that analysis.

The White Paper does not propose the fair votes that are essential for democratic renewal. It does not propose abolition of the council tax and the introduction of a fair tax based on ability to pay. It will not return the business rate to the control of local government, which is essential to freedom of decision making. Perhaps above all, it will not return the powers and the billions of pounds that central Government and quangos hold on behalf of local government, which prevents local government from making decisions. Sadly, much of what it does propose has more to do with administrative convenience than with democratic accountability. It has more to do with the fleeting fashions in No. 10 than with community engagement.

Whatever persuaded the Secretary of State to cut out community choice from the executive mayoral system? After 34 referendums and 22 rejections, with only 12 mayors accepted by the public and with four of the 12 who have been voted into office facing recall action by outraged local communities, could it just be that the Prime Minister went to the Secretary of State and said “We do not want local choice on mayoral executives: just get on with it”? Does that not make a complete mockery of the Secretary of State’s mantra about community choice? The only choice that the public did have and the only choice that they were exercising—to say “We do not want mayors”—is to be taken away from them.

In the media this morning, I heard the Secretary of State make much of the new powers for councils, parish and district, to make byelaws. That is good, but I wonder whether she has noted that they already have those powers under the Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Act 2005.

There are some genuinely good things in the White Paper. The proposal to reform the Standards Board and its code is long overdue. The only point that I would make is that the Secretary of State could have done it without a White Paper, months and months ago. We also welcome the restoration of local councillors’ right to defend their local communities when planning and licensing decisions are made. We agree with the Secretary of State that the current rules are absurd and grossly anti-democratic. Will she undertake to bolt that provision on to some piece of legislation—any piece of legislation—very soon, and to bring back common sense before the new year?

Councils are to be invited to volunteer to convert to unitary status. How will the Secretary of State judge who volunteered and who was bounced? Will the public have a voice in the changes? Does she expect them to cost more money? If she feels the need to cap expenditure and the number of people involved—which I understand is proposed in the White Paper—and if, as I suspect, the local community will not be asked to endorse the changes, what exactly will be her criteria for approving them?

One of the most talked-up parts of the White Paper was the part relating to city regions. My question to the Secretary of State is simple: what happened to it? If the mayors are in because of No 10, city regions seem to be out because of No. 11. What exactly has the city regions project to do with the Treasury, and how has the Secretary of State let the Treasury get its hands on it?

The Liberal Democrats look forward to helping the Government to improve the White Paper drastically and dramatically, and to restore and rebuild local democracy. We await the Secretary of State’s answers with interest.

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman welcomes many of the proposals in the White Paper, even if he too believes that it should really have been a local government White Paper on council tax and property finance reform. We know what his party says about those issues, and I do not think that it has much popular support, but no doubt we shall debate them in the House in due course.

In fact, I largely agree with the hon. Gentleman’s analysis. While local public service standards and their delivery have improved significantly over the past nine years, expectations have also risen, and the former have not kept pace with the latter. Citizens now want a voice when it comes to the delivery of local public services, and expect their views to be taken into account. We need to reconnect them with public service delivery, and many of the proposals in the White Paper are designed to do just that.

For example, the best-value duty on local authorities will be reformed. Information will have to be given to local people. They will have to be consulted about local public service delivery, and will have to be involved in the making of choices. We are reviewing community ownership and the management of assets so that local communities will have the opportunity to take a direct interest in the provision of local public services. For instance, when a town hall is not being used adequately, their views about what should happen to it should be taken properly into consideration.

The White Paper will give communities a right to be heard, which I think is an important step. If the local ward councillor cannot get something sorted out on the ground, overview and scrutiny committees will be reformed to become mini-Select Committees. They will be able to take up local issues and call for evidence, not just from local authorities but from other local service partners. Primary care trusts, Jobcentre Plus and all the other agencies that work to provide services in an area will have to give evidence, respond formally in due course, and take recommendations into account.

Perhaps Labour Members should not be too surprised that the party of the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell) has some difficulty in accepting the notion of strong leadership. Of course, in this instance I am talking about strong leadership at local level. The hon. Gentleman argues that local people will no longer have a say. That is not the case at all. When the hon. Gentleman reads the details of the proposals carefully, he will see that local people will have to be consulted if a council decides to adopt a mayoral model. However, we will ensure that council leaders, where they are adopted, also have visible strong leadership.

The hon. Gentleman asked about unitary authorities. I think that we have got the balance right, avoiding any huge distraction of local councils so that they can get on with the job of delivering better public services for their people. But when there is real willingness and local support, and when councils meet the strict criteria set out alongside the White Paper in the invitation to bid for unitary status, we will consider bids properly, and a small number of councils will be given the opportunity to move to unitary status. We will, of course, make our judgment on the basis of value for money. We must decide whether the councils are providing strong leadership and responding to citizen and community concerns. I think all Members would agree that such criteria are important.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about the city region agenda. The White Paper sets out a clear direction for city regions. We want to support strong, voluntary boards of leaders and we want city regions to lead economic development in their areas. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport has already set out his plans to devolve greater control over buses. We are consulting on the development of city development companies; we are backing skills and employment boards; we are taking forward discussions on multi-area agreements; and, in the run-up to the comprehensive spending review, we are looking seriously into devolving even more powers to city regions.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will, on reflection, accept that the White Paper represents a serious step forward, with deregulation, devolution and a reconstitution of the relationship between central and local government.

I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement, particularly her evident commitment to further empowerment and renewal of local democracy, improved accountability, improved leadership in local communities and the strengthening of the councillor’s role. As we look forward to the Bill to follow, will the Secretary of State look closely into the needs of urban areas—particularly cities—where the boundaries are drawn far too tightly to enable them to address the problems of conurbations and their communities? I suggest that the prospect of voluntary agreements might not be adequate to deal with the real problems in those areas.

I thank my hon. Friend—having previously led Leicester city council, he has considerable experience to draw on—for his comments. He is right that we need to examine how urban areas function economically and provide them with the necessary tools and powers. Sometimes, that might mean cross-boundary working, and multi-area agreements should be supported where appropriate. There might also have to be a boundary review—another option that is always available. Furthermore, looking into economic incentives for development is part of Kate Barker’s current work on reform of the land use planning system.

Frankly, that was rather like watching the spectacle of an elephant giving birth to a mouse. Local government will be very disappointed by the Secretary of State’s statement. My concern relates to funding and whether she can provide any hope to the people of Northamptonshire. The Government recognise that the county is underfunded as a result of the current formula. The former Minister with responsibility for local government acknowledged that, but said that it would take 20 years to put right. Will the Minister comment on that and include a proposal in the Bill to relieve the people of Northamptonshire of their great burden of underfunding?

The hon. Gentleman has clearly not read the comments of his local government colleagues and has failed to recognise the cross-party support within local government for the proposals I have set out today. He mentions Northamptonshire, but he well knows that the county has received above-inflation, real-terms increases in funding over the past nine years. In addition, my hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government has been discussing the position with the council and I am sure that those discussions will continue.

In welcoming today’s statement, may I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the progress made—in the year and a day that has elapsed since she presented the education White Paper—down the devolutionary route for local government? She will appreciate that the detail of the White Paper and the extent to which there is buy-in across the whole of Government are crucial to implementation. I hope that she can assure us that all Government Departments will support greater devolution of powers and exhibit more trust in local government.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his comments. I know how personally committed he is to this agenda and I am well aware of the good work he did as Minister with responsibility for local government. He is right to say that the White Paper will succeed if it has the support of all Whitehall Departments. It does. There is a cross-Government commitment to this agenda. The fact that about 35 targets for local areas must be agreed through local area agreements will impose huge self-discipline on central Government to set down only what they really care about. If local government agrees with the agenda and the targets, it should be allowed to set its own ambitions to lead the area. I think that that is the right way forward. We now have a powerful opportunity to allow local leaders to do precisely what they were elected to do—to lead their towns, cities and local areas into the future.

Having heard what the Secretary of State said on the “Today” programme and her statement to the House, may I ask her why, if she truly believes in local government and local choice, she is seeking to impose a certain formula for leadership? Is she not aware that many local people have no time at all for the mayoral concept and that many local councils believe that recent changes have emasculated the participation of ordinary councillors in their councils’ deliberations?

I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman. There are local choices about which model to adopt and councils will be able to choose a directly elected mayor only after full consultation with local people. I would like to see strong, visible leadership that can take an overview of the local area, plan for the future with confidence and take the necessary tough decisions. It will be properly accountable to citizens only if there is real citizen and community involvement. As part of the package of proposals that we are setting out today, we aim to ensure that citizens’ and community views are taken into account at every stage of development.

Your power to surprise, Mr. Speaker, never ceases to amaze!

I also welcome the White Paper, which I believe represents the first seeds of a welcome U-turn, particularly in so far as the Secretary of State has made it clear that she wishes to re-empower councillors. Re-empowerment should become the watchword of whatever emerges from this exercise. All too often, our councillors have become no more than ciphers in the exercise of local government. A fuller U-turn would include the re-empowerment of housing committees, education committees and planning committees and I urge the Secretary of State to go the whole hog. Let us have local government that is truly meaningful.

I thank my hon. Friend for his comments and hope that, after he has read the White Paper in full, he will be even more pleasantly surprised than he is now. He is absolutely right to talk about local councils and it is right that non-executive members should have a powerful role in their communities. In future, we want to encourage local authorities to provide small budgets for local councillors so that they can knock different public service providers’ heads together, get issues dealt with on the spot, refer an issue to the overview and scrutiny committee and secure a proper formal response. We want people who deliver public services to appear in person or deliver evidence in writing to committees and we want their recommendations to be taken into account. I believe that all this will revitalise local democracy and re-legitimise the role of the local political party. After publication of the White Paper, we need seriously to look into how to build capacity in local political parties so that the councillors of the future are of the very best calibre.

Having spent 36 years in local government, I welcome any attempt by any Government to give back to local government the role it deserves. The Secretary of State made some interesting points, but will she explain what powers she has to ensure that minimum standards are met, and who will set the criteria? Will she ensure that responsibility is backed up with resources, and will she give a commitment that objectors as well as the promoters of applications will have a right to appeal?

The hon. Gentleman asks a series of questions and I shall try to deal with them. He is right to say that there will be minimum standards. There are key priorities that local authorities want to see achieved everywhere—for example, children in care and care home standards. The important point is that we negotiate with each local area what its targets for improvement should be. If it is failing to achieve minimum standards, that should be one of its targets. If it is meeting minimum standards but has capacity to do more, we can agree with that local area and its local partners what the targets should be—

I am talking about central Government agreeing with local government and its partners what the targets should be—[Interruption.]

Order. It is not the place of the hon. Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait) to shout across the Chamber at the Secretary of State. The hon. Lady should be quiet, or she will have to leave the Chamber.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. We should leave local government the space and flexibility it needs to deal with complex issues of concern to local citizens and communities. The hon. Gentleman is right: we should fund any new burdens and we have a principle in place under which we will give funding to local authorities for any new burden imposed by the Government. He is also right that the inspection regime will change. It will become risk based and proportionate, but on the 35 targets that we expect to be delivered at local level, we will have a tougher under-performance regime, because as part of this package of proposals and the deal with local government, we expect those minimum standards to be delivered.

Will the White Paper extend and strengthen the duties of local authorities and primary care trusts to promote public health in communities? In particular, I am interested in schemes such as the “Eat Well, Do Well” scheme in Hull, which is to be scrapped by the Liberal Democrat council but is doing an enormous amount to promote the health of our children.

I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. All local partners will be asked to work to the same local objectives. That means in practice that where PCTs, social services and schools all have different agendas, they will in future be working to the same output objective. That will mean that an integrated personalised response can be delivered on the ground. We will expect partnerships for health and well-being to be in place up and down the country as a result of the proposals in the White Paper.

It is good to have a White Paper with the subtitle “repentance” that includes, not least, the dismantling to some extent of the new gendarmerie of control and inspection put together by this Government. But the White Paper is still a series of unresolved conflicts, as it is bound to be before we get the Lyons report and in the Blair-Brown interregnum. The White Paper is like a visit to a tapas bar, with a lot of little snacks, all of which are reasonably agreeable, but no decent meal in sight.

If city regions are central to the Government’s thinking—as they should be—are the Government willing to restructure some of the existing regional and sub-regional bodies, such as the learning and skills councils, the regional development agencies and the planning structures so that real levers of influence can be given to the city regions to influence their own fates and improve the lot of their citizens, especially in transport and skills, which are the crucial issues?

Of course what we need is a balanced diet, not indigestion. The White Paper sets out sensible proposals and is not subtitled “repentance”. The story so far is of improved local public service standards and an increased capacity in local government. The reason we have achieved that increase in standards is the central drive from Government, for instance with the literacy and numeracy hours from the Department for Education and Skills and the decent homes programme, which is putting right £19 billion of under-investment and backlog that we inherited in 1997. That is why we are in a position to devolve more and, as I have argued in the past, we have now reached a tipping point at which local government can take on more responsibilities.

The right hon. Gentleman asks specifically about city regions. The White Paper proposes employment and skills boards and city development companies in cities that want them. It will set out the clear principle that the more powers to be devolved, the greater the premium on transparent, visible leadership. The Leitch review is looking at skills and the Eddington review is looking across the board at transport, and we will come back with specific proposals for each city.

I welcome the White Paper’s commitment to extending devolution, but may I draw my right hon. Friend’s attention to two issues? First, I endorse what she said about the need for different governance formulae for different areas. What is right for a city region area such as that including Birmingham will be different from elsewhere. Secondly, we need to keep focused on the need to empower communities, not simply local authorities or agencies. Birmingham is a huge city and it needs the governance arrangements that go with that strategically, but the real test of success will be its willingness unambiguously to devolve further power to local communities such as mine, so that local people can have much more of a real say.

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. He is right to say that we must go with the grain of partnership working in different local city areas. As he knows, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, when he was in my job, set up a process of city summits, which I was happy to take forward. It is clear to me that there is a huge appetite out there for more powers to be granted at the city region level. The city regions are already working together on a partnership basis, but the extent of their ambition and their capacity differs. The identification of citizens with their local areas also differs from place to place and we must build on what is happening locally. My hon. Friend is right also to suggest that we have to empower communities. A real test of our proposals will be the extent to which citizens and communities feel that they have a greater say in the provision of local public services.

What consequences will the White Paper have for how and when legislation will be introduced to transfer powers to the Mayor of London?

What discussions has my right hon. Friend had with the Local Government Association in anticipation of drawing up the White Paper? Now that it has been launched, does she anticipate the LGA having any major problems with its content?

I have had months of discussion with local government partners through the LGA and the different political groups on it, as well as with different towns, cities and rural areas across the country. The LGA has welcomed the full extent of the proposals, arguing that the White Paper is an essential first step on the road to a new relationship between Government and local government.

In her statement, the Secretary of State said that communities must have a bigger say in the issues that matter to them most—a sentiment with which we would all agree. Will she put some flesh on the bones? For example, one issue on which local communities may feel very strongly is road safety. Will the local highway authority be able to introduce speed limits and install pedestrian crossings without any interference from the Department for Transport?

When the right hon. Gentleman has the chance to read the White Paper, he will see that the Highways Agency is one of the named partners that will have to co-operate with local objectives. That means when a citizen or a community has an objection to a particular proposal, they will have the right, through their ward councillor, to have it considered by the overview and scrutiny committee, so that proposals can be made. The Highways Agency would have to take those into account when considering future measures.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s recognition of the role of councillors as community champions and the need for ever better strategic leadership in local authority areas. The first of those will mean working more closely with community and voluntary sector representatives in the streets and estates of local authorities in ways that are informative, meaningful and flexible. At a more strategic level, will she look again at the way in which local strategic partnerships operate, in particular those with the good practice of really involving representatives of the community and voluntary sector to ensure that their voices are heard in LSPs?

My hon. Friend is right. The LSP, which brings together local partners, business representatives and the voluntary and community sector, will have a real role to play in deciding the future of a local area. However, the LSP should be chaired, or the chair should be agreed, by the local authority leader. Local authorities will be the bodies that are accountable, that take the decisions and that have the powers and tools they need to work with the voluntary sector to deliver real improvements for local people.

Does the Secretary of State agree that one of the greatest restrictions on local accountability, prioritisation and efficiency is the ring-fencing of funds by central Government, who specify in increasing detail how and on what money is spent? She has set a target to reduce targets, so will she ring-fence the amount of ring-fencing? What does she propose to do to reduce the amount of ring-fencing?

I am glad that I have been able to give the right hon. Gentleman a degree of confidence that we are going down that route. Just over £500 million flows from central Government through the local area agreement, which is the delivery agreement with a local area. Measures in the White Paper will cause that to rise to up to £4.7 billion, with the presumption that, unless there is an exceptional reason to the contrary, all area-based funding will go un-ring-fenced through the LAA. There will also be a single capital pot, so local authorities will have real flexibility as to how they meet their targets.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on her statement. Continued improvement in performance must be the best way to strengthen local authorities’ leadership and autonomy. That is good news for 95 per cent. of local authorities, but a minority will always be unable to cope well, through either incompetence or extremism. What powers will the Government retain to deal with councils such as the new Tory administration in Hammersmith and Fulham? In the past few weeks it has announced that it will close one of the borough’s three secondary schools to sell the land that it is on. It has also cut the delivery of meals on wheels from once a day to once a week—

My hon. Friend is right that the Government should be able to agree key requirements with a local area, and to expect them to be delivered. Where those requirements are not delivered, the Government should be able to provide support or to intervene. In addition, local people should be able to have their views taken into consideration.

The Secretary of State talked about providing freedoms to local authorities, but what real opportunities will local authorities and communities outside cities have to draw down powers and funds from the plethora of unelected quangos that control so much local spending? For example, are there any plans to change the fact that the only democratically elected person with responsibility for health is the Secretary of State for Health? Is not it true that the White Paper will not give local government the powers it wants?

I am afraid that the hon. Lady is labouring under a misapprehension about the proposals in the White Paper, which mean that locally elected representatives will have a key role in the health and well-being partnerships, and can lead them if they wish to do so. As a result, PCTs and social services will work intimately together, with a local democratic input.

I, too, welcome the White Paper, which amounts to a step change in the relationship between central Government and local government, and between local government and their communities. In particular, I welcome the important leadership role that democratic and accountable local councils will have. How will she ensure that the budget held by agencies that deliver non-local government services will change to reflect the leadership role, and the local partnerships, outlined in the White Paper?

I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. He has huge experience as a local councillor, and as chair of the Special Interest Group of Municipal Authorities. He is right to emphasise the importance of strong local leadership. Local authorities need to have real input into setting and agreeing objectives with their local partners. That means agreeing the objectives that all the local agencies—and that includes the PCTs, in the case of health—should work towards. The White Paper contains a long list of all the partners that must co-operate with the local authority in fulfilling those objectives. As a result, there will be joint commissioning in the future, and different agencies will be working to the same ends. Another consequence is that they will not have conflicting targets, with one agency trying to do one thing and a different agency something else. In future, all agencies will be able to work on an integrated basis.

In her statement, the Secretary of State said that councillors should be able to sort out planning issues. My district council—quite rightly and of its own volition—is building 9,000 houses to meet housing need. However, an outcry has erupted at a proposed development of 6,000 houses on the edge of Leighton Buzzard, as it is in the green belt and on a flood plain. On this issue, will my councillors be able to respond to the needs and wishes of the people whom they represent?

Local authorities already have huge planning powers. For instance, some have managed, through their local development framework, to prevent building in back gardens—a matter about which, I know, the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) has very strong feelings. By using the powers to their full extent, local authorities can respond to local citizens’ wishes. Many Opposition Members do not want the homes to be built, which is why we have a national framework for agreeing how many homes are needed. I want greater local flexibility in the framework, and the hon. Gentleman should await the forthcoming PPS3 on development.

I too welcome the statement from my right hon. Friend. I hope that she will agree that the investment and support given to local authorities by this Government stand in stark contrast to the cuts and devastation inflicted over years by the Opposition. However, I seek clarification on two points—

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. The one point about which I seek clarification has to do with those county councils that, like Durham, are seeking unitary status. What is expected from a bid in addition to value for money? What time scale will apply, and will councils still have to achieve consensus?

I thank my hon. Friend for her questions, and she will be able to examine the invitation to councils that we are publishing alongside the White Paper. There will be a narrow window of opportunity, and the timetable is set out in the document. Any proposed change to a future unitary government structure must be affordable within a council’s existing resource envelope and must enjoy a broad cross section of support. We also expect strong leadership and local accountability to be part of any such proposal.

The Secretary of State spoke about listening to local people, but I remind her of the result of the north-east referendum. It emphatically rejected regionalism by a staggering seven to one majority on a nearly 50 per cent. turnout. Does she believe that unelected regional assemblies will be more popular than elected ones? Will she include in her proposals provisions for referendums in all the regions of England, so that local people can decide whether they want to keep unelected regional assemblies, or whether they want the powers to be returned to local authorities, where they belong?

I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman focuses on having referendums up and down the country, as regional assemblies are voluntary partnerships composed mainly of local authority representatives. Of course, they will have a key role in determining local housing numbers—so perhaps he too has an ulterior motive.

I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Interests. Given that so much of local service delivery is provided by arm’s length companies and trusts, it is right that scrutiny panels have even more control over them. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that, other than in commercially sensitive matters, all the information and background documents from those trusts and arm’s length companies will be made available to councillors? That is not what happens at present.

My hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point. There must be accountability in the provision of local public services. A set of named partners will have the duty to respond formally to the overview and scrutiny committees when they request information. If that mechanism does not apply in his local circumstances, which I should be happy to investigate, I remind him that the freedom of information provisions still apply.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Binley), I suspect that those of us who have been councillors or are recently retired councillors will find today’s statement not only a disappointment but a failure to recognise much of the reality that we face. The Secretary of State talked about councillors being champions for their wards. Most of us have been doing that for years. What in the statement is new and will give extra powers at ward level to councillors? What exactly is the community call for action?

I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman does not agree with fellow councillors up and down the country who are this morning welcoming the proposals set out in the White Paper. Indeed, Lord Bruce-Lockhart, the Tory chairman of the Local Government Association, called the cutting of targets “great news”. The hon. Gentleman asked what specific powers there would be. I would have thought that the opportunity to set byelaws at local level to deal with street nuisance, which people really care about, was a huge devolution of power from the centre. Councils will not have to drag those cautioned for an offence through the magistrates court, but will have the opportunity to issue a fixed penalty notice. He asked what the community call for action was. It is the opportunity, as I have just outlined to my hon. Friends, for a community or individual, through their ward councillor, to have their complaint or issue properly examined, responded to and taken into account at whole-council level.

I welcome the White Paper and its focus on strengthening the role of local councillors and on strong local leadership. I note the proposals for four-year elected terms for leaders, executives and mayors. Has my right hon. Friend given consideration to the thorny issue of the failure of such individuals as a result of abuse or corruption? How do we ensure that public confidence is maintained in the leadership and how will political groups work with a leader who is there for four years if they have lost confidence in him or her?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. The presumption will be that leaders are elected with a four-year mandate so that they are able to draw up a local strategy for the area and see it through, taking decisions as required, but if the leader of the council loses the confidence of the council, he or she will have to go.