Order for Second Reading read.
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
The Bill will make the Government more responsive to an issue that arouses genuine passion and concern—the problem of community decline in Britain. It will push the Government to go further in giving real power to local authorities and the people whom they serve. That is the only path to delivering sustainable communities that will stand the test of time.
The Bill is tenacious—in various forms, it has fought for life for more than five years. It is therefore right to start by paying tribute to the work of hon. Members who sponsored and supported its previous incarnations. I am thinking in particular of the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Julia Goldsworthy) of the Liberal Democrats, the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) of the Labour party and my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker), who is sitting alongside me.
I also wish to place on record my respect for the campaign group, Local Works, which has built and held together an extraordinary coalition to support the Bill. The breadth of that coalition is amazing. Any Bill that unites the Campaign for Real Ale and the National Federation of Women’s Institutes must be worth considering. The Bill’s principles unite 72 other national organisations, 300 local organisations, 1,000 parish councils, nearly 100 local authorities, the Conservative party, the Liberal Democrats and last, but by no means least, 170 Labour Members of Parliament who signed early-day motion 641 in the previous Session. I am told that, since then, the proportion of Labour Members of Parliament who have expressed support for the principles of the Bill has risen to more than 50 per cent. Out of respect for the strong cross-party support for the measure, I weighted the list of sponsors to reflect the balance of hon. Members in the House.
A sensible Minister would consider seriously any Bill that can forge such consensus, and I believe that we are dealing today with a sensible Minister—the Minister for Local Government. Time will tell. He should be encouraged to resist the predictable frogs’ chorus of opposition from Department officials suffering from not-invented-here syndrome. He should be in no doubt about the chord that the measure and the principles behind it has struck with the public we serve. Twenty thousand people have signed up to the Local Works campaign. Hon. Members who have taken part in the more than 70 public meetings throughout the country will testify that they have been packed and vociferous in their support for the measure.
What drives the rainbow coalition? It is common concern about what appears to be remorseless community decline in Britain and what that means for quality of life. The decline is well documented, not least through the incisive work of the New Economics Foundation and the all-party group on small shops. It is driven by the loss of key local services—often the hubs of the community. The statistics are stark. In the past decade, we have lost a fifth of our post office network, a quarter of our local grocery stores, a quarter of our bank branch network and more than 30,000 independent community retailers—the people who can often brighten our day with their enthusiasm and passion for the management of their business and their willingness to help others.
The decline affects not only the high street but the quality of our public spaces. According to English Heritage, 40 per cent. of urban parks are in decline, with only 18 per cent. considered to be in good condition. Spending on community halls has also suffered a dramatic decline in real terms in the past 25 years. However, hon. Members do not need statistics or third-party reports to grasp that problem. Most of us have all the evidence that we need in our constituencies.
In Ruislip and Northwood, we are fighting a constant battle to try to preserve the identity and character of places such as Harefield and Eastcote in the face of enormous pressure. Those open spaces are under threat from the planning regime. Local shopping parades struggle with the challenge of big, uniform warehouses, squatting on a ring road that is choked with traffic. Local service providers are under constant budget pressure, without the flexibility to respond if they do not comply with national targets.
Yet I suspect that we are the lucky ones. Across Britain, people living in many town centres and small rural towns and villages feel that the guts of their community have been ripped out. It is not enough for us in this place to say, “Oh well, that’s the market working” because, in some cases, such as post offices, public policy has been a driver. We are confronted with growing evidence of the genuine social cost that the market trend imposes on us. It is a cost to the communities in which we live and that we hope to pass on to others as vibrant places to live, work and raise children. It is also a cost on our ability to deal with some themes that should concern us nationally. I should like to concentrate briefly on four of them.
First, there is the cost to our quality of life, which is felt particularly by elderly people, who tend to be less mobile and rely more heavily on local services, such as the shop on the corner or the community pharmacy. It is no surprise that both Age Concern and Help the Aged are vociferous supporters of the Bill. The latter put it well:
“we want older people to live successful and independent lives in the community… The drift into Ghost Town Britain is not only undesirable and unacceptable but in terms of increased pressure on public safety net provision, it will be costly”.
The growing risk of street crime is also of concern. In my constituency, the once vibrant shopping parade in Northwood Hills is struggling to avoid a spiral of decline. As leases come up for renewal, independent shops give way to fast food outlets, which bring litter and attract yobs who intimidate and vandalise. As a result, resources are diverted, not least from the police, residents get disillusioned and the circle and cycle of decline continues.
Secondly, there is a cost to our economy, as the loss of community retailers means that less money is circulating around local producers. Small businesses rely heavily on post offices and local bank branches for the management of their cash flow. That ought to be a real concern for central Government, because the vibrancy of the small business sector matters hugely at the national level. Small businesses employ half the work force in the country. Under normal conditions, they should be the engine of growth and innovation in the economy. Declining high streets and the concentration of retail power appear to be working against their interests. Community decline therefore carries a big cost to our quality of life and to our economy.
Thirdly, there is the cost to the environment, local and global. The local cost of community decline can be found in dirty streets, badly maintained parks and children’s playgrounds covered in graffiti—in my constituency, often on the morning after having been set up. The global cost stems from our increased dependence on the car and our difficulty in meeting targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The Minister should need no reminding that carbon dioxide emissions have risen in this country since 1997, and that transport is widely recognised to be the problem sector. It represents 20 per cent. of emissions and is the only sector whose emissions are growing. About two thirds of transport emissions come from motor vehicles. Those emissions have grown by 8 per cent. between 1990 and 2000 and the Government forecast that they will grow by another 8 per cent. between 2000 and 2010. We have an urgent imperative to control those emissions.
The path to reducing emissions does not lie simply in encouraging us to drive cleaner cars. We need to consider how land and space can be used more intelligently to reduce our need to travel. What we are allowing to happen flies in the face of that. With the loss of local amenities, we are having to travel more. The average person now travels a staggering 893 miles a year to shop for food, which is itself now travelling ridiculous distances to reach the supermarket.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there is a crossover between such environmental concerns and concerns about social exclusion? People in small rural communities are obliged to drive to get to essential services, but those who do not have access to cars, and who do not have public transport available, certainly in areas such as mine, are socially excluded and do not have access to the services that they need.
The hon. Gentleman makes an extremely important point well. The issue of public transport and rural services has been extensively debated in the House without, as far as I can see, any satisfactory response from the Government.
With regard to the pressure to travel more, let me give one example that brings home the impact on emissions. Transport 2000 and the Campaign for Community Banking Services have calculated that the decision to close just one bank branch in Shepshed near Loughborough resulted in an additional 1.4 million road miles per year being travelled by the residents of Shepshed, and more than 500 extra tonnes of CO2 emitted into the atmosphere. If we are serious about tackling greenhouse gas emissions, we cannot afford to be complacent in the face of such trends.
Fourthly, there is the cost to our democratic health. With the sense of community decline and loss of identity comes a sense of disillusion about our ability to shape what is important to our quality of life.
As the Bill applies to Wales as well as England, has the hon. Gentleman had any consultation with the Welsh Assembly Government or with anyone in Wales at all?
I have not done so personally, but supporters of the campaign have discussed the matter extensively and the treatment of Wales is made explicit in the Bill. I would be delighted to hear further interventions from the hon. Gentleman, or possibly a speech, later. [Interruption.] Some reservations have been expressed from those on the Benches behind me on that last point.
I assure the hon. Gentleman that I have been contacted by a large number of constituents—as, I am sure, have Welsh Members on both sides of the House—who support his Bill and wish it well.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that helpful intervention. He reminds me that I spoke to the people of Wales this morning on BBC Radio Essex—[Interruption.] And BBC Radio Wales. It was clear from the programme that the problems tackled by the Bill are felt keenly in Wales, where community decline is a real issue.
May I give the hon. Gentleman some good news? Councillor Catherine Hoyle put a motion before Chorley borough council supporting you and your objectives—
Order. It is Friday morning, but the hon. Gentleman should still use the correct parliamentary language.
I just want to let you know that—[Laughter.]
Order. I shall just give the hon. Gentleman a moment to reflect before he continues.
Just to let you know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, the Government Whips are not as effective as Mrs. Hoyle, so I will be supporting this important Bill.
I am grateful to both the hon. Gentleman and Mrs. Hoyle for that intervention.
I want to return to the issue of popular disillusion about our ability to do anything about the problem. As a result—this point is reflected clearly in the Power inquiry set up in 2006—people are less likely to get involved in the community, let alone vote, and that is generally agreed to be a bad thing. The Bill attempts to do what the report calls
“possibly the most crucial step in any effort to reengage citizens with the democratic process”,
which is to give power to local communities and empower citizens.
Will my hon. Friend confirm that his constituents find it bizarre that while councillors can oppose planning applications in which valued areas of their communities would be lost to garden-grabbing developments, that opposition founders on the national guidance implemented by inspectors? Does not that undermine their faith in the democratic system?
I am delighted to take that intervention, not only because my hon. Friend is a well-known champion of localism and has probably done more than anyone in the House to throw a spotlight on the issue of garden grabbers, but because he raises a point that strikes a real chord in my constituency. Probably the single biggest issue in my constituency is the feeling of disconnection, and the sense that, whatever the local view on a controversial planning application, what drives the final decision is an inspector sitting in Bristol complying with national guidelines. Nothing makes the community feel more powerless to shape its environment than that.
Will my hon. Friend comment on the role of regional assemblies in the planning process? In Bournemouth, that organisation, which is believed to be undemocratic and unaccountable, has told us to build 20,000 extra houses. That has no connection to Bournemouth’s needs and is not helping us to create a sustainable community.
Order. I am happy to allow the hon. Gentleman to respond to the intervention, but I do not want the debate to stray too far from the subject of the Bill.
I respect your ruling, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) for his intervention, because it too strikes a strong chord in the context of the area in which I live. The role of regional assemblies in general is emotive, especially among Conservative Members, who have a completely different view of their purpose and legitimacy from Labour Members. The point of the Bill is to push power down to democratically accountable local authorities.
My hon. Friend is being very generous in giving way. In dealing with the important subject of democratic health, he has said much about the needs of old people. Will he bear it in mind that young people also feel very detached from decisions made in their communities? There seems to be a common misconception that all that young people need is a skateboard park and a pat on the head, and they will be fine. Actually, they have some very smart ideas about how their communities can be made more receptive to them so that they will want to grow up in those communities and bring up their own families in them later.
I am delighted by my hon. Friend’s intervention. If he pries into the innards of the Bill, he will see that at its heart are Government and local authority responsibilities to consult local communities, and that there is specific provision for consultation with younger people.
What is so potent and powerful about my hon. Friend’s Bill is that it will turn planning topsy-turvy in trying to prevent the introduction of irrelevant nationally or regionally set guidelines that will impose unnecessary housing on communities. What we need is family housing, not one-bedroom or two-bedroom units that often involve a huge intensification of land use in suburbs. We do need housing, and we may well see back gardens being used, but we do not want a huge change in the style of housing when communities do not need it. As I have said, what we need is more family housing, particularly in areas such as Greater London, parts of which my hon. Friend and I represent.
I understand and respect my hon. Friend’s point. I should make it clear that the Bill is not at all prescriptive at this stage; it simply says that we need to give local communities more influence and power over what shapes them.
The Bill makes an honest and almost certainly imperfect attempt to address what I have tried to show is a real social problem—the cost attached to the decline of our communities. It combines two of the most pressing themes in politics today, the need to give people more power and the need to pay more attention to the protection of our environment. I believe that all three main parties subscribe to those priorities. The Bill tries to give them legislative shape, so that we can begin to deliver on them. Its purpose is not merely to send a message: we want to see it on the statute book. We must therefore answer the question that the late great Eric Forth would certainly have asked were he in his place today. [Hon. Members: “Oh, he is!”] I suspect that, in some form or other, he may be.
The question that Eric would have asked of the Bill is “Why is it essential?” The answer is, quite simply, “Because there is no coherent Government strategy to deal with the problem.” Yes, there have been plenty of programmes and initiatives and plenty of documents with the word “sustainable” written on them, but they do not hang together in a coherent and focused whole.
I sat through many of the late Eric Forth’s speeches, as he sat through many of mine. I think that the question he would have asked first is “What is the price tag attached to this Bill?” What estimate has the hon. Gentleman made of the cost of the additional bureaucracy that the Bill would create, which would have to be met by the council tax payer and the central Government taxpayer?
It will take fewer than 62,000 letters.
I am not tempted to pursue the line of inquiry recommended to me. The short answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question is this. The additional cost of the national allocation plans for which clause 2 provides will fall entirely to the Chancellor of the Exchequer of the day. As for the community spending plans, they are all about the opportunity to redirect pots of money. I will deal with the bureaucracy issue later, as I suspect that the Minister may wish to raise it.
I was very fond of Eric Forth, but I was not fond of the way in which he often talked out very good Bills—it seems that I want to have my cake and eat it—and I do not like that attitude on either side of the House. I have come here today to support the hon. Gentleman’s Bill, but I urge him to be even-handed politically. This is not about one Government or one term of government; the ravaging of our communities has taken place over 30 or 40 years, and in my constituency much of it happened during the Thatcher years. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will keep the political balance right, because although there is something very wrong with the way in which our communities are being undermined, it is not a purely political matter. I hope that he will keep an all-party coalition behind him.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for what he has said. I am sorry if I have given any such impression, for it would be entirely counter to my interests and instincts. I know that what is distinctive about the Bill is the cross-party consensus behind it. The hon. Gentleman’s point about a long-term trend is well founded: we are talking about a trend that goes back over 20 or 25 years and spans various Governments.
Let me return to why the Bill is essential. Its premise is that there is no coherent strategy at present, and that one is required. There have been plenty of initiatives, as I said earlier, but the whole approach has been undermined by a key failing, which has been identified by Professor Anne Hill of the London School of Economics in a document published by the Government’s own Sustainable Development Commission. She wrote of the Deputy Prime Minister’s sustainable communities five-year plan:
“It is essentially a top down programme which does little to encourage community involvement or ownership of the proposals… and does not propose tools for delivery to ensure long term community viability and environmental protection”.
The Bill is required because existing laws and mechanisms are not adequate.
It is not clear that either the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill, which we will debate on Monday, or the Lyons review will give the issue of community decline enough prominence. The Lyons report will focus primarily on the financing of local government, while the Bill is essentially about its governance—although, as the Minister will undoubtedly tell us, bits of it take us further down the path of devolving power and improving local accountability.
My Bill does not contradict Government legislation; it complements the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill by giving prominence to the issue of sustainable communities. It will give real teeth to local area agreements, and will push the Government further in the direction of devolution in which they need to travel in order to make a real difference.
The Bill specifies four necessary steps. First, it requires central Government to give more priority to the promotion of sustainable communities, and makes them accountable for delivering a long-term action plan in support of that aim. It requires them to draw up that plan in a different, bottom-up way, with the real participation of communities and residents acting through their local authorities. Secondly, it will give local authorities the right to demand and receive a breakdown of central Government spending on local services in their areas. I emphasise the distinction between the money that is already passed to local government and the money spent by central Government directly through Departments and through their network of agencies and quangos in the communities that we represent.
Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that that spending would include area-based initiatives, which are directly funded and are not directly reflected in local government spending?
I thank the hon. Lady for her helpful intervention. I am happy to confirm that important point. We are talking about money spent by central Government through their network in our communities. At present that money is invisible to us: it is extraordinarily hard to obtain proper information on how it is being spent.
As I have said, the Bill will give local authorities the right to demand and receive a breakdown of spending on local services in their areas. The Secretary of State will be required to secure approval in Parliament for his or her definition of the services that can be carved out as “of primarily national significance”. The move towards greater transparency is radical, but surely it is time to demand more transparency when it comes to the money that central Government are spending in our areas. Today it is invisible to the communities that are supposed to benefit from it. Without transparency, there can be little accountability. That must change, particularly at a time when, as we all know, people feel that they are being fully taxed and are asking “Where has the money gone?” It is time to show us the money.
The third step in the Bill will give local authorities the right to go back to the Government with an alternative spending plan for the community allocations identified in an earlier clause.
My hon. Friend mentioned participation; that is the key element of the Bill. Many communities are consulted—consultation goes on across the public sector—but participation is the key. Until local people feel that they are participating, the disillusionment will remain.
I thank my hon. Friend for that helpful intervention; it is important that I confirm that that is at the heart of the Bill. Its first step, as spelled out in clause 2, is the formulation of a national strategic plan, and what is different about that plan is that it must be seen to absorb bottom-up, community-driven recommendations and inputs. That must be part of the process, and there is a requirement on the Secretary of State to come to the House and explain why decisions have been taken—and why inputs have been rejected, if they have. There must be much stronger transparency and a much stronger sense of accountability.
Let me return to the allocation of money, because that is where real power flows. The Bill requires greater transparency. It requires central Government to show us what they are spending in our areas, and it gives our local authorities the right to absorb that information and to present alternative plans for the use of that money to the Secretary of State.
Members will be starting to think about how money could be redeployed in their constituencies, as I am in respect of mine. We might identify a piece of local spending—by the Environment Agency perhaps, or English Nature, or the Learning and Skills Council or the Government office for London—that we think is of dubious value set against the value of keeping a post office open in a village, for example, or, in my constituency, extending the opening hours of Northwood police station. The Bill would offer us an opportunity to step up and make the case for redeploying such funds, with a real chance of influencing decisions.
I warmly congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his speech, and on promoting this Bill. Will the process he is describing extend to health services? In my constituency, the centralisation of mental health and maternity services is, we estimate, leading to about an extra 4,000 journeys a year from Cheltenham to Gloucester and vice versa. That is taking the heart out of the community, increasing greenhouse gases and making services less local.
I completely understand the hon. Gentleman’s point. The Bill is not prescriptive at this stage, and I anticipate that there would be quite a debate about where the line is drawn between investment in health services that is primarily of national significance—acute health care is a good example of that—and health care investment that is primarily of local significance. The Bill places a duty on the Secretary of State to make such definitions, and to make a case for them before the House and to win that case.
I understand that my hon. Friend’s Bill is not prescriptive, but how permissive is it? For example, my constituents in Salisbury fail to understand why it is that while almost all our households are now recycling glass on a weekly basis and sorting out their rubbish, every day they see council trucks driving around and collecting all the glass from all the pubs, clubs, hotels and restaurants and then taking that straight to landfill sites. That should not happen. It happens because of the way that the rules are set up for recycling and charging. I would have thought that to address such matters should be permitted under the Bill; is that the case?
To be honest, I will need to think that issue through more clearly. The value of the exercise in the Bill is that it creates a climate in which such issues can be discussed more transparently, with a much better chance of effecting change.
Once the local authorities have exercised their right—it is a right, not a duty—to receive explanations in respect of the money spent and to suggest to the Secretary of State alternative uses for it, step four of the Bill places a presumption on the Secretary of State to accept the local plan and requires him or her to publish any amendments, or any reasons for not accepting the plan. The Bill also requires regular reporting of the implementation of the plans. That is very important, and is of relevance to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Anne Milton).
There are four simple steps: transparency, accountability, participation and accountability again. They are designed to give our constituents real influence over the future of our communities, without necessarily costing any more public money.
I obviously support those sentiments behind the Bill, but I have concerns about some of the practicalities. My council—Barnet council—is Conservative-controlled. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] It is Conservative-controlled only for the time being. One of the wards in my constituency, Burnt Oak, is deprived; it has been consistently deprived, and even more so since the Conservatives took control of the council four and a half years ago. Money has been diverted from Burnt Oak to more affluent parts of the borough. What safeguards are there in the Bill to ensure that the most deprived and therefore less vociferous parts of a local government area—those areas that agitate less—are not deprived in favour of those who shout the loudest?
I am now straining to retain cross-party consensus on the Bill as I am receiving a lecture on the reallocation of resources from a Member representing a party that forms a Government who could stand charged of that accusation on a wider scale. However, I shall restrain myself from pursuing that, and instead address the hon. Gentleman’s point by referring only to the Bill.
The hon. Gentleman’s point will be legitimately addressed by some Government legislation that will be before us shortly on improving local accountability, but let me also explain how the Bill might help the ward he mentions. If the climate in which the decisions he refers to are taken is one of budget pressures—as I suspect it is—the Bill carries the opportunity for new resources to be sprung for local authorities if they can make the case that those resources can be better directed in the way that they suggest, rather than the way the money is currently used by central Government Departments or agencies.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his Bill, and I have attended the debate to support it. I have been approached by a number of traders in a parade in Honor Oak in my constituency. That parade suffers from all the multiple problems that he has described. Does he agree that those traders—and their customers, who are their greatest supporters—need to get together to create a local plan and to make demands, and that his Bill might give them the focus and ability to do that?
That point crystallises problems in many Members’ constituencies. What the hon. Lady describes I recognise also in respect of Whitby road in South Ruislip; I can see the parade now, and I am thinking about the problems that it faces. Her instinct is entirely right: the Bill gives the people in such communities an opportunity, and an incentive, to get together and to make proposals to the local authority to address such problems. That opportunity does not exist under current legislation and mechanisms.
The Bill in many ways accepts what the Government have been trying to do with local strategic partnerships in identifying the funding for an area and getting the statutory agencies to work together, but does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of its great merits is that it brings democratic accountability into that process, which is key?
The hon. Gentleman has hit the nail on the head, and it allows me to pass on to the next part of my speech, which is to address the Government’s response to the Bill.
At the heart of the Bill, I have tried to set out four simple steps designed to give our constituents real influence, but the Government have made it clear that they are not inclined to support the Bill. The Minister might argue that existing policy covers the bases—that local strategic partnerships and local area agreements are the vehicles for developing community strategies. Those mechanisms are good as far as they go, but they do not go far enough. In the conversations that I have had with local authorities, the same messages come through; I do not know whether other Members have received similar messages.
The pooled money in these agreements is small and it will remain small as part of the whole, even on Government expansion plans, which I am sure we will hear about. The amount of money spent in Kent is £8 billion. The amount of money that will be pooled under local area agreements is tiny. The majority of budgets are, and will still be, held separately; they are, effectively, badged and boxed in by central Government targets, and they are vulnerable to budget pressures.
Moreover, funding streams into local area agreements appear to be inconsistent. One authority told me that its 2008 funding turned out to be half what was allocated in 2006-07. It is difficult to plan against that background of inconsistency. Any reallocation of funding under existing arrangements is a zero-sum game with winners and losers sitting around the same table, where there is no clear leadership. This Bill would strengthen that process and those mechanisms in a number of ways.
Community action plans, local area agreements and local strategic partnerships would all be more effective if they were plugged into a national action plan that was itself created through a bottom-up process; if they had access to more resources that were not ring-fenced or vulnerable to budgetary pressure; if they were clearly led by democratically elected local authorities with greater power to decide and freedom to innovate; and if they were constructed with the full engagement of the communities which they are there to help. Last but not least, this Bill would make sure that the issue of sustainability was given the priority that it deserves in those discussions.
The Government may also try to argue that this Bill will place burdens on both local and central Government, which was the point I think that the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) was trying to make. The Bill may require additional resources in terms of management, be a pain in the neck for the bureaucrats and make Ministers’ lives a little harder, but that feels like a tiny downside against the upside of giving our constituents a real chance to influence the future of our communities. It will be rough and raw democracy. Sharp elbows will be needed, but that is surely a better direction in which to go than continuing further down the path of centralisation and “one size fits all”, when it so clearly does not.
I thank my hon. Friend for his courtesy in giving way; he is making a good speech on a good Bill and I am confident that my constituents will support him. I have read through it and it does not specify a particular level of resources one way or the other. What it does specify is that local people should have a genuine influence on how money is spent by the public sector in their name. This is my hon. Friend’s Bill, but if I have interpreted it correctly, its bottom line is that it gives ordinary people a genuine voice in how public money is spent. If I have indeed understood it correctly, I am delighted to support it.
I thank my hon. Friend for that extremely helpful intervention. I am delighted to confirm that that is the Bill’s essence, and it encourages me that it has come through so clearly, despite the best efforts of the parliamentary draftsman.
The Government know that we have to change direction—or at least they say that they do. The Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs wrote the following recently in The Guardian:
“Our conception of politics has been Whitehall and Westminster based. The environment shows how outdated this is. People don’t want the remote influence of lobbying their representatives through the occasional tick in the ballot box. They want to be players”.
He is right. The Chancellor of the Exchequer went even further. In his 2006 conference speech, he said:
“People and communities should now take power from the state…That means a reinvention of the way we govern; local councils not Whitehall should have more power over the way we govern”.
So there we have it—from the next Labour leader, and possibly the one after that—localism is the future. Today, we have a Conservative MP adopting a Bill originally promoted by the Liberals and supported—in principle, at least—by half the parliamentary Labour party. It asks a very tough question of this or any Government: “How serious are you about giving power away?” Its premise is straightforward. If we accept that community decline is a fact and that it carries a significant and growing social risk, the only way effectively to manage that risk is to give local authorities and the people whom they serve real power. When it boils down to the fundamental question of who knows best, the unequivocal answer from this Bill is that local people know best.
After 20 years of centralisation of power, we must accept that it is time to turn the wheel back, to give residents more influence over how to build and improve their communities, and to see local government less as agents of central Government and more as instruments of local people. I think that the Government are serious about taking the first steps in this direction. This Bill urges them to be bolder, and I ask the House to support it.
I am delighted to follow the excellent speech of the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Hurd). I intend to be very brief because I know that other Members wish to speak. I am pleased to be here today to deal with such revolutionary legislation; indeed, it warms the cockles of one’s heart to be doing so. I shall put on my T-shirt when I get home, as it were, and feel that we have done a little bit to move democracy in the right direction.
I want to make just two points, but I want first to say in passing that although it would be nice to feel that it is the hon. Gentleman’s Bill, the Bill of the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Julia Goldsworthy), or my Bill, it is not: it has emerged from genuine community action. Although the New Economics Foundation crystallised it, it is not its Bill, either. Indeed, it is not even the Bill of Ron Bailey and Stephen Shaw, who have gone round the country participating in some interesting public meetings, two of which I held in my own constituency.
I have to say that they were very uncomfortable meetings. They were not nice, easy-going and touchy-feely, even though that is the motivation of many of us who want to re-engage with our communities. In fact, they were quite angry meetings, whose anger was surpassed only by that which we all feel when a particular, well-loved facility in our constituency is about to close. When that happens, we MPs get it in the neck. The usual response is, “Why haven’t you done more about this? Why haven’t you prevented this from happening? If this facility is to close, what are you going to do about it?” There was a lot of disillusionment at those difficult and angry meetings, and the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood is absolutely right to talk about the democratic deficit—a wonderful term that means all things to everyone. However, on dealing with such meetings, one knows what the democratic deficit is. The people at them do not trust us. They do not feel that we have done enough, and they certainly do not feel that we are going to do enough. I hope that, in a small way, this Bill will try to change some of that.
The first of my two points is that I hope that we can use the Bill to re-engage with our communities, and that the Government understand that it is as much a question of putting pressure on individual communities as it is of putting pressure on central Government.
I completely sympathise and empathise with the views that the hon. Gentleman expressed about heated meetings; indeed, last night, I went to the draft east of England plan meeting. Does he agree that people resent things being done to them? They want to work with Government, rather than having something imposed on them. In essence, the Bill is about getting rid of that sense of divorce and regaining that feeling of partnership.
I accept that. We can talk about different parts of the United Kingdom facing slightly different problems, but the interesting thing about the Bill is that it encompasses every type of community—urban, suburban, semi-rural and rural. They all face the common problems of the loss of what they regarded as vital services, the difficulty of retaining existing ones, and the even greater difficulty of trying to put new services in place.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that this is a quite unusual private Member’s Bill, in that it has support in all parts of the House? That being so, does he agree that, although there is no procedural need to do so, it would help the House if the Minister sought to catch your eye early in the debate, Mr. Deputy Speaker, so that the whole House can reflect on, and perhaps have time to rebut, his comments if, as suspected, he does not support the measure?
I hope that that will not be necessary. This is a listening Government and I hope that the Minister, rather than intervening early, will listen and make a jolly good response by saying that, although he disagrees with some of the detail—that is for the Government to decide—he wants to give the Bill a fair Second Reading and will not oppose its being discussed in Committee and on Report and Third Reading. That is what private Member’s legislation, at its best, can achieve, and I hope that that will happen today. Unless I have got it wrong, the Government have, I hope, thought hard about this issue and have no intention of trying to block the Bill, which moves in a direction in which they want to go.
I want to make one other point in passing before talking about what I see as the kernel of the Bill. I want to pay particular tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, West (Jim Dowd). One of the most important things that happened recently was the publication of the all-party group on small shops’ report on the decline of small shops. It is easy to say that that was driven by the Association of Convenience Stores, which is a very good organisation, but the report explains more than anything else what is wrong. It does not necessarily provide a map for the future, but it is important to understand the causes of the problem. That is why so many organisations have signed up to the Bill. It is because we now understand the nature of the problem and the debate now is how to move forward from here.
I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s comments. The hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Hurd) was kind enough to mention the all-party small shops group, and the work that we did on the issue was supported—like the Bill—by Members on both sides of the House. I would mention in particular the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone), who is in his place, and the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell), who is not in his. We await Government action and the results of the Competition Commission’s review of the retail sector. The group’s work reflected the widespread concern in all kinds of communities about the way in which trends in retail development are undermining social cohesion across the piece.
I thank my hon. Friend for expressing much more adequately than I can why the Bill is important and the way in which several factors have come together to make the Bill happen at this time.
There has been a view—and I know that the Government agree—that the Bill is overly bureaucratic and top-down, with the Secretary of State having to sign off all sorts of plans and action points for individual communities. That would appear to go against the idea of devolving responsibility. I do not see the Bill in that way at all. It is very much a bottom-up Bill. Yes, the Government are asked to take note and consider carefully how they disburse their resources, but in reality they cannot save services for individual communities. The Government set the framework and the market decides—sometimes very roughly—which service will survive and which will go, but it is up to individual communities to engineer not just the saving of services but their retention and their growth.
Too often we leave matters until a postmaster or mistress is about to move and cannot sell their business, so it has to close. That is far too late. I retain my membership of the town council in Stonehouse, the area in Stroud in which I live, and we managed to save our post office, but we did so by investing in the building and putting the town council next to it. I should say that I was not responsible, because of course I am a lapsed member in the sense that I do not attend nearly enough, but the town council looked ahead to the potential closure and that is why it was able to intervene. That is why I am such a fan of parish and town councils—I have been a member of one for the best part of 20 years.
I did a little bit to help preserve small shops in my private Member’s Bill on Christmas day trading in 2004. I agree with my hon. Friend’s sentiments about town and parish councils and I am a huge supporter of those communities, but does he agree that the public are sometimes a little schizophrenic in their approach? They are willing to sign petitions against the closure of post offices, but when one actually asks whether they use the services they tend not to do so.
I agree. It is a case of use it or lose it. It is no good if the parish or town council decides to put money into a service—they do have means—or talk to service providers about how to support businesses through genuine partnerships, if local people do not use the service. Baroness Corston has just moved into North Nibley in my constituency, although I am just about to lose her ward to another constituency—these things happen to us all—where the village has taken over the shop and post office. On the first day that she was in her new house, she received a share certificate and a request for her to buy her share in the village shop. It was explained to her that it was important that people in the community bought their share, because they kept the shop going. If they did not use the shop, it would close. It is that sort of community action that I hope the Bill will support.
The issue is how we can make best use of community assets. We all have community assets in our different communities, but the challenge is maximising them. That is why I think that the Bill is a bottom-up Bill. The Government can have various ideas and initiatives, such as local area agreements, sustainable communities plans and local development frameworks, and they can encourage local strategic partnerships—all good initiatives—but communities need to do more. The Government can help, but the communities themselves must drive it forward. The Bill will force communities to face up to their responsibilities. The representatives of communities—not necessarily the elected representatives, but those who take it on themselves to save a particular community resource—are very important in that and they must work in partnership with democratically elected representatives.
I hope that the Government have listened and do not see the Bill as a challenge to them. I hope that they realise that the Bill is genuinely non-party and community driven. I also hope that it will be improved in Committee. However, today is not about detailed consideration. I hope that the Bill will receive its Second Reading unanimously, because anyone who chooses to oppose it will have an interesting time of it from the various organisations who have written to us all about it. I leave it to other hon. Members to decide, because I would never try to lean on my colleagues in that way.
I hope that the Bill receives a fair wind. I congratulate the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood, who chose his words carefully and maintained the consensus. It is difficult to resist the temptation to make party-political points, but I hope that the Bill receives support from both sides and from Front Benchers. I also hope that the Government will listen and learn, and understand that the Bill is not a challenge to their work—such as the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill, which we will consider on Monday—but complementary to it.
I, too, wish to congratulate the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Hurd) on making the most of his opportunity. He laid out very well how the Bill will work and the benefits that it will bring. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) as we have worked together closely on the issue over the past few months. He mentioned how tough the public meetings on the issue have been. I had meetings in my constituency and I was surprised by how many people turned up, because it is not immediately clear what the Sustainable Communities Bill might do, and it sounds a little technocratic. I did not think that it would set my constituency on fire, but the public meeting was attended by 150 people. I know that other hon. Members had even more people turn up, to the point where they had to change venue. It is interesting that the subject brings up a range of issues, and we have seen as much from the various interventions this morning.
Does my hon. Friend agree that difficult meetings are often about closures? The whole point of the Bill is to reduce the number of businesses, shops and post offices that close in our towns, cities and villages as part of trying to maintain sustainable communities.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The key problem is not necessarily opposing closures or proposing renewed services, but that people feel powerless about the decisions that are being taken. There is a law of unintended consequences—the Government may not have malicious intent, but they do not appreciate that decisions have entirely different ramifications for different communities. People find themselves coming up against a system where there is no accountability and no recourse; they cannot voice their concerns and feel confident that they will be taken on board. My hon. Friend made that point extremely well.
The Liberal Democrats are pleased about the Bill. In the previous Session, early-day motion 641 was supported by every Liberal Democrat Member, and although I am pleased that the Bill takes forward the Bill that I presented on sustainable communities, I pay tribute to Sue Doughty, the former Member for Guildford, who did so much before I arrived in Parliament to promote the issue. Had it not been for her work, Ron Bailey would have had a much more difficult job persuading me to take on the case. I pay tribute to the Local Works campaign and to Sue Doughty for her work.
We support the Bill because it puts people first and gives them a bigger say. I want to touch on three main issues: first, the Bill helps to identify and tackle community decline, and promotes greater social, economic and environmental sustainability in communities; secondly, it does so by encouraging participation by communities in decisions that affect them; and, finally, it provides accountability in areas where there is no democratic accountability. I shall give some personal examples of that point.
Does the hon. Lady agree that if we are to consult local communities it is important that we have the widest possible spectrum of opinion? For example, in many constituencies there is controversy about traffic calming in communities and there are hugely fierce debates between people who are for or against it. Does she agree that it is important to ensure that the loudest minority does not get its way over the majority in the community?
The hon. Gentleman is right. The Bill particularly encourages the participation of groups who do not have the strongest voice, not necessarily those in deprived areas, but groups such as young people whose views may not have been heard in the past. At the public meetings in which I participated, it was striking that not just the usual suspects attended. There are people with loud voices in every community who want to raise such issues, and we probably meet them regularly, but at those meetings I also met people I had never seen before. They raised some issues of which I was unaware and others on common themes, so I am confident that communities will feel that the Bill offers them a vehicle that enables their voice to be heard. As has already been said, it will create a climate in which they feel that their views will be taken on board—something which may have been more difficult for them in the past.
The hon. Lady has just made an important point. My constituency is diverse, with people from many ethnic minorities, and although there is provision in the Bill for particular consultation with people under 25, there is no reference whatever to reaching out to groups in minority communities with whom it is often hard to communicate and get feedback. As she is a sponsor of the Bill, will she explain why it contains no reference to the great importance of engaging with minority communities that are, by and large, considerably excluded from the political process? In the provisions for consultation arrangements, why is there no requirement to consult in minority languages?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. If the Government allow the Bill to go into Committee, I hope that we can rectify that omission. The Bill has been drawn in broad terms, but as it progresses we hope to ensure that there are no important omissions.
As we have already heard, it is easy to identify the problems of community decline. We heard on the radio this morning that towns feel threatened by out-of-town shopping centres, with many high streets indistinguishable from one another. Such problems also affect rural areas. I represent a geographically isolated constituency, where the loss of a rural post office means not just the loss of that specific service, but that the £6 in every £10 taken out at the post office which would have been spent in the local community is spent elsewhere. People have to travel further for those services and might have no access to a car. In a rural area, there will probably be no adequate public transport either.
My hon. Friend makes a strong case. Is not the merit of the measure its holistic approach to community involvement? The loss of schools, post offices and family farms is an interrelated package; it is not necessarily a case of picking off individual things—they can be looked at holistically at local level.
My hon. Friend makes a good point, which demonstrates that people who campaign against the closure of a service may not always be its direct beneficiaries. For example, people could support a local primary school even if they do not have children who attend it. The point is that closures have knock-on effects. If young families cannot live and work in a community, there is an impact on the school, on the economy and on public transport. There is concern about the law of unintended consequences; many Government decisions may be well intentioned but the Government do not appreciate that the ramifications will be different in every community.
Vulnerable people can be left incredibly isolated, especially older people living in villages—in my constituency, second home ownership reaches 80 per cent. in some villages. Older people probably cannot drive and in an area with no access to public transport they have no access to shops. Vulnerable groups become even more isolated. One does not have to be a member of such a group to feel the need to champion it, which relates to the point made by the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore).
People feel powerless. People in my constituency in villages with 80 per cent. second home ownership have no power to do anything about that. There are no planning controls on the number of second homes in an area—an issue that was raised time and again in the public meetings and in other representations I have received. People feel that the Bill offers an opportunity for the Government to enable local communities to take such power. The Bill is an enabling measure for Government action.
I agree with many of the points that the hon. Lady has made, but given the consensual nature of the debate, does she agree that many of her points have already been accepted by the Government? For example, some of her ideas and principles were included in the White Paper, “Strong and prosperous communities”.
I agree that there is consensus on many of the ideas in the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill, which we shall debate on Monday. However, in a series of important respects, this Bill goes further while drawing on the same principles. That is why I hope the Government will see fit to support it.
The issue of second homes is contentious in many small villages, especially in rural areas. Some people support second homes because they bring people and income to villages, but other people oppose them because they reduce affordable housing. Can the hon. Lady point out where in the Bill planning regulations would be affected as she describes? I am struggling to find such provisions.
Many and varied issues were raised by people at public meetings, as they have been on the Floor of the House today. The key point is that the Bill is about enabling people; it will create a climate where they can raise their concerns and where the Government feel that they may be able to help communities identify and resolve their problems. At present, there are blocks and they are difficult to overcome.
I want to make some progress, as other Members want to speak.
It is easy to identify the problems to which I have alluded; the key thing is how to tackle them. The Bill offers an opportunity to do that by promoting participation from the whole community and giving communities responsibility for identifying the problems. As Members have already pointed out, the Bill places on communities the burden of responsibility to take action. Fundamentally, it provides greater accountability in a way that extends beyond the remit of the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill, as I said earlier.
The Bill encourages greater participation across the whole spectrum of the community, including those from the most deprived wards, which is my experience from such involvement in my constituency. The Bill is bottom-up. We have only to see the number of people turning up at the public meetings to realise that it is not a top-down Bill. If it was, it would not have provoked so much interest across the country and received the support of so many organisations.
The public meetings have been well attended not just across a range of different areas, including deprived areas, but by community groups. For example, there is an active member of a local residents association in one of the most isolated and deprived parts of my constituency who would refuse to consider becoming a councillor, but who is a loud voice for the community that she lives in and the people whose views she feels that she is able to represent.
We are not saying that there is not participation at the moment, but the proposals provide a way of formalising that and allowing best practice to be shared. In my constituency, there is an urban regeneration company called CPR Regeneration. It has done lots of excellent consultation with local communities on plans, but the problem is that it is seen as separate from the other processes that are going on in the community and there is no feedback. Probably it errs on the consultative side, rather than the participatory side. So, although there is brilliant evidence of best practice that can be taken forward, there are still real ways in which that can be extended. A key issue is that the Bill would mean that the budget—much of which is not funded by local government—and how it relates to the rest of local spending would be much more transparent.
That brings me to what I see as the most important point of accountability: the fact that the Bill seeks to provide greater transparency in Government spending in any local area. The regeneration company that I referred to earlier is spending millions of pounds in the area. That is excellent and it is helping to regenerate the area, but there is no clear sense of how that relates not only to other local government spending in the area, but to wider national Government spending. There is no sense of relative priorities. People have no opportunity to ask, “If I were given the choice to order my priorities, would I put these particular issues of regeneration above other things?” That adds to the sense of powerlessness.
In Cornwall, there are more than 100 area-based initiatives—they are directly funded Government initiatives—many of which will have their own secretarial support, which will be replicated time and again all over the constituency. The initiatives are targeted like a laser on specific issues, so it is difficult to see what they are trying to achieve in the ranking of local community priorities, although obviously a lot of the intentions are good. I will give an example.
Redruth is a deprived town in my constituency. I had a meeting with the chamber of commerce two weeks ago. Over the past six months, there has been a huge amount of work. I am not sure whether that is through the market and coastal towns initiative or a local heritage scheme. There has been massive refurbishment of the car park and the replacement of all the paving stones with granite, at the cost of tens of thousands of pounds, in order to beautify the area. In itself, that is not a bad thing. Redruth is a former mining town and it is not a pretty coastal town, so perhaps that will help.
There is a problem, however. The town does not have any multiples. Virtually all the retail outlets in the town centre are independent traders. In the past six months, five shops have closed. So, we have a town centre that has a refurbished car park and granite paving slabs, but, unfortunately, fewer and fewer shops. I am sure that that issue is replicated across the country. If they had had the opportunity, the people in that community might have said, “We’d like to see some support going into our local shops so that when people come to the town they will visit the shops.” We know that people do not come to visit nice pavements. The pavements might make their visit more pleasant when they get there, but, if there are no shops, people are not going to visit the town in the first place. All that money is being spent and the chamber of commerce, a key community group, has no opportunity to raise those concerns. Priorities are being misdirected, even if that is well intentioned. I am sure that there are examples of that all over the country.
To conclude, the Bill is about empowering local communities and complementing and extending the White Paper. It is about supporting communities that we all feel passionately about, in terms of the environment, social exclusion and the economy. It makes the most of what communities already do. There are hundreds of thousands of people who are passionate about their communities and who want to see services restored and extended, but they have no opportunity to have their voices heard. That is what the Bill is about. If the Government are serious about extending democratic accountability, I hope that they will support the Bill today, in broad terms at least. I hope that they will not be minded to halt its progress and will allow it to go into Committee.
I am here to support the Bill. I am delighted that the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Hurd) chose to use his opportunity in coming first in the ballot for private Members’ Bills to introduce the Bill. I congratulate him, my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) and the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Julia Goldsworthy) on the way in which they have worked together to make this a cross-party Bill that enjoys support from a wide cross-section of people from many different communities, with widely differing political backgrounds.
I have received representations, both formal and informal, from town and community councils in my constituency—Llanelli town council, Llanedi community council, Llannon community council, Pembrey and Burry Port and the communities represented on Llanelli rural council—asking me to support the Bill. Town and community councils in Wales are the closest level of elected government to their communities and they reflect the strong feelings of local people, who want their communities to thrive. The councils are concerned about the decline in local services and, in particular, the loss of local shops. They feel that post offices, community pharmacies and village and town centres are continually under threat from powers that seem to be beyond their control. They welcome the opportunity that the Bill provides to have their views and community issues heard at a higher level, rather than having things from outside imposed on communities. For that reason, I am keen to support the Bill. I hope that, whatever doubts the Minister might have about particular details, which I am sure we can discuss further in Committee, he will support the Bill and enable it to go into Committee. That will enable us to look at the practicalities of making it a usable and practical Bill that can be implemented.
I am delighted to support the Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Hurd). I have already signed early-day motion 468 in support of the principle of sustainable communities, as have many hon. Members from both sides of the House. I have received a number of representations from local authorities and parish councils in my West Sussex constituency, giving their strong support to the principle that they should have more of a say in decisions that affect them. I am sure that the hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) is right that communities wish to be heard, but they do not just wish to be heard; they wish to have a say.
The Bill could enable communities to take more action to preserve services such as post offices and village shops and the vitality of their high streets. What is powerful and lies at the heart of the Bill is what my hon. Friend described as the empowerment of citizens and communities. Without doubt there is a feeling of disconnection, even in places that are relatively close to London, such as those in my constituency. West Sussex is hardly a great distance from our capital, but people feel that decisions are being taken over their lives about which they have little say at all. The south-east makes a huge net contribution of £11 billion to central Government. People feel not only that they quite often do not receive a fair share in return, which is another issue, but that the decisions are removed from them.
Let me give three examples. My constituency could be seriously affected by proposals to downgrade the only three acute hospitals in West Sussex. All three are threatened with the removal of their accident and emergency departments or maternity services. That has caused outrage in West Sussex. Some 250,000 people have signed petitions against the proposal and 25,000 have marched against it. However, who will ultimately take such decisions, and what real say will the community have about the proposals? The Government tell us that such decisions are not a matter for them and that they will be taken locally, but it is clear that decisions will be taken by a newly constituted, wholly unelected primary care trust.
At a recent meeting that I and other West Sussex Conservative Members had with the newly constituted primary care trust, we asked the directors exactly whom they were representing. We asked whether they were taking orders from central Government on dealing with deficits and reconfiguring care, or whether they were taking decisions that they believed to be in the interests of the community.
I share some of the hon. Gentleman’s frustrations and irritations about primary care trusts and have signed an early-day motion in support of abolishing the NHS independent appointments commission for that exact reason. However, will he say which measure in the Bill would give local people a direct say in hospital closures? Would not the ultimate conclusion of his approach be a type of communalism, as in France, or a communist system whereby everyone would have a vote on every single service in the national health service?
The hon. Gentleman will have read the Bill, as I have. Clause 1(2) states that sustainability may be promoted by
“increasing participation in civic and political activity”.
One of the problems that has arisen over the years of centralisation—I am happy to concede that that did not begin under this Government, but has been fostered for a decade and more—is that people have increasingly found that they have no say over the way in which services are delivered in their communities.
I am extremely worried about what the hon. Gentleman is saying. We are hampered by the fact that the Bill has no explanatory notes, although quite a lot of campaign material has been published in support of it. Clause 4(3) would give the Secretary of State the power to set matters of “national significance”, yet all the briefing material suggests that the NHS would be excluded from the terms of the Bill. Is he saying that all that briefing material is wrong and that the Bill would apply to NHS decisions?
I am not saying that at all. I am addressing the principle of the sustainability of local communities. If the Bill receives its Second Reading—I hope that the hon. Gentleman will allow that to happen—we will be able to debate the extent to which that principle should apply to the delivery of services, including in the national health service.
Does my hon. Friend agree that, regardless of whether decisions on local NHS services could be included within the Bill’s remit, one of the reasons why it has such fantastic cross-party support is that the public’s appetite for local decision making has never been greater? The threats of closures and the downgrading of acute services, such as at the Royal Surrey County hospital in Guildford, have heightened the public’s concern about local services and their understanding that they need local NHS services if they are to have the sustainable communities that they so badly want.
I strongly agree with my hon. Friend. It is interesting that although the concept of patient choice is being promoted strongly, not least by the Government, people will feel that that concept is meaningless if they are not allowed to choose the hospitals that they wish to retain.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood cited the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who said last year that
“in the new century people and communities should now take power from the state”.
Such rhetoric is easy, but the Chancellor has also said that the patient cannot be sovereign in the national health service. If the patient cannot be sovereign, who is? The Chancellor has also proposed that health care decisions should be administered by a quango—not the people at all.
My second example relates to planning. My hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) said that a regional assembly is affecting planning decisions in his constituency. The south-east has the same problem, with the South East England regional assembly and its associated boards taking decisions on such things as roads. I am trying to persuade the assembly and board that they should introduce a bypass in Arundel, which has been promised by successive Governments but not delivered. However, it is difficult for me to make my voice heard because the unelected assembly and board are not answerable to the local community. When I asked for a meeting with the Minister of State, Department for Transport, the hon. Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman), I was told that he would not be willing to see me until he had taken regional advice. The region tells me that it is unwilling to offer advice to the Minister because it is not certain whether it will be overturned. Such a system creates a vortex whereby local people are entirely shut out from a decision that directly affects them. More importantly, people are not being properly represented because quangos that are not answerable to local communities have been set up.
My third example relates to the police. I became quite certain that the Bill represented a move in the right direction when I heard the Minister for Local Government this morning citing the police as an example of how additional devolution of budgets has been granted. I have been looking at police funding closely over the past year. It is clear that local communities have very little say over what happens to their local police force and the operation of community safety. Police authorities are almost entirely invisible from the local community and include unelected members. Community safety partnerships and crime and disorder reduction partnerships are completely invisible to local people. The constant refrain that I hear from local people—I am sure my hon. Friends and Labour Members hear this in equal measure—is that they do not feel able to influence the way in which policing operates in their communities. If the Minister was saying that there has been sufficient devolution of budgets to local communities and that communities really have a say on policing, he needs to think again.
May I offer the hon. Gentleman a little advice? He should have read the Bill before the debate because a lot of his speech has nothing to do with it, and he is perhaps harming the cause. Has he shared my experience that where police authorities have set up community forums—there are some good ones in my constituency in Durham—attendance is very poor? The attendance is large only when there is a problem in the community. Does that not put a huge question mark over the idea that everyone is eager to attend meetings to discuss all these issues?
I am sorry to have to disagree rather strongly with the hon. Gentleman, but that attitude is tantamount to saying that we should not bother to take account of people’s views. There is great dissatisfaction with policing in many communities. If people do not attend meetings, it is because they sense that the meetings are purposeless and because they are not properly consultative and give the public no real say on the improvement of policing or other services in their communities.
May I give the hon. Gentleman a further example of good practice when consulting local people? Recently, Greater Manchester police have established in every ward in Tameside a PACT—police and communities together—meeting, which is open to the general public, in which ward councillors, the neighbourhood policing team, Tameside patrollers and home watch co-ordinators discuss the problems in the ward and put together an action plan. In the following month’s meeting, the police have to explain to the public exactly what they have done.
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s points, and he gives a good example of how answerability could be improved. I do not think that there is sufficient answerability. Over the past few years, the amount that local communities have had to find to support policing, through the council tax, has doubled, but they often do not feel that they are getting police officers in return. Communities in my constituency are angry about the fact that they had been promised police community support officers, but they are no longer to have them. There will always be difficult questions about resources, but the important principle is that, where possible, communities should be involved in decision making, so that they can share responsibility for the decisions taken, and so that there are transparent lines of funding. That does not exist at the moment, which exacerbates people’s feeling that the Government are removed from them and that, although decisions are not taken in their interests, they nevertheless continue to be taxed, which is an unfair bargain.
It is right in principle that decision making should be moved closer to the people, and that could well result in better decisions. It would also be an important part of the process of re-engaging the public in the democratic process, which is one of the Bill’s objectives. It is not sensible for us Members to lament, as we often do, the lack of political engagement without being serious about finding ways to improve it. The cause of localism is particularly important to me, not just because I think it right in principle that decisions should be taken locally, or because it will mean that better decisions are taken, but because I see it as a way of reinvigorating politics. The emasculation of local government and the removal of the control of services from the people has been one of the reasons people feel so let down by politics in its current form.
To return to a point that I made earlier, much of our debate today is genuine discussion of an issue on which there is consensus. Political parties have developed a philosophy in a certain way over the years, but they now want more popular participation and more localism. The hon. Gentleman is critical of the Government’s programme, but will he not at least accept that, through their legislative programme and their recently published White Paper on the subject, they are making progress in engaging people?
It is certainly important that consensus about the merits of localism is reached between the two sides of the House. I have said that I believe that the drift to centralism began under previous Governments; I do not believe that the blame can be laid solely at the current Government’s door. I understand the importance of cross-party support for the Bill, but I am seeking to examine whether the rhetoric is always matched by the reality. After all, in 1994, the Prime Minister himself said, in his acceptance speech as Labour party leader, that
“we will…return power to local people over local services.”
Frankly, we would not be sitting here debating the Bill if we thought that that had happened in the past 12 years. Plainly, it has not.
To return to the example of the police, the Government have introduced measures such as the community call for action, which they now seek to extend to other public services. That is an attempt to give communities a say on policing, and to let them express their view when things go wrong. Really, those are bureaucratic measures of last resort, rather than measures offering the real devolution of power and budgets, enabling communities to feel that they have a say, and securing the engagement that the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr. David) seeks.
The Bill is right in principle, and I hope that we have the opportunity to debate its scope and precisely how it could achieve the important aim of the empowerment of citizens and communities. The tendency of the Executive will always be to accrue power, and in its long history the House has fought important battles to wrest that power away from them. The Bill is a small but important step in turning around the centralism that has characterised politics and the delivery of public services over a decade or more, and I hope that the commitment to localism that the Bill embodies will be picked up on both sides of the House.
I begin by congratulating the Bill’s sponsors. As has been pointed out, an impressive cross-party coalition has apparently been assembled, and that is complemented by the fact that an early-day motion on the subject has been tabled, and has attracted a large body of support. That is not surprising, because many of us—even those of us who will not support the Bill this morning and have not signed the early-day motion—have a great deal of sympathy with the sound principles in the Bill.
When any of us think about the problems facing our constituencies, we recognise the danger presented by the scenario of ghost town Britain. Like many hon. Members present, I have been impressed by the written representations that I have received, both from within and outside my constituency. I refer in particular to the letter from the National Pensioners Convention, the letter from Help the Aged, which has been circulated to all Members, and the letter circulated by the Campaign for Real Ale—a campaign that is close to many Members’ hearts, as I know only too well. In addition, expert material has been circulated by Local Works, the campaign for the Sustainable Communities Bill.
Many of the arguments that have been put forward are powerful, but to gain a true appreciation of the legislation before us, it is necessary to go beyond the pamphlets and the good intentions of the letters, and to study the Bill in detail. Before I do so, I point out that when I leave the Chamber today, I will go back to my constituency, like all Members. I will return to Caerphilly to chair a public meeting on the regeneration of Caerphilly town. Caerphilly is one of the communities that has benefited from the general improvement in the prosperity of the country; for example, it has a relatively good record on job creation. However, the town—an old, former mining community—is in need of regeneration. As is the case for so many communities in Britain, in Caerphilly, there have been out-of-town developments, and estates have grown up outside it, but not in the heart of the town. I am pleased to say that the local authority has mobilised private and public money, and a plan is being put forward by the local authority, with the support of the local community, to regenerate the town, but although work is going on, regeneration is still a concern for many of us.
My hon. Friend’s constituency produces very fine cheese, too. My constituency is similar to his, as it contains former mining villages. Some of the problems in those former mining communities need large solutions, and require difficult and tough decisions that sometimes divide the local community. Does he share my concern about the Bill, which is that although it is well intentioned, it comes down to the idea—we have heard this from many Members—that everyone will somehow come to a consensus and agree? However, on occasions, the fabric and grit of local politics is disagreement, and tough decisions have to be taken.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. Politics is not always about people coming together and agreeing, and a common strategy being worked out. It is often about discourse, dispute and creating a dialogue between people, out of which ideas emerge and change comes about. It is often about creating change, and not simply basing the way forward on a common denominator. I shall return to that later.
My constituency offers a microcosm of the problems faced elsewhere. In Caerphilly town centre, many shops have closed over the years, and charity shops have opened in their place. Senior citizens, in particular, are alienated from the community in which they grew up, and antisocial behaviour has increased. Members on both sides of the House are acutely concerned about those serious issues, but are those shared concerns addressed effectively and successfully by the Bill? At the beginning of my speech, I referred to the Bill’s cross-party support, and I believe that the Conservative party has published a version of the measure in its pamphlet, “The Permissive State: How to Achieve Local Social Responsibility”. It is an important step forward in the development of Conservative philosophy, but we shall have to see whether it is genuine, well thought-out and supported by members from all parts of the party. Nevertheless, such publications are now seeing the light of the day, which was not the case only a short time ago.
It is important to acknowledge that there is a strand of democratic socialism that has always advocated local empowerment and devolution and has had reservations about a caricature of socialism based on centralisation, state control and old-style Morrisonian nationalisation. As a Welshman, inevitably I must refer to Aneurin Bevan. If anyone wants a clear, coherent statement of democratic socialism based on the empowerment of ordinary people, I suggest that they read his book, “In Place of Fear”, which is an eloquent statement of socialism. May I suggest, too, as we are discussing Wales and Caerphilly, that Members dip into Hansard and read the contributions of Ness Edwards, who was Member of Parliament for Caerphilly from 1939 to 1968. [Interruption.] Yes, I have written a book about him, which Members may wish to read. A copy is available in the House of Commons Library.
Would my hon. Friend identify the author of that book?
I repeat that I wrote it myself.
How much is it?
It is only £7.50, and a bargain at the price.
Is it cheap on Amazon?
No, it is not, but if my hon. Friend has a word with me after the debate, I am sure that I can arrange for a copy to be sent to him, signed and dated by the author.
I was making a serious point: Aneurin Bevan, Ness Edwards and other democratic socialists consistently argued that socialism is about the emancipation—an outdated but, nevertheless, accurate word—of ordinary people. It is about industrial democracy; it is about when people are engaged with their communities, as well as public accountability and involvement. In discussing the need to create a new kind of society in this country, much of the language has changed but, nevertheless, we all accept that what we want is not a top-down society or an intrusive state but a facilitating state framework that allows individuals to maximise their potential so that they are proactively involved in their communities. If that philosophy is our starting point, the question is how we turn it into reality.
Although the European Union is not popular, the cardinal principle of subsidiarity, that decisions should be taken at the most appropriate level, as close to the people as practicable, is accepted by many European societies and put into practice at local level. It is a strong principle, which motivates many of the Bill’s sponsors and, increasingly, the Government, but I am concerned about whether the measures in the Bill would put it into practice effectively. Many organisations have made representations to us, and we have received formal submissions expressing strong support for the measure, which they regard as a step forward. However, some organisations that studied the Bill concluded, like me, that although its intentions are good, it has significant weaknesses.
If the hon. Gentleman is about to say that he does not support the Bill, can he explain why, in the last Parliament, he signed early-day motion 641 and issued a press release saying that he would do everything that he could to support it?
I do not know about the press release, but certainly, like most Members, I agree with the principles that have been established. However, when we look at the detail of the legislation, which was drafted only recently, we can see that it has profound weaknesses. The devil is in the detail, as the hon. Lady knows.
I, too, signed that early-day motion, but does my hon. Friend not agree that we should wait until Sir Michael Lyons, who is leading a high-level inquiry into local government reform, publishes his report before we approve hastily drafted legislation?
That is a very good point, and it takes me neatly to my next point. I have referred to the written submission on the Bill by the British Retail Consortium, which says:
“As currently drafted, the Sustainable Communities Bill will introduce another layer of bureaucracy on already under-resourced local authorities, whose main task should be delivering quality local services. This will only serve to damage the combined efforts of local authorities and retailers to ensure that communities continue to prosper.”
My hon. Friend’s intervention was accurate, because the BRC continues:
“In addition, for the past two years, Sir Michael Lyons has been leading a high level enquiry into local government reform. This work is nearing completion and Sir Michael is expected to deliver his final report within the next two months. The BRC urges MPs to wait until this report is published before approving hastily drafted legislation.”
Those are not my words but the words of the British Retail Consortium. We must take a balanced view, and when we look at the detail of the Bill, rather than its fine principles, we cannot avoid the conclusion that there are many serious questions to be asked.
Who exactly are the members of the British Retail Consortium?
It is not my intention to make partisan or sectarian points, as I wish to be fair and even-handed. I shall give the BRC the benefit of the doubt, as it has taken the trouble to study the Bill, and there is much to be said for the objective conclusion that it reached.
To clarify the position, big supermarket chains and retailers with multiple outlets are members of the BRC. Does the hon. Gentleman believe that they are likely to be the main proponents of localism?
I will be fair. I quoted the example of Caerphilly earlier and I quote it again. Tesco, which I assume is a member of the British Retail Consortium, has been opening its 24-hour stores and is among those leading the way in the regeneration of communities. I am surprised that the right hon. Gentleman tars all stores with the same brush. He should be far more nuanced.
It is strange to hear a member of the Tory Front-Bench team attacking multinationals, Tesco and the like. Does my hon. Friend agree that organisations such as Tesco and the Co-op are moving towards the support of smaller shops? In my community they are opening smaller shops, and bringing shops back to villages where there have been none for years.
I agree. That is the point that I was making with regard to Tesco, and it applies to other stores as well.
Let us be fair and even-handed. In its submission the Federation of Small Businesses has not given its support to the Bill. That is significant. That organisation, which is not always Labour supporting, has examined the Bill fairly and objectively and concluded that it is not the best way forward. So my concern is shared by many others.
To clarify matters, I have met the head of policy at the Federation of Small Businesses and she has confirmed to me personally and in writing that the federation supports the principles of the Bill. Does it not cause the hon. Gentleman some concern that the reservations of the British Retail Consortium, which he placed before the House, seem to be restricted to the incremental bureaucracy that the Bill might impose on local government? Does he think that that is the biggest issue exercising minds around the boardroom at Tesco?
I shall respond first to the hon. Gentleman’s point about the Federation of Small Businesses. I assume that all hon. Members received e-mails yesterday from ePolitix.com. It is clear what the British Retail Consortium said. The detailed submission from the Federation of Small Businesses shows that it has studied the issue carefully. For me, and I am sure for the hon. Gentleman as well, if he is fair, the most striking point about the submission is that the federation has not endorsed the Bill. It would have been the easiest thing in the world to indicate to MPs at a crucial time—the eve of the Second Reading of the Bill—that the Federation of Small Businesses explicitly supported it. Significantly, it has not done so.
Another critical aspect that has been touched on in the debate is bureaucracy. It is important to recognise that the process set out in the Bill is extremely cumbersome. The Secretary of State will be required to draw up an action plan for sustainable communities. Local authorities can make representations and will have to include all valid responses and comments on proposals not taken forward. The Secretary will then be required to provide an annual report on the progress in implementing the action plan, which in due course will be debated on the Floor of the House.
A local authority must comply with the publication requirements set out in the Bill, including placing advertisements in local papers and liaison with communities and various interested parties. Each local authority can ask for a local community account each fiscal year, which will set out the money to be spent on local services in the specific area from all Government Departments for the following four years. Local authorities will prepare a spending plan to show how money will be allocated locally. The Secretary of State has the power of approval over each and every local authority plan in a fixed three months. Individual attention would be given to each plan by central Government.
I refer to clause 6, dealing with approval of local spending plans. Subsection (1) states:
“A local authority shall submit its proposed local spending plan to the Secretary of State for approval.”
Does my hon. Friend agree that that provision goes against the tenor of the Bill, which is about giving local communities power over spending in those communities? The provision gives the Secretary of State power to override spending decisions that have been approved locally.
Precisely. My hon. Friend pre-empts my conclusion. That is one of the inherent contradictions in the small detail of the Bill. It talks the talk—the rhetoric is in place. We are all behind the idea of empowerment, devolution and involvement, but in the detail the Bill sets out an extremely bureaucratic and, yes, centralising proposal that will curb, stifle and thwart local empowerment and involvement.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful case about specific details in the Bill. Those should be addressed in Committee. If he supports the principle of the Bill but is concerned about the detail, should we not give the Bill a Second Reading and sort it out in Committee?
I shall come to the logic of that argument, which I do not accept for a very good reason.
I have some sympathy with that argument, but it is our job on Second Reading to flag up shortcomings in the Bill so that they can be tackled in Committee, if the Bill gets that far. If the issues are not dealt with there, Report stage will inevitably be very long.
That is a fair point, although I do not intend to get side-tracked on parliamentary procedure. My argument is that there are fundamental weaknesses in the Bill. It is incumbent upon us to be aware of them, and I believe they are sufficiently profound for us not to give the Bill a Second Reading.
At the end of the bureaucratic process set out in the Bill, the Secretary of State must implement an approved local spending plan to which all Government Departments and agencies must adhere. If they do not allocate funds on that basis, the Secretary of State has the power to direct them to do so. That is not only excessively bureaucratic, but a recipe for creating conflict within Government. Yes, we are all in favour of dovetailing and ensuring that Government Departments work coherently together, but it is another matter entirely for one Department to have such control over the strategic priorities of other Departments without a fundamental review of how government is organised in this country. The Bill does not even begin to take us in that direction.
I am sorry to have missed the early part of my hon. Friend’s remarks, and I am sorry that he does not support all aspects of the Bill. To my mind, it is a misunderstanding to see it as a top-down measure. The Bill provides the framework, but it is up to local areas to decide their spending commitments, given that central Government decide how each local area is expected to perform. That is why we elect central Government. Does my hon. Friend agree?
That is not made at all clear in the Bill. Running through it is an extremely bureaucratic process, as I have outlined, and a naive belief that local empowerment is sufficient. We cannot ignore the existence of central Government, who are democratically elected and have a set of political priorities. There is a political process, as well as local empowerment.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the Bill also potentially dismisses democratically elected local government? One of the fundamental flaws in the Bill is the fact that it refers to approval of a spending plan but does not define what a sustainable community is. In my constituency, which has two major towns and a plethora of small villages and hamlets, defining what is a sustainable community would lead to a lot of competition between different areas.
My hon. Friend makes a good point that serves to reinforce the muddle that runs through the Bill. There is a contradiction between the good intentions and their practical implementation in terms of the reality of politics at a national and a local level.
I want to turn to a more specific concern about Wales, which is covered in clause 9. In essence, it says that the Bill would apply to England and Wales and that in its application to Wales it would have effect with certain modifications. The first modification is:
“(a) for each reference to the Secretary of State there shall be substituted a reference to the National Assembly for Wales”.
Is the National Assembly for Wales in favour of that? I asked earlier whether there had been consultation with the Welsh Assembly Government but did not receive a detailed response. On the radio this morning, the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Hurd) said that he had spoken to the people of Wales, but I want to see a submission by the Welsh Assembly Government. Have they been consulted? If so, what is their view, and where is their formal, considered written response? That should have been put in the Vote Office before this debate, or it should be put there before the end of it. Otherwise, it is—dare I say it—the worst kind of imperialism. It is us as a Parliament saying to the Welsh Assembly: “We think this will be good for you. We have decided that this is in your interests so we are giving you this power.” That is not what devolution is all about.
Without wanting to get into the internal politics of Wales, may I ask what my hon. Friend thinks would happen if the plan were approved by the local community in Wales and by the Secretary of State but strongly objected to by the Welsh Assembly? How would that lead to the efficient delivery of services in local communities in Wales?
That is a good question. It would be extremely unhelpful if we knew. We have seen examples in the recent past whereby legislation was agreed in this House and there was a strong feeling among the people of Wales that it was not required. Going back to the 1970s and 1980s, that is precisely why we had the groundswell in Wales for devolution in the first place. In 1997, there was a referendum and the people of Wales voted in favour of devolution so that they themselves could decide what legislation they wished to have on the statute book within certain confines. A clear delineation has been made in which of what powers are devolved and which powers are not devolved.
A similar issue arises in relation to the London assembly and the London Mayor, who were elected after a referendum of the people of London. Picking up the point that the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) made about local policing plans, policing is a responsibility of the London Mayor in terms of setting a budget for the Metropolitan police. Does my hon. Friend think that problems could arise in similar circumstances as regards what the London Mayor is trying to achieve in improving policing in the capital?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. Devising structures and processes that will inevitably create conflict is not a good recipe for creating consensus in society and implementing progressive policies. With regard to Wales, many of the policy areas that would be covered by the Bill, such as health, community regeneration and local government, are devolved matters. The Bill is saying to the Welsh Assembly: “You must fulfil certain processes, even though you might not like them and even though you have not been consulted, in areas where we have decided that you should have responsibility.” That is profoundly ill thought out.
We all agree that we must work to achieve safe, healthy and sustainable communities. The Road Traffic Act 1991 devolved parking enforcement to local authorities. In Brent, the new Lib Dem-Tory administration decided to send a battalion of traffic wardens out on new year’s day to issue hundreds of parking tickets. Local councillors Bobby Thomas, James Powney and Bertha Joseph, and a local resident, Rocky Fernandez, started a petition to try to get the local authority to take account of what was going on. That is another example of how the Government have devolved some powers to local authorities and where sometimes it can go a bit wrong.
As I said, the principle of devolving powers is now widely accepted. It is significant that the Conservatives, who opposed Welsh devolution, now support it. The principle of devolution has been accepted, but for it to work, first, it must have the support of the people, and secondly, it must be well thought out. We are not talking about separatism but a new set of relationships. It is extremely important to ensure that when we talk about devolving powers we work out clearly and precisely what the relationships are between the Government, regional bodies in England—if that ever happens—the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament, and do not simply go with the flow because the rhetoric is positive and we are all getting a warm feeling.
My hon. Friend is developing an interesting line of argument. Clause 6(1) refers to a local authority submitting its plans to the Secretary of State for approval, but nothing in the Bill says what happens if the Secretary of State does not approve the plan. That is another lacuna.
Yes. I do not know what the solution is, because I did not draft the Bill. It would be interesting if the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood could deal with that point. As I understand it, the buck would stop with the Secretary of State, who would then have to decide whether to thwart local opinion and potentially create conflict. Putting the Secretary of State in that invidious position would be very bad for local democracy. As a member of central Government, it is his legal, as well as political responsibility to consider the interests of the country as a whole—he could not bow to every local demand in every local action plan. It would be fraudulent and misleading to give local people the impression that just because they have put together a certain action plan it will be accepted without taking into account wider concerns.
The Secretary of State is empowered to do that under clause 4(3) anyway. Clause 6 is not at all unclear. Subsection (1) says:
“A local authority shall submit its proposed local spending plan to the Secretary of State for approval”
and subsection (2) says:
“The Secretary of State shall take a decision”.
I do not see what is unclear about that.
With all due respect, I am not a lawyer; all I have is a degree of common sense. If something is submitted to any individual—the Secretary of State or anybody else—for a decision, it is up to him or her to decide yes or no; that is what approval is all about. My point is that if a plan were rejected, that would create an extremely bad feeling in the locality if people had been given the impression that they could come together to create a set of priorities that central Government would automatically rubber-stamp.
That is something that the Secretary of State would have to take into account in deciding to reject. That is part of the devolutionary philosophy of the Bill. The hon. Gentleman claims that he is in favour of it, but every sentence he utters shows that he is against it.
With all due respect, devolution does not mean that, so let me provide an example of what it does mean. The Welsh Assembly Government have the ability to decide spending priorities according to their own priorities—full stop. There is no question of the Welsh Assembly Government deciding their spending priorities, then submitting them to a Secretary of State in London for approval. If that were the case, it would not be devolution. My point is that the Bill uses all the rhetoric of devolution, but it does not contain the practical means to bring it about.
Does my hon. Friend agree that what we have just heard is precisely what we have come to expect from the Liberal Democrats, who often allow people to believe that they have control over their communities, but then make promises that cannot be delivered? Does my hon. Friend agree that the worst thing that can be done in local politics is to raise people’s aspirations and hopes that they will get something useful, but at the end of the day to take them away? I well know from Liberal Democrat leaflets that they often look both—or even three or four—ways at the same time.
That is absolutely true. Speaking as someone involved in serious politics, I learned early on that politics is about taking honest and difficult decisions. Sometimes we have to be accountable for those decisions, but politics is not simply using rhetoric and whipping up local feeling—a different feeling in one area than in another—and assuming that somehow, by a complicated process of metamorphosis, everything will be right in the end. That is not serious politics, but, to be honest, that is precisely what the Liberal Democrats have historically and contemporaneously engaged in. If they are serious about ever becoming a party of government, it is a lesson that they will have to learn.
I thank my hon. Friend for being so generous in giving way. Is he aware that in my Brent constituency, the Lib Dem-Tory administration is known as the “Fib-Dem-Cons” on account of all the promises it has made but failed to deliver?
Order. I rather think that that is not directly to do with the subject of our debate, whose general tenor needs to be somewhat elevated.
While I am on my feet, I will simply make this point. The debate that we have had so far has been a genuinely consensual debate. It is significant that there is cross-party agreement that the principles are desirable. Our debate is important in that respect alone. However, our debate also has to focus on the fine detail of the Bill and whether it is capable of translating into practice the fine principles that are expressed in it.
I have studied clause 6 with particular interest. Most of us agree with the Bill’s intention, but one concern that we could debate further is that when we give such a power to a Secretary of State, what happens depends not just on the relationship between central and local government but on the predilections of the particular Secretary of State. I have worked for four Secretaries of State under the present Government and there were, I think, six under the previous Government. Even within the parties themselves, there are centralisers and devolvers. Does my hon. Friend think that this power could, in the wrong hands, make the situation worse rather than better with respect to devolution—notwithstanding the intentions of the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Hurd), which I share?
The Minister makes a very good point. One of the concerns inherent in the Bill is that it puts tremendous responsibility on the shoulders of the Secretary of State at that particular time. If there were some sort of collectivity, perhaps with the Cabinet having a rubber-stamping role, that at least would be something, but the provision focuses on the Secretary of State at a particular moment. Of course, the Secretary of State may change from time to time and we must be concerned about the coherence and consistency of government over a period of time. It is not impossible, for example, for one plan to be agreed one day by one Secretary of State and then on the following day, after a Cabinet reshuffle, for a different Secretary of State who has different principles to have to agree another action plan. That is why it is so important to have some clarity and some well thought out process in place to ensure that these desirable principles are put forward in a coherent manner.
Staying with clause 6(1), the problem with the clause is that it is drafted on the assumption that the Secretary of State will rubber-stamp what is put forward. The fact that only three months are given for approval of what could be 400 plans shows that, under the Bill, the Secretary of State is not to be given any sensible consideration whatever. Let me put it to my hon. Friend that the Bill amounts to a bureaucratic process—I do not think that anyone would deny that it creates a lot of bureaucracy—and does not allow us to deal with an occasion on which a Secretary of State would refuse approval. It provides no mechanism for what happens after a decision is taken under clause 6(1). What happens then? No provision is made for reference back or for revision of the plan; no provision is made for a negotiating process to resolve differences. That amounts to a bureaucratic lacuna in a very bureaucratic Bill.
Once again, my hon. Friend makes very good points.
In order to make some progress, I would like to move on. I have already spoken about Wales and opened up wider considerations, but I would like to speak about something else—the different way Scotland is treated in comparison with Wales. If we look at clause 13(3), we see that it clearly states:
“This Act extends to Scotland only in respect of matters which are reserved in accordance with Schedule 5 to the Scotland Act 1998”.
That is very clear, but my question is why a similar stipulation is not made to Wales. Wales has a different devolution settlement from Scotland, but the current settlement is not fully taken into account and nor is the new Government of Wales Act 2006. That is important. Under the 2006 Act, which will be in place after the Welsh Assembly elections on 3 May, the Assembly will be given legislative powers for the first time. If we approved that legislation we would not be taking into account previous legislation that the House had approved. There will then be two Acts in place that are, to some extent at least, contradictory. When it comes to the spirit of the legislation, I imagine that the Welsh Assembly would take an extremely dim view of having a second-class status assigned to it under a Bill that is supposed to take forward the principle of devolution. It is a contradiction in terms. That is another of my concerns.
There is provision missing from the Bill for a conciliation service for disputes between not only local authorities and the Secretary of State but between the Secretary of State and Wales. However, even if the measure included such a clause, would not it lead to administrative gridlock and thus fail to deliver the laudable aims that clause 1(2) outlines? Could not it lead to services grinding to a halt in some places?
I hope that that would not happen, but the scenario is unfortunately a distinct possibility. We should thank my hon. Friend for making the point; we should take it seriously. [Interruption.]
Conservative Members laugh, but, as someone who spent 10 years on a city council and had to work closely on the budget each year as a member of the finance committee, I know that decisions have to be made about drawing up a budget. The measure could delay that process and make decisions harder instead of easier.
My hon. Friend may well be right and I am sure that his point is worth considering.
One of my concerns about the Bill is that it implies that there is a policy vacuum on supporting sustainable communities. Yet the need for sustainable communities was one of the main reasons for the Government’s creating the Department for Communities and Local Government. The idea of sustainable communities was fundamental to that. The Department was created to work towards more economic exclusiveness in communities, and to encourage social mobility and many other things. That is important.
We should not forget that the Government recently produced a White Paper entitled “Strong and prosperous communities”, which is a groundbreaking document. It sets out clear principles and suggests some strong policies, which would realise some of the laudable aims in the Bill. The measure should be read in conjunction with the White Paper, in which the principle of empowering communities is central.
The need to take young people’s views seriously has been mentioned. It is an important principle. Before becoming a Member of Parliament, I worked for the youth service and part of my responsibility in Wales was to draw up a programme with the National Assembly for Wales so that local government and the newly created Welsh Assembly could take the views of young people into account. When young people come forward to express their views, they have plenty to express. They might not relate easily to traditional politicians and traditional political parties, but they have plenty of opinions on the matters that concern them and their communities.
It is important that all Bills place greater emphasis on the need to consult young people. There is not much emphasis on that in the measure that we are considering. It is important not only because young people have strong and well-thought-out views but because they are sometimes unfairly criticised for being responsible for antisocial behaviour, which is often cited as leading to difficulties in our inner cities and towns.
Clause 3(1)(d) contains the Bill’s only reference to young people—
“residents under 25 years old.”
I should have thought that we wanted to consult people who were under 18 or perhaps even younger to ensure that their views are heard. If we are simply considering people who are 25 and younger, we may end up continuing to exclude the people that my hon. Friend identifies.
I agree. The youth project that I helped to establish was called Young Voice and is now called Funky Dragon. It has a website if hon. Members wish to read the young people’s views. However, we are considering not only young people but children. In that youth initiative, children’s voices were taken as seriously as those of young people.
The Bill refers to the role of parish councils and community councils. As a former member of Cefn Cribwr community council in Bridgend in south Wales, I believe that Governments of all political persuasions have tended to underestimate the role of parish councils in England and community councils in Wales. I understand that the Government are in the process of making a commitment to establishing parish councils in London. I warmly welcome that.
I thank my hon. Friend for raising the important role of parish councils. There are approximately 8,000 parish councils in England. Roughly how many community councils are there in Wales?
That is a helpful intervention. I will leave the answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith), who has mentioned quite a few of them. Certainly, there are nowhere near as many community councils in Wales as parish councils in England. Nevertheless, that is the tier of government that is closest to the people.
When I was a member of a community council, although we had a good attendance at our meetings and debated all manner of issues, one of the great frustrations that I and other councillors experienced was that the local authority above us seldom took any notice whatever. The community council was usually charged with making sure that footpaths were open and giving small grants to various community organisations. Worthy as those things are, they are not enough. If we are to involve local people in parish or community councils, we should have sufficient faith in them to ensure that attendance is worth while. I commend the Bill’s reference to parish councils, but more emphasis should be given to them. If we compare some of the ideas in the Bill with those in the White Paper to which I referred, we see that the Bill ought to take some lessons from that White Paper.
I just want to point out that the hon. Gentleman has now been speaking for longer than I did. In the process, he has raised a number of issues that are perfectly legitimate for debate in Committee. He has created the impression that his purpose in coming to the Chamber this morning was to talk the Bill out. That might surprise people, because he is registered as a supporter of the Bill. Will he confirm that he wishes to see the Bill proceed to the Committee stage?
I would point out that I have probably taken more interventions than any other Member who has spoken—[Interruption.] I have given way eventually to every Member who has wished to intervene.
Is not the purpose of taking interventions that, if properly answered and debated, they may obviate the need for other Members to raise such points in speeches at greater length?
Absolutely. We are having a debate, are we not? The essence of a debate is not simply to have set-piece speeches, but to thrash out the issues. We have had a very good debate this morning, and to prove the point, I shall give way again.
Will the hon. Gentleman be able to yield the Floor before the end of this debate so that the views of Croydon residents can be heard?
As I have indicated, I am trying to make progress with my speech. I am also, however, trying to be courteous to Members. If, like the hon. Gentleman, they insist on making interventions, I will give way—[Interruption.] Does the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Benyon) wish to make an intervention?
Order. It would be helpful if the hon. Gentleman now made progress with his speech.
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for reinforcing the point that I have made.
Having referred to the Government’s White Paper, I want to refer to the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill. In this debate, health has been referred to in a slightly misleading way, which deviated from the thrust of the Bill before us. Nevertheless, the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill represents a significant step forward in the devolution of power and public involvement, which is the subject of the debate. I cite that Bill because I firmly believe that we cannot give the impression that the issue of sustainable communities is the only one on the agenda in terms of public involvement and public empowerment; rather, it is one aspect of a broader debate. It makes sense for us to debate the principles enshrined in both documents, and I have tried to compare and contrast them in my modest contribution. In the Government’s White Paper and the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill, those points have been given more consideration than, for example, the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Julia Goldsworthy) has given them.
My hon. Friend has made the important point that we should be debating the principles of the Bill. As I think we have made clear, none of us disagrees with the principles, but we must also debate the practicalities, which my hon. Friend has done very effectively so far. Perhaps the most ill-thought-out of the practicalities is clause 13(5), which states:
“This Act shall come into force on the very day on which it is passed.”
That is a most unusual way of implementing a Bill. What does my hon. Friend think the implications would be for staffing of the Department that must deal with all the different plans, and for local authorities?
Order. I think that that will do for the time being.
Neither of those questions is best put to me. I have no easy answer to either of them. I should like to have easy answers so that I could support the Bill, but there are no easy answers. I offer the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood the opportunity to respond to both questions immediately.
Members have raised umpteen points and asked for a great deal of clarification during the debate, but no clarification has been given by the Bill’s promoter or its sponsors, and I am sure that that will be taken into account when we vote on it.
According to clause 11, for the purposes of local community allocation
“‘principal council’ has the meaning as given in section 270 of the Local Government Act 1972”.
Would that not have a terrible effect in two-tier county areas? I assume that in such areas “council” would mean “county council”, and that a whole tier of local government—district councils—would be ignored.
Wales has a unitary system, but in my experience in England today and in Wales before local government reform, local authorities have often not got on with each other as well as they might. Council members sometimes disagree on which is the principal authority.
It would be the district council.
In that case, the county tier will be ignored. One tier or the other is bound to be cut out. Does the definition not mean that an entire level of democratically elected local government will be completely ignored?
I can only assume that that is what is intended by the Bill’s supporters, or at least some of them. [Hon. Members: “Nonsense.”] Members say “Nonsense”, but no one is coming forward with an argument to contradict the very good point raised by my hon. Friend. Yet again, there is a need for clarity. [Interruption.] The Liberal Democrats huff and puff, but they have no answer either. I will let Members try to think of an answer.
As I approach the conclusion of my speech—[Hon. Members: “Shame!”]
I will give way one last time.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He has been speaking for almost an hour, and he has made some very important points, but one point that has not arisen so far is the fact that no notice of compliance with the Human Rights Act is attached to the Bill. The Bill raises a series of significant issues that are relevant to the Act, including the property rights issue raised by the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Julia Goldsworthy). What does my hon. Friend think should be done to ensure that the Bill complies with it?
I am conscious of the fact that my hon. Friend is a member of the Joint Committee on Human Rights. [Hon. Members: “He chairs it.”] I apologise. In that case, he speaks with even more authority than I imagined. I am sure that if the Bill proceeds to its next parliamentary stage, he will give us the benefit of his wisdom—not just as chair of the relevant Committee in the House, but as a distinguished lawyer—and advise us on how the Bill should be made compliant with the Act.
In conclusion—I will appreciate it if Members do not seek to intervene again, as I wish to give others an opportunity to speak—what is needed is a new belief in ordinary people and the communities of this country. A significant consensus has been established in this House, and it is necessary to bring about meaningful change. Let me read a quote from the Government’s local government White Paper, “Strong and prosperous communities”, because it expresses very well what is emphasised in both the Bill and that White Paper. It states:
“we now need to give local authorities and their partners more freedom and powers to meet the needs of their citizens and communities—and enable citizens and communities themselves to play their part.”
I am sure that every Member agrees with those comments. Regardless of what happens in terms of the passage of the Bill, we have made considerable progress. Ministers will register what has been said in our debate, and I am sure that the points that have been made will be taken into account when legislation is produced from the White Paper. We face a challenge, and the Government recognise it. I hope that the House will reaffirm its support for the Government approach, and that, in turn, the Government will take on board the views of Members.
I am grateful to be able to speak at this stage of the debate. I had intended to try to do so at a later stage, but, after having listened for an hour to the lucubrations of the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr. David), I fear that another Member might attempt to filibuster and I would prefer to say a few words beforehand. As I listened to the hon. Gentleman I had the deep thought, “Come back Eric, all is forgiven.”
Before I proceed, let me deal with the only serious point raised by the hon. Gentleman during his hour-long speech. It concerns the Secretary of State’s veto provided for in the Bill. If the hon. Gentleman wishes the Bill to be allowed to proceed and become law but with that veto removed, that is an extremely interesting proposition. The veto was included in the Bill to try to make it easier for the Government to accept it. In the highly unlikely circumstance that a local authority puts forward a plan that is manifestly absurd—perhaps because a huge local democratic deficit led to the election of a number of monkeys—the Bill provides for the Secretary of State to veto such a local plan. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to remove that veto and to argue for that in Committee, I have no doubt that my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Hurd) would welcome his presence on that Committee—although, in light of the hon. Gentleman’s performance, I doubt that my hon. Friend will be in a position to do so.
The reason why many Members from all parts of the House believe that the Bill is important is that we have all witnessed what my hon. Friend outlined in his cogent and well measured speech: the genuine dissatisfaction of many of our constituents—across party divide, across the country and across different parts of the country—that arises from the feeling that they cannot have much effect on what happens in their lives and in respect of the quality of their lives. We all know that that is the case, and we all know that it is leading to a progressive disenchantment with politicians and political and democratic institutions. Therefore, although it was jolly to listen to the contribution of the last hour, we are debating something that is of extraordinary importance.
Unless we take steps that are real rather than cosmetic—I shall return to that point—to give people more power over their lives locally, I believe that we will, if not in five or 10 years, in 10, 20, 30 or 40 years from now, have cause to regret that we did not take steps long ago. We will find that the degree to which people are disenchanted, apathetic and distrustful of politics will become unsustainable. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) says from a sedentary position that we started it. I hope that he noticed from the observations that my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood made in his introduction that we are not advancing this measure in a partisan spirit, and that we accept that Conservative, as well as Labour Governments, have been part of the cause of this difficulty. We are trying to remedy a constitutional deficit in our country, and it behoves us all to take that proposition seriously, rather than engaging in partisan politics in considering it.
It is quite convenient for the right hon. Gentleman to forget history. Was it not a Conservative Government who abolished the Greater London council, Tyne and Wear metropolitan district council and other such bodies without any consultation with local people? Was it not also a Conservative Government who continued to restrict the powers of local government and bore down on it through central control? We are dealing with the legacy of that today. So he cannot just conveniently—
Order. The hon. Gentleman has made his point.
I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman is hard of hearing, but I said a moment ago that I accept that Conservative Governments, alongside Labour ones, have been part of the cause of this problem. The issue is not that, but how we move forward now in the interests of our country. He ought to be united with us in that cause, just as many other Labour Members are united with us.
This is a constitutional Bill, in the sense that it is not about what happens substantively in a given locality; that will be for local politics to decide. There will be differing views. Some will be highly charged and political; others will cross party lines. The Bill does not seek to achieve particular substantive effects in given localities. On the contrary, it seeks to achieve a shift of power from the centre to the localities that permits arguments to rage at local level.
When I was a Home Office Parliamentary Private Secretary and the right hon. Gentleman was shadow Home Secretary, I always found him very generous when responding to queries. He mentions shifting the emphasis to the localities. I intervened earlier on my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Mr. David) about the role of parish and town councils, which cover some 16 million people in England alone. Does the right hon. Gentleman have any particular views on enhancing their powers, and does he think that new ones should be created? That could be a way of providing more accountability in respect of sustainable communities.
That is a very interesting and serious question that I will reply to in two ways. First, yes, my hon. Friends and I do support a whole series of moves to bolster town and parish councils, and I think that I can say from the Dispatch Box today that we will support such measures when the Government bring before the House on Monday a Bill on that issue.
Secondly, although those measures are not in the Bill before us today—not least because they are in the other Bill—the two Bills are in that respect complementary, just as they are in many other respects, which I shall come to in a moment. Borough and district councils will be given significantly more power compared with central Government if this Bill becomes law. It is much easier for parish and town councils to influence borough and district councils than it is for them to influence central Government. They are manifestly much closer to the scene of the action, and much more interpenetrative. In my area, for example, district councils typically attend parish and town council meetings. I do not suppose that the Minister has time to do that in every parish and town in Britain, and nor would I expect him to. Therefore, the Bill before us moves in the direction of increasing power at a lower level even than the district or borough, but it goes beyond that. There is specific provision for parish and town councils to be part of the group of people who are actively consulted when a local plan is being made.
The hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac) has given me the chance to move on to my next point. This Bill does not create a one-off shift in the nature of our government. This is a Bill in the fine tradition of British constitutional development. It creates the basis for a gradual and progressive revolution in government over many years, because it sets up a ratchet that will exert increasing force over time. Once people comprehend the degree of power that the Bill will give them over how money is spent in their localities, they will increasingly demand more and at a lower level yet. There will be pressure for some of the decisions that the Bill conveys into the hands of boroughs and districts to be further conveyed into the hands of towns and parishes, and—who knows—perhaps eventually into the hands of even smaller neighbourhoods.
I have considerable sympathy—I would have even more if it had been carried forward into action in some way—with the doctrine expressed by the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, before he occupied that post, that we should have double devolution. We certainly do not see the district or borough council as the last word in localism. On the contrary, they are important staging posts on the road towards that.
I welcome the right hon. Gentleman’s comments, but in reality the 60 million-plus people in England do not have representation on parish and town councils. Areas outside towns have such representations, but the majority of people do not. We have to ensure that they have a voice too, because I do believe in devolving powers to town and parish councils.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. To be fair, the Government are moving towards filling that hole in representation in our cities. Town and parish councils will not necessarily be the final resting point for powers: the hon. Gentleman and I both know that some estates in our cities have identifiable communities and neighbourhoods and, sooner or later—I hope sooner—we need to reach a position in which they feel that they have a say over their estate. We are not there yet, but the Bill tries to begin the process.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood made considerable progress in anticipating the Government’s arguments, and I think that I know what two of their main arguments will be. The first is that the Bill to be considered on Monday includes the concept of a duty to co-operate, in which they seek to give more effect to the spirit of local area agreements and to have agencies and Departments represented around the table in local area agreements pay more heed to local voices. I welcome that. It is a step forward. It also in no way contradicts this Bill, which would in fact take matters much further.
I shall illustrate my point with a concrete example. My hon. Friend mentioned Kent, where some £8 billion of public money is spent. About £2 billion of it is spent by local authorities and some £6 billion by the Government and their agencies. The local area agreement is one of the most effectively organised in the country, and it is certainly one in which everybody has tried to co-operate. It has done a great deal of good, but if one talks to people in Kent, one discovers that the degree of influence of the local authorities is heavily circumscribed, because they are not the principal budget holders. In this House we spend a lot of time legislating and talking about legislation, but we are all grown-ups and we know perfectly well that power in government today largely resides in the control of the money, not in the control of the law.
The truth is that the Bill, by enabling a significant transfer of the power over the money—however it is amended during its passage—will alter the relationships within local area agreements, so that the whip hand increasingly transfers to the local authorities. I say increasingly, because the Bill, by defining the role of the Minister as setting the limits of what is “of primarily national significance”, will create a gradually opening lock gate.
To begin with, I anticipate that Ministers will set a fairly narrowly circumscribed area in which local authorities can control spending, and will reserve a large part to Ministers and agencies by widely defining what is “of primarily national significance”. Over time, local communities will demand an ever greater say, and Ministers of all Governments will come under increasing pressure to narrow the scope of what is defined as “of primarily national significance” and hence to enlarge the scope of local authority power. We shall see a gradual shift in the balance of power in local area agreements. If the hon. Member for Caerphilly were serious about the remarks he made in the first, and rather interesting, 10 minutes of his long speech, he would see that as the kind of progress that a certain strand of democratic socialism, which I admire, advocated years back. If he had not spent so much time occupying the House, I would cite for him some of the words that carry those connotations.
My second point in anticipation of the Minister’s remarks—indeed, my last in that connection—is that I anticipate that he will advert to the possibility of an unwieldy bureaucracy. Why do I anticipate that? I have heard from a number of Members who appear to be involved in an activity—or an operation, as I believe my friends the Whips call it—with regard to the phrase “unwieldy bureaucracy”. I take it that somebody has drafted that brilliant and coruscating phrase. We heard the interesting observation that what would make the bureaucracy so unwieldy was the need for the Minister to consider many plans and for the local authority to develop large plans.
When one pauses to think about that, Mr. Deputy Speaker—as no doubt you did, because we had a long time to do so—one realises that such an observation must have come from somebody having drafted the phrase before reading the Bill rather than afterwards, because under the Bill no local authority has to produce any plan at all. It is entirely open to local authorities to do nothing whatever by way of producing plans. If local communities do not want to act, they do not have to do so. No bureaucracy will be imposed locally. It is entirely open to the Minister not to veto a single plan; indeed, in many instances, I hope that that would be the case.
Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
I will in a moment.
It is open to the Minister not to spend any time at all vetoing plans. There is no need for bureaucracy.
Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
With some hesitation, I may in due course give way to the hon. Gentleman, but only after I have completed my point and responded to his hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac).
It is entirely open to local authorities and to Ministers to make the provisions unbureaucratic simply by not taking actions of the kind that they are given the right, but not the duty, to take. However, in addition, if both parties to the transaction intend in a grown-up way to make the Bill work—I hope that if it were law, they would—there is no need for them to engage in vast bureaucracy, because the process is fairly simple. The local spending allocation description that the Government give will show for the first time—an amazing fact—what is being spent in each locality and on what by each Government agency. It will not take a long time for people locally to decide that much of that is fine, so they will have to focus only on the bits that they do not think are the highest priorities. Reaching a decision about how those highest priorities can be established is not an immensely bureaucratic process, unless people want to make it so.
Similarly, the Minister who approaches the measure in a sensible frame of mind will say to himself or herself, “In principle, local authorities are asked to make these decisions under the Bill. In principle, I don’t want to prevent a single one of them from doing so. Is there any here that have failed to consult their local population, have such a slim democratic mandate or are so manifestly lunatic that I have to take the political and parliamentary risk of going before Parliament and trying to explain my reasons for rejecting the local voice?” I hope that in general, year on year, Ministers would not veto a single plan under the Bill. In those circumstances, it cannot be claimed that there will be a vast bureaucracy.
I am a little concerned about something that the right hon. Gentleman just said and I would like him to clarify it. He said that there would be no obligation on the local authority to do anything and that that is why there would not be increased bureaucracy. In that case, how can a community trigger action? How can people ensure that their voice will not be ignored? I may have misinterpreted what he said, but it gave me some cause for concern.
I have a horrible shock for the hon. Lady. If local people see that their local council, unlike the one next door, has taken no action and is not trying to reorder priorities, they have a thing called the ballot box at which they can vote for a different set of councillors, who will take action. That is exactly what we are trying to engender: the ability of local people, by electing local councillors and responding to the consultation when they get it, to have an effect. If the local council observes that the Government’s priorities, through their agencies and Departments, are perfect locally, the councillors will suffer no consequences at the ballot box from doing nothing, because the electors will thank them. However, if all the electors would like to see x and the councillors do not achieve x, because they do not take any action, they will be thrashed at the ballot box, and good luck to the electors.
I have three examples in the Stockport part of my constituency of where the council has ignored the views of the local community: on a village green application, on a proposal to build a new primary school on a former landfill site and over the closure of the local swimming baths. That has left the community of Reddish feeling as though its views are completely ignored and it is an irrelevant part of the borough of Stockport. Unfortunately, the ballot box is not the answer, because the councillors in that part of Reddish support the local community. It is the Liberal Democrat council that has done all that. People are completely disaffected and cannot change the situation.
The hon. Gentleman makes a serious point in that there are cases in which particular groups of people in particular places feel that they are disfranchised if the government that is dealing with them spans a large area and makes decisions that go against their area. However, he therefore ought to agree with me that the progress that we ought to make is gradually to decrease and localise the level at which such decisions are made. The point that I was making earlier is that the Bill goes some of the way towards that. It gives the power of the ballot box at one level, but we hope that there will eventually be a level that means that, in very small areas, people have considerably more direct control. I do not think that he and I disagree about the direction of movement. All that he is pointing out is that, immediately, the measure may not move all the way that we can go. If the council that he described acted in the way that he described in all parts of its district, it would get unelected. That is at least an advance on a central Government who can act against the views of an entire district or borough and yet not get unelected because they are acting in a way that pleases other people in other places.
I will now, with hesitation, give way to the hon. Gentleman.
I want to return to the point about clause 6. I think that the right hon. Gentleman was advancing the suggestion that, in effect, the Secretary of State becomes a mere cipher or rubber stamp. Obviously, if the Bill goes forward, we would like to see consensus and agreement, but there will be occasions when that does not happen. If the Secretary of State simply approves plans by rubber stamping them, without proper consideration, what about the people who are disfranchised, as suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne)? They will be able to have the Secretary of State’s decision judicially reviewed, because it was not considered and discussed properly. Equally, because there is no mechanism in clause 6, the only remedy if a plan is refused would be for the local authority to seek a judicial review of the Secretary of State’s decision.
Unfortunately, the hon. Gentleman has not taken advice about the Bill. The Bill has been drafted to provide a presumption that the Secretary of State will approve plans. It has been so drafted precisely to prevent the circumstances that he alludes to. The Secretary of State will not be challengeable, except under circumstances where he rejects a plan. Then he will have to show that his reasons were reasonable in a Wednesbury sense.
My last point is addressed to the Minister for Local Government’s heart as well as his head, although despite the fact that he has huge significance to the Bill, he is not the ultimate arbiter. Through him, I want to address the person whom we all imagine will become our next Prime Minister, our Chancellor, whose statement about all this has been cited during the debate.
The Chancellor says that he is in favour of localism. Let us give him the benefit of the doubt and take that statement at face value. The Bill would create, in parallel with, and complementary to, the Government’s legislation, a real transfer of power. That would involve an attitude of mind or emotion of trust, because local communities would have to be trusted to make decisions that might be feared by central Government as not those they would make. A genuine localist—someone who is genuinely committed to conveying social responsibility for a good deal of decision making to the local level—will be willing to trust that, although local people will not always make such decisions perfectly, they will by and large take them in their own best interests. The Bill presents nothing to fear for a Chancellor, Prime Minister or Government who are genuinely inclined to trust local people and to convey social responsibility to them.
I hope that the Minister will make it clear to those in government who make the final judgment that the Bill is such a test and that there is considerable cross-party support for such a shift in the balance of power. It would be hugely in the interest of not only later Governments, but this Government, for them to accept and support the Bill. If decisions are taken locally and if power increases locally, people will generally get something that is more like what they want, and the person or persons whom they will thank, oddly enough, will be the very Government who gave them that power. Let Ministers consider the Bill not as a threat, but as an opportunity.
The United Kingdom is a nation of rich diversity. We can be proud that its regions, towns and cities have their own specific characteristics. Our diversity, while we maintain our United Kingdom, defines us as a nation. However, the growing trend of globalisation presents us with many local and national challenges. It is at a local level that a true sense of community can best be achieved.
Community is the bedrock on which our society is formed and we carry forward that principle with every policy that we make. We remain the only people who are true to the principle of inclusion: the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one. In the modern world, a sense of community is more important than ever in our society. A strong sense of local community is also essential to tackle the problems of social exclusion. The Government can be proud of their achievements in that area. We have retained our commitment to it, despite the Opposition’s claims that such interest in the well-being of our society is merely a gimmick designed to grab short-term headlines. Since 1997, we have consistently moved the problems of social exclusion further up the political agenda. It is only due to our Government that we now have a Minister for Social Exclusion, which shows that we have a modern Government working with the needs of a modern society.
Our Government have already done much to develop the idea of community in our society. Since 1997, local government has received a 39 per cent. real-terms increase in investment, the result of which can be seen throughout my constituency through the renewal of children’s play areas, the relaying of pavements to increase accessibility to our footpaths for the disabled, and the development of an efficient environmentally friendly bus service throughout the whole constituency. Such efforts and commitments made by Labour councils and our Labour Government will enable communities to be sustainable in the years and decades to come.
This point ties in with the response that I received from the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin). Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the best examples of community involvement is the development of real and meaningful area committees? The borough of Tameside—I declare an interest as a member of the council—has introduced district assemblies covering the former townships and given them meaningful budgets. The Denton and Audenshaw district assembly has a budget of more than £1 million to spend on parks, environmental improvements and road and pavement improvements, and that makes a difference.
I agree with my hon. Friend, and I congratulate his local authority on the measures that he mentions. My local authority has many vibrant neighbourhood community action teams and organisations. Their efforts and Government commitment will ensure the sustainability of communities for years and decades to come.
In my constituency, which includes Hove and Portslade, there are several areas where the local high street is the centre point for community activity. The hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) spoke of the importance of local shops, and in my constituency the people who run our local shops not only provide a valuable service to those who do not have the means to travel far, but are considered friends by their customers.
Does my hon. Friend have the problem that I have in my constituency, where there is enormous concern to retain independently owned shops, particularly food shops, on the high street? The problem is not that the shopping street is run down; on the contrary, it is one of the best and most popular shopping streets in London. However, it is so popular, particularly in the evening because of its wine bars, that rents have gone up by so much that they often risk squeezing out the independently owned food shops that attract people to it. We are in danger of losing cheese shops and fishmongers—the very shops that draw people to the area. We need powers that enable the local community to counteract that, and to give priority to independent shops, including food shops.
I agree with my hon. Friend. Although our high streets in Hove and Portslade are extremely vibrant and are frequented by many local people, it has been a great struggle for some of our shopkeepers to keep up, and I pay tribute to them for doing so, despite the influx of supermarkets into some areas.
Our local retail outlets mean that fewer car journeys are needed, and they reinforce our sense of community. I applaud the Bill’s emphasis on the need to sustain local shops. To people who live in an ethnically diverse constituency such as mine, the benefits of establishing a strong local community are obvious. We owe it to future generations to ensure that, in decades to come, they, too, have a community of which they can be proud. It is essential that we maintain a sense of community in our towns and cities on a social level, but that sense of community has a real and measurable benefit to our environment, too. How are we to persuade people to leave their cars at home if their local community cannot provide them with the daily necessities?
Brighton and Hove city council has done much to promote the concept of sustainable community. Events as diverse as Pride and the older people’s conference, both held in the past year, are shining examples of a local authority in touch with the people whom it represents. An ever-expanding cycling network enables residents to enjoy more choice in their means of transportation, and they are aided this year by Brighton and Hove’s new status as a Cycling England city.
In many cases, a sustainable community means a sustainable environment. With the growing challenges of the environment, particularly climate change and energy efficiency, it is more important than ever for our local authorities to adapt and tailor their services to the needs of their region. Brighton and Hove’s Labour-led city council is already combining the principles of environmental awareness and sustainable community with the implementation in 2006 of “neighbourhood action on climate change” courses, a pilot community learning initiative. Brighton and Hove city council has provided adult learning courses to local residents on climate change issues and the need to develop renewable energy technologies locally. Jointly developed with the university of Brighton as a community-university partnership project, the courses have led to a proactive neighbourhood engagement project with a community association that is developing proposals for energy-efficient lighting for poorly lit public pathways on a local estate. Funding has been secured for that, too, and incorporation of renewable energy technologies in community buildings is being considered.
The adult learning programme has been developed for other neighbourhood renewal areas in the city. By working hand in hand with local people, the local authority can deliver the best, most efficient service for them. As well as taking into consideration the region’s environmental needs, any new building development must take account of social needs. All large developments must provide 40 per cent. affordable housing, which helps to maintain a healthy balance in the local population, and they are strongly encouraged to include facilities for everyone in the local community.
What does this have to do with the Bill?
Those initiatives have everything to do with the Bill. I accept that the hon. Gentleman is anxious to speak on behalf of his constituents, and I assure him that I shall be brief.
Does my hon. Friend agree that councils do not necessarily need action plans to begin to regenerate their communities? The previous Labour administration in Brent began a regeneration of Wembley that created thousands of jobs in the area, so action can extend beyond the action plans cited by the Bill.
I agree, and I congratulate that administration on its initiative. An example in my constituency is the Frank Gehry-designed King Alfred development, in which affordable housing is accompanied by a sports hall and swimming pool, with energy requirements met by combined heat and power. In fact, most of the five sustainability indicators in the Bill have already been addressed in my constituency with local procurement, as well as recycling and congestion measures. I believe that the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Hurd) is sincere in his ambitions, as I have the honour of serving with him on the Environmental Audit Committee but, in its current form, the Bill could increase the bureaucratic burden, not just on local authorities but on central Government. I fear that his proposal that Whitehall should draw up an individual action plan for each region would decrease local autonomy, so I urge him to reconsider it.
One of my concerns was highlighted by the exchanges between the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs and my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones). Despite the Bill’s lengthy history, it still contains dangerous ambiguities that must be ironed out in Committee, should it proceed that far. For example, what exactly is the meaning of
“increasing participation in civic and political activity”?
That is a worthy aim with which no one in the House would disagree, but it could mean one thing to one man and something else to another. I hope that all those problems will be resolved before the Bill reaches its remaining stages.
The Bill duplicates some existing measures. The Government White Paper, “Strong and prosperous communities”, provides local authorities with greater autonomy, enabling them to make key decisions in their region. The Bill, however, has many merits, and I applaud the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood for the personal interest that he takes in the matter. Many of my hon. Friends agree with him, particularly with his belief that local shops and producers are essential to maintain a sense of community. The concept of community and social inclusiveness is, and always has been, one of the cornerstones of our society. Given their initial scepticism about the need for a Minister for Social Exclusion, I am heartened that the Opposition now take the issue as seriously as the Government. I welcome many of the Bill’s proposals, and I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to consider them seriously and pursue them in whatever legislative form he considers suitable. I echo the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman), who has called for the spirit of the Bill to be incorporated in an all-party measure, as the problems that our communities face today can best be tackled when all parties work for a greater sense of community for all.
I associate myself with the concluding remarks, and many others, of the hon. Member for Hove (Ms Barlow). In that spirit of cross-party co-operation, I shall speak in support of the Bill. I congratulate its promoter, my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Hurd). It is an honour to be a co-sponsor of the Bill.
We have heard a number of interesting speeches, one of which will go into my personal record book for its length. I lost track of the points that the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr. David) was making after about half an hour, and the will to live after about 40 minutes. Nevertheless, I commend him for whatever operation was going on.
I compliment the hon. Members for Falmouth and Camborne (Julia Goldsworthy) and for Stroud (Mr. Drew) on a key point that they made in support of the Bill—that it does not represent a trickle-down, Lady Bountiful approach to giving power to local authorities. It presents a challenge to local government, as well as empowerment. It is a challenge to communities and local government to address local problems, and it is a challenge to Government to promote the Bill’s premise that communities and councils are the experts on their own problems and the solution to them. It was that premise which took me into local government, and it is a theme of what I have been trying to achieve in my constituency.
The solution to what has been called “ghost town Britain” lies not in this place or in Whitehall, but with those living in communities. The Bill is about trusting those people. Hon. Members who support the Bill tonight—[Hon. Members: “Today.”] Indeed, today. It feels like tonight, after the speech from the hon. Member for Caerphilly. Hon. Members who support the Bill will be judged for that trust. Those who oppose it will have to face the rainbow alliance of organisations that supported it and the many people in their constituencies who have called for the principles of the Bill to be enacted.
Many people look at tiers of government—Westminster, regional, county, district and parish government—in linear form. I prefer to see it as a pyramid, with a large number of councils getting closer to the people at the base of the pyramid. The Bill seeks to invert the pyramid, making central Government act in support of local government. That principle finds a ready home in the hearts of Members in all parts of the House. I commend it to all sections of the House.
Among the written depositions in support of the Bill are a number from rural communities. There is a myth, which needs to be dispelled, that the Bill is directed at rural communities. My constituency is largely rural, but the Bill is as important, and in some respects even more important, for many urban communities. My hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood would not introduce a purely rural Bill.
As a Member—possibly the only one on the Opposition Benches today—who represents a large city, Bristol, I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the Bill is directly relevant to an urban community and a city centre, particularly in respect of planning classifications for housing. My hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Julia Goldsworthy) mentioned rural housing and second homes in Cornwall. We have the same problem in the city centre of Bristol, where whole streets are being bought up by buy-to-let companies to let to people who come into the city on a short-term basis. If the planning laws were changed and local government could decide for itself whether that contributed to a balanced and sustainable community, our cities, as well as rural areas, would have a balanced population.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. I echo those sentiments with reference to my own constituency. Half the population there lives in towns such as Newbury, Thatcham and Hungerford. In Thatcham and suburban parts of Newbury I see the same pressures on those communities, and the need of local people to feel that Government understand them and that Government are empowering them to solve those problems. I have seen government work from the bottom up. West Berkshire council has achieved beacon status for its promotion of parish plans, which are delivering, in microcosm, precisely what the Bill seeks to achieve. The people involved are not the usual suspects—they are brought into the process from across the community. They identify the problems in that community and hold the next tier of local government—as well as organisations such as the police and the primary care trust—to account for the solutions. That is the principle of shifting the balance of power downwards that my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) mentioned a moment ago.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that in many cases inner-city high streets are the new villages, because they are populated by people who do not want to go further away to a supermarket but want to have a baker’s shop, a fishmonger and a butcher on their doorstep, in their high street? The problem is not, as it is in many villages, depopulation, but rents that are too high because of the sheer popularity of those streets. However, it comes down to the same thing—it is difficult for people to get what they want, and what people in every village want, which is a high street that enables them to shop in independently owned local food shops serving local produce.
The point that derives from that is that it is easy for people on higher incomes to travel to purchase the goods that they would otherwise have bought from those shops, while people on lower incomes suffer. Too often in modern life it is tougher to be poor, sick, old or mentally ill in relatively prosperous areas, such as parts of the hon. Gentleman’s constituency and parts of mine, than it is in more deprived areas.
In talking about ghost town Britain, we often, rightly, refer to the loss of shops and post offices, but it is also about services. That has recently been brought home to me in my constituency. The local magistrates bench used to sit in Lambourn and in Hungerford as well as in Newbury but, perhaps for entirely proper reasons, it no longer sits in Lambourn—where the accused and everyone else used to help to set the chairs up, which was probably not the best way of running a court—and has withdrawn to Newbury. Now, there is pressure from above—from central Government—to move that court service from Newbury to an all-purpose court in Reading. That is probably at a more beneficial cost to the taxpayer, but it is symptomatic of the problem addressed in the Bill. Not only does the community in Newbury suffer the loss of a civic entity, and the proportionate loss of a sense of self-worth, more importantly, the people of that community are much more remote from access to that service. Where does that leave, for example, a victim of crime living in a remote village in my constituency who currently has to travel to Newbury to give evidence but in future, under the proposals that are being pushed forward, will have to travel a great distance to Reading?
I sympathise with the hon. Gentleman’s point about justice being dispensed at a local level, but can he tell me how the provision of magistrates courts would be affected by the Bill?
I certainly can, and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me the opportunity to do so. Clause 4(3) states:
“The Secretary of State may by order define the services or types of services which are of primarily national significance for the purposes of subsection (2)(c) and shall give reasons for all such definitions.”
I hope that that satisfies the hon. Gentleman. As the hon. Member for Gower (Mr. Caton) said, these matters should be discussed further in Committee.
There is another answer to the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones). Under the Bill, if a local community thought that it was a priority to keep a local magistrates court open, and if the Lord Chancellor’s Department thought that it would save money by doing so, it would be open to the local community to propose as part of its plan a subsidy scheme to keep the court local.
As always, my right hon. Friend puts it so much more eloquently than I could, and I entirely agree with his point.
Throughout the country, other services are being lost—for example, ambulance stations being removed in some communities. We have always been told that all these reorganisations are for our greater good, but when something like that happens, as it did in Hungerford 10 years ago, the result is often a less than perfect service. In order to comply with Government targets on response times, it is much better for ambulances to be hanging around big urban areas such as Reading—and the people of Hungerford and other smaller towns across the country lose out.
Whether we call them “reforms”, “reorganisations”, “reconfigurations” or whatever, they are always driven from the top down and they always militate against local people in smaller communities. They are too often done for the convenience of the organisation than for the people it serves.
I would like to comment on an earlier intervention by the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) in which he spoke about traffic and congestion. I shall provide one example of how the Bill will help to resolve some of those problems. In Newbury some years ago, there was a movement plan. Consultants were brought in and a plan to improve the movement of traffic around the town was developed. A presentation was made, at which all the great and good were present, and everyone agreed that it was a good plan. At the end of the meeting, however, an official stood up and explained that the plan had to go to the Government office for the south-east and to the South East England regional assembly to have their imprimaturs put on it. I asked myself—a lowly citizen in those days before I was elected here—why on earth we live in a world in which a regional government, either the Government office or the regional assembly, has to tell us how the Bone Lane roundabout in the middle of Newbury is configured. That is ludicrous.
The Bill provides an opportunity because, under it, local communities can be empowered to do things for themselves, which is why I commend it to the House. I could raise many other issues, but I want to give other hon. Members time to speak. We must pay attention to the enormous breadth of organisations that support the Bill. We must remember that hon. Members on both sides of the House support it. Ultimately, what it is all about is trusting local people to make the right decisions for their communities.
Let me start with the traditional, but nevertheless sincere, congratulations to the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Hurd) on securing top place in the ballot—something that I never got anywhere near; perhaps I will in the future, as who knows what that holds—and on choosing this subject for his Bill. He has brought together a coalition around an issue that is touching a lot of nerves—not only in the House but in the country at large.
The fact that we were able to keep the Chancellor waiting on the line this morning while the BBC interviewed us about the Bill may not have been a career-enhancing move for me—even less so now that I have said it—but it reflected the degree of interest in the hon. Gentleman’s Bill, so I congratulate him again. This week’s Local Government Chronicle also reports on the consensus that the Bill has generated across councils and parties.
The all-party Local Government Association’s welcome for the Government’s own Local Government Bill shows that the two Bills are moving in the same direction. I am therefore placed in a somewhat difficult situation in respect of complying with your strictures, Mr. Deputy Speaker, about focusing today’s debate on the Sustainable Communities Bill when it may be helpful to the House if I referred at times to the Local Government Bill. I suppose I am asking for your indulgence in that respect, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Indeed, our debate today is one side of the coin. On Monday, we have the Second Reading of the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill, when further debate on this subject will take place.
Serious commentators accept that the Government are devolving power to local government and locally elected councillors over not only their institutions and budgets but the objectives of the partner organisations, many of which are Departments working through our local offices.
It is also widely accepted that we believe that devolution, which builds on the measures that we have already introduced—we heard a strong contribution about the impact of that on Wales—should be increased. We want to devolve power beyond the local authority to neighbourhoods and parishes. The right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) acknowledged that and I support his remarks. Our plans have been dubbed “double devolution”, although I am not sure whether the good people of Oldham and Saddleworth quite grasp what that means.
Our proposals to increase devolution are prominent in the Government’s Bill through the proposed introduction, subject to the will of Parliament, of the best value duty to involve, devolve and consult. That provision, along with another on the duty of co-operation, would make the Government’s commitment to devolution legislative reality.
The Government have been accused of not taking the Sustainable Communities Bill seriously and opposing it because it is not a Government measure. The hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood described it as a “not-invented-here” opposition. In so far as we oppose the measure, we do not object to its policy intent. Indeed, we strongly believe that the concept of a sustainable community is our invention, especially that of the Deputy Prime Minister, who has made it reality through the policies that we have pursued and the regeneration of many of our towns, cities and other areas.
On the Government’s duty to consult, does the Minister have any sympathy with the views of my constituents, who believe that consultation is undertaken and often ignored? The principle behind the Bill is that, after consultation, action that communities want would be taken, rather than actions being imposed on them. My constituents would welcome that shift of power back to the communities instead of being asked for their views and then ignored.
As elected representatives, we all recognise the hon. Lady’s point. It is always desirable to implement the outcome of consultation. However, although it is important to consult and, when possible, go along with the results, financial reasons and contradictory implications mean that that is not always possible. One could consult the neighbourhoods in the hon. Lady’s constituency and ask whether they would like a new library or a swimming pool, but resources would not allow them to be built everywhere. The council would find itself having to agree with one group and disagree with another. The point that my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) made about Stockport council was valid, despite the jeering of some hon. Members. The problem applies, whatever the political colour of the leadership. However, I understand the hon. Lady’s point.
If the public body undertaking the consultation does not believe that it can comply with the results—in other words, it leads people to have false aspirations—that further diminishes politics. The right hon. Member for West Dorset made just that point. How to make good those points is a question with which we are all grappling. I believe that the best value duty to involve and consult is a powerful way forward. The idea not just of devolving but of enabling from the bottom up is at the heart of our Bill.
The Minister will recall that, before the last general election, the Deputy Prime Minister ran a consultation road show on regional devolution, for which there was not great enthusiasm. However, the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Hurd) has introduced a Bill that has come from a grass-roots campaign for which the enthusiasm across the country is clear, as has been reflected in meetings held in my constituency, for example, in Kendal. Surely the Minister should embrace that enthusiasm, which stands in contrast to the failure of the Deputy Prime Minister’s campaign before the election.
I am sorry if the hon. Gentleman thinks that I am not embracing that enthusiasm. The Government should be commended for promoting a localist agenda. I always find it ironic that the hon. Gentleman criticises the Deputy Prime Minister for promoting a referendum and abiding by its result, and in the same breath accuses him of not consulting or ignoring consultation. I guess that that is just politics.
I shall take one more intervention and then I must make progress.