Order for Second Reading read.
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
The Bill is about backing London, one of the greatest cities in the world. It is about devolution from the Government to London and also about helping Londoners to get things done.
London’s economy alone is larger than that of many European countries. It is the driver of the UK economy, has world-beating financial and business service sectors, with a business climate that makes it a natural magnet for foreign investors. The capital has thriving and innovative arts, culture and entertainment industries. It is one of the most vibrant cities on the planet. Its ethnically diverse communities have close links across the globe. However, London faces challenges, which often stem from its very strength, in terms of transport, housing, skills and inequalities across the city.
Already the restoration of city-wide government to the capital has made a powerful difference to London and to Londoners, but we need to go further and to build on the programme of reform so far. The Bill builds on the previous reforms introduced for London after 1997. Just as we delivered a Parliament in Scotland and an Assembly in Wales, so we introduced a directly elected Mayor and assembly in London. Londoners themselves wanted that change; every London borough voted overwhelmingly in favour of establishing the Greater London assembly in the referendum of 1998. The creation of the Mayor and the assembly restored democratic city-wide government, which the Conservatives had taken away in 1986 without asking the people of London. For 14 years, London was the only major city without city-wide government.
I shall not rise to such arrant nonsense. However, perhaps the Minister will admit that not only the people of London but the people of Great Britain and the United Kingdom were asked in the 1983 general election about the abolition of the Greater London council. Would the hon. Lady like to tell us the result of that election? It was conclusive evidence from the country that the then Conservative Government had a full mandate to abolish the GLC in 1986.
I hope the hon. Gentleman will, therefore, confirm that the Conservatives did not ask the people of London. He seems to be defending his party’s decision to abolish the GLC and to deny our capital city a proper voice not just across Britain, but across the world, for 14 long years. If manifesto commitments are the most important thing for him, I hope he will support us in executing our manifesto commitment to give London a stronger voice and stronger powers devolved from the Government.
Six years on, the strong mayoral model is working for London. The GLA has been a success story for London and for Londoners. The congestion charge has reduced congestion in London by more than 20 per cent. even at a time when car use has been increasing across the country. The charge has generated extra income to improve public transport across the capital. The number of people using buses has gone up by a third, thanks to improved investment and the service improvements that are part of a multi-billion pound programme of public transport investment in the capital. Police numbers have increased substantially and crime has fallen.
London has a strong voice, not just in this country but throughout the world. That is one of the reasons why we won the bid for the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics, something of which the whole nation can be proud.
London First, representing 300 of the capital’s major businesses, has hailed those reforms as a success. The organisation now supports greater devolution to the Mayor and the strong strategic leadership set out in the Bill.
Significant challenges face the city as a whole, which justify further reforms and will require stronger leadership in future. The capital faces serious pressures on housing, for example; by 2026, there may be more than 1 million more Londoners to accommodate in sustainable communities in the capital. It is vital for London that badly needed new homes are built and that the London plan is delivered. We need planning improvements to support business development and delivery for the sake of the London economy, too. That is why London First supports the measures.
More needs to be done to tackle problems such as health inequalities.
I shall come on to discuss housing and planning proposals in more detail shortly, but the hon. Gentleman should recognise that it is right for decisions about the priorities for housing investment across the capital to be set out by the Mayor rather than by the regional housing board, which previously made recommendations to the Secretary of State. We think that it is right to devolve that to the Mayor, who should set out the key priorities for the capital. As we know, housing decisions in one part of the capital can have a wider impact on the housing market and it is important to address the housing pressures that London faces.
We need to look at skills and the need to keep up with the knowledge-based economy. It is also important to deal with one of the most crucial global challenges of our generation—climate change. London will face particular challenges adapting to climate change, whether in respect of heat or flooding risks, and we think it right that part of the Bill focuses on that issue.
The Minister emphasised the value of giving responsibilities for skills to London government, so why was it not possible to fight the resistance of officials in the Department for Education and Skills in respect of giving complete control of the Learning and Skills Council to London government, rather than putting it at arm’s length from the Mayor?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, our proposals on skills are being taken forward in another Bill and there will be plenty of opportunity to debate the detail. We think it right that there should be a greater role for the Mayor as part of the focus for skills, but it is not just about skills: it is about locations for investment, wider economic, transport and housing strategies and the ability to link them together. We believe that the arrangements achieve that.
The hon. Gentleman may be aware that, later this week, we are publishing a planning policy statement around climate change. We are also publishing a revised code for sustainable homes, which takes particular account of the need to improve water efficiency right across the country. The planning system already takes account of the need to plan for water use, which is also included as part of the London plan, which the Mayor obviously leads. We believe that the Mayor already plays an important role, but that he needs further powers, particularly in relation to climate change, given that the issue is important not just for London, but for the whole country and across the world.
We believe that the proposed reforms are needed to help Londoners get things done and to respond to the serious challenges facing the capital, but they are also about devolution—handing power from central Government to London on a series of issues. The Greater London Authority Bill and the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill aim to devolve power to London boroughs as well as to the Mayor to do a better job for London.
I have to say that Conservative Members have adopted a shameful approach to the debate about giving powers to London—[Interruption.] They opposed the introduction of the Mayor; they opposed the Greater London authority; they opposed the congestion charge; they opposed the Mayor’s environmental measures; and now I gather that the Conservatives on the GLA have even said that they want to abolish free bus travel for children. They have gone from snatching the milk from children to snatching their bus tickets instead—still the same old Tories. [Interruption.] They are opposing this new Bill—[Interruption.]
I am sure that it would be impossible to condemn myself, and I declare my interest as a GLA member. It is very important to invest in school buses—a much cleaner environmental proposal that will ensure that children have a safe journey to school. It is not about snatching, but about providing extra services for the young people of London.
Does that mean that he will take away children’s tickets? It sounded like it.
The Conservatives oppose this new Bill to strengthen the Mayor’s position. The hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) wrote in the Evening Standard that the Conservatives will oppose the current Bill. He said that they would like to see the mayor focus on the big job that he already has. However, only a month ago, the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) and the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) wrote in their pamphlet on the permissive state that:
“a great world city like London needs a city government. We are today committed not only to keeping the Mayoralty but to enhancing the powers of the office.”
A classic Tory flip-flop—one minute they want to enhance the Mayor’s powers, the next they want the Mayor to stick to the job he already has. One minute they want to strengthen London government, the next they want to vote against the very Bill that will do exactly that.
We believe that the Bill will be good for London and we hope that we can build a consensus across the capital and the country to support it.
If someone whose constituency is 250 miles from London is permitted to contribute to the debate, may I ask—given that the Minister has mentioned flip-flops—at what stage did the Government’s views of the present Mayor of London change from outright hostility to warm adoption?
The right hon. Gentleman asks about the Mayor and candidates for that post. We are backing our Labour Mayor, but I note that the Tories have struggled even to find a mayoral candidate to back. They have even resorted to “The X-Factor” approach to try to find one. They have struggled so much that they have extended the deadline and may have given up altogether trying to find someone whom they are prepared to back.
Over the past 18 months we have reviewed the powers of the Mayor and the assembly and I shall say a little more about the main functions of the Bill that we have set out today. The changes in housing are especially important. As we know, London faces serious housing pressures, because of rising demand and prices. We need more market housing, social housing and shared ownership housing. At present the regional housing board sets out the priorities for housing investment in London, which are then agreed by the Secretary of State. Under the Bill, the housing strategy for London will instead be drawn up by the Mayor with the chance to link it properly with planning and transport strategies.
My hon. Friend the Minister will be aware from the debate last week of the problems with affordable housing in London. Can she confirm that there will be a duty on the Housing Corporation to have regard to the London housing strategy as drawn up by the Mayor?
My hon. Friend is right. We want the Housing Corporation to deliver its funding in accordance with the strategy set out by the Mayor, in the way that it does at present for the strategy set out by the regional housing board. We also think that it is important that we link housing strategy with planning, because the planning system needs to do its bit to support new homes and development if we are to meet the needs of the future.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is regrettable that Westminster city council had to be forced to accept the 50 per cent. target for affordable housing provision? For that reason, people in housing need welcome the extension of the Mayor’s powers. Does she also think that it is necessary to take action against those boroughs—especially Conservative-held ones on the outskirts of London—that are blocking attempts to make housing provision accessible to boroughs in central London, including their Conservative partner boroughs, through the sub-regional partnerships? Those outer boroughs are making it impossible for central London boroughs under housing pressure to meet their needs in partnership with other areas of the capital.
My hon. Friend raises an important point. Boroughs have an important role in responding to housing needs in their area, in terms of new build, affordable housing and housing allocation policies, including working in partnership. Every borough needs to accept that the decisions it takes have a knock-on impact on neighbouring boroughs. Housing markets across London do not fit into administrative boundaries and one borough’s decision has much wider repercussions. That is why it is so important that the London plan should be delivered and the approach that some Conservative authorities have taken to housing should not be allowed to continue. It is right to have a proper approach to housing across the capital.
We think that it is important to make further changes to the planning system to ensure the delivery of the London plan. At present, the Mayor has the power to step in and turn down important strategic developments that have an impact on the London plan. That power is negative—that is, it is anti-development. Given the crucial importance of housing and development in London, we think that there should be a more balanced approach and that the Mayor should be given the ability to act positively on certain major strategic developments that are important to the successful implementation of the London plan.
I hear what the Minister is saying, but Opposition Members want more localism, with people participating more in their local communities. What she is proposing is diktat from the top, but that will act as a disincentive to participation for people in boroughs such as mine in Bexley, as their views will be overruled by the Mayor.
No, the hon. Gentleman is wrong. That is not the Government’s approach to these matters. First, we are devolving powers in relation to housing from the Government to the Mayor. Secondly, we want to make sure that the Mayor’s powers in respect of strategic planning developments work in a positive way and are not simply negative.
Will my hon. Friend say more about how decisions by the Mayor can be made more transparent, especially when they run counter to what local communities want? The key to all these proposals is that the public must have confidence that the Mayor is acting in a strategic way that takes account of the needs of local communities, and that he is not just doing something because he has decided that that is what he wants to happen.
My hon. Friend is right that transparency is critically important, and that local community views about particular developments must be taken into account. I know that many hon. Members want to intervene on this matter, but I hope that the House will allow me to say a little more about the Government’s approach, and then I shall be happy to take further interventions.
The Government believe that the overwhelming majority of planning applications should be determined by the boroughs, exactly as happens at present. We want there to be more constructive working between the boroughs and the Mayor on those development proposals that go to the heart of implementing the London plan. In the vast majority of those cases, the borough involved will still take the final decision, but in a small number we think that the Mayor will be best placed to decide the final outcome. He should also be able to intervene positively, rather than just to say no.
We will set out in secondary legislation how the Mayor’s new development control powers will work in practice, and we will publish that legislation in draft to facilitate the Standing Committee’s scrutiny of the Bill.
I shall be happy to take further interventions, but first would like to set out the Government’s proposals on these matters.
The Government have responded to the representations that have been made and, given the growing consensus between London councils, London First and the Mayor about how the powers should operate, have decided to make further amendments to the process. In particular, we now agree that it would be better for matters to be referred to the Mayor at a later stage. The boroughs would therefore have the initial lead on major developments too, with the Mayor able to intervene only on major strategic applications that go to the heart of the London plan.
In the secondary legislation to which I referred a moment ago, we will set thresholds as well as the policy test. We do not think that the Mayor should take over applications at the beginning of the process, as proposed in the arrangement that we initially set out for consultation. We agree with London First, London Councils and the Mayor that it would be better for boroughs to make their decisions on an application before the Mayor decides whether the policy test is met and whether he wants to intervene. We believe that that will provide a better parallel to the Mayor’s current powers and give the boroughs the clear central role in dealing with a planning application and its impact on a local area. In addition, the approach that I have set out would limit the Mayor’s intervention to those cases where strategic issues are at stake.
We also believe that, when a decision is taken about using the mayoral powers, account should be taken of the boroughs’ wider ability to deliver against the London plan and of their record in doing so.
I have followed my hon. Friend’s presentation with considerable care and interest. I am very broadly in agreement with the approach and I believe that she is right to focus on the fact that there is currently a power on the part of the Mayor to intervene negatively, but not to intervene positively. The concern of many of us who have looked at this matter closely is about definition. Without a clear and precise definition, there is a real risk of mission creep and of the Mayor extending the powers beyond those envisaged in what my hon. Friend has set out to the House. There is a possibility of wrangles and disputes between individual boroughs and the Mayor about the definition of strategic. Will she assure us that, very soon—certainly before the Committee stage begins—the detailed proposals will be published and there will be a full opportunity for Members and interested parties to consider them and respond to her on whether the precise definitions are workable and will achieve the objective that she sets out?
My right hon. Friend makes an important point. We think that that needs to be set out in secondary legislation and we intend to publish that before the Committee stage discussions on this aspect of the Bill. It is important to do that through secondary legislation because that gives us a further opportunity to review the details and to have a process to amend the secondary legislation, should that prove necessary over time. One of the reasons why we have not yet published the detail for what the policy test should be is exactly that we have been undertaking detailed discussions with the London boroughs, the Mayor, London First and a series of regional organisations and stakeholders across London to try to build a consensus on the most effective way for the test to work.
My right hon. Friend is right to say that we need to get the balance right and to focus on the major strategic decisions that are fundamental to the London plan, rather than on individual applications, which would be far better dealt with by the borough, which has the expertise and is involved in leading the debate about the impact on the local community and place. We are clear about that. We are also interested in how, as part of that process, we can best take account of the borough’s previous record in delivering against key issues in the London plan.
The Mayor is elected every four years and so he is clearly directly accountable to the people of London for his decisions. He is also regularly scrutinised by the Greater London authority. There is appropriate accountability, which is why these reforms are right.
Does the Minister agree that such an emotive change to planning powers should be evidence-based? If so, where is the hard evidence that important strategic developments for London are being refused and frustrated by inappropriate refusals at the borough level?
The hon. Gentleman may be aware that some people have argued that the level of refusal of planning applications in London is higher than in other regions. There are certainly concerns from businesses and developers across London that inappropriate decisions are being taken, which is why so many cases go to appeal. There are also views across London, both within and across London government, about difficult decisions being taken by boroughs that might have an impact on the London plan. In practice, my view is that the measure should apply to a small number of cases and that only a small number of cases could be described as having strategic significance.
Given the importance of having a city-wide voice, a London-wide strategy and a London-wide plan, if the Mayor has a plan, it is important that its delivery should not be frustrated by the fact that he only has the power to intervene negatively in the major strategic decisions for London and does not equally have the ability to intervene positively. We think that giving the boroughs the ability to take the first decision and to deal with the application will allow them to take the lead role in many cases. It should, one hopes, allow the borough and the Mayor, working together, to resolve difficulties before they arise, rather than leaving them needing to be taken over by the Mayor at a later stage.
The Department’s consultation paper on the Mayor’s powers lists some 25 examples of what it regards as strategic planning applications that would have benefited from positive mayoral planning powers. However, does the Minister not recognise that significant heritage considerations must be taken into account? Indeed, local heritage considerations and concerns meant that some of those applications were refused or altered. Is she seriously suggesting that we should allow such considerations to be put to one side by allowing the Mayor to have strategic powers?
Heritage is clearly one of the things that the Mayor must take into account, just as any borough must take it into account. I am sorry that it is difficult for me to engage in a discussion about individual examples. When we publish the detail of the secondary legislation, I would hope that the hon. Gentleman and I could have a further conversation about how to ensure that the kinds of cases about which he is thinking are not dealt with inappropriately under the arrangements.
I, too, support the positive role for the Mayor. However, when he exercises that positive role, will he be able to impose section 62 agreements on developers so that they undertake infrastructure work associated with their planning applications? Indeed, will he be able to impose conditions on developers to protect the environment of local residents?
I assume that my hon. Friend is talking about section 106 arrangements. We have said that we need to change the process to allow boroughs to take the lead role on individual planning applications. An advantage of that will be that the boroughs will be allowed to begin discussions about what the section 106 agreements should be. Clearly, we need to ensure that the section 106 process is sustained so that the end result is the investment that is needed in not only affordable housing, but infrastructure. It is critically important that the arrangements are retained as part of the planning process.
Is there not a concern that resources arising from section 106 agreements and the planning gain will be siphoned away from local communities that are in desperate need of receiving mitigation from the impact of such developments? Does the Minister realise that my constituents in Enfield, Southgate want more public participation and involvement, greater transparency and greater accountability? What assurance do we have that the Mayor will not intervene in an opposite direction on individual planning decisions?
Hon. Members will be aware that we introduced reforms to increase the involvement of local communities in the planning system at an earlier stage of the process than was previously the case. Clearly, if people become involved only at a late stage—when a notice appears on the lamp post at the end of the street—there is a lack of effective community involvement and engagement in the overall way in which the planning system works. There will be a benefit if local communities are involved at an early stage in not only the London plan, but the local development framework that is drawn up by their London borough. That will be critically important. The hon. Gentleman is right that transparency is needed in the way in which any mayoral decisions are taken. This goes further than simply being able to replicate the Mayor’s existing negative power. When considering whether to use the positive power, it will be critical that there is proper transparency, so arrangements will need to be in place to allow people to see the exact way in which decisions are taken and to be aware of the involvement that they can have in the process.
Is not one of the problems with the numerous interventions that we have had the fact that we assume that we have a perfect system? We forget that planning inspectorates, the Government office for London and the regional housing board—and, dare I say, the Secretary of State—can call in applications, although they are unaccountable. If people have local concerns, is it not better that they feed those into the London plan so that when the Mayor calls things in, he will be accountable to the plan that we have all fed into?
My hon. Friend is right. If there is to be a London plan, with a process of democratic engagement around the plan and an agreement that the plan is the right thing for the city, we will need to make sure that the delivery of the plan cannot be scuppered by major developments being refused in circumstances in which there would be no ability to address that decision, especially if they are important strategic developments that would have an impact on not one borough, but the delivery of the plan as a whole. That is why we need to recognise that the provisions are about allowing the Mayor to do his job. They are about allowing London to have proper leadership, while ensuring that proper safeguards are in place for local communities, so that London boroughs can do their job—can do what they do best—and can take the lead on the overwhelming majority of applications. The Mayor would need to intervene in a very small minority of cases. It is worth recognising that the Mayor has intervened and used his negative powers to turn down applications in a very small number of cases. The powers proposed in the Bill should be used in a similarly judicious way, limiting the number of cases that will be covered in future.
Does the Minister not agree that the extension of planning powers to the Mayor can only mean that the decisions and representations of local people and their elected council representatives will increasingly be overridden at a high level, by the Mayor? That is simply inappropriate. At a time when people are so switched off from politics, why are we introducing legislation that takes power out of local people’s hands and gives it to those at a higher level in government? The result is that people will be more dissatisfied.
Opposition Members do not seem too bothered about the fact that when a borough wants to accept a planning application, the Mayor can step in and turn it down, if it is a major strategic application. They do not seem too fussed about the Mayor having negative, anti-development powers relating to major strategic applications. We are simply saying that there should be a balance, and that we should be able to approach matters positively, rather than taking a continually anti-development, anti-housing approach to the needs of London. That is simply about taking a properly balanced approach to the major strategic decisions for the city.
Is the Minister aware that Londoners have been asked their views on the subject and are strongly supportive of the Mayor taking additional planning powers, because they are aware of the crisis in housing provision? Conservative authorities across London and elsewhere attempt to block the provision of housing, using their development powers. Londoners know that they need more homes, and they know that it is the Mayor who will deliver them.
My hon. Friend is right that the reality is that we need additional homes. We are currently not delivering on the London plan. The homes that are needed, as set out in the London plan, to which people have agreed, are currently not being built, so we have to recognise that there is a need to increase housing and the responsiveness of the planning system across the capital. I have taken a range of interventions on the subject, and I have set out further details on the Government’s approach and the further safeguards that we think are appropriate. We will set out more details in secondary legislation, and there will be plenty of opportunity to discuss the matter in detail in Committee.
Finally, I shall highlight a couple of other issues covered by the Bill, including the environmental role for the Mayor. The Bill strengthens London’s ability to manage its waste sustainably without changing existing structures. It also places a duty on the Mayor and the London assembly to address climate change, and that is particularly important. Clearly, the Mayor is already taking action on climate change, but it is important that it has a stronger focus, to consider measures to prevent and reduce carbon emissions, and to adapt to the challenge that climate change poses to London. We hope that the Bill’s provisions will help to establish London as an important model of carbon management for other major world cities.
On waste disposal, is the Minister satisfied with current arrangements, under which London has a rather low recycling rate for domestic waste, and an even lower rate for business waste? Does she not think that there is a case for extending mayoral powers, so that the Mayor is responsible for the disposal, but not the collection, of waste created in London?
My hon. Friend will be aware that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has looked into the issue in some detail, and his concern is that we need to make substantial progress in a relatively short period of time to deal with issues to do with waste disposal in the capital. We are in no doubt about the challenges that London faces, but as we need to make progress in a relatively short time, my right hon. Friend, having considered the issue in some detail, does not believe that it is the right time for major structural reform in that area. He thinks that we would do better to make progress within existing structures, while strengthening the Mayor’s role in that respect.
We will devolve the Government’s responsibilities for the funding and governance of the Museum of London to the Mayor, and we will strengthen his role in public health, so that he can lead the drive to reduce London’s health inequalities and improve the health of London’s most disadvantaged communities. We will strengthen, too, the scrutiny role of the assembly to make it more effective. The Mayor will be subject to a duty to pay regard to the assembly’s responses to consultations on drafts or revisions of strategies. He must respond in writing to the assembly, which can hold non-binding confirmation hearings for preferred candidates for key appointments that the Mayor intends to make, so that there is greater public scrutiny of those appointments before they are made.
The Minister said that the Mayor will pay due regard to consultation with the assembly, but what about the wider point about the Mayor paying due regard to much larger consultations? There is a serious problem across London, as the Mayor has commissioned consultations on the extension of the congestion charge zone and new bus routes, but he simply ignored the findings.
I appreciate that the Mayor makes decisions with which the hon. Gentleman disagrees. He must take that up with the Mayor, and his local community may wish to do so, too. However, that is democracy, and that is the arrangement that we have set up. The Mayor must make decisions, and clearly he must respond to consultations.
I will not give way, as I have accepted many interventions, and I know that many hon. Members wish to speak in the debate.
We have set out a series of reforms in the Bill, which was introduced after a relatively recent review of the new powers and arrangements. The review and the measures in the Bill have been widely welcomed. The Government have restored democratic, city-wide government to London. The Greater London authority is a great success, and it has given London strong leadership. It has restored London’s voice, and it has refreshed the capital. The Mayor and the assembly have already tackled many of the capital’s deep-seated problems, and made genuine improvements to Londoners’ quality of life. As we said in our manifesto, however, we need to go further. Devolving more power to London has the support of Londoners and many London councillors, as well as London businesses, which have championed the establishment of the post of Mayor and the further reforms that we propose. London First, London councils, the Mayor and the Government have worked hard to build consensus on the right way forward for London.
The Bill provides the basis for that consensus and, with the further work that we will undertake on secondary legislation, we can build agreement on the best way forward for London so that it can face future challenges and opportunities. The challenge for Opposition Members is to join that consensus. Time and again, they have opposed reforms only grudgingly to accept them later. They opposed the Mayor, but then they changed their mind. They opposed the GLA, but then they changed their mind. They opposed the congestion charge, but then they changed their mind, only to change it back again. I urge them not to do so again. They should take the opportunity to get it right first time round by backing the Bill as it goes through the House. I urge them to back the reforms to strengthen London and to give further devolution for London and Londoners a real chance. I commend the Bill to the House.
When I came to the Chamber, I was delighted to see so many London Members, and I thought that we were going to have a constructive discussion. I am sad, therefore, that it has become partisan early in our proceedings. I was sad, too, given the nature of the proposals introduced by the Minister in her combative way, and the changes to the draft statutory instrument—so far, we have not had the pleasure of seeing them—that we will not be able to take advantage of the new Public Bill Committee proceedings when the Bill goes into Committee. Ostensibly, that is because Second Reading takes place today, and not after 1 January. There has been a great deal of consultation. Clearly, if consultation is still ongoing, there are still issues that need to be sorted. This would seem the most appropriate Bill to undergo the Public Bill procedure first so that evidence can be taken. I hope, therefore, that at the end of the debate, the usual channels will take note of the fact that numerous aspects of the Bill would benefit from evidence-taking, and that the Minister who replies will generously allow the Public Bill Committee process to take place for the very first time.
There is great controversy over the Bill. The Mayor, for one, is unhappy. He is spending £80,000 of taxpayers’ money to tell us so. The assembly is unhappy, the boroughs are unhappy, the residents associations and the amenities societies are unhappy, most London council tax payers are unhappy, clearly the Opposition are not happy, and one or two Labour Members may have questions that they would like to have answered.
We listened to the Minister proclaiming that the Bill is all about the Government giving power from the centre to the Mayor. I cannot disagree. The unelected London Housing Board is being given to the Mayor. The Mayor is getting power to make planning decisions, as the Minister said at great length. Learning and skills are being ceded to the Mayor, so far without parliamentary approval. The Mayor is getting some responsibility for, but no power over, public health.
The Government are giving the Mayor a housing strategy which has statutory force. The Secretary of State must be consulted and can direct changes. London boroughs will not be similarly consulted and they are the ones that have to deliver. If a borough’s housing policy is not in general conformity with the Mayor’s, he can direct that the borough change it. Boroughs could find it hard to deliver local strategies if the Mayor’s spending priorities differ and resources are not made available. That concentrates too much power and influence in the hands not just of the Mayor, but of central Government.
Will the hon. Lady comment on the remarks of Steve Norris, the former Conservative mayoral candidate, in the summer? He said:
“If you want the idea of a Mayor for London to work, actually Ken should not just have these new powers, he probably should have a lot more.”
Does the hon. Lady agree with the former mayoral candidate who stood twice, or with somebody else, bearing in mind that the Conservatives cannot find a candidate this time round—perhaps Nick Ferrari?
The hon. Gentleman is too used to his Friday time-wasting to contribute sensibly to today’s debate. We all agree that London needs more housing and more affordable housing. Indeed, contrary to what the Minister let us believe, it is primarily the London boroughs run by the Conservatives that are delivering more than their housing target, and it is primarily the Labour-run boroughs that are not.
If Conservative boroughs are so good at delivering affordable housing, will the hon. Lady condemn the borough of Bromley, of which she may have some knowledge, which bid for 43 units of affordable housing in the current two-year Housing Corporation cycle, as against more than 1,500 units for some Labour authorities in London—43 units for one of the largest boroughs in London?
Having quoted the figure of 100 per cent. or so for Bromley’s target, which was a relatively low figure, will the hon. Lady give the figure for Greenwich, which has not only exceeded its target by twice the level of Bromley, but currently has the best record of building houses in London and is a Labour-controlled borough?
First, I said that some London boroughs were the worst deliverers. Secondly, I applaud the right hon. Gentleman, as I have on many occasions, for his work in advising Broomleigh, which is a very successful housing association, on becoming the arm of Bromley council housing. However, Broomleigh is a member of Affinity Sutton. When Affinity Sutton applied to provide a lot of affordable housing in the borough of Sutton—as the right hon. Gentleman knows, the “Sutton” in Affinity Sutton does not refer to the borough of Sutton—the Mayor called in the plan and delayed the delivery of that social housing for 11 months, which gives me no confidence whatsoever that the new planning powers for the Mayor will do anything other than add yet more delay to the delivery of affordable and social housing throughout London.
I rise again only because Bromley is obviously the object of great pride. However, 124 per cent. of not very much is not very much, so perhaps the hon. Lady will comment on capacity, which is more relevant. Bromley has been building affordable housing at 3.5 per cent. of capacity compared with, for example, Labour-controlled Hammersmith and Fulham, where the figure is 99.3 per cent.
I would be happy to welcome the hon. Gentleman to the borough of Bromley, where I would show him our affordable housing. I would also be happy for him to meet our local planners, who are struggling with a Government instruction that housing in Bromley should be doubled in density. I would then be very happy to introduce him to some of my residents, who must deal with the subsequent problems. That is not a constructive way in which to look at housing across London, when the boroughs, which are responsible to the electorate, know what people need and want. I have heard enough from the hon. Gentleman.
We believe that the boroughs should have rights equal to the Secretary of State’s in consultation and that those boroughs that are delivering their housing targets should not have to put up with interference by the Mayor, who will not necessarily have the interests and concerns of local people at the very heart of his policy.
Like me, my hon. Friend knows that the needs of the outer-London boroughs are different from those of the inner-London boroughs, whether those needs concern housing, education, environmental matters or the whole range of services. Does she think that the Mayor understands that?
If any of us thought that the Mayor understood that, we would not oppose this Bill.
We note that the Bill cedes the power to the Mayor to take final decisions on strategic planning applications. The Government have done away with the roles of the planning inspectorate and the Secretary of State. We have been assured that the Minister will publish the draft statutory instrument setting out the details of the Mayor’s new powers over planning at about the time when the Committee proceedings start. As that statutory instrument appears to be changing day by day, we hope that it will be available at the beginning of the Committee stage, which is yet another reason why we believe that the Committee should take evidence.
On the basis of what we know so far, there are still many objections to the Mayor having that power, many of which have been voiced by my hon. Friends. We recognise that the Mayor already has the right of refusal. Indeed, he has called in 54 applications from my borough, Bromley, of which he has commented on only a few. However, these new plans give the Mayor the right to call in anything of “strategic importance”. It is crucial that “strategic” be technically and closely defined, because one person’s simple plan can be strategic to somebody else. In February 2006, in response to the ODPM’s original consultation paper, the Mayor identified some 25 schemes where he might have used the power to take over an application, suggesting that perhaps five schemes a year would come under his new power, and the Minister acknowledged that. The statutory instrument needs to make absolutely clear the criteria that will give him precisely that ability—no more, no less; otherwise the capacity for mischief and capriciousness is infinite.
The proposal also gives the Mayor power over negotiating section 106 agreements, which are often the only direct benefit to a community from new building: a doctor’s surgery, roads, schools or shops—the infrastructure needed to ensure that a development will be sustainable. Give that power to the Mayor, and the benefit could be used to finance one of his pet projects in another borough entirely, leaving local people without any gain from the new development. I hope that the statutory instrument will make it clear to the Mayor that boroughs can keep the section 106 money.
The SI must also make it clear that, as the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) said, the Mayor must be transparent and open in any decision on planning applications. During the planning process in the boroughs, objectors have the right to voice their objections. They should have equal rights in front of the Mayor. I understand that he is reluctant to listen to them, possibly on the grounds that he should be spending his time ensuring that the things for which he is currently responsible are working properly, such as transport, the Olympics and tackling crime—or perhaps he wants to spend more time developing London’s foreign policy, with further visits to Venezuela and Cuba.
The Mayor’s procedure when using his current powers does not fill anyone with confidence. In 2002, it was summarised in the High Court thus:
“The meetings are held in private. The public and assembly members have no legal right to attend and the Mayor chooses to exclude them. Agenda papers are not published beforehand but after the meetings have taken place, copies of officer reports to the Mayor and the Mayor’s decision letters to the boroughs are published on the planning decisions page of the authority’s website.”
The chief planning officer of Harrow said:
“I can still see no valid justification as to why advice to the Mayor on planning matters and his planning meetings are not subject to the same requirements for public access to information as for all other local authorities. This point was the subject of representations when the provisions were going through Parliament and no satisfactory justification was made then or since.”
Does my hon. Friend agree that if the Mayor is so reluctant to listen to people in the Assembly he should try coming here every few weeks so that we could have London questions, just as we have Scottish and Welsh questions? Perhaps that would provide a better balance in ensuring that he is held accountable at least to somebody, if not his own Assembly members.
My hon. Friend makes a valid point about the Assembly’s powers under the Greater London Authority Act 1999 in holding the Mayor to account. However, I do not think that any Labour Member would be prepared to give up his or her seat in order to welcome him back among the ranks of the parliamentary Labour party.
In 2002, the assembly’s own planning advisory committee said:
“If the Mayor refuses to go public of his own accord, we may have no option but to call upon the government to amend the Greater London Authority Act 1999 to require him to hold his planning decision meetings in public.”
I understand that the Mayor has indicated that he might be prepared to consider holding his meetings in public. [Hon. Members: “Where?”] My hon. Friends may well ask. We would all like to know where and when the Mayor plans to hold his planning meetings in public, but if he continues to make those decisions behind closed doors, at the behest of advisers— however professional and skilled—and does not allow objections to be heard in open forum, only my learned friends will be the gainers. The Mayor would be judge and jury and his decisions would not be open to challenge. Surely the Minister can convince us that the statutory instrument will cover that. If it does not, that affords another opportunity for evidence-taking sessions to discuss the matter with the interested parties.
Delays are endemic in planning, and the Mayor’s current powers build in delay. A few days ago, the Barker review suggested methods—with which we may or may not agree—of speeding up planning decisions. It is unfortunate that Kate Barker did not consider the current position in London or the new proposals. The Government’s target is that 60 per cent. of major planning applications should be decided in 13 weeks. The Minister said that there could be changes to the terms of the statutory instrument, which might reduce the delay.
Will the Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, the hon. Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Jim Fitzpatrick), who is to reply to the debate, confirm that the Mayor can no longer intervene just as a committee is about to meet to determine a planning application but after borough officers have recommended refusal? Will he also confirm that, if the Mayor wants to force changes to a proposed planning obligation, he can no longer take over a relevant planning application after the borough has granted planning permission but while the obligation is being negotiated? That matter is also fertile for evidence taking.
The two new powers on housing and planning remove powers from local communities and their elected representatives—those who know their areas and what the people want and need. Any London Member of Parliament knows that we already face a revolt over the Government-imposed targets for housing. The Government imply that they apply only to the leafy suburbs, but inner-city councillors or residents associations tell the same story. They know what their local people want and need because they live among them. By and large, they are not re-elected unless they deliver.
A recent opinion poll for London councils found that 54 per cent. of London residents oppose the Mayor’s having more planning powers, in contradiction to the opinion poll that the Mayor commissioned. He has the right to ask the questions, but the London councils’ opinion poll, which represents all the London boroughs, found that 54 per cent. of London residents opposed the Mayor’s having more planning powers and 75 per cent. believed that local councils should have them.
I shall advise my hon. Friends to vote against the Bill tonight on the basis of the provisions for housing and planning alone, because they constitute a naked grab of power away from locally elected authorities. Clearly, the Government do not believe in their rhetoric of devolution to local level. However, we do not object only to the powers on those two matters.
Some themes that run through the Bill and the Greater London Authority Act 1999 are inconsistent and need rationalising. The Mayor is obliged to produce a plethora of strategies, apart from those that he has devised off his own bat, and the Bill imposes more. I shall not weary the House with the detail, but boroughs are required to “have regard to” some, be “in conformity with” others and “in general conformity with” yet others.
The Mayor and the boroughs should work together in partnership. We believe that the boroughs are the genuine voice of local communities, and that they should be—and are—responsible to those communities for the policies that they implement. They should not be the resentful and unwilling processors of mayoral policies, with which they and their residents disagree. We will, therefore, try to amend the Bill so that the boroughs must “have regard to” the Mayor’s strategies. That will ensure that whoever is Mayor takes the London boroughs with him on his strategies, and that borough councillors feel that they own the ideas. Acceptance in local communities will be easier and the resentment that is building about centrally imposed plans and strategies will be reduced.
A second theme that runs through the Bill and the original Act is the lack of coherent thought given to appointments to the various bodies for which the Mayor is responsible—or perhaps the appointments system reflects whatever paranoia either the Mayor or the Government suffered at the time. I hope that hon. Members will excuse me if I run through some of the variety of appointments.
The London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority is one of the least criticised of the functional bodies. It was put severely to the test on 7/7, when we were all exceedingly proud of the men and women on the front line, who put their lives at risk to deal with the crisis that engulfed our city that day. Of course, mistakes were made and lessons were learned. However, it is relevant to note that the membership of the board currently includes eight representatives from the boroughs. The Bill takes two borough representatives away to give the places to the Mayor to represent “other interests”—perhaps friends of Ken—but the saving grace are the many borough representatives, which ensures that decisions made by LFEPA are owned by the boroughs.
Let us consider Transport for London—the least responsive and most arrogant of all the functional bodies. Its board membership currently includes one elected politician—the Mayor. Lord Toby Harris—a friend of Ken—is a member. I hesitate to describe the rest of the board as “friends of Ken”, but it does not contain a single representative of the London boroughs. The Bill removes the current ban on political representatives on the board, for which I offer much thanks, but it would allow the Mayor to appoint an assembly member or a member of a London borough—doubtless a friend of Ken—and the Transport for London board will not be any more responsive to the travelling public across the capital. I, for one, would still have no confidence that Transport for London would care a jot more about my constituents than it does now, when it is about as responsive as a slug.
I commend my hon. Friend for highlighting Transport for London’s lack of accountability. I want to draw attention to the north circular road, where my constituents have suffered blight for many years, especially owing to Transport for London’s inaction and despite a recent visit from the transport commissioners. My constituents feel that affairs on their doorstep are completely out of their control.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for backing me up with that specific information. We all have negative experiences of Transport for London and I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), who will pilot the Bill through Committee for the Opposition, has noted the point and will ensure that amendments are tabled to try to tackle it.
Let us consider the Metropolitan Police Authority. Yes, its composition mirrors that of other police authorities outside London, but the politicians are all from the assembly and, apart from the Conservatives and two Labour Members, who are directly elected by first past the post, the others are from the list system and have no responsibility to any constituents. There are no borough representatives. The Police and Justice Act 2006 has already given the Mayor power to chair or appoint the chairman of the Metropolitan Police Authority to “increase its democratic legitimacy.” I have slight difficulties with that. However, only those people in London who are represented by first-past-the-post assembly members have any direct contact with the Metropolitan Police Authority.
With the best will in the world, the London learning and skills councils have not covered themselves in glory, and we have no objection in principle to the Mayor taking skills under his wing—so long as he does not interfere in boroughs where learning and skills are being delivered effectively. I was concerned to learn last week that the Mayor had appointed the “shadow” learning and skills council for London when the Bill to bring about the change has not been debated in this House and is only in the process of going through the Lords. Such action takes it for granted that both Houses will not object to the proposals and is rather contemptuous of Parliament. There is not much point in the Government complaining that no one cares about Parliament when they clearly do not care much about it themselves. The appointments were definitely in the “friends of Ken” category. Apart from the Mayor himself, not a single elected politician was on it—a recipe for another arrogant and unresponsive board governing the vital skills that London will need to compete globally in the coming years.
I have given way to the hon. Gentleman twice already. His interventions were pointless then, and this one would be pointless too.
We believe that Londoners should be represented on all the functional bodies by representatives from the boroughs, and we shall table amendments to that effect. I will now return to specific sections of the Bill.
Waste disposal is by far the most difficult aspect of the Bill for the Government to deal with. The Mayor wants a single waste disposal authority for London, and is so determined to get it that he is spending some £80,000 of London taxpayer’s money to hire parliamentary lobbyists and agents to get the Government to cave in. I freely admit, however, that the issue is not easy for the Government to resolve. In north London, as we heard from the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn), waste disposal arrangements are not working, while in south London they are. London councils believe that the Government’s proposed waste and recycling forum should be set up as soon as possible and be a partnership between the boroughs and the Mayor, with at least 50 per cent. borough membership. The Government have missed a trick, however, by not including water as well as waste disposal in the proposal. The disagreements over the issue should be aired at evidence-taking sessions by the Bill Committee to reach a balanced conclusion and amend the Bill if necessary.
We are rather puzzled by the handover to the Mayor of responsibility for public health. Clearly, the Government feel in something of a quandary, as the Bill envisages that as a double-hatted appointment for the current regional director of public health. Undoubtedly, it will be great fun for the Mayor to devise a health inequalities policy for London, but what will happen if his ideas are in direct contravention of the director’s? Who will have the final say? Who will have control of the money to put any strategy into practice? What will be the involvement of the primary care trusts, as they, along with the hospitals, will have to act on vaccination campaigns, for instance? This matter should be another candidate for evidence-giving to allow the Committee to tease out exactly what power and responsibility the Mayor would have.
There are a number of proposals about the Assembly itself that are more about process, which will doubtless be of great interest to the Committee, but I would just like to draw the House’s attention to concerns that the head of paid service will take over responsibility for hiring some staff. We do not see the need for that change. We know that the City of London still has concerns and will be seeking reassurances about the City of London museum, a national museum of which I am particularly fond and which has done a magnificent job of uncovering and displaying some of London’s real treasures. I am sure that the Committee will be interested in ensuring that those concerns are explored and met.
As the Minister said, the Government have devolved to the Mayor two further strategies: on climate change mitigation and energy; and on adaptation to climate change. In both, the Secretary of State retains some limited powers of direction, but again, the only involvement of the London boroughs is by consultation. The boroughs will almost certainly have to implement some of the strategies. Why do the boroughs have no real involvement? That is not devolution of power; it leaves the most responsive level of local government in London helpless.
Then there is the dog that did not bark. Why is the Government office for London not being disbanded? It spends huge sums of money in London. It has increased its staff since the office of the London Mayor was established. It has parallel responsibility with the Mayor over some functions. Why is that the case? Why are the Government not doing away with it?
We are faced with a Bill to amend the powers of the Mayor and Greater London authority that is incoherent and inconsistent. Simple matters that should be in the Bill have been left out. The Bill does not simplify where it could do so. The rights of Londoners to be properly represented on pan-London bodies have been ignored. By transferring some powers to the Mayor from the Government, the Bill has achieved a huge power grab away from the London boroughs.
I am left with the suspicion that the Bill is the price that the Government had to pay to get Ken Livingstone back into the Labour fold before the last mayoral election. However, the proposals do not even satisfy him. They satisfy no one. Furthermore, we cannot use the new powers of the Public Bill Committee to examine whether the proposals are correct. I will invite my right hon. and hon. Friends to vote against the Bill tonight, because London and Londoners deserve better.
Almost 10 years ago, I was given the considerable honour and responsibility of developing detailed proposals for the restoration of city-wide government in London, and of subsequently guiding the legislation through the House and overseeing its implementation. At the time, I was surprised at the confused and incoherent stance of the Conservative party on the issue. Of course, it could be excused its state at that time. It had suffered a massive election defeat and was shell-shocked by the total repudiation of its position on London and the clear support of Londoners, which was reinforced in a referendum a year later in every London borough, for the restoration of a city-wide authority on the new basis.
I am surprised that 10 years later, the Conservative party still seems confused and incoherent. It has made so little progress. When addressing the questions of how London should be governed, what the powers of the Mayor should be, and how the Mayor, assembly, boroughs and other structures in London should work together, it appears to be incapable of rising above the level of what even the most charitable observer would describe as nit-picking and visionless. At least it could claim, 10 years ago, that the GLA model was new: it was innovative and untested, and so I suppose that it could reserve judgment. Now, however, the GLA has been in existence for six years, and there is widespread agreement among informed commentators throughout London—including the business community, academics, people who care about London government and the public—that it has been an improvement.
A proper city-wide framework of government has been introduced, which London lacked between 1986 and 2000, and which London is very much the better for having had restored: witness our success in securing the Olympics, which would never have happened without a democratic city-wide authority, as anyone who understands how the International Olympic Committee takes decisions will verify.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that although the new mayoral system has been in place for six years, one of its drawbacks has been that there has been only one incumbent? One of the great difficulties is to separate out debate about the powers and position of the Mayor from a discussion of the current incumbent. Would not it be more sensible to wait a little longer to see how the position beds in under a second incumbent?
The hon. Gentleman seems incapable of understanding that in a democracy, the people decide who will be the incumbent of a particular post. The responsibility of Parliament is to create the structure and to decide whether it should be changed, but the electorate decide who should be Mayor. It would be preposterous to postpone any decision and action on improvements to the structure until another Mayor is elected at some future date. I have rarely heard a more bizarre proposition.
Is not my right hon. Friend’s point reinforced by the fact that the Tories still have not been able to find anyone to stand for them in the mayoral election? Clearly, they are frit of Ken, and they expect him to win next time. We might wait an awfully long time before there is another incumbent—unless, perhaps, they put forward Nick Ferrari.
My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point, but I do not intend to intrude on the private grief of the Conservative party on this issue.
There is, however, an obvious question: why should we consider changes to the Greater London Authority structure now? As I have stressed, the structure has generally worked well. There are, however, two reasons for changing it.
First, as is well understood, the GLA model was an innovative one, with a directly elected executive mayor for the first time in this country, a small scrutinising assembly, four functional bodies responsible, respectively, for transport, policing, economic development and fire and resilience, and a strategic remit unprecedented in British local government. Inevitably, with the passage of time, some of the initial decisions—for example, on the eligibility of members to serve on Transport for London—have appeared to be probably not optimal. Therefore, there is a case for change. With any innovative structure of such a nature, it is right that Parliament should have a chance to reconsider.
Secondly, the very success of the GLA has strengthened the case for devolving more powers to the Mayor. As a former local government Minister as well as a former London Minister, I am perfectly ready to admit that extracting powers from colleagues in other Departments to devolve to a new and untried model of city governance was not the easiest of tasks. My colleagues, who had spent 18 years in opposition, had only just managed to get their hands on the levers of power when along came another colleague saying that he wanted to take some of them away and devolve them to a new tier of government. Inevitably, it was not as full a package as might have been considered desirable. There was, for instance, a clear argument for an extension of the powers relating to housing.
I agree with much of the thrust of what the right hon. Gentleman has said. I certainly agree with the notion of greater devolution of Government power to the London Mayor. However, as was made clear by my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait), the fear is that devolution will go the other way. Surely we can support this devolution, provided that the Mayor and the GLA devolve some of their authority and responsibility to the 33 London boroughs.
I do not entirely agree with that. When we set up the structure for London governance, I was very clear that the Mayor and the GLA should have a strategic remit to deal with matters that should be dealt with at London-wide level, and that the boroughs should continue to be responsible for local service delivery, because they are best placed for that.
In the past, there was confusion between the strategic and operational functions of the Greater London council, and there was often conflict between the boroughs and the GLC. I am pleased to say that in general the new arrangements between the Mayor and the boroughs have worked reasonably well, although there have been some tensions, as there are bound to be between a strategic authority and more local operational authorities. I therefore do not consider it appropriate to talk of devolution from the one to the other. We should be talking about the proper definition of a strategic as opposed to a local service, and ensuring that wherever possible the balance remains correct.
The case for devolution and localism has gained ground over the last 10 years, and the recent local government White Paper argued the case forcefully. It is perfectly proper now to suggest that more power should be given to the Mayor than was proposed in 1997. The next question that arises is this: is the current package the right one? Are the new powers that the Bill proposes for the Mayor and the assembly appropriate? Are the changes to the GLA’s procedures correct, and do they ensure a proper balance between the interests of the Mayor and those of the assembly?
My answer is that the Bill’s proposals go very much in the right direction, and are appropriate. I will be happy to support those proposals in the Lobbies if the Opposition are unwise enough to repeat their gross misjudgment of nine years ago, when they voted against the restoration of city-wide governance in London. However, my support is not entirely unqualified. I feel that some aspects should be given more detailed consideration during the Bill’s passage.
The hon. Gentleman is trying very hard, but he remembers the position. The incoherence of the Opposition tonight is just as it was 10 years ago, when individual Members adopted totally different positions, and the party adopted different positions between Second and Third Reading. Conservative Members advanced some extraordinary propositions. I seem to recall the proposal that there should be a Mayor but no assembly. The Liberal Democrats were equally foolish, proposing an assembly without a Mayor. The Opposition Benches were not a happy sight nine years ago, and I am afraid they look equally troubled tonight.
The right hon. Gentleman is about to reveal his reservations about the Bill. May I help him on his way? Does he share my concern about staffing powers? Let us suppose that the Mayor wished to appoint a legion of Venezuelan pigeon advisers to his team. The only check on that would be the head of paid service, who is appointed by the Mayor. Is there not a danger that the check and balance that exists while the assembly retains staffing powers will be removed?
That rather farcical illustration was of about the same calibre as the hon. Gentleman’s earlier intervention, in which he seemed to suggest that there was a potential risk of section 106 powers being taken from boroughs and used by the Mayor. As he will know, the Bill would give the Mayor power to intervene to direct acceptance where a borough was going to refuse permission. Where are the section 106 sums that can come only with the granting of planning permission?
No, I have already given way to the hon. Gentleman. He should think rather harder about logic before making further interventions.
The first of my reservations concerns powers. I believe that, broadly, the Government have made the correct judgments about the areas in which the Mayor’s powers should be enhanced. As I have said, I think it absolutely right for the Mayor to receive the strategic and financial roles of the London housing board, and to be able to play a much more positive role than has been possible in the past.
No, I do not agree with that. I believe that there is a balance between the powers that should be exercised at local level, at regional level and at national level. Getting that balance right is always difficult and there will always be tensions, but it is important that there should be a national overview of housing policy and measures to ensure that there is adequate provision in areas where otherwise there would probably be none, because of the resistance of some sections of the population and some political parties. The Government must be able to insist that housing needs are met. I do not agree with removing the reserved powers, but I am strongly in favour of giving the Mayor a much stronger role.
In the context of the skills and training agenda, I think it right for there to be more integration between the GLA’s role in economic development and the hugely important challenges for training. I therefore support the measures in the parallel Further Education and Training Bill. As for health, there is obvious merit in designating the regional director for public health as the Mayor’s adviser, and giving the Mayor an explicit remit to tackle health inequalities.
When it comes to planning, I think—as I said earlier in an intervention—that there is a real difficulty of definition. I support the case for enabling the Mayor to ensure greater compliance with the London plan throughout Greater London. That includes both a stronger say in whether borough development plans conform with the London plan and, in limited circumstances, giving the Mayor power to direct approval of a development proposal of strategic importance which clearly conforms with the London plan.
I know that some people are concerned about the implications of giving the Mayor power to direct approval, rather than just the current power to say no. Their argument hinges on the slightly suspect assumption that planning powers to refuse are acceptable because they are accompanied by a right of appeal to the Secretary of State, while powers to accept—which are not subject to such an appeal—should not be granted. In my view, it is right to permit the Mayor both to direct an acceptance and to direct a refusal, if there is clear evidence that the particular development application is clearly of strategic significance, and clearly not in conformity with the London plan. The definition must be drawn very carefully, however, to avoid the risk of mission creep, which I mentioned in an early intervention, and also the risk of conflict between the Mayor’s economic development objectives and financial interests, as well as planning interests. It is a question of propriety, and also of ensuring that decisions are made in a transparent way.
I am satisfied that the Government intend to achieve that, but it is a difficult definitional issue. I think we will all want to see the detailed proposals, in the form of a statutory instrument, before exercising a final judgment on whether the balance is right.
I apologise for not being in the Chamber at the beginning of the debate. I was stuck in Committee.
I acknowledge the right hon. Gentleman’s expertise in these matters, and have known of it for a long time. Does he accept that the logic of his argument should be that the thresholds for any matter that is referable to the Mayor should be raised rather than lowered, to ensure that they are truly strategic and to avoid any needless conflict between the strategic and the operational? Secondly, in terms of the general principle, if the Mayor is to be a planning authority, whether with positive or purely negative powers, on reflection after six years, can it possibly be desirable for a planning authority—in effect, a one-person planning authority—to be given those powers? Would it not be logical for us to look again at the requirement for the Mayor to consult the assembly and the boroughs, and at whether he should be obliged to make his planning decisions in public and in a more transparent fashion?
I support the hon. Gentleman’s concern about transparency—I was about to come to that—but I do not accept his view that there is something curious about a single-person planning authority. It is implicit in the structure of the Greater London authority that the Mayor is directly elected by the people of London and that he is the person responsible for the London plan. That defines the planning objectives for London, and it would be very odd indeed if it is said that the person elected by the people of London to do that were not able to discharge that role. Therefore, I think that there is a logical inconsistency in the hon. Gentleman’s position, although I agree that the Mayor must be seen to be acting transparently, and that becomes all the more important as we are now talking about his having the power to direct acceptance in certain cases, as well as the power to direct refusal.
Does the right hon. Gentleman recall my intervention on the Minister asking to whom the Mayor would be accountable for decisions? A distinction has rightly been drawn between a decision to reject an application, which can subsequently be appealed under the current system, and a decision to accept an application, which is beyond appeal; there is no third-party right of appeal. Does the right hon. Gentleman not see that there is some difference there, and that the system that the Bill introduces should accommodate that difference and provide that accountability?
I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that that is absolutely implicit in the planning regime that applies to every local authority in the country, so unless he is proposing that local authorities should not be able to grant planning permission because their decisions are not subject to appeal, there is an inconsistency in his argument. All that is being proposed is an extension to the Mayor of the same power that can be exercised by an individual local authority when it considers a planning application. That change is to ensure that the Mayor has the ability to direct acceptance as well as refusal. I wholly agree with the hon. Gentleman about transparency, however, and I also wish to stress something that I said earlier: such a power of acceptance must be used in only a very limited number of strategic cases where it is clearly right that the decision be taken at the London-wide level, rather than a local level.
I hear what my right hon. Friend is saying, but the truth of the matter is that if the Mayor calls in a planning application and uses his positive powers there is no appeal right for anybody. Should some sort of appeal right not be built into such a system?
My hon. Friend is taking me into different territory, which is a matter of planning policy generally. I have looked into this matter in considerable detail and I do not agree with the third-party right of appeal concept, which I think would be a disaster in planning decisions. It would clog up a system that is already proving difficult in some respects for developers to find their way through. I cannot be tempted down that particular byway.
I shall now turn from the powers to the way in which the GLA operates. The Government have come up with broadly the correct package of changes to improve the way that the GLA works without unbalancing the arrangements between the Mayor and the assembly, which were very carefully crafted when the structure was put in place. Under that architecture, the Mayor is clearly, unequivocally, in the driving seat, with executive powers, while the role of the assembly is to scrutinise, to hold the Mayor to account and to test whether the Mayor’s strategies are as effective and robust as they need to be to meet London’s needs.
The proposed changes do not seek to alter that, despite the pressures applied from some quarters to extend greater executive powers to the assembly. That would be confusing, and inconsistent with the “strong mayor” model that is at the heart of the GLA system of governance. The proposed changes respect the overall structure, but refine the way in which it operates, and they are generally sensible, modest and incremental reforms. The Mayor will rightly be required to have regard to the assembly’s views before finalising his strategies, and he will be obliged to give reasons when rejecting assembly proposals.
On staffing matters, the assembly will be empowered to hold confirmation hearings for a limited number of senior posts, but it will not be able to veto appointments. In both of those respects, the assembly’s scrutiny role is being strengthened without undermining the Mayor’s executive powers. The head of paid service will take over responsibility for appointments, in line with normal public service patterns. However, in its representations the assembly makes a valid point when questioning whether that power should extend to changes in the overall establishment without such changes being subject to scrutiny. That question should be considered in Committee.
On the budget, the Bill sensibly proposes a split to identify separately the proportion of the budget attributable to the assembly, as against the proportion necessary to meet the Mayor’s requirements. The current proposals incorporate a rather complex formula to cap any increase in the budget attributable to the assembly, without any comparable mechanism to establish a floor below which the assembly’s budget cannot be reduced. The assembly perfectly reasonably thinks that that is unfair and one-sided. I understand that it believes that the current Mayor has been generous in providing for the assembly’s needs and it does not doubt that he will continue to be so, but it fears that under a different regime that might not be the case. It also argues that if it is necessary to provide safeguards against unreasonable increases in the level of the assembly budget, comparable safeguards should apply to ensure that no future Mayor could vengefully reduce the assembly’s resources to prevent effective scrutiny.
With those reservations, I am happy to confirm my strong support for the proposals in the Bill, which will help the GLA continue to develop successfully and provide the effective city-wide leadership that our capital needs and deserves. I look forward to the Bill being enacted.
It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford), and I welcome the central role that he played in securing much-needed London governance for London. He will know that my party wanted to go further, and in some respects—in particular, rail—we are going further along the lines for which we called.
The Bill brings back fond memories of the Greater London Authority Bill of 1999, with its 425 clauses and 34 schedules, and of the first mayoral election and the shambolic selection of the Labour candidate. It reminds me of the debates about the congestion charge. I recall one that the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) and I attended at which all the parties except mine predicted that congestion charging would lead to gridlock and various disasters in London. That has not proved to be the case. Labour Members talk very positively now about the congestion charge, but before its introduction they were almost totally silent on the subject. Labour Members also now proudly proclaim that Ken Livingstone is their Labour Mayor, but that was not quite the case four or five years ago.
My issue with the congestion charge was that the Mayor and those in authority would not acknowledge that it was dividing the community in Kennington, and the Mayor has still not listened or made any changes. People living in a single community were being treated very differently. That issue with the congestion charge still has not been solved for my constituents.
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. I think that she used the word “gridlock” in a number of debates, but there has not been gridlock.
A highlight of our debates on the Bill was what became chapter VII on public-private partnerships. In debate after debate, we told the Government that PPP would be expensive, cumbersome and that it would not work. Just a couple of weeks ago in The Guardian, the PPP arbiter, Chris Bolt, criticised Metronet, one of the two consortiums, for a “deficient” management structure and poor performance. Metronet estimates that the contract faces a cost overrun of £750 million by 2010. So we were right on that score.
In 1999, we pressed for the Mayor to be given more powers to control rail. They were denied, and in his speech the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich explained why. It was clearly a rearguard action on the part of the then Transport Secretary to oppose any further shift of those powers. Of course, the Government are now moving in our direction and are seeking to give the Mayor greater powers over rail. My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey), who cannot be here today, will certainly be asking the Mayor to play a more active role in dealing with peak fares in his constituency, which are due to rise by more than a third in January. The Mayor needs to take firmer action on rail.
In spite of our reservations about the PPP, Liberal Democrats welcomed the creation of the Greater London authority, which devolved power from central Government to London government. Although we object strongly to some of the Bill’s clauses—particularly those on planning, to which I shall turn shortly—its direction of travel is to be welcomed. It will enable the Mayor to draw up strategies for climate change, health and housing, to take over responsibility from the Government for the Museum of London, to set up a separate budget for the assembly, to hold confirmation hearings for some appointments, and so on. I wonder, however, how fruitful the Mayor’s setting up of a health strategy will be, given that so many of these decisions are being taken in and around London by unelected trusts. They are unlikely to listen to any of his concerns and will proceed with accident and emergency closures without his having much of a say.
Three tests for the Bill will determine whether it arrives at its destination in one piece. First, does it devolve greater powers to London; secondly, is there greater devolution within London; thirdly, is there more accountability for the Mayor? As the hon. Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait), who spoke for the official Opposition, said, greater devolution to London must spell the end of Whitehall’s Government office for London. As the GLA’s budget and staffing levels have grown in recent years, so have GOL’s. It is an extra tier of bureaucracy that must now be scrapped. In a speech made just a couple of days ago, the Prime Minister talked about a bonfire of red tape, but I listened in vain for the announcement that GOL was for the chop.
Members could be forgiven for thinking that spending on GOL would decline as responsibilities and powers were passed to the Mayor and the GLA. That has not happened. A graph has been published that tells the story: since 2000, spending has continued to rise at a dramatic rate, year on year. Admittedly, there was a slight drop in 2000, but since then both spending on GOL and its staffing levels have increased. In addition to having a ballooning budget, it overlaps many of the functional bodies that have been established in legislation, in that it works in the same areas. For instance, according to GOL’s website,
“GOL provides advice on certain roads issues…on the development of the Mayor’s Transport Strategy…extensions to traffic management orders and special event orders…advice on transport finance, major transport projects and buses.”
Why is that not the preserve of the Mayor and Transport for London?
In addition to areas of overlap, there are matters for which GOL has sole responsibility that surely would sit more comfortably with the GLA and its functional bodies. Let us consider people and sustainable communities. According to its website, GOL is responsible for a wide range of activities to promote sustainable communities. It oversees the delivery of neighbourhood renewal policy, including local strategic partnerships, neighbourhood management, the new deal for communities, and so on. It also works with a wide range of voluntary sector and community organisations that are at the heart of regeneration and community cohesion in London. Surely such matters should be the responsibility of the Mayor and of the Greater London assembly.
On the second test, greater devolution within London must mean the Mayor taking powers from central Government, not grasping powers such as planning controls from local councils. We will oppose a planning controls smash-and-grab by the Mayor, who already has a rather unhealthy interest in planning applications that cannot be considered strategic. His comments about many planning applications are certainly not of a strategic nature. Let us take the example of a planning application in Carshalton, in my constituency, that the hon. Member for Beckenham mentioned earlier. I do not want to go over the top, lest it leads to further delays to that project, but very significant delays arose as a result of the Mayor’s intervention. The impact on the ground was that people living in Durand close—a ’60s estate—who had expected to move to new properties were unable to do so. As a result of the Mayor’s intervention, the whole project was delayed and there was a knock-on effect on costs. Indeed, he has intervened in 1,200 applications since taking office, and it is clear that not all those interventions were of a strategic nature.
In dealing with people’s concerns about the Mayor’s taking responsibility for planning controls, the cure is simple. Deleting clauses 31 to 35 would restore the planning status quo and avoid the problem that would be created by having to define an application of potential strategic importance. That is what we will seek to achieve in Committee. If the Minister, as she mentioned in her opening statement, does manage to secure the agreement of the GLA, the Mayor, and the London councils and boroughs on a way forward—if she finds something that satisfies all their concerns, and that does not impinge on the powers of local authorities—we will of course reconsider. However, we need a fall-back position that assumes that the Minister or the bodies that she is liaising with will not be up to that very substantial challenge. If the Government decide to push through these proposals, the transparency issues that other Members have raised will have to be addressed. The Mayor will have to be much more transparent in his approach to planning; indeed, we would expect from him the same degree of transparency that prevails among local authorities.
The right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich said that he does not support third-party representations, but it is my understanding that the Mayor is inclined to allow such representations in respect of planning applications that he decides to approve.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that helpful clarification. It is important to note, however, that the Mayor is apparently offering an opportunity for third-party representations before a decision is taken.
I turn to the third test that the Bill must pass—greater accountability. It is clear that the Bill will grant the Mayor additional powers, and the trade-off must be that he must demonstrate greater accountability. In our view, the Bill must be changed to require the Mayor to secure the support of a majority of assembly members for his budget, rather than of the derisory third who can currently sign it off. We could then bring an end to his spending spree, which has seen his charge to London’s taxpayers increase by more than 100 per cent. in just four years. Greater accountability will also require the Mayor to explain when and why he has accepted responses to his consultations, and when and why he has rejected them.
Finally, greater accountability will also require the Mayor to hold office for two terms only. Given that he is being granted additional powers to appoint his representatives to various bodies, there is a risk that he will create a coterie of cronies—a cabal of consorts. Restricting him to two terms in office would reduce that risk.
My hon. Friends and I will try to improve the Bill and, in one respect at least—the Mayor’s planning powers—to emasculate it. The test for the Government will be to convert the Bill into a measure that devolves power to and within London, and delivers more mayoral accountability. We shall support the Bill’s Second Reading, but our support is conditional. The Bill should complete the unfinished devolutionary work started in the 1999 Act. If it does so, it will receive our support during its later stages; if it does not, and merely replaces a benevolent but despotic regime, central Government, by giving another, Ken Livingstone, unchecked powers to ride roughshod over the wishes of local people, we shall oppose it.
I welcome the Bill and shall confine my comments to its housing and planning aspects. When my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning opened the debate, she was right to say that the aim of the Bill is to give strategic responsibility for housing and planning to a democratically elected London-wide government. However, Members on both sides of the House are also right to raise concerns about the possibility of over-interference by the mayoralty in local matters.
I can best illustrate that by giving the example of a local case that I dealt with in my constituency. It relates to an area universally known as the Allied Carpets site, which is on a busy junction but in a residential area of Shepherd’s Bush, overlooking a prominent park. A 10-storey block of flats was deemed suitable by a developer, although not by the then Labour-controlled local council, in what had previously been a purely residential area where buildings did not rise more than three storeys. At some point the Greater London authority expressed the view that the development was suitable, very much in line with the idea, which may be on the wane, that the higher the better.
I have no prejudice against tall buildings but to put what was, in essence, a tower block in an area of Victorian streets was deemed inappropriate, particularly by everybody who lived in the area. We all make mistakes, however, and I took comfort from the fact that the GLA chose not to appear at the planning inquiry and, indeed, seemed to withdraw. The planning inspector, faced by persuasive arguments from me and local Labour councillors and residents, turned down the appeal.
The case illustrates not whether the GLA was right or wrong, but that we need clear guidelines, which relates to what my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford) referred to as mission creep. We need clear guidelines so that when matters are genuinely local there is no interference from the GLA. The case I described was a perfect example of that; the development was important for the locality but by no stretch of the imagination was it strategic for London.
In an earlier intervention, my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton and Wanstead (Harry Cohen) raised the whole question of appeals. Is my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Slaughter) not concerned that if there is no appeal process against a mayoral decision to grant permission, only the rich and powerful, who can afford to go to judicial review, would be able to challenge a decision? Neighbourhood groups, such as the one that he ably represented in that local case, would not have the wherewithal to challenge such decisions.
My hon. Friend makes the point well. He picks up the point I was making: clear guidance is needed, as the Minister acknowledged when she opened the debate, to show when we are dealing with strategic powers. Where I do not agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) is that it would be inappropriate to give the Mayor additional powers, as I shall explain. Apart from guidelines being important in themselves, they are important because they would shoot the fox that has been raised—
I would hate to misrepresent my hon. Friend’s views—that is the last thing I come into the Chamber to do.
Apart from any other considerations, clear guidelines would shoot the fox that the Opposition parties have raised—that the measure is somehow an anti-democratic grabbing of powers from the localities. It is not, by any means. Given the state of planning powers in London, especially for housing, no one can doubt that some reform and strategic intervention are needed, which are not delivered in existing legislation, whether in infrastructure, economic development or in housing—the aspect I particularly want to address.
I do not know which survey the Opposition spokesperson, the hon. Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait), was citing when she gave her figures; I can assume only it was a survey of Bromley planners. London-wide surveys, carried out by the GLA, have shown that 83 per cent. of Londoners support the Mayor’s proposal for 50 per cent. affordable housing and that 50 per cent. agree with the extension of planning powers for the Mayor, with only 33 per cent. against. Notwithstanding all the Opposition scaremongering, that is a clear indication that reform is needed.
Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that flexibility is needed for housing targets, especially in inner London? A strict 50 per cent. limit runs the risk that developers will simply sit on their hands and do nothing, which has been the story in London over the past few years. Land was available for development, but developers decided that to put aside 40 or 50 per cent. of the development for social housing would make it economically unviable.
I do not want to associate the hon. Gentleman too much with his local authority, but when I hear the word “flexibility” from Westminster, or from many Tory councils in London, I begin to bridle. It is usually a euphemism for “We don’t want it here”. We heard earlier from the Opposition spokesperson that Bromley was full up, so the borough could take no more affordable homes.
When we were in the byways of Westminster, I was taken back to my days as leader of the Labour group on Westminster council, when the district auditor uncovered the fact that the council’s policy, under Lady Porter, was to be
“mean and nasty to the homeless”.
I take with a pinch of salt the protestations of Tory Members and Tory councils that they have real difficulty in building affordable housing. If Hackney council can obtain an allocation for 1,636 homes from the Housing Corporation for the period 2006-08, it seems unlikely—I put it no stronger than that—that Bromley, which, as we know, is a far more congested and much smaller borough, would get an allocation for only 43.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there is a certain irony in the fact that Westminster City council will be the first in Britain to reach the decent homes standard? Does not that show a change of heart? Secondly, I want to return to his point about whether people support their local council or the London Mayor having planning powers. I think that the survey referred to earlier was an NOP survey commissioned by London Councils, which showed that
“54 per cent. of Londoners oppose plans to award the Mayor of London extra powers to decide planning applications across the capital”.
To respond to the hon. Gentleman’s second point, it all depends on how the question is put, although I am sure that Conservative-controlled London Councils—or whatever it is called now—asked it in an impartial manner. I have seen the wording of the questions in the GLA survey, which seemed absolutely clear. The survey revealed that Londoners supported the extension of planning powers. They see the terrible mess that Tory councils are making of planning in London.
The hon. Gentleman was treading on thinner ice when he mentioned the decent homes programme. I am sure that Westminster council is giving the Government full credit for supplying all the funds for the programme and that it is explaining why in the previous 20 years it could do nothing to renew and improve its housing stock. I remind him that the Tory housing spokesman in his borough said of the decent homes programme:
“It saddled us with £192 million worth of debt.”
In other words, there is a Tory council that does not want its council housing stock improved.
The reason we need greater emphasis on affordable housing and the planning powers that will deliver it in London is twofold, the first of which is simple humanitarian grounds. I do not intend to detain the House today, but in the hot air and statistics that are sometimes generated, we often lose sight of real human misery. We can argue about the politics of it one way or another, but the housing crisis in London is a consequence of the overheating of the London housing market, making both rented and for-sale housing simply unaffordable—and not just to people on low incomes, but to people on several times as much. Many people are living in temporary and often overcrowded accommodation. Surely all London Members, and particularly inner-London Members, encounter that problem every week in their surgeries.
In the 20 or more years during which I have had to deal with these matters, I cannot remember so many people coming to my surgeries, telling me that they have five children and are living in a one-bedroom flat. They are now being told by the local authority that it is statutory overcrowding because the fifth child has reached one year of age, so they can move up one band in the choice-based letting scheme. That makes a bit of a mockery of the idea of choice-based lettings. Equally, people are living in temporary accommodation for several years—a better quality of accommodation on the whole and certainly in comparison with the bed-and-breakfast accommodation that the Tory Government subjected people to, but it is not really suitable as a home. It can be former bed-sit accommodation, which people cannot settle into and which has, scandalously, been rented in my constituency for £300 or £400 a week for a one or two-bedroom flat. That makes a mockery of the housing market, producing not only human misery, but profiteering. That must be dealt with.
I am listening carefully to my hon. Friend’s argument. Is not the critical factor that there are different housing markets in different parts of the country, which makes it important that London receives the support that London’s particular housing market needs? Who better to reflect that than the person who has overall democratic control of the London region? Does my hon. Friend support the Mayor’s view that affordable rented accommodation should be the overwhelming priority for London’s needs?
I certainly support that view and I wish only that Conservative councils in my constituency supported it—or, indeed, were indifferent to it. In fact, they take the exact opposite view. In Hammersmith and Fulham borough, the inner one of the two boroughs that my constituency covers, there are 8,400 people on the waiting list, 1,700 people in temporary accommodation and 9 per cent. of families live in overcrowded accommodation—
I hear an uncharacteristically cheap point, shouted from a sedentary position by the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove). He might not be following my argument, but I thought that I was setting out in a non-political way—I shall come to the political part later—why the London housing market has produced such results. I freely say that more affordable rented homes should be built and I sincerely hope that the Government will address that in the comprehensive spending review. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would like to reflect on why, against that background—and against the fact that the Labour council in Hammersmith and Fulham has the best record in London on building affordable homes—the first decision of the new Conservative administration was to cancel, wherever possible, the affordable rented homes programme.
I hear another sedentary comment that it is not true, so I shall provide one or two examples. I was not going to do so, but now I shall. What possible motivation, other than one of extreme ideology or electoral manipulation, could there be for an inner-London council to go out of its way to cancel an affordable rented homes programme that had already received funding from the Housing Corporation and already had planning permission? I cannot see any justification for that. Departing slightly from my brief, I shall provide two examples, only one of which indicts a callous Tory council, as the other involves a housing association.
I apologise for raising an issue that I have already raised at some length in an Adjournment debate, but I do so because further developments have taken place, which exemplify exactly why the Mayor needs extra powers. The largest single housing development in my constituency at the moment was originally a 75 per cent. affordable housing development. The incoming Conservative council, by way of agreeing small changes to the application, insisted that the percentage of affordable housing be reduced to 64 per cent. Nevertheless, it was still a good scheme: it was roughly a third market, a third shared ownership and a third social rented housing.
On one clear working day before the planning committee made a decision, the leader of the council called in the developer and insisted that the rented housing be changed to shared ownership housing. That is a matter ultimately, as I have said previously, for the Standards Board for England. What happened then is an interesting development. The GLA was waiting expectantly for this scheme—it was a large scheme of 450 homes—to be referred to it, but the Conservative councils said that they were not ready and were not sure. Meanwhile, the Housing Corporation had withdrawn the £30 million of public money because the scheme was no longer worthy of being funded.
What has happened since that time—about six weeks ago—is that in a Dutch auction the social housing developer, Genesis Housing Group, went to the Housing Corporation and asked what minimum amount of social rented housing could be put on the site in order to get public funding. It literally asked whether it was 70, 80, 90 or 91 units.
When I hear the word Genesis, it immediately makes me want to jump up. Is my hon. Friend aware that that same housing association is the body that bought the Church Commissioners’ property through some sort of multi-deal and is now trying to sell as many off as possible, despite the fact that those homes were intended for people on lower incomes? Some of these housing associations get away with a lot of things, simply because they are housing associations, but in many cases they are not much better than some private developers.
My hon. Friend anticipates the point that I was coming on to—that it is not only Conservative and Liberal councillors who are taking liberties with affordable housing in London, because housing associations and statutory bodies such as the Housing Corporation are also doing it.
I am listening with great interest to my hon. Friend’s example. Does he think that the Conservative-controlled council that he mentioned has hired Lady Porter as one of its consultants? One of the policies that was never really examined as part of the homes for votes scandal was her complete abuse of the planning system to ensure that poor people who might well have been Labour voters were never allowed to live in Westminster.
I notice that there has been a hastily drafted new priority for the Conservative council in Hammersmith, which is always to prioritise home ownership. What we read into that is that social rented housing is always de-prioritised. I do not wish to detain the House, but this is a fascinating saga—[Interruption.] It is no wonder that Conservative Members do not wish to hear the ins and outs of it—
A long, but entertaining speech, nevertheless. If it makes Conservative Members feel more comfortable, I shall move on from discussing Hammersmith council to the Peabody Trust.
Peabody Trust is a significant social landlord—rather similar to Genesis—that operates a large number of social rented houses in my constituency. I was somewhat perturbed to find out a few months ago that it is in the process of selling a total of 1,100 good-quality, high-space, standard social rented homes in order to produce some form of income or capital to renew the rest of its stock. That has been done with the consent of the Housing Corporation. Given the lengths to which Labour councils, Labour councillors and the Government go to ensure the provision of more social rented units in London, it is a scandal that existing RSLs are selling good-quality homes on the open market. Those homes will never be replaced in that form.
I agree with my hon. Friend’s point about the Peabody Trust. It was set up as a charity to provide housing for people in desperate housing need in London. The bunch who run it at the moment have no right to sell off those properties and we look to the Housing Corporation to protect social tenants in London, not allow them to be thrown to the wolves of the private market.
If the statutory bodies such as the Housing Corporation, the Tory elected boroughs and, in some cases, the RSLs in London were doing the job that we would all like them to do, some of the provisions in the Bill might not be necessary. It makes sense that strategic powers for housing and planning should pass to the strategic body, with the caveat that we must safeguard local decisions. However, we probably would not be debating this Bill were it not for the mostly deliberate neglect by Conservative councils and the spineless attitude of some of the statutory bodies.
The debate is moving on from the 50 per cent. point. I know that most Conservatives, as the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) has suggested, are still not persuaded of that point, but an increasing number of Conservative councils are—and that makes me suspicious. They are persuaded of it because they wish to build housing for sale—not low-cost housing, but housing that will sell for £200,000, £300,000 and even £400,000. It is an act of the utmost cynicism to purport to build affordable housing while actually building housing that is way out of reach not only of people who wish to move out of rented social housing, but of anybody—
In a moment, but I warn the hon. Gentleman that he is only prolonging matters.
That is a scandal, and it is one that the GLA and the Mayor, to whom I have spoken about it, are in a position to address. In boroughs such as Hammersmith and Ealing, it is virtually impossible for anyone who does not have a telephone number salary or a substantial private income to get on to the housing ladder. We must build either genuine low-cost housing for sale or affordable rented housing. Without those two parts of the equation we will not address the issue. It is a scandal that the Conservatives intend to pursue their line.
To emphasise my hon. Friend’s point, I would add that it is essential that affordable rented accommodation is available throughout London and not ghettoised in those areas where land prices are lower, if we are to maintain sustainable communities throughout the capital. That is why the Bill is so important.
The moment has obviously passed.
In the current climate, the Bill is the right thing to do, although the safeguards are necessary, because there is a crisis in housing in London and those who are charged with addressing it are not doing so properly. Indeed, Conservative councils are doing the opposite. Their attempts to contain the development of affordable housing are victimising the most vulnerable people whom they should be representing in their boroughs. Plus ça change.
Localism has been one of the themes of this debate. I think, and I am sure that many of my hon. Friends agree, that localism is becoming more important, not less. For example, on the issue of social exclusion, it is often the most marginalised in our society who have the most difficulty with remote bureaucracy. If we can bring bureaucracy closer to people, it can assist with that problem, as well as many others that have been discussed this evening.
As well as espousing localism in its true form, I also support mayors. Local mayors have much to commend them and there are some interesting examples round the country. In many instances, therefore, I support the transfer of powers from central Government to mayors. The problem with the Bill, and its flawed psychology—ably spelled out by my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait)—is that while it includes some transfers from central Government to the Mayor, it also includes crucial transfers of power from the boroughs to the Mayor. Although the Minister for Housing and Planning is a very logical woman, there is no logical way to defend the transfer of powers on housing and planning from the boroughs to the Mayor and espouse localism at the same time.
Much of the difficulty stems from the original conception behind the Mayor and the Greater London assembly. The right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford) went into the history of the issue, and we all remember that the Government essentially chose to avoid hard choices and fudged many of the issues by inserting a third tier of government between central Government and the existing boroughs. That inevitably requires a precise definition of what each layer of government will do. As the right hon. Gentleman pointed out, that leads to tensions, wrangling, the need to redefine the position in the light of experience—which is what is happening this evening—and increased complexity.
I submit that complexity is the enemy of democracy. My hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Justine Greening) made an important point when she said that if we want people to participate in local democracy, to vote and be involved, we must keep it simple. Complexity of the sort that we have in London is inimical to real involvement. If it is over-complex, it becomes a matter for the experts, not the people who are not experts and do not understand, even though they wish to do so.
To take a local example from Orpington, one of my constituents, Mr. Vic Heasman, was concerned about large lorries going down a country lane. They were damaging the pavements and hedgerows and were a safety hazard for local residents and the children of a nearby school. He therefore tried to find out who gave the lorries permission to travel down that narrow country lane. He asked Bromley council, but it was nothing to do with it. He asked Transport for London, but it was nothing to do with it. He asked the Mayor’s office, but it was nothing to do with him. He asked the police, but it was nothing to do with them. In fact, he discovered, after three months of trying, that the Association of Local Government issued the permits for those large lorries. It took three months of hard effort by that determined constituent to discover who was responsible before anything could be done about the issue. That exemplifies the problem, created by the Government, of a complicated system of local government in London.
It need not have been like that. The Government may claim that it was the only way forward given the existing situation in London, but there were other models. Paris has a different model, for example. It is defined by the historic core inside the boulevard périphérique and banlieues outside it. London could have adopted a similar model, with only two layers of government rather than three. Many of the difficulties that we now face, which have occasioned the Bill, would have been done away with, but the Government chose a three-tier system. It is increasingly centralised and over complicated.
I am especially concerned about housing, where the complexities and difficulties are most severe. I shall not spell out the details, as we are short of time and, unlike the previous speaker, I wish to be brief. The truth is that the powers that boroughs such as Bromley have in relation to housing are circumscribed and directed by the Mayor who, in turn, must pay attention to the national housing strategy.
We know a lot more about the national housing strategy after the second report from Mrs. Barker. Like her first, it is a crude and soulless throwback to the era of predict and provide. She has simply taken the forecasts of possible housing demand and advocated that the necessary housing can be supplied by a process of “densification”— an invented, ugly, word for an ugly process that causes suffering to people in the suburbs, and elsewhere.
In her report, Mrs. Barker makes no attempt to analyse the demand for housing. For example, I and others have often made the point that a significant element in housing demand, especially in London, is the high level of immigration. In the Select Committee the other day, the Minister for Immigration, Citizenship and Nationality was asked whether he had looked into the effect of high levels of immigration on housing in London. He had no answer, but immigration is a factor. We all know that we benefit economically from high levels of immigration, but we must consider the implications for housing and public services. Whatever one’s conclusion, it is absurd not to consider the matter.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned his unhappiness with what the Barker report had to say about housing, as it proposes a laissez-faire approach that would let the market rip. However, is he aware that that is exactly the position adopted by his own Front-Bench spokesman? Perhaps he should take the matter up with him.
The hon. Gentleman makes a non-point. That is characteristic of the Liberal party, which I am glad to say is no longer a force in Orpington at all.
Not only is there a failure to understand the demand for housing in London and elsewhere, there is also a failure to be imaginative about supply. The well known architect, Terry Farrell, has pointed out that a proper plan for dealing with some of that demand would involve significant development in the Thames Gateway. Simultaneously, that development could deal with the sort of problems that would arise from building on a floodplain, such as flooding as a result of worsening climate change. We could protect London and the Thames area and at the same time provide proper infrastructure for decent housing. That could be a way forward, but it is not discussed in the Government’s plans.
Earlier, my hon. Friend mentioned the economic impact of immigration. He might be interested in the evidence presented to the Work and Pensions Committee yesterday by Professor Paul Gregg, an economic adviser to the Chancellor, who said that the impact of immigration on housing was not yet clear. Apparently, one of the challenges arising from the expanding work force is that the economy will have to grow at around 3 per cent. if we are tobe able to continue to provide those employment opportunities. That in turn will arouse severe inflationary pressures that the Bank of England will have to consider—
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. However, I am grateful to my hon. Friend, as she is right that it is a serious error of policy making not to analyse the connections between immigration and housing. The Government are guilty of allowing their political correctness to overtake them.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman does not mind, but I will not. We are rather short of time, as Madam Deputy Speaker has pointed out, and I have given way two or three times already.
The Bill makes it clear that the Mayor has powers in respect of planning. For example, clause 30 gives him a power of intervention in respect of a local planning authority’s local development scheme. It allows him to direct boroughs to prepare revisions to their local development schemes, and we all know what that is a recipe for: by general diktat, the Mayor will be able to overrule the well developed plans of boroughs such as Bromley.
The other curious thing about the Bill is that it gives the Mayor powers in matters where they appear unnecessary. For example, he is enjoined to look at all the health inequalities in the London area, but what on earth do we have NHS London or a strategic health authority for? That question is especially valid given the press release from NHS London dated yesterday, 11 December, that states:
“NHS London has asked Professor Sir Ara Darzi of Imperial College to develop a strategy to meet Londoners’ health needs over the next five to ten years.”
That is an example of duplication—the Government are asking NHS London to do something, and then asking the Mayor to do exactly the same thing.
I believe that the Bill increases duplication, complexity, centralisation and cost. It lessens democracy and true localism. It is not the way forward for London.
I welcome this Bill, and the fact that it will extend the powers of the Mayor in important areas. I also welcome the fact that, for once, we are able to have a debate on London. Ever since the annual debate on policing was abolished, we have been unable to debate London fully in the way that we are doing tonight. I hope that the Government will consider allowing the House to have an annual Adjournment debate on London issues. That would be welcomed by most hon. Members present today.
Labour’s creation of the London Mayor and assembly in 2000 corrected the democratic deficit inflicted by the Conservative Government when they abolished the Greater London council in 1986. Since the restoration of city-wide government six years ago, Londoners have seen real and significant improvements to many aspects of life in the capital. The Audit Commission’s report on the GLA for last year said:
“Crime is at a five-year low, and local policing is now a reality in every ward in London. Investment in public transport is at its highest for sixty years.”
Uniquely among major cities across the world, London has seen a shift from private cars to public transport, assisted by investment and the introduction of the congestion charge. From 2008, the low-emission zone for London will cut pollution from road transport and improve air quality. The Mayor has been rightly praised for his strategies on climate change and affordable housing. The International Olympic Committee would not have awarded the 2012 Olympics to London without a city-wide government to oversee that great commitment.
The system of devolved government for London in the Greater London Authority Act 1999 has, on the whole, worked pretty well. It has enabled a strong executive Mayor to develop and implement strategies across a range of important policy areas. Some have suggested that the assembly’s inability to block mayoral policies represents a weakness, but a shared electorate does not mean a shared mandate. The Mayor is elected with an executive mandate, while the assembly is elected to scrutinise, and those roles should not be confused.
For example, if the bar for assembly amendments to the Mayor’s budget were to be lowered below the current two-thirds majority, London government could become gridlocked, with the GLA unable to set a legal budget. London government has been able to deliver, precisely because that sort of impasse is not possible.
According to the pamphlet jointly authored by the Leader of the Opposition and the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) last month, the Conservative party is now
“committed to not only keeping the Mayoralty, but also to enhancing the powers of the office”.
We might have thought, therefore, that tonight we would see the Opposition give their wholehearted support to the Bill and the proposed new powers. As usual, however, their position, especially in respect of planning, seems to be rather confused, opportunist, and downright misleading.
The case for giving the Mayor power to grant planning permission in a small, limited number of strategic cases must be obvious. At present, the Mayor has the power only to refuse schemes. That negative and lopsided power severely limits his negotiating position with both boroughs and developers, and hampers the delivery of needed housing, especially affordable housing and housing for rent, as we have discussed already.
In fact, over the past six years, the Mayor has directed refusal in fewer than 20 of the cases referred to him. Personally, I should have liked him to do so more often—including in my own patch, where very poor council estate regeneration schemes proposed by Tory Barnet council are going ahead. Generally, I believe that a negotiated solution has been achieved. I cannot see the Mayor using a new power to approve an application any more frequently than so far he has used the power to refuse. I agree with the comments about the need to define “strategic” clearly, but the Mayor has shown that he has behaved responsibly in the past and there is no reason to suggest that he would do otherwise in the future.
We have heard that the Liberal Democrats oppose the extension of the Mayor’s powers. Perhaps that is because of their own record and the way in which they have run authorities under their control. For example, the sort of case where the Mayor would have intervened to give approval was the St. Georges wharf scheme in then Liberal-Democrat-controlled Lambeth. The planning application was for hundreds of residential units, 40 per cent. of which were to be affordable, rising to 50 per cent. if funding from the Housing Corporation was made available. The scheme was supported by the Mayor and recommended for approval by Lambeth officers, but the Liberal Democrat council refused planning permission on the grounds that there was previous consent for a hotel.
After a public inquiry, the inspector granted permission, saying that there was a
“strong planning imperative to maximise housing provision”.
The inspector continued:
“The London borough of Lambeth case, which comprised no more than a series of assertions of opinion…for the…hotel scheme”
“put forward without reasoned consideration”
“members not only placed their officer in an invidious position but conduced themselves in an unreasonable manner”.
That resulted in an award of costs against the council. That is an example of the Liberal Democrats’ grotesque waste of public money and officers’ time and of an unacceptable delay in the delivery of desperately needed housing for London.
The point that I make is made by my hon. Friend. The fact remains that the scheme was going to provide hundreds of homes in Lambeth. Homes are more important than a hotel. That is a strategic decision and an example of where the Mayor perhaps ought to have intervened. It illustrates the necessity of the positive planning powers that are proposed to enable the Mayor to implement the London plan. The unreasonable misuse of the local planning system to stymie developments of London-wide significance cannot be acceptable, particularly for the 60,000 Londoners who remain homeless. Over the last six years, the Mayor has proved that he is judicious in the use of his existing powers. The Bill will ensure that he becomes involved only in genuinely strategic issues for the benefit of London and Londoners.
I have to disagree with the Government over one area in the Bill: waste disposal. The Bill falls well short of the necessary steps to address that London-wide problem. The Government’s proposals do not deal with the fundamental challenge of the integrated and sustainable waste management that we need. The argument between a city-wide and a borough approach is not new. Twenty years ago, the Greater London council was responsible for co-ordinating and managing the disposal of London’s municipal waste. Since its abolition, London has fallen well behind many international comparator cities.
There are a surprising number of similarities between the problems that we now face in London and those confronting Londoners before the GLC. Much of the reasoning for a single London waste authority then remains relevant today. The 1960 Herbert commission, which led to the establishment of the GLC, concluded that the local authorities were
“carrying out their responsibilities for refuse disposal as efficiently as their present situation will allow,”
“the conditions which would make for full effectiveness do not exist”.
That is as true today as it was more than 40 years ago.
The GLC’s innovative approach turned the capital’s waste management service into a world leader. Within five years, the Edmonton solid waste incinerator had been planned, designed and built. Pioneering rail and river transfer stations were developed. The GLC embarked on a comprehensive plan to upgrade London’s waste management arrangements, many of which still reflected their Victorian origins. The GLC’s department of public health engineering was a centre of excellence in the planning and delivery of high quality waste management infrastructure and services. That was all ended by the Conservative Government’s abolition of the GLC.
London’s municipal waste management arrangements reflect the stagnation of the post-GLC 1985 contractual arrangements. Of the 33 London boroughs, 12 are unitary waste collection and disposal authorities. The other 21 are arranged into four joint authorities. That means that there are a total of no fewer than 16 waste disposal authorities, none of which is charged to act in London’s wider interests as a capital city. Although some boroughs perform well, others do not. Collectively, they fall well short of delivering what London needs.
In the last decade, London has slipped from being the fourth best region at recycling household waste to being the worst, failing to achieve the national recycling target of 25 per cent. in 2005. Twenty-nine of London’s waste authorities failed to achieve their statutory household recycling targets in 2003-04. There have been only 25 planning applications for waste management sites in London over the past five years: an average of only 0.15 per year per authority. London currently incinerates just under 20 per cent. of its waste. Despite the strongest regional policy supporting recycling and new technologies, that is set to rise to about 40 per cent. with current incineration plans. London would then account for almost half of England’s share of incineration. As London boroughs have not prioritised waste planning and management, they are highly likely not to meet the requirements of the landfill directive, risking Government fines. The GLA estimates London’s landfill allowance trading scheme liability to be £1.7 billion from 2005 to 2020.
The Corporation of London runs the London hazardous waste collection service on behalf of the boroughs. That service consists of only two vehicles for the whole of London—one collecting chemicals, the other asbestos. From the 3 million homes in London in 2005, that service collected only 10 tonnes of asbestos and 1 tonne of chemicals a month—a fraction of the estimated total. Hazardous materials in black bags inevitably end up in landfills outside London or being burned in incinerators, resulting in pollution.
It is hard to see how the cautious package of measures in the Bill addresses those serious problems. The proposed requirement for boroughs to be in “general conformity” with the Mayor’s strategy will end in court disputes between the Mayor and the boroughs. The Mayor is not permitted to be proactive in bringing forward and implementing city-wide plans for recycling, tackling climate change, minimising transport movements and realising efficiency savings. No other global city has such fragmented and divisive arrangements. Although the Mayor may write policies to tackle litter into his municipal waste management strategy, the Government have decided to exempt local authorities’ litter duties from even their weak requirements of “general conformity”. That is despite London being the worst performing region for litter, with 86 per cent. of Londoners expressing dissatisfaction—as we all know from our constituents’ complaints to us.
The proposed London waste and recycling forum may bring stakeholders together, but, with no legal powers, it is highly unlikely to put forward solutions for London. Voluntary arrangements have failed London for the past 20 years, so there is no cause for optimism that they will suddenly start to work now. The proposed London waste and recycling fund will be financed by diverting money from the boroughs’ waste and performance efficiency grant. Gershon efficiencies that could be achieved through a single waste disposal authority—estimated at £40 million—are not being realised. The Mayor’s proposal for a single waste disposal authority offers a number of benefits. It provides strong and effective leadership through a mayoral-led functional body. It would improve the commercial attractiveness of London’s waste market by reducing the number of decision makers and hurdles to clear, working with Transport for London, the London Development Agency, the energy sector and London boroughs to deliver solutions.
Waste management can make a positive contribution towards climate change. A co-ordinated approach can reduce transport movements. It could involve investment in our canals and using waste to produce biofuels and hydrogen to fuel London’s buses. However, that needs organising at a city level. It cannot be implemented by 16 different waste disposal authorities. The need for innovation and efficient delivery has not changed significantly since the GLC’s abolition. When the Government gave the Mayor strategic responsibility for municipal waste in London through the formation of the Greater London authority, they conceded that existing arrangements were not delivering for London. It is now time for the Government to go one step further to ensure that they do.
I understand that the Government’s concern is that collection and disposal should be carried out by one authority only, because they believe that to be somehow better or more efficient. However, that argument simply does not stand up to scrutiny. Two-tier authorities in London, where collection is carried out by the borough and disposal is carried out separately by the four joint authorities, perform as well—or perhaps I should say, no worse—as borough councils that do both, in terms of recycling. Outside London, district councils collect and shire counties dispose of waste. Some of the shires and districts, with that divided relationship, are among the best performers in the country. What is important is that the waste disposal authority has adequate powers to ensure that the collection authorities deliver their waste to disposal facilities in a specified manner.
Collection is fundamentally a local issue. It is dependent mainly on how far a rubbish truck can be driven in a day. Disposal requires significant investment in facilities and planning at a city-wide level, with the ability to co-ordinate the transfer points for collection authorities. It makes clear sense to do that on a city-wide basis to minimise transport movements, to ensure that facilities and contracts of the appropriate size are delivered, and to make full use of economies of scale and efficiencies.
London’s waste governance arrangements are failing. A step change is required if we are to show that we are serious about the environmental challenges that London faces. The measures proposed in the Bill shift money from the boroughs to the Mayor, create talking shops and invite planning disputes; they do not ensure efficient, sustainable co-ordinated waste management.
As my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House said in 1985, in his capacity as Environment spokesperson, when discussing the proposals for post-GLC waste management:
“The nettle should have been grasped and it should have been acknowledged that waste disposal, as opposed to waste collection, could not possibly be handled on a borough-by-borough basis.”—[Official Report, 8 July 1985; Vol. 82, c. 808.]
I thus urge the Government to reconsider their position and to propose amendments to create a single waste disposal authority for London. This important matter remains to be resolved, so I hope that it will be considered in much more detail in Committee.
With that caveat, the Bill represents a major step forward for the governance of London. It provides for further devolution that builds on the previous arrangements that we put forward to meet our manifesto commitment when we were first elected. The Bill shows the Government’s commitment to London, to devolution and to ensuring that we have a proper city-wide administration. It is regrettable that Opposition parties do not intend to support the Bill wholeheartedly tonight. That shows that they care little about London and Londoners.
I start with a plea. The Bill that became the Greater London Authority Act 1999 was the second longest Bill in the history of Parliament, exceeded only by a Finance Bill. It had 26 Committee sittings, with the Committee stage lasting two and a half months. As the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake), who has just left the Chamber, reminded us, there were more than 1,000 amendments. That Bill received intense scrutiny in Committee, but when it came back to the House on Report, vast chunks of it were replaced without any debate whatsoever. Vast chunks of the Bill were then replaced in the Lords, and most of the Lords amendments that this House considered went through without debate because of a guillotine. Those amendments included measures on revenue-raising powers. I sincerely hope that this Greater London Authority Bill has a happier passage through the House.
Conservative Members supported the Third Reading of the Greater London Authority Bill of 1999, but we tabled a reasoned amendment in which we accepted the principle of the authority, but expressed our reservations about the congestion charge, the nature of the assembly and the imbalance with the boroughs. As we come to review the workings of the 1999 Act, it seems we did not make a bad judgment at the time. The assembly’s operations are restricted and the congestion charge has had its problems. This Bill will diminish the boroughs’ powers even further.
A voice for London is a good thing. The Mayor should speak for this major city on the world stage. However, the voice that we have at present has tarnished the image of London. The position of Mayor is one of not just responsibility, but integrity. The cheeky chappie stuff only goes so far; frankly we do not need the Nazi jibes, the scuffles outside parties and the cheap stunts, such as the trip to Venezuela where the Mayor was rebuffed to the embarrassment of the people of London. The people of London want a well run authority with no gimmicks. They want jobs, homes and security.
The Bill addresses the question of homes. As you will have been able to tell by the number of interventions, Madam Deputy Speaker, many hon. Members have spoken about the interaction between planning and housing, although I will not go into that matter in great depth, especially bearing in mind your strictures. However, I have reached the conclusion that as the Mayor gets more and more powers to set the level of affordable housing, developers will become more and more wary about the number of houses that they build. In my constituency, I believe that too many one-bedroom flats and insufficient three-bedroom family houses have been built, but that should be a matter for Croydon council to decide.
My second conclusion about the planning and development powers in the Bill is that if the Mayor is to have an even greater say on major developments, the borough of Croydon, which has several major developments in the pipeline, will find that developers will bypass the council and go straight to the Mayor. That will create a weakness in the system and diminish the powers of the authority. My hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait) ably showed up the flaws in the Bill in her opening speech.
I am still not sure of the direction in which the Government want the GLA to go. The right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford), who cleverly took the 1999 Bill through the House—I was the Opposition spokesman at the time—said that there would not be a GLC mark II. However, it is looking increasingly like that. After 10 years of Labour, London has the only regional government that has got off the ground. Part of the motive was to give back a voice to the people of London, but a lot of it was to correct the imbalanceof devolution to Scotland and Wales and the embarrassment of the unanswered West Lothian question.
There is a hotch-potch of responsibilities at present. The Government do not want London to have the same sort of powers as Scotland and Wales, but they do not want power to go down to the boroughs. Let me pick up a point made by the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) when he intervened about what my former colleague Steve Norris has said. In a way, Steve Norris is right. The Mayor wants more powers. We should give powers to either the boroughs, or the Mayor, but we should not have a rag-bag in the middle with the powers divided. The right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich talked about the question of devolved powers or strategic powers. I do not think that the right balance has been achieved. The Bill misses many opportunities. Making the Mayor more accountable for his strategies should be at the heart of the Bill.
The assembly could effectively be reformed. Proportional representation has led to weaknesses in the way in which it operates. The assembly’s only serious power is the ability to veto the budget, but two thirds of assembly members are needed to do so. As the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington said, the Mayor can thus get his budget through the assembly by using a one third blocking minority, which is most of the Labour group and the odd Green—[Interruption.] A very odd Green. The combination of that blocking minority and proportional representation means that the Mayor is largely unfettered.
Although this is not my party’s policy, I have always favoured an assembly that represents the 33 London boroughs. Such an assembly would build better bridges with the boroughs than the existing structure. The GLA sits aloofly above the boroughs, looking down on them, which was also a weakness of the old GLC. I know that my proposal is not popular with the assembly. I do not intend to be critical, but I think that direct or indirect elections on a borough basis would improve relations. Accountability would also be improved, because assembly members would be elected by the people of the boroughs.
There is no way in which a Mayor who is out of control can be constrained. The leader of an authority can be removed by his group. The First Ministers of Scotland and Wales can be removed, as can Prime Ministers. However, even if every psychiatrist in Harley street declared the Mayor of London to be criminally insane, there would be absolutely nothing that anyone could do about it. One of the weaknesses of the Bill is the lack of provision for a recall petition, as it is called in the United States. Under such a system, an agreed number of signatures would result in a referendum on the status of the Mayor and his record would be put to the test.
There is a muddle of merging the powers of the executive and the legislature. Prime Ministers, First Ministers, MPs and councillors are all elected for a term of office in a legislature. However, if they move to the executive from the legislature, their roles in the executive are dependent on others. In countries in which the executive and the legislature are separate, checks and balances are installed in the system. For example, the mayor of New York can be removed by the Governor of New York, under certain criteria. The mayor of Paris can be removed by an Order in Council, under certain criteria. In my judgment, such a thing should be possible in London.
I am not sure what point the hon. Gentleman is making. The point is made that the ballot box provides accountability, and so it does, but I ask this quite genuinely: what happens if the Mayor goes bananas two years into his term of office, and sits there like some manic creature? That is a serious problem to consider, and powers ought to be put in the legislation to enable us to remove the Mayor, if we should want to do so.
We opposed the congestion charge when it was debated in Committee, but I recognise that things have moved on. We have to address the problem of congestion, and there are a number of ways of dealing with it: we could close the roads, physically limit the number of cars going into London, or introduce road pricing. However, we Opposition Members have to accept that the die is cast—contracts have been signed, all the equipment is in place, and the scheme is about to expand to west London in a few weeks’ time, so, in truth, there is no going back on it. Road pricing is to be introduced on motorways, too.
However, there is an important point to make. It is proposed that there should be a £25 charge for cars that emit a certain amount of CO2. I am glad we have moved away from making attacks on 4x4 cars, because plenty of cars with two-wheel drives emit more CO2 than many with four-wheel drives. Such exercises are not cases of joined-up government. Will the Mayor set the same CO2 emissions targets as, say, Richmond upon Thames council is to set, in order to restrict parking arrangements in Richmond? If cars are to be regulated according to their CO2 emissions, the matter should be dealt with nationally; otherwise, there will be a patchwork of restraint. The hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) made a point about Kennington earlier, in a devastating intervention on the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington. People on one side of Kennington might emit the same amount of CO2 as those the other side of Kennington, but on one side, a person will have to pay £25 to drive a car, and on the other side, it will be free. In truth, such a scheme would be nothing but gesture politics.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Hands) raised a point about consultation. A consultation was conducted on whether or not to extend the congestion charge zone to west London, and 70 or 80 per cent. of people said that they were against it. The Mayor then ignored that consultation, but the question is whether that is right. What is the point of spending public money on a consultation exercise if there is a cavalier disregard for it? Indeed, there was never any intention of acting on what was suggested in the consultation, and the Minister only holds consultations because he is obliged to do so under legislation. There is a simple remedy for that: we should insert a one-line clause, saying that he should have due regard to any consultation. That would oblige him to take account of the people of London. The legislation could be improved, and my party’s Front-Bench team are right to oppose it tonight. I wish my colleagues who are to serve on the Committee well in improving the Bill.
I shall be brief. Reference has been made to the fact that we used to have great London debates on policing, and it is true that whenever we discuss London, there is far more yah-boo and there are far more party political interventions than in other debates. I am slightly concerned, because really the issue is what we, collectively—particularly us London MPs, who are proud to represent the city—think is best for London, and how we think it should be governed. Difficult as it is, we should all start from the premise of deciding whether a measure is the right thing to do, whatever the politics of the Mayor. Sometimes, for us Labour Members, things are shaped by the fact that we have a Labour Mayor. Obviously, if there were a Conservative or a Liberal Democrat Mayor, which is highly unlikely, the chances are that some of us might think slightly differently about things.
I agree with a great deal of what is in the Bill, and given that we now have a Mayor, and given how the system works, I am happy for the Mayor to have certain powers. For example, he has been given powers on the museum of London. One of the most successful aspects of the Greater London council was its arts policy. The South Bank centre is in my constituency, and in theory it is run by the Arts Council and others, but it is actually an incredibly undemocratic body. The South Bank centre is one of London’s big, cultural centres, and I should have thought that if the Mayor is to have a cultural policy, he should have more involvement in that, so that it is not run by people who are not necessarily accountable in any way to anyone—certainly to no one in the local community.
My concerns about the Bill relate to its planning aspects, and many of the provisions may be changed, including perhaps the technical details, in Committee. However, the way in which we define “strategic” is of concern to me. That word can mean so many different things to different people. It is important that the Committee should have an absolute definition of what we mean by “strategic”, as has been promised by the Minister. If the Mayor himself decides what is strategic, most of the north of my constituency will presumably be seen as strategic, because it is along the river and is in central London. I do not see why the residents and the community in areas along the north of the river in my constituency should be treated any differently, in terms of their involvement in what will happen there, simply because their area has been defined as a strategic area of London.
Similarly, Waterloo station has been defined as an area in which it is likely that a cluster of tall buildings will be built, but an active local community lives there, and it must have some say in that. If there are to be bigger developments—I know that it will mean that there will be section 106 money, so we will get more affordable housing—it is crucial that we be clear about what we mean by “strategic”, and that we define it narrowly. The Mayor already has vast planning powers, and effectively those powers are not scrutinised. That is why I want to go back to the issue of transparency.
No matter how hard Greater London assembly members work, the membership does not have any teeth. It does not really have anything other than being able to say to the Mayor, “We don’t like this.” If the Mayor does not like what they say, he simply says, “Well, tough.” If the Mayor is to be the planning authority, we must be able to deal with him in the same way as we deal with other planning authorities. At the moment, when it comes to how we will deal with the strategic decisions—the Minister may be able to respond to this point in his closing remarks—the public will not be entitled to make direct representations; they will have to make them to their local authority. No doubt, it will almost always be the case that the officers of that local authority will pass on to the Mayor whatever they want to pass on, wrapped up in some kind of misleading report, as we often see that in planning committees. The public will not be able to speak, the decision will not be taken in a public arena, and the report on which the decision will be based will not be challengeable. The considerations that will accompany the report at the point at which the decision is made will not be known. That, to me, means that it is not transparent.
The decision-maker, although accountable every four years, is not accountable in the way we all think of accountability. That is not to say that that is wrong in running a big city such as London, but we must be aware that if that is the case, we have to build in some safeguards; otherwise, the public will not feel that the system is fair. The idea seems to be that we will take critical decisions about major developments in central London, on London’s future, without Londoners having direct access to those decisions. The Mayor’s decisions should be based on published reports, which are open to scrutiny. Unless we deal with that in Committee, there will be serious problems with the way in which the measure operates. Will the Minister confirm whether the Government still propose that the Mayor should be able to take over the handling of applications on which he has not made any public statements of support or opposition? It would be incredibly difficult for the Mayor to make a decision on any tall tower blocks in London, because he has repeatedly said that he wants to see tower blocks in different parts of the capital. In all honesty, how can he be seen to take an independent view if he has said such things?
Without wishing to do the Minister’s work for him, I suspect that the provision refers to specific rather than general statements of support or otherwise. The position is similar for local councillors, as they are barred from making representations on behalf of residents associations if they serve on a committee considering a development in their ward. I therefore suspect that the provision deals with specific claims by the Mayor in favour of a development rather than the general statements which, as the hon. Lady points out, he has made about tall buildings.
The hon. Gentleman may be right, or he may be wrong. The Minister nodded at him, but he did so, too, when I raised the matter, so perhaps he can clarify at the end of our debate. The Mayor is not someone who fails to speak his mind, so he must be incredibly careful if the provision is accepted in its present form. We need to see the details to make sure that the huge power at his disposal will be properly exercised. I can speak only from my constituency experience, but the Mayor is happy to meet developers. Those meetings are not minuted, as the participants do not necessarily sit round the table—it is sofa diplomacy—and I am not sure that that is right. He meets representatives of community groups, but it very much depends on whether they succeed in gaining his ear. The special attention given to developers should not mean that people in the local community are ignored or pushed aside. Ultimately, if London is to be a cohesive city and if people are to believe that they have influence on the major planning decisions that affect their lives, they must believe that they can become involved. Unless the provision is changed to make clear the circumstances in which the Mayor can intervene and override local opinion, and when he cannot do so, I fear that we will be in great difficulty.
The hon. Lady is making a compelling case, but does she agree that the increased uncertainty in the overall planning process could leave many residents who live close to controversial planning schemes at risk of blight for months or even years while disagreements between the Mayor and the local authority are resolved? The uncertainty about the Mayor’s attitude to major decisions could lead to more blight for residents.
That could happen, but it could be argued that by making an early intervention the Mayor could make a decision much more quickly.
Finally, in many local authorities, people who have lived in a community for many years may be affected by a development that has an impact on their general environment, yet section 106 applies not to that part of the borough but to another area, because it is the only place where affordable housing can be built. If the Mayor gets his hands on section 106, it is crucial that money is not taken away from boroughs such as mine that will be at the forefront of development, particularly along the river, and given to another part of London. That area may need affordable housing, but equally, such housing is needed by London overall. The relationship with local authority is crucial, and none of the proposals will work if the Mayor and local authorities fail to work together in a constructive manner.
Does my hon. Friend not agree that it is essential that section 106 money be spent in a reasonable period after the planning agreement is made? It should not sit in a borough or anyone else’s coffers for years on end, with no benefit for anyone at all, except the authority that receives the interest charges.
I agree absolutely, because that happens in all our boroughs. It is important, too, that section 106 money is paid up front much more quickly.
I am aware that other hon. Members wish to speak, so I shall conclude. I support the Bill, but I hope that the Minister will take into account the genuine concerns on both sides of the House about the difficulty of planning, which divides communities and, in many cases, political parties in those communities. Mayoral involvement must be handled extremely carefully and with a great deal of understanding of the importance of planning to local communities.
I am glad to be able to contribute to our debate on the Bill, and to raise the concerns of my constituents. I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey), who highlighted her concerns in a measured and carefully reasoned speech.
I was disappointed by the opening performance of the Minister for Housing and Planning, and by the speech of my near neighbour, the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford), as they both spoke as technocrats, without any passion or real interest in the views of the public locally—no “power to the people” on the Labour Benches. My hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait), on the other hand, achieved a much better balance, as she highlighted the needs of London residents. [Interruption.] The Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, the hon. Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Jim Fitzpatrick) may laugh—the debate will degenerate if he continues on that route—but my hon. Friend highlighted concerns about planning, as well as the importance of debating London issues. As the hon. Member for Vauxhall said, the debate must be conducted on a higher plain if we wish to try to look at the matter objectively, so Iwas disappointed by the partisan comments of the Minister.
Many people in the outer suburbs were not very happy with the original concept of the Mayor and the Greater London assembly but, as my hon. Friends have said, the caravan has moved on. Those original concerns focused on cost, bureaucracy and the number of additional staff that would be employed, and I am afraid that they have been realised. It was thought that the Mayor would not be concerned about the suburbs but with central London or zone 1. Unfortunately, that has largely come to pass. As we all accept, the Mayor and the GLA are here to stay. The Government want to move on, and give more powers and a greater remit to a regional authority. Why are those powers to be increased? Who will benefit, and what will the costs be? From my own perspective, I might ask: what have the Mayor and the GLA done for Bexley since 2000? The Mayor has not visited the area very often—I think that he has been to the borough only once in that period—and he always appears uninterested in the residents of outer London. Has Bexley benefited from the establishment of the GLA and the Mayor? We had at least one benefit—my hon. Friend who is now the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) was a superb GLA representative, who took up the issues in our area.
No. We have heard more than enough from the hon. Gentleman this evening. He read out pages of a speech and has made several interventions. Others want to make a contribution.
In our area we have had concerns about the work and the approach of Transport for London, and sometimes about the information that TFL has given us in various inquiries, which I shall come to later. Of course, there has been an increase in council tax. Residents of my area have had more to pay for the pleasure of having a Mayor and an assembly.
No. Time is short and I must make progress.
As I pointed out to the Minister in an intervention, we Conservatives believe in localism and increasing participation in democracy—getting people more involved. We hear a lot about that from the Government, but they do nothing to assist the process. Localism, in our case, is Bexley council. Many in my borough are pleased with their council, especially after the May elections, as we have a Conservative council back in power. Residents can go to their councillors, raise issues and get a hearing.
Indeed. If we are to increase participation and interest in local government, particularly among the young, we must make people feel that their views matter, and that when they have spoken, local politicians will act upon their suggestions and in their interest. My concern is that the more power we take away from the boroughs and give to the centre, the less participation, interest and involvement there will be. The Government say they intend to devolve power from the centre to the Mayor, but they are proposing to take powers from the boroughs and give it to the Mayor. Who will lose under the Government’s proposals? With the new powers in the Bill, the people of Bexley will lose, Bexley council and other councils will lose, and London will be disadvantaged as power moves to the centre.
Grave concern has been expressed from all parts of the House about housing and planning issues. There is great worry in our area that the new powers being given to the Mayor of London will allow him to overrule planning decisions, or direct decisions of strategic importance, against the wishes of the local planning committee and local people. We have had an example of that with the proposal to build the Thames Gateway bridge in our area, which the Mayor of London is very keen on. Locally, we are worried about environmental problems, transport and traffic through the borough, the emissions that that will cause, and so on. All political parties locally, community groups and residents groups have campaigned against the bridge. We have had a public inquiry, and I understand that the inspector’s report is on the Minister’s desk, awaiting a decision.
Through Bexley council and the public inquiry, people had the opportunity to raise their concerns. Ultimately, the strategic decision will be taken by the Government. We hope the Government will reject the proposal, which I passionately oppose. If the Bill is on the statute book, the Mayor will in future make such strategic decisions and we will have no say at all. We will have nobody to whom to appeal or put local views. That is a great worry to me, and to the majority of people who live in our area.
The hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) spoke about waste and recycling. I was disappointed by his partisan contribution. He did not mention that Bexley is the best performing London borough for recycling. In the past year we received a second beacon council award for waste management. I accept that his point of view—
No. As I said to the hon. Gentleman before, he has made many interventions and others want to speak.
We in Bexley take recycling and waste management seriously. We are looking to do better. We had a household recycling target of 41.6 per cent., which we achieved. That is pretty good news. Bexley is doing that without the need for the Mayor to direct us or dictate to us to do it. We are a beacon—an example—of how that can be done by a local council. It does not need a diktat from above.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham said, there are parts of the Bill that we want to scrutinise and improve because we are trying to be constructive. We do not intend to be destructive. We want to get the best for London and for all the residents of London, and we want to be able to debate the Bill in a rational and reasonable way. We do not want partisan nonsense. That is why I endorse the comments of the hon. Member for Vauxhall.
I shall not speak for too long, as others want to participate. The Mayor already has a considerable job to do on transport, crime, the Olympics—all subjects that should exercise his mind and occupy him more, perhaps, than they do. As we heard from colleagues, he tends to get distracted. In my area there is great concern about the Olympic levy. Pensioners, those on limited and fixed incomes, and those with young families are extremely worried. They are being asked to pay for an open-ended commitment, which the Mayor thinks will not be that much. He does not understand their concerns. Pensioners in particular are anxious and want the Mayor to reconsider.
Giving the Mayor more power and responsibilities will deflect him from what we think he should be doing better. The Bill could make matters worse for people in my constituency. Centralising power and taking it away from good local councils like mine, will not serve the interests of good government. We must examine the Bill seriously and objectively. I am sure that in Committee it will be well scrutinised by my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), who is on the Front Bench, listening and taking in all our comments. I believe that it is a mistake to expand the roles of the Mayor and the GLA, as the Bill does, because the consequences will be detrimental to democracy and good governance of London.
This is one of many debates that we have had over the years on London government. Since the 19th century there have been numerous debates about the demand for semi-autonomous local government in London, but there is a continuum, a thread, running through all of our history: every stage of the development of a centralised form of government in London has been opposed by the Tory party. The Tories opposed the establishment of the Metropolitan board of works. They opposed the establishment of the London county council. They opposed the establishment of the Greater London council. They had an aberration when they abolished the GLC, and we sat through hours of debate in the House while they destroyed a good form of government in London, which had much to commend it and achieved much for the people of London. Then they opposed the establishment of the current system of the London authority and the mayoralty. It is quite nice that we are proposing an extension of the Mayor’s powers, but the Tories are unchanged in 130 years and are opposing still. We congratulate them on their consistency.
In the interests of accuracy—perhaps the hon. Gentleman’s memory has failed him—may I remind him that the London Government Act 1963 was introduced by Sir Keith Joseph, who was a Minister in a Conservative Government? It is simply wrong to say that we have always opposed things.
The hon. Gentleman is right—but the Tories went on to abolish the GLC, because they did not like who was in charge at the time and what it was doing. That thread runs through the whole thing.
I will support the Bill this evening, although I have one or two reservations, which I hope will be seriously addressed in Committee, because we are dealing with the important issues of what London will be like in the future and how it will develop.
What I find slightly disturbing about the Bill is the large number of reserved powers held by the Secretary of State over London government. To an extent, there have always been reserved powers, but they are still considerable. If, for example, one reads through the clauses on housing, most of the proposals must be made by the Mayor to the Secretary of State before being put out to a form of consultation. I would be much happier if the Government showed far greater trust in the people of London to elect a London authority, which would then be able to do what it believed to be right for the people of London rather than having the Secretary of State hold all those reserved powers. The same degree of reserved powers do not apply in Scotland or Wales, and they were not envisaged in the regional proposals for London, either. That point needs to be considered.
Many hon. Members have already mentioned the housing needs of the people of London. We are in a massive housing crisis in London. My borough is a typical inner-city borough—it is crowded, densely populated, multicultural and multi-ethnic—and 80 per cent. of the population have no prospect whatsoever of being able to buy a property within it, unless they inherit money or win the lottery. The housing choices of those people are therefore limited to either getting on the council list and being nominated for a council or housing association place, or renting privately.
If people are put into private renting by the local authority, they find that they are forced to pay £200 or £300 a week—I have heard about rents of £400 a week—for houses or flats in my area. If the family is in housing need, most of that rent is paid for by housing benefit, so such people are terrified of getting a job, because then they would lose their housing benefit. We have created a perverse benefit trap through the shortage of social housing in London, and we must take seriously the housing needs of the people whom we have been elected to represent.
I shall give the House another example of the problems. The requirement to make a proportion of all housing sites available for social housing or council rented housing is very important. Until recently, my borough limited that requirement to new sites containing 14 units or more. Miraculously, all the building sites came in at 13 units, to make sure that the developers did not have to fulfil any social obligation whatever. The council has now reduced that figure to 10 units or more, which is a slight improvement. Nevertheless, a remarkable number of sites come in at eight or nine units in order to avoid the social obligation.
The result has been that in the past five years only 13 per cent. of all new developments in my borough have been for housing association social rented housing. In other words, 87 per cent. of all the new property has gone either to people who can afford to buy or, in some cases, to shared ownership schemes, which are “affordable”. Affordable for whom? If one looks at the prices, it is head teachers and above who can afford to buy into those places. We should end the use of the word “affordable” and start talking about the housing needs of people who are in a desperate situation.
I support any increase in housing powers for the Mayor. The Mayor should have the power to require development sites to be used for social housing or affordable rented housing, which should be provided by either the council or housing associations. That would enable us to start to tackle the desperate housing problem. If we do not tackle the problem, London will become more and more of a divided city. The city will be divided between people who are desperate enough, who have large enough families or sufficiently severe medical conditions, to be rehoused through the local authority system, those who are forced into private accommodation in which they can barely afford to stay, and those who are forced to leave London or move further away.
We will end up with a small number of poor people who live in social rented housing in inner London surrounded by people who are trying to pay huge mortgages in order to stay in the area, but who have much larger incomes. We are creating an increasingly divided city. I want to see really tough powers, to allow the Mayor to insist that 50 per cent. of all development sites, however small they may be, must be for those in desperate social housing need. We must be aware of that important issue.
Opposition Members have been going on about the problems of the developers. Developers in London are making shedloads of money out of the housing shortage. Those organisations are very rich, and the idea that a site should suddenly become “unviable” because we insist on meeting the needs of people who cannot afford to buy is simply unacceptable. It is up to us to do something about the housing crisis.
The hon. Gentleman and I share a similar view on this issue, which we have discussed many times over the years. I have always argued, locally and across London, for 50 per cent. of housing to be affordable. Looking ahead, is the hon. Gentleman worried that if we give the Mayor the power to dictate the percentage, and if there were a Mayor who did not take a generous view about affordable housing, local authorities might be forced to provide much less affordable housing than we need? I am nervous about giving all power to the Mayor on this issue, rather than giving equal power to local authorities. Policy could go in the wrong direction, rather than the right direction.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. He and I substantially agree on this issue. All power should be accountable, and there should be an appellate system against decisions; other hon. Members have intervened earlier on that point.
As for social housing, it could be written in statute that the Mayor must take account of housing needs and the size of the housing waiting list. I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point, which was well made, but we must hand over powers to make sure that social housing needs are adequately met.
I agree with my hon. Friend about the importance of a right of appeal on planning issues, particularly on major strategic projects. One problem with developers is that they often make the social housing element into small one-bedroom flats, which are shoeboxes. Does he agree that we must ensure that social housing incorporates housing for families?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The preponderance of very small units is unfortunate. The former Arsenal stadium is now being developed for private housing in the form of 711 one-bedroom flats, which are no good whatsoever for the needs of the community, the family or anybody else. Most of the social housing units in the overall Arsenal development have a wonderful view of the refuse transfer station rather than the stadium, whereas the private housing has the view of the stadium and the cachet that goes with it.
My hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) mentioned section 106 money, which involves the creation of a wealthy ghetto in order to export the social housing somewhere else.
Would the hon. Gentleman concede that one of the problems with unnecessarily creating so many one-bedroom units has been the remoteness of nationally or regionally set targets, and that it would be better for those decisions to be made at a local level, where there is clearly a serious shortage of family housing?
The decision on the 700-odd one-bedroom flats in my constituency was made entirely locally by the Liberal Democrat council. That was a disgrace, and unfortunately the decision was not called in.
The powers of the Mayor over the London housing board and the Housing Corporation are very important. My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Slaughter) mentioned the behaviour of the Peabody Trust in selling large numbers of vacant properties. It is outrageous that housing associations should sell any vacant properties. We have a housing crisis in London. It is not the function of housing associations to sell off vacant property to the highest bidder at a time when people are living in hostel accommodation or in unsatisfactory rented accommodation, and children are growing up in grossly overcrowded circumstances, with the problems that that creates for everyone in our society. I hope that in Committee the Bill can be strengthened in respect of housing.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) about waste management and waste disposal. I do not understand why we cannot think this through. Waste collection is an obvious thing for a local authority to do. Some of them do it well while some do it less well, and some are very keen on recycling while others are less keen—but overall London’s record on waste disposal is not good. For a long time, we tipped an awful lot of refuse into the North sea. We filled up every piece of landfill that we could find all over London and the south-east. There is even the idea of exporting waste abroad.
We must be serious about recycling: first, by reducing the amount of waste that we create; secondly, by having serious recycling methods and targets; and thirdly, by ensuring that the whole thing is properly run. This should be an ideal opportunity for a London authority, under the Mayor and the GLA, to take over waste disposal so that we have imaginative ways of dealing with it. For example, the creation of gas from waste and composting systems are both eminently possible. I understand why the Minister said earlier that she did not want to disrupt the existing process; that is a reasonable consideration. However, we do not have a reasonable situation, given the pathetically low rates of recycling across London, and now we have a legislative opportunity to do something about it.
We have achieved a lot in London over the past few years in improvements to public transport. It was not the Mayor’s fault that the public-private partnership was introduced; he fought against it strongly. We have to give enormous credit to Ken Livingstone as Mayor for the huge improvements that have taken place in bus services, the accessibility of bus services, and the reduction in car use through the congestion charge. We are the only major city in the world where car usage is going down and bus usage, and public transport usage as a whole, is going up. That is something that we can be very proud of.
We have the opportunity to make London an even better city than it is, but we have to address the social inequalities. There is enormous poverty and need, and it is up to us to create a structure of government in London that gives elected officials the ability to deal with those problems. That is why more, not fewer, powers need to be given to the people of London, and why we particularly need to address the desperate need for housing for people who are growing up in awful conditions that are unacceptable, unnecessary and unsatisfactory in the 21st century.
I was a London assembly member for five years, along with five other colleagues in the House who are, or were, assembly members. I stood shoulder to shoulder with Mayor Livingstone in favour of the first tranche of the congestion charge and against the Government on the public-private partnership. On the day after we were first elected to the GLA, he came into the room where we were meeting to have a chat. There was much bonhomie and a lot of hope in those early days, but even then the Mayor struck a note of warning when he said, “There’s only one vote, and it’s mine.” That it was, and it has continued in that way—and the Bill extends his vote even further. In those days, the Mayor could only direct refusal. Since then, the mayoral nose has been poked into several places where it was not needed, not wanted or, more importantly, not strategic. His power was meant to be used only for strategic sites, strategic sizes of building or strategic locations. Decisions were made against the wishes of local people and of the local planning authority and were often overturned on appeal. I could not agree more with the remarks of the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey), who is no longer in her place.
Although I agreed with the Mayor on congestion charging and against the PPP, he is not perfect in every way. I am worried about the planning changes proposed in part 7. I might have more confidence in the extension of his powers in relation to strategic planning decisions if it were at least to be done with proper scrutiny. In the London assembly, members frequently raised the issue of the Mayor meeting developers in private. Who knows what went on behind closed doors and what influence they were able to bring to bear? It was not right then, and there is no clarity about the proposed decision-making process to assuage my concern about it now. As many right hon. and hon. Members have said, the definition of “strategic” is very important as we try to support what we can of the Bill.
In my constituency, as in that of the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn), we are desperately short of housing. Hornsey and Wood Green is no different from Islington, North in that respect. There is a dichotomy as regards not only the way in which the Mayor’s powers are used but the way in which his influence is used. Developers already use every word in favour of their development that falls from his mouth; they go to him to gain credibility. Their developments are not always about providing social or affordable housing—more often than not they are luxury housing crammed into tiny spaces between gardens, and the Mayor’s name should never be mentioned in relation to them. In cases in my constituency that have gone to appeal, fancy lawyers have used the Mayor’s words or letters of support to get legitimate decisions of the local authority overturned. What the Mayor wants might be different from what he should have. In development control, there needs to be clear and consistent separation of those formulating planning strategies and those who make decisions on the ground, unless exceptional and defined circumstances arise. That is a genuine worry.
Extending the Mayor’s powers to direct determination and approval of planning applications represents the removal of powers from local authorities upwards. It undermines not only local involvement but the role that the public are allowed to play in discussions about planning decisions. I was pleased that the Minister said that the Government are now moving at least towards consideration after the local authority has made an initial determination, but what role will local people play when the Mayor makes the determination? It is vital that local people have a role.
In my constituency, we have already felt the Mayor’s heavy hand on a range of planning applications. Although we are desperate for social and affordable housing, some of the ugly and hostile tower blocks that get planning approval are unacceptable for human habitation. The Mayor’s response to those who fight for their local area, sustainable development and infrastructure—schools, transport and health facilities that match the increased density—is schoolboy name calling.
I gave evidence relatively recently to yet another planning inquiry—the third since I became a Member of Parliament—into another thoughtless, ugly and anonymous block. In just over a year and a half, I have participated in three such inquiries. The crux of the matter is that if those developments were well designed, attractive, with proper space, somewhere for children to play and proper health, education and transport facilities, they would not run into the hail of protest that regularly greets such proposals. They would not blight the environment or the aspirations of those who will live there for decades to come.
We desperately need housing, but most of the worst housing is thrust on the most deprived areas and we do not need built-in deprivation for the future. People come to my surgery crying because they live in overcrowded conditions or because a bedroom of 8 ft by 6 ft, which is the minimum standard—developers appear always to go for the minimum standard in social housing—was fine for a baby but what was to be done when the baby became a hulking great teenage boy? He could not do his homework in the room and hung out in the street instead. One thus builds in future problems and it is no use alleviating the present pressure in boroughs or constituencies such as Hornsey and Wood Green if one simply stores up problems for the future.
I am sure that any hon. Member who has a constituency like mine will recognise and understand the problems that I have outlined. My fear is that the Mayor will be torn between delivering his London plan, which is vital for London, and the experience on the ground. My experience so far of the Mayor’s interference is that he rides roughshod over local decisions and that the promised infrastructure—schools, health facilities and transport—does not arrive. The promises remain warm words. Without the infrastructure, there is a lack of social cohesion. When people scrabble over scarce public resources and battles take place about the entitlement of the already-heres against the needs of newcomers, all sorts of problems arise between people. We fear that from the Mayor’s decision making when he has no grasp of the local position.
The hon. Gentleman is wrong. I am trying to support the Bill, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) said, we do not support the planning provisions and we will try to amend them in Committee. I am discussing genuine problems in Hornsey and Wood Green. It is easy for the hon. Member for Islington, North to laugh but I am trying to deal with real people who come to my surgery with genuine problems. It is not even a political matter for me; it is about the human condition and human need.
I am in the slightly strange position of having tried to be the Mayor but none the less representing City hall and all who work in it because they are in my constituency. My hon. Friend is right that there is a strategic case for more powers coming from the Government to London, but there are genuine fears in my borough, as in hers, that a partisan Mayor makes partisan decisions and punishes people who do not support him in borough X or borough Y. That is the first problem. Secondly, if one overrides local decisions about the location of the required housing, what would motivate people to be councillors and active citizens when, at the end of the day, all the activity simply results in someone saying, “I’m sorry but we’re going to overturn the decision and the housing will go where we want it, not where you as a community decide that you have to put it to meet your needs”?
Of course, my hon. Friend is right. I am trying to say that ordinary people suffer the consequences of lowest common denominator development. Neither the developer nor the Mayor has to live in those little boxes or suffer the pressures that they create. The Committee might therefore consider introducing a developer’s report card, which would be published. Tenants of buildings with a mayoral granting of application could be interviewed one, two, five and 10 years after they had moved in. The scores that they gave could be published and considered when determining whether that developer’s applications should be granted in future.
In a review of the Mayor’s positive directions, let us examine whether conditions attached to developments that get the go-ahead are enforced. When permission is given, or when local wishes are overturned on appeal—possibly with the Mayor’s name used in vain to support the application—the council must enforce a decision on an application that it originally rejected. It might be better if Mayor Livingstone were responsible for the enforcement and its costs, not the council—in the case of Hornsey and Wood Green, a Labour council. It is not therefore a partisan matter; the Mayor has no such regrets about overturning decisions when it suits.
Let us have a right of appeal for ordinary people. Such safeguards might be of real use in ensuring that developers cannot get away with the worst possible conditions and the Mayor cannot run roughshod over local concerns without any consequences. When conditions are attached at mayoral level, the Mayor should be responsible for dealing with them and subject to punitive arrangements if he does not do so.
There is already a presumption in favour of development, and poor old local people have the deck stacked against them. Unless qualifying criteria hold the Mayor in check, the proposal could make the position worse. Developers will always seek to maximise their profits and the number of units for which they apply. That, along with pressure from the London Mayor in relation to the London plan and Government policy, makes it hard for local authorities to stand up for local people. Unless hundreds of people are involved in a campaign, it is hard to reject an application.
The hon. Lady is making an impassioned speech, but if she feels so strongly about such a huge issue, will not she back up her words on behalf of her constituents with action and join us in the Lobby to make a real point and force the Government to listen?
We are in favour of devolution, but I am arguing for better devolution. The breadth of the Bill, and the intention behind it, is correct. If I cannot argue passionately that one element of the Bill needs to be changed in Committee, what is the point of debate? I will not join the hon. Lady in the Lobby. I am trying to make my remarks brief, but not succeeding.
As the hon. Member for Islington, North said—or perhaps the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore), I cannot quite remember—it is always the most deprived areas that get dumped on the most. The people who live in those areas do not have the same ability to fight or to hire advice as the articulate middle classes, who are much more able to withstand the ravages of the Mayor. In those areas, we see badly designed, cramped, mainly single aspect flats opening on to internal corridors and overlooking each other.
I have nothing against appropriate increased density if the buildings are designed well, the space is adequate and the infrastructure can support the increased numbers—God knows, Hornsey and Wood Green is desperate for housing. However, experience has taught me that the reality is often a far cry from the promises made and conditions imposed under the section 106 agreement, to which the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) referred, on development for local people.
If the Bill is to progress, absolute safeguards will be needed on standards of provision for local people, not just promises and warm words. No development should take place unless proper transport, school places and health facilities are provided. A promise that never arrives is not good enough. Without such safeguards, pressure and tensions will build up as people are piled on top of each other. That will result not only in crime and disorder, antisocial behaviour and failure at school, but built-in life deprivation. In Committee, the Liberal Democrats will try hard to persuade the Government to introduce safeguards.
I have enjoyed the debate, and I do not want to denigrate earlier speakers, but as I listened I could not help but think—as an old hand—how much wittier and more informed it would have been if our old friend Tony Banks had been able to contribute, with his great knowledge of the subject.
Let me say a word about the contributions from the Opposition. Leading for the Conservatives, the hon. Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait) called for more accountability and transparency; but—again, as an old hand—I well remember that when the Tories were in power there were more quangos, and less and less democratic accountability. Local government was shackled. The Tories even abolished the Greater London council, and where they replaced its roles they were performed by quangos.
As for the Liberal Democrats, we heard a very righteous speech from the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake), but it boiled down to “We will vote for the Bill on Second Reading, but we are likely to vote against it at a later stage”. How typical of the Liberal Democrats to wait for a later stage, when they can say “We supported it” or, if it suits them, “We opposed it”. The speeches of the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats showed that they had one thing in common.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the purpose of a Committee stage is to try to improve the Bill? That is what the Liberal Democrats, and presumably he, will seek to achieve, and one of the improvements will clearly be the introduction of substantial changes to the planning proposals.
That is an example of the Liberal Democrats having something in common with the Conservatives. The Liberal Democrats spoke of—in the hon. Gentleman’s words—the status quo: they favour the negative power that the Mayor already has. Despite the fine words of the hon. Gentleman’s colleague, the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone), who talked of the Mayor’s heavy hand intervening in planning matters in her constituency, she supports the status quo, which already gives him that power. It was a great inconsistency on her part.
Along with the Tories, the Liberal Democrats are supporting a deception of families in overcrowded housing in London. More than 150,000 households are in that position, and 62,000 are in temporary accommodation. By putting a block on the Mayor’s ability to go for the strategic approach and provide much more affordable housing, Opposition Members are damaging those people’s prospects of obtaining the housing that they need so much. That is the commonality between the Liberal Democrats and the Tories on this Bill.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way again. May I point out to him first that my local authority, which is controlled by the Liberal Democrats, is meeting the Mayor’s housing targets, and secondly that the effect of the Mayor’s intervention in my constituency has been to delay the provision of affordable housing rather than speed it up?
I am talking about the effect across London, not just in an individual borough. The point of the Bill is for the Mayor to speed up the provision of affordable housing, and to provide more of it. By putting a brake on that, Opposition Members are damaging those families in overcrowded conditions.
I know that the Bill is about the mayoralty and the Mayor’s role as an institution, but there have been some derogatory comments about the Mayor himself. The hon. Member for Croydon, South (Richard Ottaway), for instance, talked of the Mayor’s Venezuelan connection. The truth is, though, that the Mayor has a real record of achievement in London. He was very brave to introduce the congestion charge. There may still be congestion problems in London, but on the whole the charge is deemed to be a success. The Mayor has also invested a large amount in public transport and policing in London, which has benefited Londoners. I wanted to pick up those references to him as an individual, although I know we are talking about an institution.
Although the Bill gives the Mayor more powers, they are fairly limited in many ways, and some of them are also quite weak. There are quite a lot of checks, one of which is in the parallel Bill, the Further Education and Training Bill. We discussed that yesterday in the Work and Pensions Committee, as the hon. Member for Putney (Justine Greening) said in an intervention. I have to say that the Learning and Skills Council has not been effective in upgrading the skills of Londoners and in meeting job market demands. Also, who is the LSC accountable to? It is better that it comes within the ambit of the Mayor. He will have an overall role—although a weak one—in bringing it together with bodies such as Jobcentre Plus, but he will not have what is needed: some carrots and sticks, for example to make employers do their job properly in respect of improving training. That is an example of a better power for the Mayor, but one that remains quite weak.
There are also the housing and planning functions; I want to discuss planning in particular. There are the waste management functions as well. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore), and with other interventions including by my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn), that they are not really good enough for London in the current circumstances as there is a need to have much improved waste management. It is stated that other authorities will have to have a “general conformity” with the Mayor’s waste management strategy. What is a “general conformity”? Does that mean that they can ignore it if they wish? That is not good enough. There should be a control over disposal, and I favour a strategic waste management authority for London as a whole, under the Mayor.
One of the climate change powers is a duty to try to reduce carbon emissions. That is incredibly important, but just how far does it run? I hope that it runs a long way and that the Bill contains a lot of such powers for the Mayor, but I doubt that very much. I suggest that the Liberal Democrats and other Members explore that matter in Committee.
Reducing health inequalities and improving public health is an important role. The Mayor will appoint the regional public health director for London, but, again, the powers are quite weak as all the myriad authorities and health trusts will actually have control—and all of them will have their own public health authorities as well. The Mayor can play an important role on health, but I think that he will only really make an impact at the margins.
The museum of London role is also important, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) said, the Mayor should play a much bigger role in terms of arts and culture in London. That takes us back to Tony Banks, who made a big impact when he played that role for Londoners.
However, I want to talk about housing and planning in particular. Affordable housing is at the heart of this proposed legislation, and that is why I support it. I mentioned that there are a lot of people living in overcrowded and temporary homes, yet we will have population growth of 800,000 over the next 10 years so there is a great need to get on with building houses for families and others who need them. We must, however, be careful when we go on a big housing drive. We must not forget the need for quality—the properties that are built must be of good quality—and nor must we forget that London depends very much on its green spaces. If people are to have a decent environment to live in, the green spaces in many areas must be protected. Such considerations must be the counter to just pushing ahead—to the market approach to housing. They must be built into the plans as well.
That leads me on to the Mayor’s role in strategic planning. I note that he will not get involved in most local applications; I think that it has been said that 99 per cent. will still be dealt with at local level. However, he will be able to call in strategic applications. Although I support that, I do not think that this system is appropriate overall. We should be looking for a different sort of system. Last week, I visited New Zealand with the Work and Pensions Committee, and I had the opportunity to have a cup of tea with Mrs. Daphne Steele, a great environmental campaigner in New Zealand who has been awarded a medal for her activities there. She told me about the environmental court system that New Zealand uses, which I found very interesting. She took certain major strategic planning applications to that court, and when the environment was taken into account in a fuller way by neutral judges—or by judges with a concern for the environment, at least—she won the day. Given the problems associated with climate change, there is a very real case for putting such major planning applications before an environmental court.
An environmental court should be combined with a system of prior notification. It is clear that not all such applications should go before an environmental court, but it should be signalled that an application deemed of great environmental importance could go before such a court at the beginning of the process, if sufficient objections on environmental grounds were raised.
Where the Mayor or the Government say that a particular application is in London’s or the national interest, what is the point of going through a long and arduous planning process? The planning inspector found against the Oxford immigration centre planning application, for example, but the Deputy Prime Minister stepped in and said that it was in the national interest. Why do we have that process for deciding on such an application, given that the decision is based in the first place on whether it is in the national interest or the London interest? In such cases, an environmental court could consider what the major mitigating environmental factors are, and a system of prior notification could be used.
The hon. Gentleman knows that I am very sympathetic to many of the things that he is saying, but the difficulty is that the judgments about national and regional interest are subjective ones. Rotherhithe has just had a great battle with the Secretary of State over a small planning application that went to inquiry. The inspector recommended that the local authority view be supported, but the Secretary of State has ignored that and supported the developer, presumably because she thinks that it is more than just a local matter. However, we are talking about a very small site that is not in a metropolitan centre. People fear that in such a case, a different judgment is applied and a perceived regional or national interest is imposed, when in fact, it should be an entirely local matter.
I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, but in the few cases where the Government make it absolutely clear that a particular project is in the national interest, the rest of the existing planning process is irrelevant and costly. It should be shaped and modified according to our response to that national interest, and in the light of other issues.
Is not the answer to the point madeby the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) that, under the current arrangements, there are no criteria governing the Secretary of State’s decision as to whether a particular project can or cannot be called in? However, bearing in mind what my hon. Friend the Minister said when she introduced the debate, we will have very clear criteria governing what is and is not a strategic issue from the Mayor’s point of view.
I agree with that point, which dovetails with my own about early prior notification.
I would not say that an environmental court is an idea whose time has come, because it has not—we are considering something else—but it should be borne in mind for the future. It would give third-party objections the right of appeal in the most serious cases in environmental terms, and the environment would have to be taken properly into account.
I want to make two other brief points. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall that, in the main, section 106 money should go to areas in which development is taking place. However, getting section 106 money in the first place is an issue in itself. Given the push for affordable housing, approval for such housing could well be given at a local or mayoral level without the section 106 money that is so needed for the infrastructure being provided. I was not really convinced by the answer my hon. Friend the Minister gave from the Dispatch Box when I raised that point. She said that we had to balance affordable housing and infrastructure. We cannot have affordable housing without infrastructure; when that happens, developers just suck up the profits that should return to the community. We shall look closely at the guidelines my hon. Friend produces, but I impress on her the need to maximise the section 106 money and put it back into communities.
My last point is about the London plan, which will be extremely important under the proposed arrangements. I know that it was put out for consultation, but it was done in a weak way. The consultation was not even as thorough as that for statutory district plans, yet the London plan will be of much greater importance. The consultation process for the plan should be strengthened and should include hearings on the most important issues both in London areas and in London as a whole. Londoners should have the chance to challenge aspects of the plan, perhaps before an independent judge of such matters—perhaps even an environmental judge. The plan will have greater importance as the measure progresses, and there may even be a case for making the plan statutory, so that such factors can be built into it. However, none of that should detract from the provision of the affordable housing that Londoners very much need and want to be facilitated.
Many Members are still waiting to speak, so I shall be brief.
I begin with housing. I know from my surgery cases that more housing is vital, and I agree with Members on both sides of the House on that point. I shall certainly not argue against more housing, but it should be quality housing that people can afford and that they want to live in, rather than shoe boxes built where nobody wants to live.
I do not intend to be detrimental to the current mayoral incumbent. Instead, I congratulate the London borough of Redbridge, which the Mayor recognises is doing a wonderful job, because he gave it an award for its housing and regeneration programme. I know that because he presented it to me when I was the cabinet member responsible.
Housing cannot be built without the necessary infrastructure. Not long ago, at Prime Minister’s questions, I asked the right hon. Gentleman whether the Government would fully fund the new primary schools needed to support the housing requirements of the London borough of Redbridge. Unfortunately, I received no assurances, but I am delighted to tell colleagues that we shall be building two new primary schools to meet the needs of children in the borough over the next two years, and that there will be a new secondary school by 2010.
The people best placed to make planning decisions are democratically elected local councillors—not the Mayor and not central Government, but people who know the communities best and live in them. We should give them more power, not less. In my constituency, planning applications are often turned down locally but then approved nationally. That process benefits nobody. It is truly ridiculous and does not meet housing requirements or the needs of my constituents. The situation cannot continue.
On health, part of the Mayor’s powers under the Bill would be to stop inequalities. I hope that one such measure will be to stop cuts at the hospitals serving my constituency and, indeed, those of the hon. Members for Leyton and Wanstead (Harry Cohen) and for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes). The proposed cuts will create more inequalities, not less. Those cuts must be opposed and I trust that whoever is incumbent in the Mayor’s post will oppose them.
As someone who commutes daily to and from my constituency, what can I say about Transport for London? Having to stand on trains in travelling conditions that we would not legally allow for animals is unacceptable. That is why people are leaving London. Such travelling conditions and the stress that they cause are unacceptable. Before more powers are given to Transport for London, perhaps it should look after and exercise its existing ones better. I do not believe that it is doing that.
I was not in the House when the Bill that dealt with the congestion charge was debated and went through, but if the money was truly invested in better quality transport, perhaps there would be less resistance to it. That is not happening. If we look at transport problems that have affected the underground network over the last few weeks, it is not a question of if or when there will be problems: there are problems on it every minute of every day. That is not fair to my constituents or any London constituents.
This is a great city and I am proud to be the Member of Parliament representing the constituency of Ilford, North. I believe that London is a city that can go from strength to strength and deserves to do so. I do not oppose many aspects of the Bill, but I will vote against it. I hope that it can be rectified in Committee to make it a Bill that the people of London deserve.
I, too, shall endeavour to be brief. To my mind, the Bill is disappointing. I regret having to say that because, as the Minister knows, I have been involved in London politics for a long time. We had an opportunity to enhance greatly the delivery of services for residents of London, but, in a number of ways, the Government have missed it.
First, the Government have not been bold enough at the strategic level. They have failed to achieve optimum accountability and transparency in terms of the delivery of services in the skills sector and in health. An enormous democratic deficit still remains in relation to health and skills in London, which the Government have not dealt with.
Secondly, the Government have remained wedded to a national template for the Government office for London, but that is not necessary. If there is a devolved system in London, it is not necessary for the Government office to take the same form as those elsewhere that currently administer some 30 schemes, worth many millions of pounds. I say that with no personal disrespect to the Minister, but the fact is that we have devolution, so we should follow its logic through and hand more powers from central Government down to Londoners, whether it be to the Mayor, the functional bodies or, indeed, in some cases, the London boroughs. The Government have, I am afraid, ducked that issue.
The Bill fails at the strategic level and, to make it worse, instead of giving the Mayor more strategic power, it takes power away from the boroughs in respect of important matters such as planning. My constituents in Bromley, an outer London borough, already find that the Mayor seeks to impose on them a one-size-fits-all planning policy. Planning policies and planning densities that are appropriate in inner London and even in suburban town centres are not appropriate in established residential suburbs, but the Mayor seeks to drive them through regardless. The Mayor, I am afraid, has not been a good advocate for giving his own office more powers. Perhaps it is his own erratic behaviour that has caused the Government to duck following the logic of their own devolution position. If that is the case, it is regrettable. It leaves my constituents with less service delivery, which is subject to less transparency, but with more burdens placed upon them.
The third failure is the lack of balance within the Greater London authority. Let us consider the following:
“We will create a single powerful figure in a way that is completely alien to all the normal practices of British politics… My worry has always been that we will create a post into which someone can be locked for four years with very few checks and balances.”
I suspect that the Minister is familiar with the quote, which comes from the current Mayor of London when he was a Member of the House. What he said has been proved right. The Mayor has changed his mind, of course, but he has changed it on so many things that it does not greatly surprise us. He was right the first time, which means that when the Mayor gets more powers, the London assembly should get more powers to hold him to account.
It cannot be right that we will have a one-man planning authority who will deal—with respect to the righthon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford)—not only with strategic plans but with individual applications. That is a thoroughly undesirable state of affairs on any view. It should be written into the Bill, not dependent on the concession of the Mayor, that that should not happen. The assembly should have a role before the Mayor comes to a decision.
It cannot be right either that some 10 pages of the Bill are taken up with what should be the simple proposition that the assembly should be able to set its own budget. There must be a better and easier way to deal with that. Finally, the assembly should have the power to amend the Mayor’s strategies. The Deputy Prime Minister, when the original legislation was considered, recognised that the assembly should have that power, but he shied away from it before it became law. That was an error, but there is time to put it right. That would be an opportunity to rebalance the system in London advantageously.
I am sorry to have to raise those points so briefly. The Minister and I are used to disappointments because we have seen so many at Upton Park recently, but in Committee he has the chance to become the Alan Curbishley of the Bill and save something from the wreckage by improving accountability and balance.
In the midst of considering an essentially parochial set of priorities for our capital, we should remind ourselves of a few more general considerations. First and foremost, London is a global city, an attribute that all of us London Members love greatly. Its outstanding success has been based on its unique diversity—a rich mix of people, innovation and energy, which has served London so well over the 2,000 years since its foundation.
The overall strength and well-being of England and the UK depends on London’s continued success. The strength of which I speak is not confined to the economic sphere: London is also a creative, cultural, administrative and political capital. London’s success is plain to see. With one eighth of the UK’s population, London contributes roughly one fifth of our GDP. In the course of this decade, 40 per cent. of the UK’s crucial export growth has been fuelled from London. It is estimated that some £20 billion of tax paid by Londoners every year is used to subsidise public spending in other parts of the country. London also leads the way in the all-important area of productivity, which has increased by some 27 per cent. in this decade.
Given that roll call of London’s contemporary achievements, one might ask whether and why the capital needs more government at all. In my view, London’s future prosperity can be assured only if our capital city remains a cradle for capitalism. Indeed, I would contend that the reason that Londoners have these past six years been able to tolerate Ken Livingstone—a maverick Mayor who has shown himself incapable of efficient, competent administration—is that he has so few effective powers. As a result, the damage that he has been able to inflict upon London’s engine of economic growth has been thankfully limited.
In the midst of this debate about the Mayor’s powers, I am keenly aware that one cannot dismiss the importance of the office simply because of the incompetence and financial ignorance of its incumbent. To do so would be making the same mistake as the Government made at the outset. That serious role requires some serious powers and one day—I hope it will be sooner rather than later, for the financial welfare of all Londoners—Mr. Livingstone will no longer be in office. The London Mayor will then cease to be a quasi-independent, celebrity figure, but instead someone with the capacity and integrity to be a first rate public administrator, making the case for London to Government as well as promoting London’s global importance on the international stage, alongside other truly global cities such as New York, Beijing, Tokyo, New Delhi and Hong Kong.
I have been lobbied by several local residents groups, including the Knightsbridge Association and Paddington Residents Active Concern on Transport, about the strategic dimension that this devolution brings in to play. Those groups feel that the present system allows decisions to be taken openly in the full knowledge of the local context. While no one would deny that a case can be made for a wider range of planning applications to be treated as genuinely strategic and left for referral to the Mayor, it is not clear how such a referral would be made. Above all, the Mayor, whoever it is, should not be given carte blanche in the matter.
Frankly, no London Mayor is likely to have the depth of intimate local knowledge that would justify his interfering in planning applications refused by local councils, yet the proposal is that he be given more power to reverse a locally made decision. Furthermore, the notion that any Mayor should be able to direct boroughs to amend their local development schemes surely runs counter to the very devolutionary principles on which the Bill is supposed to be based.
I am also very much opposed to the idea of the Mayor of London being a signatory to section 106 agreements so that they can be treated as a potential source of revenue for housing or improved transport schemes. The purpose of a section 106 agreement is to provide ring-fenced benefits to offset the disadvantages that a development might bring to its immediate neighbourhood.
I accept that controversy already surrounds section 106 agreements, even under the present scheme, but it has always been easier to make the case for them when local councillors are able to identify specific projects to enhance a locality that is plainly losing out as a result of a development. Handing that power to the Mayor of London will mean that section 106 agreements will be regarded as no more than an additional development tax, and that in turn can only further corrupt, in the eyes of the general public, the transparency and openness of planning decision making.
I also fear that, given his track record, the Mayor’s intentions in planning matters are not likely to be limited to strategic issues. Paradoxically, the potential grandstanding that the Bill will make possible is likely to add a further layer of bureaucracy, complexity and delay to the planning process, at precisely the time when the Government want to streamline it. I very much agree with Sir Simon Milton, the leader of Westminster city council, who has asserted that the number of cases in which the Mayor needs to intervene should be minimised.
It is easy to see how developers and other interested parties might use the Mayor as an additional means of delay and a way to mess up the system further. If we are to make improvements in housing and focus on our targets, we need to minimise the potential new layer of bureaucracy.
Finally, I want to stress the importance of maintaining our heritage. London is a very exciting city, full of hope, passion and vision for the future. We need to encourage exciting new development, but my constituency has some of London’s best known listed buildings and most important heritage. In contrast, the Mayor’s stance has been unashamedly pro-development, and he prides himself on his tall buildings strategy.
As I mentioned earlier, the Government’s consultation papers on the Mayor’s powers list some 25 examples of strategic planning applications that would have benefited from positive mayoral planning powers. I strongly oppose the provision that would make the Mayor responsible for listed building and conservation area consent. As I said, I suspect that my constituency contains more listed buildings than any other in the UK. I do not want to defend a nimby charter: one has only to look at the superbly designed new buildings that have gone up in central London over the past decade to see that a balance can be struck between protecting heritage and encouraging innovation. Local borough politicians have been getting that right in recent years, and I hope that we will let them get on with the job.