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Balanced and Sustainable Communities

Volume 459: debated on Monday 23 April 2007

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.— [Kevin Brennan.]

I am delighted to have the opportunity of raising the subject of balanced and sustainable communities on the day on which we celebrate our patron saint, St. George. For so long, Ireland, Scotland and Wales have celebrated their national day. I am delighted that the House of Commons is leading the way in celebrating St. George. I am particularly delighted that this debate coincides with the celebration of our national day, because I represent a constituency that is very patriotic and is celebrating St. George’s day. During my brief speech, I want to talk about Southend in particular with regard to a balanced and sustainable community. If the Minister does not have the time to respond to all the points that I intend to raise, I am sure that he will write to me.

I started preparing for this debate by finding a definition of a sustainable community. I found eight key characteristics. It should be active, inclusive and safe; well run; environmentally sensitive; well designed and well built; well connected; thriving; well served; and fair for everyone. That sounds a pretty good range of things for a balanced community to have.

A sustainable community is really the antithesis of ghost-town Britain, which has seen the decline of community. That has been well documented of late. It has been highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Hurd) in his Sustainable Communities Bill and also by the Communities and Local Government Select Committee in its report on coastal towns. Ten years of top-down centralisation from Labour have frankly added to the cycle of decline in local communities. If people were able to restore their feeling of pride in, and responsibility for, the individual communities in which they live, the quality of those environments and the quality of life of their inhabitants would improve. There can be no better way to build sustainable communities than to involve the people who live in them, so I call on the Government to give a much higher priority to the promotion of sustainable communities than they appear to give at present.

I find Labour’s approach to the Sustainable Communities Bill somewhat puzzling. It reminds me of the Warm Homes and Energy Conservation Bill, which became an Act of Parliament and which I was privileged to pilot through the House in 2000. There are a number of programmes that touch on the notion of sustainable communities, but there is no focused strategy to deal with the problem. I understand that at least 50 per cent. of Labour MPs support the Sustainable Communities Bill and that, resisting the “not invented here” syndrome, the Labour Government have finally decided to back it. I am delighted about that, but I fear that the Government do not have a joined-up strategy on the issue.

If the Minister wants firm evidence about how serious the situation is, I can tell him that over the past few years 8,600 independent grocery stores have closed, 4,000 bank branches have closed, 200 police stations have closed, 13,000 independent newsagents have closed, 700 doctors surgeries have closed, 162 green-belt developments were approved by the Government, and 20 independent pubs closed every month. In 2005, 70 per cent. of rural parishes had no general store, 75 per cent. had no daily bus service, 83 per cent. had no GP, and 43 per cent. had no post office. All that has happened under a Labour Government.

The post office closures in Southend have had a serious effect because we have the highest number of senior citizens in the country. Throughout the country 3,700 post offices have closed. The Government gave all sorts of reassurances that that would not impact on local communities, but it certainly has done so in the area that I represent.

Although I welcome the fact that there are now 20 PayPoint outlets in Southend, West, where payments can be made in cash or by debit card for television licenses and in cash for most utilities and mobile phone top-ups, I am concerned that those services will not be accessible to the elderly in my constituency, who are not familiar with the new facility. How on earth the Government expect senior citizens to cope with new technology I do not know. As a result of what has happened with post offices in urban areas, only 42 per cent. of people now walk to their post office, down from 70 per cent. before the recent spate of closures.

The Minister knows more than most, because we had a number of meetings with him about the Southend census. Nothing was done to help my constituents after the 2001 census left 20,000 people off. The subject has not gone away, because it is such a serious matter when funding is provided for 20,000 people fewer than in fact live in the constituency. I do not know how the mistake was made or why I was not alerted to it earlier. It is no good the Government suggesting that the local authority can raise more money. It cannot, because the Government would cap it.

The biggest effect, as the Minister knows, is on buses. Southend residents value their buses, which were being run by First and Arriva. The local authority had to withdraw the subsidy, because it has no money, so services were stopped on the 23 route connecting Belfairs to Tesco and Leigh Broadway, and Arriva stopped an evening and Sunday service along the route from Belfairs to Southend hospital and to the town centre.

The main candidate for providing the necessary funds had until very recently been Tesco. The Minister will no doubt be intrigued by that. The initial encouragement that I received from Tesco led me to question the assumption that national supermarkets, which are blamed for the identikit high street, are not conducive to sustainable communities. For some time I had been in discussion with Tesco, which had informed me that as a firm it often subsidises local bus services for the benefit of the local community. Unfortunately, after a meeting earlier this year with representatives from Tesco who were sent down to the area by the chief executive, I was given the somewhat contradictory information that Tesco did not subsidise local bus services and would not be making any exception. Dealing with Tesco in that respect over 18 months has been a complete and absolute waste of time. I am very dissatisfied with what has happened. I have a letter from one of the directors of Tesco, reiterating its negative response. In the light of record profits of £2.6 billion, I am less than happy.

On the subject of identikit high streets—I am pleased to see my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend, East (James Duddridge) in his place, because I was going to refer to his high street—between 1997 and 2005, 50 specialist stores such as butchers, bakers and fishmongers closed a week. That has all taken place while we have had a Labour Government. I am not enamoured of identikit high streets and I am fortunate that Southend is not over-afflicted by the phenomenon, but there are certainly many challenges in Southend high street. Independent retailers, starved of business by the big supermarkets, have less money to spend locally and make less demand for local products. That in turn impoverishes local producers. Although I welcome Tesco’s surprise announcement on 3 April about increasing the producer price of milk by 4p to about 22p per litre, that is a frightening indicator of the power that supermarkets now have to dictate prices to producers. All of that has happened while we have had a Labour Government.

Between 1997 and 2002, the number of UK farm workers fell by 100,000, leading to many rural homes being taken over by city commuters, who have much weaker links to the local community and are less likely to spend their money locally. As the country’s food infrastructure has contracted, it has become increasingly difficult for small shops to source their goods from nearby wholesalers—dairy or abattoir. It therefore comes as no surprise that the distance that the average tonne of UK food is transported has increased from 82 km in 1978 to 128 km in 1999.

The other point that the Government wax lyrical about is democracy. They have a great deal to say about democracy, but in practice they will go down in history as the most undemocratic Government of the last two centuries. In the run-up to the local elections on Thursday week, we are again exposed to the apathy, I dare say, of the general public. I believe in restoring powers to local councils. The Government have taken all the powers away from local authorities. They are now told what to spend money on and how much money to raise. All their power has been lost under this Government. Restoring powers to local councils and involving the public in consultations, as the Sustainable Communities Bill proposes, would encourage people to take part in the democratic process. The key to building a sustainable community is requiring the active participation of communities and residents, mainly through local authorities—let us set the people free.

I am vehemently opposed to the unaccountable power wielded by today’s quangos, as are my hon. Friends the Members for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) and for Rochford and Southend, East. The hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) also has some reservations about the number of quangos in Essex. I welcome the proposals in the Sustainable Communities Bill to make the action of those organisations more transparent. It is not surprising that taxpayers are disheartened by ever-increasing tax rises when they have little control over how money is spent.

I will end with two points. Southend faces a tough employment situation. I will not go into huge detail about it tonight. The Minister has the evidence in the latest report from the Communities and Local Government Committee, which shows how seaside resorts have suffered. The fishing industry, which was traditionally an alternative source of employment for residents in Southend, has been badly hit in our area. Quotas introduced this year introduced by-catch limits of 25 per cent. on skates and rays. That threatens to cripple fishermen up and down the East Anglia coast.

I am informed that, although stocks of skates and rays might be threatened off parts of Britain’s coastline, they are in plentiful supply in the waters off my constituency, but they cannot be caught. In 1983, the UK extended its fishery limits to 12 miles. That now clearly needs to be seen to be working. Some 24 years later, fishermen in my constituency are seriously suffering. One of the Minister’s colleagues recently met a delegation to discuss the situation. The Minister knows from the Select Committee report that a high proportion of people living in coastal towns are claiming benefits, especially incapacity benefit.

On Friday, I visited Westborough school, which is just about the largest primary school in Essex. The foundation school has been nominated for the sustainable school of the year award. It is an excellent example of how a primary school can make a valuable contribution to the sustainability of a community. It provides support to both pupils and parents in a variety of ways and tries to meet the challenges presented by the diverse urban population from which it draws its intake.

The character of Westborough school has changed dramatically over the past five years from a predominantly white school to a school in which 30 languages are spoken. The school has a long-term vision for the development of its land-locked site and Edwardian building. It has a recycled playground and an environmentally friendly cardboard classroom. It is committed to inclusion and its intake fully reflects the diverse, socially mixed community. Every child participates in an inclusive production each year and no ethnic group is marginalised. The school operates an open-access policy for parents, and problems are dealt with on a same-day basis. The school works with local social services and other providers to facilitate the return to education of disaffected secondary school pupils.

Westborough offers a choice of more than 20 clubs, which are available four days a week and include Spanish, French, reading, sports, art, Latin, chess and cookery. The school runs a breakfast service to ensure that pupils receive a morning meal. Its focus on green and environmental issues is preparing children to be responsible citizens of the future.

Southend, West has the vital ingredients that are required for a sustainable community. I ask the Minister to reflect on the powerless position in which the local authority finds itself and to consider whether the Government could do a little more to help.

I give my genuine congratulations to the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) on securing the debate, especially because it is being held on St. George’s day, our national day. I share his view that it is right to celebrate St. George’s day. On Sunday in my constituency, 1,250 of our Brownies, Cubs, Beavers and Scouts celebrated the 100th anniversary of scouting, as did the rest of the country. Such celebrations take place on the nearest Sunday to St. George’s day, and Sunday was one of the proudest days that I have had representing my constituency.

I want to give the hon. Gentleman some encouragement. The direction of travel that he is imploring the Government to follow on devolution—or double devolution, as it has been called—is at the heart of the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill, which is being considered by the House. The Bill builds on the local government White Paper that was published in October 2006.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the Sustainable Communities Bill. The Government did not vote against that private Member’s Bill. We are discussing with its promoter and sponsors how we can meet the Bill’s objectives of helping to sustain communities in a way that is workable and beneficial. Much merit is claimed for the Bill, ranging from the assertion that it will save local pubs to the suggestion that it will save high streets from voracious supermarkets. Having read the Bill, I am puzzled about how that would be translated into reality. However, its core philosophy is one that we support, and we are considering how to improve the Bill. A number of measures are already in place, or are being put in place, that achieve the goals of the Sustainable Communities Bill. Indeed, debate on the Bill gives me the opportunity to explain to the House in greater detail what those measures are.

The hon. Member for Southend, West, paints a bleak picture of Britain, and I understand why, but I have to say that if he travelled with me to most towns and even villages on a Saturday night, the phrase “ghost town” is not what would come to mind. One wag in my constituency said that it was more like the wild west than a ghost town. I share with the hon. Gentleman the concern about the decline of independent shops, and the work of the all-party group on small shops should be commended, but it would be misleading if the Government gave the impression that those problems would be solved simply by passing a private Member’s Bill. We have to ensure fair competition, but the supermarkets are successful because they provide consumers with what they want. Some of the supporters of the Sustainable Communities Bill have to marry that support with the idea of a free market economy, but I am certainly not here to bash successful businesses.

The Government have made significant changes to planning policy, and we believe that they help the situation, particularly with out-of-town shopping centres. I know that that is a big issue in the hon. Gentleman’s part of the world; I also know how popular such shopping centres can be, but it is right that planning policy should ensure that town centres and retail centres benefit. That oil tanker has been turned around, and the advent of the new, smaller IKEA stores is the best known example of that so far.

Some of the figures that the hon. Gentleman gave on closures are gross, and not net. I have learned in my time in ministerial office to be wary of figures that move in that way. Indeed, in a previous incarnation, I used to produce regular figures on the loss of manufacturing jobs—it was when the Conservatives were in government—and I confess that they were gross figures, not net figures. The same survey carries on today, much to my discomfort, so I cannot really complain. In any case, the hon. Gentleman raises a serious point. Two specific issues to do with the census figures were raised by him and by the hon. Member for Rochford.

I apologise. The constituency was changed after the Boundary Commission report, was it not? The hon. Member for Southend, West, and the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East, raised the issue of the census. Of course, we have to rely on the best figures that are available to us, and the Office for National Statistics is the source of the figures. On the distribution of the money, we simply distribute a cake, as it were, and local authorities and Members have reasonably put their arguments about their area’s individual circumstances. I have been lobbied by 18 Members of Parliament who have put a “unique” case, but if there are even just two cases on the same basis, neither can be unique, can it? That is a serious point. The ONS has reported on the work of its working party; it has provided an interim report and is considering how we can deal with the matter.

We live in an era of multi-year settlements for local authorities. The Government changed the formula in the current round to ensure that there is a greater forward look, and to ensure that we do not just rely on historic trends, so I assure the hon. Member for Southend, West that his lobbying has not been wholly without benefit for his area. Later this year, we intend to announce a three-year settlement for 2008-11, and it is important that the discussions on the population figures continue.

I recognise the hon. Gentleman’s point about seaside towns. Over the decades, we have seen a general shift because of changes in tourism, changes in fishing industries and other factors. That has been highlighted by all-party groups, by the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government and by academic studies such as those from Sheffield. There are often different reasons in different parts of the country, sometimes to do with port trading, fishing or tourism. I suspect that in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency it is a mixture of all three. He nods in assent, which confirms my briefing and my personal knowledge of Southend. There are strong arguments and the issue is being addressed, albeit, I recognise, not entirely to his satisfaction.

The hon. Gentleman raised the issue of concessionary fares. That exposes an important point about devolution. Local authorities and Members of Parliament often argue for devolved powers and against ring-fenced budgets. When the Government provide non-ring-fenced budgets and devolve power, we are often told that the money is not enough, which is the argument on the concessionary bus fares scheme. When the money was provided on a non-ring-fenced basis through the local authority revenue support grant settlement, some councils said that it was not enough. One cannot have one’s cake and eat it. If it is such a priority for the local authority, it has to take some tough decisions, just as Governments do. There is further good news, however, because the Chancellor has announced not only a nationwide concessionary fare scheme for buses for the elderly and disabled but a national scheme. Discussions are taking place in Government on how the funding mechanism for that should be handled. Representations made by the hon. Gentleman and others are of course being considered as we work out how the scheme can best come about.

The hon. Gentleman made a rather startling claim when he said that this Government were the least democratic for two centuries. Universal suffrage has not been around for two centuries. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman says, “For two decades.” That gives me a get-out, because I think that I would come out on top were he to make claims about the previous Conservative Government, particularly as regards the abolition of councils and interference in local authorities in that period. Indeed, I could refer to the memoirs of Kenneth Baker, who described how he had to tackle, as he saw it, the views of local authorities in the 1980s—not a lot of devolution around then.

The local area agreement, which pools and aligns Government and local government money in local authority areas, is a significant devolutionary measure. Every local authority in England now has such an agreement. Approximately £500 million is channelled into local area agreements, and that frees up local agencies, especially local councils.

The legislative framework under which councils operate has changed and is changing again with the Sustainable Communities Bill through the key measures of the statutory duty on the partner agencies to co-operate with local councils. Clause 108 provides for a duty to involve, inform and consult, thus fulfilling many of the Bill’s goals. Part of my task in Committee is to discuss with members how we can best move forward on that.

Local authorities’ financial and legal frameworks are changing, especially through the measures that I have mentioned. Crucially, the performance framework is also changing through the freeing up by the Government and the Audit Commission of the regime under which councils operate.

The accusation has been made that central Government tied down local government. We introduced tough measures, which, along with the hard work of councillors from across the political spectrum and the extra money over the years—no one quibbles that it has been provided; many say that it is not enough but none says that it is too much—have meant a significant improvement in the quality of local authorities. That is not only my view but that of the Audit Commission and other independent bodies.

We are now in a position where we are freeing up local authorities, especially through the significant reduction of targets. There is a strong consensus in the Local Government Association about that. I therefore believe that I can meet some of the measures for which the hon. Gentleman argued but I still resist the accusation that we are the most undemocratic Government for two centuries.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at nine minutes to Eleven o’clock.