[Relevant Document: The Fourth Report from the Business and Enterprise Committee, HC 89, on Regional development agencies and the Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Bill.]
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
Every one of us understands the degree of public anger at politics and politicians and the pressing need to reform our democracy, but it is vital that that anger be channelled into practical reforms that reconnect people with their political system and allow citizens to exercise more influence and more control. The Bill is practical and focused, and it takes us a few steps further forward on our journey.
First, it continues the drive towards stronger local democracy, empowering both local authorities and individuals by implementing the principles set out in the White Paper “Communities in control”. Secondly, it promotes economic recovery and encourages future growth and development by implementing the proposals set out in the review of sub-national economic development and regeneration. A healthy and vibrant democracy is the foundation of a secure and prosperous society. In the past decade, local authorities have taken on an increasingly important role in driving change and improving the lives of local people: we have given them increased freedom and flexibility so that they can make the most of their local strength and knowledge and connect with local people.
It has become clear, particularly in the past few weeks, that many people feel cut off or inhibited from taking part in the democratic process. It is vital that we try to overcome those barriers and to create the thriving, healthy and vibrant local democracy that would give people every possible opportunity to speak up and get involved in their local services. Side by side with the Second Reading of the Bill, we have today published a review of the evidence base, which looks at the various ways we can try to empower people—whether that involves the transfer of assets, participatory budgeting or the right to use petitions. The review reinforces exactly what we are trying to achieve through the Bill.
The Bill introduces new measures to strengthen local democracy further by, first, giving councils new duties actively to promote democratic engagement and civic participation and, secondly, giving local people stronger rights and more opportunities to have their say, through increased and enhanced scrutiny and—for the first time—through legal rights to get a response to their petitions.
In these tough economic times, those goals are more important than ever. The goals make everyone feel they can take practical action that will have a direct impact for them, their families and their neighbourhoods. The goals will also help people to shape more effective and responsive public services. That is even more important at the present time.
We all understand the desire and need to promote greater involvement, but I am puzzled by the concept of the duty. It implies that something will happen if an authority does not live up to it. What exactly would happen to an authority that was seen to be in breach of its duty? How would such a duty be determined? Would it not be better not to have that concept of duty but to keep the promotion of greater involvement, with which the right hon. Lady would find the House in full agreement?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. Getting the balance right between powers and duties always exercises us in local government. It is important that there should be a duty because, unfortunately, although many local authorities are doing excellent work on that agenda, not all of them are. We want to try to bring everyone up to the standard of the best. Embedding the issue in the local performance framework, so that that the comprehensive area assessment will measure and assess how well local authorities are promoting democracy in their areas, will be important in ensuring that the issue becomes part of the normal core business of local authorities, rather than the icing on the cake. How far we go with duties as opposed to powers is always a matter of judgment. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to raise the issue, because democracy is fundamental.
Does my right hon. Friend understand that one of the mistakes we made on this side was to prevent many local authorities from maintaining a committee system? That system was healthy for democracy; it was a form of power sharing that involved all councils of all political parties. When we come to the appropriate stage, will my right hon. Friend accept an amendment that would permit local authorities to have a committee system once more? That system endured and was successful for more than 110 years.
My hon. Friend will table amendments at the appropriate time. I do not accept that simply having a committee system will ensure better local democracy. I have seen many committee systems in which people’s service on committees has prevented them from being out and about in the community as front-line champions and local representatives. [Interruption.] It is clear that my hon. Friend does not agree with me on the issue, and he is perfectly entitled to his view.
I am looking at clauses 3 and 4. Could the Secretary of State explain what business it is of a local authority to “promote” matters to do with the criminal justice system? In clause 3, for example, she requires local authorities to promote independent monitoring boards to do with prisons, courts boards and youth offending teams. Clause 4 states:
“A principal local authority has a duty to promote understanding among local people of…the functions of a lay justice”.
Surely the separation of powers that her Government seem so keen on would contradict what she has put into these provisions.
I am surprised that the hon. and learned Gentleman does not recognise that the implications of the criminal justice system have a real impact on local communities. These bodies are not separate entities. To follow through his point, he is saying that the local authority should have nothing to do with the police system or the health system. People live in communities, and all these bodies have an impact on their quality of life. It is very important that local authorities should seek to help to recruit people to become magistrates and school governors—to take on all those civic roles in life. If he feels that these things are entirely separate, independent and not interrelated, he is not living in the kind of community that most of us live in.
With regard to a duty, will my right hon. Friend say explicitly that there is a role for parish and town councils? I declare an interest as a continuing town councillor of some 23 years. They are the first level of government, not the lowest level, and they have a key role to play in all manner of different areas. It is important that principal authorities consult them, use them as a layer of democracy, and do not try to shut them out. I hope there will be a provision in the Bill to make that formally the case.
I can reassure my hon. Friend that I am absolutely committed to ensuring that parish councils, town councils and all these local organisations play a full role in our democracy. I have had several meetings with the National Association of Local Councils; its members are an extremely constructive group of people, and I am keen to involve them at every single level during the passage of this legislation.
I am more than happy to give my hon. Friend that undertaking. Increasing numbers of town councils, parish councils and neighbourhood councils are being established in urban areas. As we have moved towards the new unitary authorities, which are quite large organisations, it has become very important to get them underpinned by local democratic bodies. I do not see parish councils as simply a matter for rural areas: wherever people live, they should have the right to have local representation in their community and neighbourhood.
Following up the points made by the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier), the Bill is just one element of a wider Government drive to try to ensure that local people have every opportunity to get involved in local decision making, not merely within their local authorities.
We are in danger of having a fairly sterile argument, because the Secretary of State clearly does not understand the point that I made to her. If she thinks that it should be the duty of a local authority
“to promote understanding among local people of…the functions of a lay justice”,
why should it not promote understanding among local people of the functions of the Church of England or, in her particular area, the Methodist Church? Why does she draw a distinction between what is a proper function of a local authority and all the things that she refers to in the Bill?
People who commit offences or get involved with the criminal justice system live in places and communities, they interact with families, and they have an impact on neighbourhoods. That is why it is important to try, for example, to encourage people to get involved in youth referral panels, and it is entirely proper for the local authority to encourage that to happen. Far from my not understanding the hon. and learned Gentleman’s point, I would say he does not understand how modern communities work in this day and age the length and breadth of this country.
The progress that we have made in implementing the proposals in “Communities in control” has just been set out in our progress report, which, together with the evidence base, is published to coincide with Second Reading. I have been heartened by the fact that the evaluation of the proposals that we have made so far indicates that we are beginning to make some progress in making people feel more able to influence things that happen in their neighbourhoods.
The second theme of our Bill is economic development, both promoting recovery in the short term—real help now for communities—and, crucially, promoting growth and prosperity in the longer term. Over the past year we have been working with local government, regional development agencies and local community groups to try to determine the best arrangements for driving economic growth in future and to identify how the relevant powers and responsibilities should be distributed among the local, regional and national levels. The results of our consultations have been largely welcomed and endorsed, and the Bill will now put the arrangements in place.
Alongside the imperative to improve economic performance, should we not give equal weight to social and environmental concerns? Should there not therefore be a much bolder, stronger duty in the Bill relating to sustainable development as a whole, rather than a big assessment of economics and little reference to sustainable development in regional planning?
I hope to be able to reassure my hon. Friend, because I know that he is a champion of this issue. The whole purpose of the single integrated regional strategy is to balance economic growth with the environment and social justice. Those are the three pivotal issues that we need to get right in our integrated planning. Something that has not been as well managed as it might have been is the fact that spatial planning has gone in one direction and economic planning has gone in another. Using the same evidence base for both in drawing up the single regional strategy will be a significant improvement. I give him the undertaking that sustainable development is at the heart of the Bill.
That being the case, would it not be far more appropriate for the regional development agencies to be overseen by the Department for Communities and Local Government rather than the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform?
With great respect, I shall make a similar point to the hon. Lady to the one I made to the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier). Increasingly, the way in which services are organised will require more integration at both Whitehall and local level. The mere fact that the RDAs sit in another Government Department should not militate against joint work, integrated services and balancing economic and environmental sustainability. The days when the Department that bodies were in determined the framework within which they operated, to the exclusion of such broader thematic considerations, are long gone—or they ought to be gone, very quickly indeed.
It is important that all our organisations are accountable, and when I come to the single regional strategy, I hope that my hon. Friend will be reassured that the RDAs, working with the leaders’ boards and signing off plans jointly, will give us some of that accountability. I would also make the point that in the current recession, the RDAs have played a significant role by acting quickly, nimbly and flexibly to promote jobs, and particularly to help small businesses during this tough economic time. That is an important part of their role.
I am intrigued by the fact that, although my right hon. Friend rightly says we ought to encourage greater participation and local democracy, we are now talking about the RDAs. In the case of the Liverpool city region, the RDA is channelling all the European structural funding to the Mersey Partnership, which started off as an unelected, glorified tourism operation and is accountable to nobody. How can we get practical politics with accountability when we are using quangos of one sort or another, at not just regional but local level, to dispose of the funding in a given area?
I hope my hon. Friend will see that the proposals in the Bill are designed to address the issue that he raises. The single regional strategy will be a joint document prepared by the local authorities and the RDA, and it will need to be signed off by the leaders’ board. In many cases the local authority will be the delivery agent for implementing that strategy, and the RDA funds will therefore be channelled through the local authorities to deliver the priorities that local people say are important to them. I hope that at the end of the debate he will be convinced that those are steps in the direction in which he wishes us to travel.
Further to the intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney), will the Secretary of State give some indication of whether the Campaign to Protect Rural England could be consulted on sustainable economic development, so that we have safeguards for protecting and enhancing biodiversity and landscape? Will there be scope for the Bill to include something more specific on that?
I appreciate that my hon. Friend is an advocate of environmental issues, especially biodiversity. I reassure her that we intend to draw on the knowledge, expertise and experience of organisations such as the CPRE when forming our strategies. I have no doubt that, when the Bill proceeds through Committee, questions will be asked about the next stage, the guidance that we issue and the consultees we draw into our process. We want to ensure that the environment is at the heart of our proposals.
May I press the Secretary of State a little harder on community involvement in the regional strategy? She gave my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) reassuring answers about community involvement. Indeed, clause 72 provides that a statement on community involvement should be prepared and published. However, can it be right to leave the decision about who should be consulted to the RDAs and the local authority leaders’ boards? How can we ensure that those who have economic, social or environmental stakeholding responsibilities are genuinely and actively involved with the communities in which they are rooted? That is a significant concern that people in North-West Leicestershire have about the Bill. They are worried that community involvement is not spelled out, but left to the discretion of unelected bodies, which will perhaps fulfil the responsibility in a rather token way.
I understand my hon. Friend’s concerns and those of other hon. Members to ensure that we maximise community involvement. Hon. Members know that that cause is close to my heart and that I have campaigned on it for many years. I am trying to ensure in the Bill that the elected authorities, which are members of the leaders’ boards, take responsibility for that. [Interruption.] They are elected by people in the community.
I take the point that the social, economic and environmental partners need to be fully involved, but we have not prescribed that in the Bill because that needs to be flexible. The clause that my hon. Friend highlighted provides for community involvement on a statutory basis. That is a huge step forward; in the past, it was simply taken for granted. If my hon. Friend wants to make that involvement even firmer, I am sure that there will be opportunities to do that during the Bill’s passage through the House. However, I give him an undertaking—I have given many undertakings today—that community involvement should be at the heart of the strategy. If it is not, the issues that people feel are a priority for them will not be addressed.
I am interested in the Secretary of State’s comments about taking cognisance of the desire for RDAs in particular to reflect community interests more. How would she effect that desire when Advantage West Midlands, the RDA in my area, is on the point of cutting substantial funding to each local authority in its area without proper consultation?
The hon. Gentleman knows that RDAs throughout the country, including in the west midlands, have played a significant role during the economic downturn in doing the opposite of what he claims. They have provided support, particularly for small businesses, through advice, information and deferring tax for more than 100,000 business organisations. They have also played a significant role in bringing inward investment to our regions. Of course, the community needs to be involved in drawing up single strategies, but we should not underestimate the role of the RDAs in providing real help to people and communities now. I know it is the Conservative party’s policy to abolish the RDAs, but I think that would be unpopular with businesses that are trying to provide employment opportunities for people in their areas.
The first clauses introduce a new duty for councils to promote democracy. Many hon. Members have asked me what that means practically. It is a novel duty, which has not been considered previously, but the Bill sets out in some detail what it means. Councils must explain their functions: what they do and how they reach decisions; and how other bodies, such as the police, the health service and the criminal justice system, make decisions. Ordinary people have a legitimate interest in knowing how those organisations, which have a significant influence over their lives, conduct their business, and how they can get involved, influence their decisions and make them more accountable and responsive to them and their community.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that in promoting democracy in our areas, it would be useful if local authorities such as Bradford got back to the idea of canvassing to get people on the electoral register, which is a basic ingredient of democracy?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Obviously we have important elections later this week, but if people are not registered to vote in the first place, trying to get them out to vote is very difficult indeed. However, she will know that the Secretary of State for Justice and I are trying to put extra funds into electoral registration and provide a more rigorous performance framework for electoral registration, which will, we hope, maximise an accurate and comprehensive register. It is essential that people are registered to exercise their democratic rights.
That is an excellent idea. I am delighted that we managed, after three or four debates in the House, to establish the principle that the Youth Parliament should be able to sit and hold a debate in this Chamber, despite opposition from some Opposition Members. I am also delighted to tell my hon. Friend that we recently launched a programme to establish at least another 20 youth mayors, with budgets, across the country. We will also launch a programme shortly to allow young people to shadow Ministers and councillors in their areas and give them an understanding of what exactly their work entails.
My hon. Friend will know that the Youth Citizenship Commission is looking at exactly those issues and will come forward with recommendations in due course.
The new duty to promote democracy means that councils must explain their functions and decision-making processes. The Bill also introduces a duty for local authorities to respond to petitions, which is a fairly straightforward way of trying to ensure that issues that people are concerned about locally are discussed. The review of evidence, which I talked about earlier, also confirms that when petitions are taken seriously and people feel that they will be acted on, they will have a significant influence in getting more people involved.
Does the Secretary of State not understand that the real problem with councils explaining themselves is the sheer complexity of the environment in which they already operate? It is difficult for those of us who interact daily with councils to understand, but the Bill will make the situation more complicated and more difficult to explain, and therefore less democratic.
If someone has a problem with litter and graffiti on their street, the Bill requires the council to respond to their petition. I do not see how that makes the situation any more complex; in fact, I think it makes getting something done about the problem much more simple and straightforward.
I agree with the Secretary of State that petitions and large-scale participation by the public are welcome. She must therefore welcome the more than 28,000 submissions to the east of England regional strategy, of which nearly 27,000 turned out to be objections, and the 35,000 submissions to the strategy for the south-west, of which I would guess more than 30,000 will turn out to be objections. Is she satisfied that enough changes will be made, as far as she is able to make them, as a result of those thousands of objections, and that the Bill reflects a move towards more accountability by regional bodies, not less?
The hon. Gentleman has been an effective advocate in relation to some of the spatial strategies. He will know that we have looked very carefully indeed at the representations and that significant changes have been made as a result. I hope he will give us credit for that. It is important that people take part and feel that some things do change. It is my experience that people do not expect everything to change as a result of their representations, but they want to see that they have made a difference. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that that is exactly the procedure adopted in the spatial strategies.
I am going to make a little progress; otherwise I will take up everybody else’s time.
The best councils already take account of petitions—I think that about a third of councils have a formal scheme in place for doing that—and we now expect all authorities to follow suit. If enough people sign a petition, this will trigger a debate, guaranteeing that elected representatives discuss the issues that are of concern at local level. Amendments in the other place have made the petitions scheme much less prescriptive than was originally proposed, which will help authorities to set the parameters around the petitions duty.
The Bill also extends the existing duty on local authorities to involve local people to a whole range of other organisations, including Jobcentre Plus, police authorities, the Environment Agency, probation trusts and other providers of services. They, too, will have to involve local people. Eventually, we shall have an integrated system in which involving people is done as a matter of course, rather than being somehow out of the ordinary.
Will that duty to participate also extend to partnership organisations, such as local strategic partnerships in which a number of organisations make decisions about public resources, as well as the statutory authorities that the Secretary of State has already mentioned? Such organisations often do not meet in public.
All the partnership organisations should certainly be under a responsibility to involve local people. Those organisations are spending public money and our intention is to move towards a system in which community engagement with decision making on the totality of public expenditure by local authorities, the health service and the police is fundamental to ensuring that the best possible decisions are taken.
The Bill goes on to enable the Secretary of State to fund the National Tenant Voice, which will be a powerful advocate on behalf of tenants. I think that there are about 4 million people in social housing, and they need a strong voice. This measure will ensure that they are heard at the highest level, and that they will be involved in shaping the policy that affects them. It will complement the work of the new Tenant Services Authority.
I should like to mention an excellent example from my own neighbourhood. An arm’s length management organisation called Salix Homes has a scrutiny panel of about 30 local tenants, known as senators. I think that this has been the first scrutiny work of this kind in the country. The panel makes recommendations and its views are fed into the housing association, which makes changes on the basis of what its tenants have said is important. That scrutiny is driving continual improvement and excellent services, and it is really making a difference.
Clauses 30 and 31 will strengthen overview and scrutiny arrangements in local authorities, making them clearer, easier to understand and more effective and, I hope, making it easier for residents to get involved. I am always conscious of complexity, but if we can make the scrutiny arrangements simpler, people will feel that it is worth while their getting involved and making a difference.
Councils with responsibilities for local area agreements will have a duty to designate an officer with specific responsibility for scrutiny—many places already do this, but, unfortunately, not everywhere does—so that there is a person who is responsible for ensuring that there is a better way for the public to get involved. Local authorities will also be able to set up joint overview and scrutiny committees. For example, a range of district councils could come together to be more effective. Those committees will have a greater remit, and will be able to review issues affecting a whole range of residents.
The first half of the Bill finishes with clauses to establish a new, impartial and independent local government boundary commission for England. This was recommended by the Committee on Standards in Public Life to enable the Electoral Commission to concentrate on its core duty of electoral registration, rather than having to deal with boundary issues. I hope that that provision will be welcome.
Let me turn now to the second half of the Bill, with its emphasis on promoting economic recovery and growth. We all know that national prosperity depends very much on what happens at local and regional level. In the new economy, an ability to have clear vision and leadership in our regions and at sub-regional level will be fundamental to success. It is essential that local and regional leaders put in place the right strategies, and that they have the right powers, frameworks and investment to drive opportunities in the new economy.
Our review of sub-national economic development and regeneration recognised the importance of local authorities in a significantly different way from what had been the case in the past. That is particularly important in tough economic times, so we need to ensure that the framework and the powers are rightly held at each level of government—local, regional and national.
The Bill places a duty on local authorities to assess the economic conditions in their area, looking at factors such as employment, jobs, skills, enterprise, the number of start-up businesses in particular areas and so forth. If they have such information through the assessment, they will be much better able to provide the economic leadership that will stimulate and promote growth. Many councils have a really good understanding of their local economy; not all do, however, and we want to bring them all up to the level of the best.
The next clauses introduce the single and integrated regional strategy that I have talked about for each English region outside London. It involves a much more co-ordinated approach, bringing together issues such as housing, transport, skills and planning that go across local authority areas. If we are to provide the right framework, particularly for inward investment, our pitch to the people who we want to invest has to say that there are good offers around planning and transport that are fundamental to driving economic regeneration.
The less integrated approach that we have had to date has taken about five years to move from initial consultations through to draft proposals on changes to the regional strategy in the south-west—and it is still not complete. How long, then, does the Secretary of State think the more integrated version will take?
It will be an awful lot faster than the previous process, and I say that to the hon. Gentleman for this reason. In the past, we had spatial strategies that often used a different evidence base from the economic strategies, which meant that there were inherent tensions in the system that pulled against each other rather than pushing us towards a much more integrated approach. The fact that the strategy will need to be signed off by the leaders’ board and the regional development agency provides an incentive for them to ensure that everything comes through quickly, while at the same time taking into account the environmental and community issues that my hon. Friends have raised. We will have integrated strategies that will help to drive forward economic development as well.
Will my right hon. Friend include an explicit definition of sustainable development in the Bill? Many definitions are floating around in different legislative measures, but surely this is the Bill in which to lay to rest any uncertainty about the need for all development to be sustainable. Does she agree that we should put that at the heart of the Bill?
If development is not sustainable, it will not be the kind of development that will drive economic prosperity or quality of life, which are absolutely at the heart of this Bill. Whether it be housing development, jobs or industry, sustainability has to be built into it from the beginning; that is one of the lessons we have learned in reflecting on the different strategies we developed previously. As I said, they clashed with each other, whereas we are now developing an integrated approach, which I know my hon. Friend feels so strongly about.
We could probably embark on an interesting philosophical discussion and I am always keen to explore these issues with the right hon. Gentleman, who has a great deal of experience in this area. There are principles of sustainability that apply to the environment, climate change and creating the kind of community that is not just about building houses, but the schools, transport, shops and facilities that go with them. These principles of sustainable development are now, I think, fairly well established, which means that we should not be creating the kind of communities that we unfortunately saw in the 1960s and 1970s, which were not good places for people to live, work or bring up their families in. The whole point of these strategies is to create sustainable places in which people want to live, work and bring up their families. It is not such an arcane discussion as we might have had a few years ago, because those principles are, as I say, pretty well established now.
The Secretary of State is being very patient with us. I have nothing against regional strategies; indeed, quite the reverse, having seen what the other lot did for many years. Having a partnership to decide the regional strategy is one thing, but is it not the case that the regional development agency effectively holds a gun to the elected members’ heads simply by virtue of the fact that it controls the funding? The RDA certainly has the upper hand in determining the important outcomes from the strategy.
I would say that the position is almost exactly the reverse. Although the regional development agency has the RDA funds, local authorities also hold a huge amount of resource in the form of their normal funding, the working neighbourhoods fund or the future jobs fund, which I announced last week along with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. It gives local authorities £1 billion with which to create 150,000 jobs over the next two years. Make no mistake: local authorities are not in the weak, supplicant position of simply having to go along with what the RDA says. This has to be a genuine equal partnership, and local authorities are increasingly becoming powerful economic players for their own regions and communities.
Given the economic assessment, the single strategy and the work of the local authority leaders’ boards and RDAs in driving it forward, I believe that something very interesting is emerging. This is not just about economic development at regional level; it is more and more about what happens at sub-regional level when local authorities form groups in order to drive change. Many authorities of all political persuasions are now choosing to enter into multi-area agreements, because they see the importance of collaboration between them on this economic agenda. Ten agreements involving 78 local authorities across the country and covering a quarter of the population have been signed from South Hampshire to South Yorkshire and everywhere in between.
Cheltenham, Gloucester and Tewkesbury are collaborating on a joint core strategy that will implement the regional spatial strategy that we expect to be finalised this year. Should they now stop that process and wait for the new integrated regional strategy? Will they not otherwise be developing the implementation of something that is already out of date?
I see no reason for those authorities simply to call a halt to their discussions and plans. It is not beyond the wit of people to adapt to the new statutory framework once it is in place. It would not be sensible for them to throw away all the work that they have already done, much of which can be drawn into the new single integrated strategy. That is a matter for negotiation between the leaders’ boards and the RDAs in their areas. I do not want people suddenly to decide, on an arbitrary date, that all their work has been pointless and that they will not do it any more. A great deal of it will have involved gathering evidence and coming up with policies that will be just as relevant in the future as they were in the past.
In a moment. I want to finish what I was saying about the multi-area agreements. The fact that 10 have been signed, involving 78 local authorities, a quarter of the population and a number of different parties, suggests that people are seeing significant benefit in greater collaboration between local authorities, and I want to encourage them to do more of that. Many have told us that they want to put MAAs on to a statutory footing so that the authorities have more legal power to make a difference. The Bill makes it possible to set up MAAs on a statutory basis similar to that of the local area agreements, which are now beginning to integrate health, council, police and other services.
I hope Members agree that this is a coherent piece of architecture. Where statutory processes are operating, the centre will exercise less power and devolve more power to the people in local authorities who we all want to be able to make decisions.
The Secretary of State has just described this as a much more coherent arrangement. I am sure that it is from the point of view of those sitting in Whitehall, but how coherent does she think it appears to those who are at the receiving end of public services in local communities? How effective does she think they consider these multi-area agreements to be?
That is a fair question. So far the architecture has been designed to achieve system change, and it will not necessarily have an impact on people with specific requirements—for instance, those who want to know how to obtain funding for their local nursery or community allotment. The challenge for all of us, as politicians, is not just to bring about system change—although we must do that: we must make the system work—but to translate that into giving people opportunities to do what they want to do in order to make their communities better places in which to live. The community generally does not need to know the details of the MMA, the LLA and the comprehensive area assessment. That is for us to deal with. The challenge—and I take it as a personal challenge—is how the system can be made simpler and easier for people to handle from the inside. That is why there is a duty to promote democracy and to explain who makes the decisions, where people can have an input and how they can make a difference.
On a point of detail about the sub-regional consideration of development issues in particular, recommendation 26 of the Business and Enterprise Committee’s fourth report of Session 2008-09 stated:
“The Committee is concerned about the process by which local authorities…can leave EPBs.”
If there is no easier mechanism to withdraw, a disruptive member of an economic prosperity board could cause real difficulty to the EPB. We have not yet had the Government’s response to our report. What does the Secretary of State say about the mechanism by which a local authority that no longer wishes to co-operate with an EPB can withdraw?
Again, that is a fair question, because the whole purpose of moving to an EPB is that some continuity is provided and people sign up, even though they might be from different political parties, to a set of priorities for that community. Thus, this needs to involve some legal basis, and we need to think carefully about what a notice period might be and how people might withdraw. What we do not want is people in an EPB for six months and then out of it for six months—as has been said, we do not want a hokey-cokey approach. These are very serious matters relating to developing five-year or 10-year strategies on planning and transport—big strategic issues—so people have to be signed up for a reasonable period before they are able to withdraw. However, this is a matter that we will doubtless be able to explore, as was discussed in the report.
We now have MAAs and we will have EPBs; importantly, the EPBs can be joined up with integrated transport authorities, and there will then be a single body that can take a properly integrated approach both to economic development and to transport.
My right hon. Friend will regret giving way. If she looks at the Official Report tomorrow, she will see that all this about economic prosperity boards tying up with some other bodies is gobbledegook. Most people have had enough of all this. Why can we not cut away this plethora of bodies and focus on democratically elected local authorities? That is why I say to her that this is complete nonsense and that we have had enough; we want to get rid of this plethora of quangos and joint bodies, and all this linking up and partnerships—all these buzzwords. I say take it back.
I do not regret giving way, because it always good to have a healthy debate. All I would say to my hon. Friend is that I do not know how much discussion he has with the various bodies in his local community, but the people who run the health service, the police service and the council in my community feel that there is great benefit to be had from working in partnership, from pooling their budgets and from having more joined-up services, and that that provides a better service to local people.
Now, I was—[Interruption.] There is lots of democracy in this Chamber; I have been speaking for quite a long time.
I was just making the point about transport, because it is important. Transport sometimes sits separately from other issues associated with economic development, and if our funding streams and capital allocations are not aligned with the decisions that we need to take to encourage economic development, we do not get the most out of the resource that is available to us. So, again, the approach we are taking is a positive way forward.
This is not a humorous matter, although there have been some humorous moments this evening. Before we move on to the final parts 8 and 9 of the Bill, which deal with construction contracts, could the Secretary of State give us a running total of the number of additional bodies, quangos, boards—
I have no doubt that the hon. and learned Gentleman will be pursuing that question on a regular basis while the Bill is being discussed on the Floor of the House and while it goes through Committee. I tried to make the point as kindly as I could earlier, but if he thinks that the world is still made up of a series of entirely separate, isolated and dislocated public services, he is not in touch with the communities out there. For a young offender who has difficulties in his home life, finds it hard to access training and cannot get an apprenticeship or a job, we need a series of local public services to come together in order to be able to provide the response for that young person in an integrated way—that is the way of the world these days. Hon. Members might wish to go back to the mythical halcyon days when everything was done separately in silos, but they are looking back through rose-tinted glasses. That is not the world of today, and the hon. and learned Gentleman is out of touch with reality—[Interruption.] I have answered him. He may not like my answer, but I have answered him.
On the issue of construction contracts, would my right hon. Friend consider giving local authorities powers, when awarding contracts, to take into account their functions under clause 66 of the Bill to promote the economic development and regeneration of their areas, and to consider the desirability of maintaining a diverse range of contractors? In addition to value for money, local authorities should consider local economic circumstances and the position of local building firms, which are suffering severely in this recession. This legislation could help them.
My hon. Friend makes a thoughtful and practical point. We can be more creative, when it comes to Government and local authority procurement, in looking at the factors that we take into account. We need to look not only at the bottom line, but at the social impact in an area. The evidence base suggests that if money is spent locally in the local community, every £1 spent has £7 worth of economic impact. If it is spent outside the area, the impact is much lower. In these tough economic times, it is very important to have local supply chains that help to create and sustain employment.
The aspects of this Bill that relate to the construction industry are about better cash flow and trying to ensure that there is an adjudication process for the industry. I think that the Bill will provide practical help for construction companies in the present climate.
I welcome the intentions of part 8 of the Bill, but much of the industry is concerned that the payment notice procedure is far too complicated. Will she undertake to look carefully at how the procedure will operate, so that it can be radically simplified and genuinely deliver real help for small businesses? Will she give a commitment to that effect today?
That will be the subject of discussion. I remind the hon. Gentleman that this Government have provided significant support to small businesses through advice and the option to defer tax and VAT. Already more than 100,000 businesses have benefited from that provision, and we have a proud record of helping business. If there is more that we can do, I am sure that that will be discussed in Committee.
I am sure that my hon. Friend will continue to be a champion for Luton and the people who depend for their employment on vans and other products from the area. We must never forget the damaging impact of this recession on people’s jobs, and we are determined to try to ensure that we keep people in their jobs as much as we possibly can.
The Secretary of State is glossing over the construction provisions at the end of the Bill, which are being watched carefully by subcontractors who are suffering at the moment. If a customer becomes insolvent, the main contractor can cease paying all the subcontractors immediately, even if those subcontractors have supplied all the materials and work on time and to schedule. That is very unfair, especially in a recession, and the companies are unable to obtain insurance against it happening. The Bill does not deal with that situation, and that puzzles me. Will the Secretary of State look again at the issue? I know that other Departments are involved, but she has received representations from me and my constituents about this issue. What is her present view on it?
The provisions in this part of the Bill are primarily about trying to improve cash flow, but I take the right hon. Gentleman’s point about the dislocation of the supply chain and the impact that that has particularly on small subcontractors. We want to try to make it as simple as we can—the right hon. Gentleman has made that point—and we want a procedure to resolve disputes properly. I am not in a position today to tell him whether we will be able to expand the scope of these provisions, but I think that it is very important that small businesses in the construction supply chain, in particular, have as much protection as they can.
The right hon. Gentleman will know that we have asked local authorities to pay their bills, for example, as quickly as they possibly can. Many of them now have very good payment records. One of the problems is that although they might pay the main contractor very promptly, ensuring that that goes down the supply chain is very important when it can mean the difference between a local company staying in business or not. I am conscious of these issues. I am not glossing over this part of the Bill and I want to see what I can do.
I am most grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way and I am keen to support the points that are being made. Small building companies are writing to me and they are very anxious. They understand the integrity of part 8 and they are very clear about its potential value, but they have made it clear to me that the form in which it is written is complex and that they would appreciate it greatly if that complexity could be resolved before the Bill becomes law.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that point. As ever, she is practically focused on doing the things that matter in her constituency and to her local companies. I certainly undertake that, in Committee, we will examine the issue of complexity and making it simple and straightforward. She is so right—we have to keep many of those small building companies in business because they often employ people whose skills are essential to this country. In previous recessions, we lost those skills because we saw such companies go to the wall. We are determined to do what we can to ensure that such companies stay in business and keep employing the hundreds and thousands of local people in our communities who are so important to us.
On the issue of small businesses and the part of the Bill that deals with construction companies, will my right hon. Friend consider ways in which smaller building companies can still have a part to play? There is a real fear that the joint ventures and the move towards bigger contracts are cutting out local companies from the local economy altogether. There is an urgent need to ensure that we keep that local supply chain.
The Bill makes provision for more transparency in the contractual process. Will there be more guidelines, in the Bill or elsewhere, for local authorities on the subcontracting done by the main contractor? Increasingly, large companies are going for local authority contracts but the way in which they then subcontract is opaque and is sometimes not open to local companies. Some extra guidance on that would be important.
It might not be a matter for these clauses, but the way in which we carry out our procurement more generally and ensure that it is transparent, open and simple for firms to access is a major priority for us. One thing that this difficult economic period has shown us is that ensuring that people can access the available contracts in a way that is appropriate to them is quite a challenge, not just to local authorities but for Government procurement, too. As a priority, we should look at the NHS and our big Government Departments—really significant economic players—and ensure that the system is as open as it can be to people in small organisations.
It is appropriate that we have just had that discussion, because the last time the UK experienced a recession, councils were pretty underfunded and were certainly demoralised. Today, I think that local authorities are thriving, innovative and powerful organisations that are well placed to respond to the challenges ahead.
During the recession in the 1970s, when I was a member of a local authority, local authorities were encouraged to build tens of thousands—hundreds of thousands—of council houses, which we did. We completely housed all those on the waiting list during that time. Would my right hon. Friend not suggest that that is the way forward, both to house people and to save the construction industry?
My hon. Friend will know that there was £100 million in the Budget to encourage precisely such activity and that we are removing barriers that prevent local authorities from building houses. He will also, I hope, be aware of the £1 billion future jobs fund that I hope will help to employ young people, in particular, in 150,000 jobs over the next two years. I am sure that many of those jobs could be in the kind of work that he has outlined, involving building good-quality, environmentally friendly homes for the people who need them.
Today, local government is thriving, innovative, powerful, and well placed to respond to the challenges ahead. The Bill is designed to reinforce that position by strengthening local democracy and supporting economic development, which are the two imperatives of our time. I commend the Bill to the House.
I am sure that everyone in the Chamber with an interest in local government will have spent the past few weeks, including the recess, campaigning for the local elections. After knocking on doors daily throughout the expenses furore, I am sure that we are under no illusion that people want our democracy to work better for them, and I was glad that the Secretary of State began by acknowledging that.
On the face of it, the title of the Bill seems to hold out some promise for us all, but it is a bit misleading, which is just the first of many disappointments. Far from being a local democracy Bill, it is a charter that snatches power away from people. It is about taking power away from locally elected decision makers and giving it to regional quangos, combined authorities and economic prosperity boards—the gobbledegook, to which the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) has referred, that makes people feel distant from the political process.
The sheer fact that something as vital as strengthening local democracy has been lumped together with provisions on the construction industry and other economic aims tells us that the Government do not see strengthening local democracy as sufficiently pressing in itself. Instead, local democracy has been tagged on to a series of measures that look like remnants of other Bills that have been scraped off the floor. Why, for example, are we legislating to create a national tenant voice within a few days of the Office for Tenants and Social Landlords coming into operation? Either the Housing and Regeneration Act 2008 has been found wanting or this is unnecessary duplication. No wonder my noble Friend Baroness Warsi described the Bill as a “ramshackle” piece of legislation with
“lots of motherhood and apple pie”.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 10 December 2008; Vol. 706, c. 404.]
The critique was not confined to the Conservative Benches. Noble Lords from all parties described the Bill as “an eclectic mix”, “a bureaucracy Bill” and, at best, a “mixed bag”.
The hon. Lady asked why there should be a voice for tenants in addition to the Tenant Services Authority. The Cave review, which proposed the reform, makes it clear that the tenant voice is a separate function that must be discharged by a body separate from the TSA. Does she therefore agree that there is considerable good sense in the Bill’s proposal?
The right hon. Gentleman has considerable knowledge about local government, but my point concerns the Government’s legislative competence. Given that the Housing and Regeneration Act 2008 went through both Houses of Parliament, why was the opportunity not taken to legislate on precisely the point in the Cave review to which he has referred?
In the light of the criticism admirably made by the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) about the complexity of the Bill, my hon. Friend might like to know that my Committee’s report on the Bill is the first that has required a glossary at the beginning so that people can find their way through it—I commend the glossary to the House.
I thank my hon. Friend for referring hon. Members to where they can find out how to understand the language used in the Bill.
I have long held a theory that the longer the title of a Bill, the more delphic its content, and this Bill is no different. I say that advisedly as the author of a book snappily titled “Non-food uses of agricultural raw materials: Economics, biotechnology and politics”. Needless to say, the book did not find its way on to Richard and Judy’s bestseller list.
To return to the matter in hand, over and over again I found myself writing, “Why do we need to do this?” in the margins beside the clauses of the Bill. So much of the Bill is plain common sense, or is already best practice for some councils. Best practice should be spread by councils sharing and emulating the good ideas that well-run councils introduce, but does it need a change in the law to tell them how to do that? I do not think so. Will more legislation make councils do their jobs better? I doubt it. It will stifle innovation and suppress diversity, and I happen to believe that diversity drives up standards. Diversity is a far better tool for change than the dead hand of the state. The Bill is simply legislation for legislation’s sake. By that, I mean that it is unnecessary, and even counter-productive for being so prescriptive.
I invite hon. Members to admit that half the contents of the Bill are things that most decent local authorities are doing anyway. Why are we using valuable time in the Chamber, in Committee and in the other place debating legislation that dictates when, where and how councils go about promoting democracy? On the evidence of the Bill, I venture to suggest that Ministers should not be giving advice to anyone about how to promote democracy. Why not trust councils, which have to secure their own mandate, to manage their own ways of promoting democracy, and let them be judged by the voters?
My right hon. Friend highlights a problem that is part of the general frustration felt by the public, which we parliamentarians share. Through the guillotining and timetabling of Bills, we have seen an awful lot of legislation not scrutinised properly in this place and then seen it prove to be undeliverable or unworkable in practice, so he is absolutely right to point out that the time constraint is likely to cause more problems of that kind. I add to that the fact that 170 amendments were introduced in the House of Lords, so one has to ask oneself how well prepared it was in the first place and how much work hon. Members will have to do on it in this place.
Similarly, why do measures on petition-handling and involvement in public authority functions need to be prescribed from the centre? Why not let councils get on with it themselves? If we really want a Bill that deals with petitions, let us start by getting our own House in order, literally. The Scottish Parliament really impressed me with the way in which its petitions are used to shape legislation. That contrasts sharply with the way in which petitions seem to have such a limited effect here in Westminster. How many petitions have hon. Members seen disappear into the green baize purse on the back of the Speaker’s Chair to which there is never any reply? I certainly find that disempowering, and I am sure that those who sign them do, too, but that is a bigger debate for another day.
The problem with prescribing processes, such as those for petition-handling by councils, in tiny detail by statute is that one ends up creating an expensive new compliance industry, with town hall officials chasing targets and ticking boxes. The same applies to the requirements for economic assessments in part 4 of the Bill. Is the Secretary of State honestly trying to tell me that she thinks that local authorities do not already carry out local economic assessments? At best, that is a textbook example of what my noble Friend Baroness Warsi described in another place as “prescriptive overdrive”. At worst, it is an example of Ministers using legislation to strengthen Whitehall’s whip hand over the town hall. I did not hear an answer to the question posed by my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) about what happens when authorities do not carry out the new duties that the Secretary of State has in mind.
By seeking to codify, monitor and sanction areas of activity where local authorities have been creating successful new ways of doing things, the Government are regressing further and further into defensive, top-down centralising. How telling is it that in its original form, the Bill gave the Secretary of State the power to change any economic assessment with which she disagrees? That gives the lie to the phrase, “Whitehall knows best.” How on earth does that stack up with devolving more power to local communities? It does not.
Unless I am very much mistaken, the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Kilfoyle) has serious misgivings about the accretion of power at the regional level to quangos in his area. I can tell him that that would go under a future Conservative Government.
In large part, this is a Bill about taking power away from communities and their elected representatives. For evidence of that, we need look no further than the way in which it entrenches the role of unelected, unpopular and unaccountable regional government. I do not understand why the Government are so determined to undermine local democracy through their obsession with regionalism. The one region that was given a say on regional government voted by a majority of 80:20 against it, yet it was ignored and regional government has been steamrollered out across the country ever since.
Regional government is an albatross around the neck of local councils, and it is time that the whole costly and needless project was ditched. Can the Secretary of State understand why those untouchable regional monoliths are so disliked? They are outmoded and unwanted. Until a Bill comes before the House pledging their abolition, they will continue to be the Achilles heel of local government. Lord Judd gave the game away when he said this in another place:
“I understand the Government’s wish not to be too prescriptive and not to undermine autonomy, which they want to see regions exercising.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 29 April 2009; Vol. 710, c. 244.]
There we have it—regional autonomy. That surely explains why, rather than aborting regional government, part 5 transfers planning powers from regional assemblies to regional development agencies. In short, it transfers powers from one unaccountable quango to another.
I am at a loss to reconcile that with the stated aim of the Bill, which is to empower local government and communities. Regional government has been tried and tested, and it has been found wanting by every reasonable measure. The Bill should abolish regional housing and planning at a stroke. Colleagues will know from their own experience that more often than not, when people have a complaint about the scale and location of new development, the new development originated in the region. With no regard for the local environment, the infrastructure or sustainability, housing targets are forced on communities, leaving them and their elected representatives powerless.
Is it any wonder that planning has become so controversial and new development is constantly met with such hostility? As the Campaign to Protect Rural England has put it:
“Some parts of the Bill will result in communities feeling even more confused about, and disengaged by, the planning system.”
There must be a better way to get the new housing that we need.
A number of amendments were tabled by the Conservatives in the Lords to withdraw from the regional spatial strategy and to push power and resources down to local authority level. Is the hon. Lady embarrassed that more Liberal Democrats than Conservatives turned out to support those amendments? How will she ensure that there is the same enthusiasm on the Back Benches as she is describing on the Front Bench?
I am rarely embarrassed by Liberal Democrats; usually, the most I feel is sorry for them. The strong proposals that we made in our green paper on the shift of power back to the local level is not matched in any concrete way by anything the Liberal Democrats have proposed to return power to the local level.
The official Opposition have pledged to abolish regional planning and housing, and instead give communities a real incentive to deliver the right kind of housing in the right places. Ask communities if they would like incremental growth in their towns and villages, and most would welcome it as a way of sustaining local services and delivering homes that their children can afford to buy and accommodation that their elderly can step down to so that they can live near their friends. But force massive new developments on those towns and villages, with no infrastructure and no regard for the character of the neighbourhood, and those communities will resist them at every opportunity. So let us get away from that top-down, centrally determined, regionally imposed approach. That is old politics.
Let us move from the stick to the carrot and look at what communities can reasonably absorb and what they will benefit from. Then let us give them clear incentives to deliver new housing, such as our proposal for matching council tax proceeds for every new house built for the first six years. That would give councils an immediate 100 per cent. increase in the amount of revenue generated by creating new homes. Responsible local authorities that currently have record housing waiting lists can be trusted to deliver the right homes that we need in the right places.
As always, the Conservatives focus on owner-occupation. Last week, however, there was a report that 67 per cent. of young people have almost given up on the prospect of owning their own homes, especially as mortgages will be more restricted in future. Is it not a reality that, for most people, a decent home with a garden and proper bedrooms will mean a local authority home? If we are to house most of our population decently, we will have to recreate the local authority sector as it once was.
I hear the hon. Gentleman, but I have said nothing about tenure, and from evidence we all know that mixing tenure is the right way forward. He spoke with a misty-eyed nostalgia for the 1970s, I think, when the rate of social house building was significantly higher. But how comfortable does he feel about representing a party that for the past 12 years has built social housing at half the rate of the previous Conservative Administration? That point requires some careful thought.
It is depressing that a Bill with “Local Democracy” in its title contains almost nothing about freeing up and empowering councils. The Government’s distrust of democracy is such that the Bill’s only gesture towards local involvement is a leaders’ board. However, the board will have no right of veto, and, as a former party chairman, I can tell the House that a board’s right of veto is often what gives it real teeth.
I am listening with great care to the hon. Lady, and I hope that she will reciprocate. She was right to say that the northern region rejected the whole concept of a regional assembly, but she was quite wrong to state that local governments and local councils do not work together. In the sub-region of the Tees, we work together effectively on housing and spatial issues, because the distinctions between Middlesbrough, Stockton, Redcar and south Cleveland are indecipherable. Joint working by councils is greatly valued, so to knock it or to understate its value is not appropriate.
The hon. Lady perhaps misunderstood me, because at no point did I say that local authorities do not work together; in fact, I encourage them to do so. However, we should not be prescriptive about which local authorities work together. I accept that in the north-east, which is one of the smaller regions, most local authorities feel a sense of identity with the area, but I hate to tell the hon. Lady that some parts of the country feel that they do not fit in very well with the artificial regions that her Government have created.
If one speaks to voters in Banbury, one finds that they remain completely nonplussed by the suggestion that, according to the Government’s artificial regions, they are part of the south-east. They do not feel part of the south-east. Similarly, people in Gloucestershire feel a long way from Cornwall, so we should question the artificiality of the over-prescriptive requirements for local authorities to work in certain regions, and certain regions alone. It is better to allow local authorities to cluster and work together in the groups that they recognise as most practical and effective, and with which voters identify.
The previous intervention backs up my hon. Friend’s point, because some local authorities have worked together for 20, 30, 40 or 50 years. When the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) was a union official, keeping a close eye on a local authority with which I had some links, there was close co-operation between four local authorities of a mixed political complexion. If Red Ted Knight—that name might ring a bell among historians—and I could work together successfully in a unit of four, anybody can.
My hon. Friend has real hands-on experience of running a local authority, and there is the proof that it is perfectly possible to work together in groups across the political divide. Indeed, in the west midlands area, to which my constituency belongs, the seven metropolitan authorities have always worked together, whatever the political complexion of their leadership. I am confident that if we allow local authorities to choose the clusters to which they want to belong, they will come up with the right solution.
Does the hon. Lady not accept that the Bill is based entirely on the premise that such organisations of local authorities will be voluntary? Every single bit—whether multi-area agreements, economic prosperity boards or integrated authorities—is bottom-up, rather than being imposed from the top. The Bill is about whether people in a local authority want to work with their neighbours in exactly the way described by the hon. Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford).
I thank the Secretary of State. The point is, however, that the artificial regions created by her Government are fixed. [Interruption.] They may not be fixed in the Bill, but they are part of what she calls the “architecture” within which local authorities will work. I shall be delighted if she joins my call for the abolition of those artificial regions; that would be popular with the public.
I move on to the remit of the regional development agencies. The transfer of planning powers is just the latest example of the mission creep that has led to RDAs being diverted from the vital task for which they were originally set up—stimulating business growth. In the depths of a recession, it surely makes no sense to saddle RDAs with regional planning, which is one of the most bureaucratic, time-consuming, controversial and unwieldy responsibilities.
RDAs should focus on one thing only—getting British business back on its feet. The best way to do that is to refocus them solely on economic development and let councils define how they work and what areas they cover. If the voters do not like it, they can express their view at the ballot box, which would give clarity and accountability. The current role of RDAs goes to the heart of the combined authorities and economic prosperity boards that are dealt with in part 6 of the Bill. So much of the detail is still unclear. Who will be on those bodies? Who will appoint them? When will the bodies come into being and how will they be funded? Critically, how will they work with the RDAs?
The hon. Gentleman is a Liberal Democrat, so I do not blame him for not having read the Conservative party’s green paper “Control Shift”. Our position is genuinely localist. If the hon. Gentleman’s local authority in Cheltenham wanted a development agency, it could have one; it would, however, be accountable to the public for that decision. I encourage his local authority to group together with others to get critical mass. Economies of scale can be gained if local authorities work together in what I would describe as an economic partnership. I heartily commend the green paper to the hon. Gentleman; in fact, I have a copy at my disposal if he feels like briefing himself this evening about a better view of how to work with regional development agencies.
I am being goaded by my party’s Front Benchers about this business of partnership. My case is this. I do not know whether anyone is aware of where Thurrock is, but it comes under the same region as Norwich and Walsingham—it could be the other side of the moon. Clearly, there needs to be collaboration along the Thames Gateway. About 10 Ministers ago, my right hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Keith Hill) should have created a region for the north Thames corridor; which would have made economic and planning sense and involved collaboration with local authorities. Instead, we have the nonsense of Thurrock being in the same pot as Norwich and Walsingham, which is crackpot. We want to reduce the number of bodies and maximise collaboration. We want housing where it is necessary, rather than there being bodies discussing housing only to have their plans frustrated by the Department and by the regional bodies, which put 1,000 problems in the way—
Madam Deputy Speaker, you will agree with me, I think, that this afternoon is turning out to be interesting. I have probably heard more frank speaking from the Government Benches about this legislation than I have about any other Bill on which I have spoken for my party. Perhaps there has been an outbreak of frank political consensus, which would be welcome, on the right way forward, based on common sense. I am encouraged. The Secretary of State was gallant in taking as many interventions as she did; the number of interventions indicates that on both sides of the House we want the system to work better for the people who vote for us and for a political system that should serve them well. I take encouragement from the intervention made by the hon. Member for Thurrock.
I am somewhat puzzled by the distinctions that the hon. Lady is drawing as regards voluntary arrangements. Several local authorities in my area—they are controlled not by one particular party, but by different parties—have signed up to a multi-area agreement on a voluntary basis. That greatly enhances their ability to deal with several issues of mutual interest, which is reflected in the arrangements in the Bill that will allow them to take such issues forward. Are those authorities wrong, or have they got it right in terms of things that they are doing that are in line with the Bill?
If the hon. Gentleman waits for a couple of minutes, I am about to discuss multi-area agreements.
The principle of authorities joining forces to deliver prosperity is a good one—that is not in dispute—and one that Conservative Members have always promoted, but for it to succeed, it cannot be buried under the morass of unaccountable regional government. These boards have the potential to flourish, but only if they are unfettered by regional boundaries and bureaucracy. It is exactly the same with multi-area agreements, which are mentioned in part 7. Yes, they are a good thing, and yes, councils should be entering into them where appropriate, but does the matter need to be prescribed in legislation? It makes sense for councils to work in that way. I am glad to see the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead) nod his head a tiny bit in agreement. Will multi-area agreements ever fulfil their potential as drivers for cross-border working while they are in the shade of a regional edifice?
Having spent some time talking about the local government and economic development aspects of the Bill, I would turn to the construction aspect—if only the Bill had one! People in the construction industry must have thought that they had lost some of the Bill’s pages when they first read it—and, goodness me, it is long enough. When profits are in freefall and work has stopped on construction sites up and down the country, the Government have introduced only nit-picking details about contracts. The construction industry clearly feels that the Bill is an opportunity to help it, but where is the ambition and the imagination? Instead of setting out ideas to kick-start regeneration or deliver new infrastructure, the Bill is confined to what I call contractual etiquette. Frankly, the construction industry and the country deserve better.
The source of my disappointment with the Bill is that it had the potential to breathe fresh life into local democracy. Instead, it is more like the death rattle of a Government who have run out of ideas. It smacks of a Department desperate to be seen to be doing something. Perhaps it is because the community empowerment Bill seems to have been dropped that the Secretary of State feels that the Department has to “make busy”.
To be fair, Ministers have been busy exploring ideas in the White Paper entitled “Communities in control”. Two of the most interesting ideas mooted in that document concern making it easier for councillors to vote and encouraging people to turn up at the ballot box. One solution, we are told, is to enable councillors to vote remotely, perhaps—who knows?—from their sofa or from the pub. As for getting people to take part in local elections, there are various exciting options such as free entry to a prize draw if people vote or a free doughnut for every vote cast; the list goes on. What is so telling about the White Paper is the extent to which it completely misdiagnoses why people are so switched off from local government. It is not because councillors cannot be bothered to go the town hall or because voters would rather be doing lottery scratchcards—it is because people see how local government is overruled by the centre at every stage. The Bill should address head on the priorities of communities up and down the country who are crying out for more say over the decisions that affect their neighbourhoods.
The truth is that the Bill would have carried twice as much weight if it had been half the size and dealt with only two issues—planning and council tax. How is it that we are debating a Bill about local government that ignores the fury about rising council tax? This year, Ministers happily referred to seeing the lowest level of increase for some years; meanwhile, most people were staggered that it went up at all, given that the average council tax bill has more than doubled since 1997. It is a real cause of pain for hard-working families and people on fixed incomes. The Government should have grasped that issue. How about a council tax freeze of the kind that we have offered? How about giving communities the right to block excessive council tax rises through a referendum? That would be local democracy at work.
I have listened carefully to what the hon. Lady has said, and I agree with her, not my party’s Front Benchers, on some things. However, I found her latest statement quite astounding. She had been making the case for local democracy, but then she said quite blatantly, “But we will control the level of taxation.” Is it not the case that what will really stimulate local democracy is a direct relationship between local services and the money raised to pay for them, which can be dealt with at the ballot box?
I think that the hon. Gentleman rose to intervene before he heard my last sentence. Putting an end to capping from the centre, but allowing the local population to cap council tax increases through a referendum, if necessary, is genuine local democracy.
The Government have pushed on regardless and are now gearing up for a revaluation in 2010. We know that because they have just renewed their contract with Rightmove, which means that data on nine out of 10 house sales will be imported to a Government database, ready to be used as a means of driving up council tax even further through revaluation. When will the Government realise that we need to help people by getting the tax burden down?
Does the hon. Lady believe that it is right for all council tax valuations to be based on notional 1991 values? If she does not, when does she believe that it is appropriate for the register to be updated to take account of the change in values since that time? As she will recognise, 1991 was a very long time ago.
The right hon. Gentleman is very knowledgeable about local government, and we have debated revaluation many times. He will know that one purpose for which revaluations are prescribed in legislation is to deal with regional differences in house price increases. The reality of the sad point that we have reached in the housing crisis is that the degree of regional variation is not marked, so the case for a revaluation is not there.
There is exactly the same problem with business rates. There is something slightly surreal about debating a Bill at a time of economic crisis that has the words “Economic Development” in its title but that does nothing to address business rates. Our country’s recovery from recession will be determined by how well our businesses compete with those from overseas. Instead of giving them a helping hand, the Treasury has given them a smack in the teeth by increasing business rates above inflation and pushing ahead with business rate revaluation. Those things are conspiring to undermine businesses at a time when we need to help them. Deferring an above-inflation business rate increase is no panacea, because it will still have to be paid. Anyone running or working in a business whose amount of work is shrinking exists in a world of anxiety, and any small business looking for comfort in the Bill will not find any.
The situation is similar for port-related businesses. I had to suppress some shock at the difficulty we had in trying to get an amendment about port taxes in order in the other place. Colleagues might imagine that if there is one virtue in such a convoluted Bill title, it is that it provides an opportunity to debate almost anything. However, that does not seem to include port taxes, despite the fact that they clearly come under the aegis of local democracy and play an undeniable role in economic development. Port businesses have had a huge unexpected tax rise, backdated to 2005, at a time when recession is biting. It simply defies belief that the Government will not give any quarter. No impact assessment was done; there was no consultation; and businesses are casually being handed debts that, in many cases, will make them balance-sheet insolvent.
Those are big, urgent, immediate issues, which are at the front of people’s minds. Does the Secretary of State understand how people will look at this Bill? They will read it, listen to the debate and think that politicians are from another planet. How ironic that no more than eight hours after the Prime Minister told Radio 4:
“Power must be more accountable to the people who elect MPs and councillors”,
we have a Bill that does exactly the opposite. The Prime Minister held forth this morning about listeners feeling powerless and politics not being sufficiently accountable. If the Bill is supposed to be the solution, God help us. Let us face it, people are fed up. They are fed up with the recession and the pain it brings; they are fed up with MPs; and they are fed up with the Government. The Bill should have been a chance to begin to put things right and make politics relevant again. Instead, I fear that it will do the opposite.
When I meet voters, they are beside themselves with frustration about the imposition of unsustainable numbers of houses on their communities. Mums in the playground are really angry that a mobile phone mast has gone up right next door to the school, despite Government recommendations that it should not. I understand that the silent majority seek a silent revolution. They want politics to change, but, far from delivering that, the Bill serves up more of the same. It has been cobbled together to fill the parliamentary programme and give Ministers more levers to pull. The Bill is about keeping control over councils via the statute book, because the Government cannot do it through the ballot box. People deserve better than that.
The political landscape has changed beyond recognition since the Bill was in another place. The public’s fury over expenses is not only about money, but a reflex against the entire nature of our broken politics—the top-down, centrally imposed decision making and the inflexible, insensitive bureaucracy that bosses people about from day to day. Supporting the Bill would send a clear message that we are not listening to the electorate. Unless we discharge real power, the current animosity between the public and Parliament will simply turn into a long goodbye.
The Prime Minister got one thing right when he said that recent events had exposed a big need for a real change in our politics, but he got it wrong when he suggested that he and his Government were the right people to deliver it. The Bill makes it abundantly clear that a public hungry for change in politics will get that only through a change of Government.
The history of the last 65 years is one of increasing centralisation of democracy in this country, in three phases. After the second world war and until the 1970s, the utilities and health services were taken out of local government hands, in many cases for good reasons. After two world wars and lack of investment, the gas and electricity industries and many hospitals were not in a good state. None the less, services that had been developed locally and were responsive to local electors were nationalised, and eventually, in the next phase, they were privatised.
Baroness Thatcher started the next phase, which lasted through the 1980s and into the 1990s. It involved more centralisation, but with an explicit and direct hostility towards local democracy. The Conservative party then fundamentally believed that services were better provided by the private sector. Nicholas Ridley believed that councils should meet only once a year to hand out contracts to the private sector to deliver services. If something could not be done by the private sector, quangos were considered better than local democracy.
The third phase is that of my Government, who have been much gentler with local democracy; the rhetoric has been different. Even so, there has been an increase in centralisation and central missives to local authorities, to the absurd extent that, in one year, the Secretary of State for education sent out 4,000 pages to head teachers alone. That is extraordinary. Quangos have frequently been preferred to local councils because Ministers said that delivery of local services was often patchy. When considering quangos, “patchy” is a description to which one would aspire when assessing some services that they produced.
Most of the decisions by central Government and by the officials who make recommendations to Ministers have been based on the myth that central Government are more efficient, effective and economical than local government. I am prepared to give way to any Minister or other hon. Member who can provide evidence to show that the delivery of services by central Government is better than by local government. Most local authorities keep within their budgets when most parts of central Government have a poor record of doing so. Indeed, if we assessed the worst local authorities in the 1980s—Hackney and Liverpool are not controversial examples of poor local authorities—against the Home Office, which a previous Home Secretary described as dysfunctional, which would be found to be the better deliverer of services? Would it be the Home Office, which regularly loses my constituents’ records and overspends its budget, or the Hackney and Liverpool of the 1980s?
One can make all sorts of comparisons with quangos that deliver government services and with local authorities that are not doing so well currently, and I will give a couple of examples before getting to the details of the Bill. I am not making party political points, but I doubt whether there was any more profligate or inefficient waste of money under the previous Conservative Government than the Child Support Agency, which has not delivered services. If anything was a greater waste of money, as well as being unfair, it was the poll tax, which we are still paying for in extra VAT. The poll tax was completely unfair and cost us about £20 billion. However, the Learning and Skills Council, a more recent quango set up by my Government that we are part way through investigating in the Select Committee on Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills, has let a capital programme get out of hand in a way that I have never witnessed in a local authority.
The Learning and Skills Council has not only let a capital programme get completely out of hand, but—[Interruption.] I suspect that my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford) is saying that he has seen some local authority budgets get out of hand, and they have. However, I doubt whether he has seen anything like what the Learning and Skills Council did. Not only did the budget get out of hand, but the Learning and Skills Council changed all the priorities, so that, under a Labour Government, the money went to the wealthiest areas in the country and the poorest areas got very little. In Yorkshire, Bradford got nothing and the adjacent rich Tory areas got a great deal of capital expenditure. Indeed, we can look all around the country for further examples.
My hon. Friend has moved on now, but I was quite taken by his reference to the efficiency, or lack of it, of Hackney and Liverpool in the 1980s, which still bore comparison with central Government. He will recall well that councillors were removed from office at that time because of a notional loss of £110,000 due to the late setting of a rate. Can he tell me of any Minister who has been removed from office for the loss of a comparable sum or for any reason whatever?
Before my hon. Friend moves on from the history of local government over the past few years, may I invite him and you, Madam Deputy Speaker, to pause and reflect on the fact that under both Prime Minister Blair and the current Prime Minister, we have had a revolving door of Local Government Ministers, particularly Ministers responsible for housing construction? I might have exaggerated when I said earlier that my right hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Keith Hill) was the Minister about 10 Ministers ago, but there is constant change and no settlement, and people are never properly on board. I predict that by next Tuesday there will be different Ministers responsible for housing and construction again. I am not referring to anybody in particular—they can be good, bad or indifferent—but the Prime Minister keeps changing people. It is ludicrous. There is no settlement and we suffer from that.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for being so generous in giving way. I will attempt to bring him back to the direction in which I think he was going. Is this not the critical difference between the ineffectiveness of quangos and that of local authorities: ultimately people have the right to vote out local authorities that are not run in the way that they wish? Is it not disappointing that the opportunity was not taken in the Bill to make the quangos that we need more accountable and to get rid of the ones that we do not need at all?
The hon. Lady makes a point that I am coming to in about two minutes. However, to return to the point about wasting money, I have written down about 20 examples, whose costs run into billions of pounds. The grossest one, for which I can find no local government equivalent, is the exams fiasco last year. A process that had previously cost £10 million nationally now cost £610 million and went completely wrong, so that young people taking exams did not know their results and, when they did know them, suspected that they were wrong.
There is no evidence base for saying that central Government is better than local government, although I also looked at what Ministers have been saying. The most explicit quote that I could find was from my right hon. Friend the Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), who said that local taxing would lead to
“the worst kind of nimbyism…inequalities and…conservatism”.
I do not agree with her. I believe that local taxing, local democracy and the right to throw the rascals out, as the Americans put it in one presidential election, are absolutely fundamental to what our society should be about.
Before I move on to the details of the Bill, I want to mention two principles that ought to underlie it, and to point out that the Bill does not live up to the requirement that they involve. Neither principle would be thought strange in most other democracies. One is that democracy and the local taxation of services are related. If someone stands for election, they should say what money they are going to raise, and win or lose the vote on that basis. The second would involve a pretty fundamental change in how we think about things in this country. It is that central Government should justify their spending decisions to local government, rather than the other way around, because the evidence is that local government is better at it.
I shall turn now to the details of the Bill. Clause 1 covers duties relating to the promotion of democracy—a matter that was also raised in the debate in the other place. If we look at the House of Commons guide to the Bill, we see that the provisions, which will tell people how to become councillors, how to access services and how to send in information, are going to cost local authorities about £22 million. Compared with some of the sums that we are talking about, that is not a great deal of money. It probably equates to a couple of posts per local authority around the country. The provision is completely unnecessary, however. I asked one of the people who works for me to find out on the internet how to become a local councillor and how to get all the necessary information. Within five minutes, the Directgov website had pointed us towards other websites and we had all the information that we needed. As I have said, not a great deal of money is involved, but clause 1 is really unnecessary.
The point was well made by the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) as well as by some Labour Members that most local authorities already take petitions. The fact is that everyone, whether they write a letter or send a petition to a local authority, deserves a response and should get one. I very much doubt that we need prescriptive legislation to achieve that. We just need a statement to that effect.
The biggest issue relating to local democracy in my area in the past 12 months was the referendum on the proposals for a congestion charge in Greater Manchester, which would have created the largest congestion charge zone in the world. However, there were no real powers in place to enable that referendum to be held. In fact, it was held under section 116 of the Local Government Act 2003, and it could have been held under section 170 of the Transport Act 2000. As a result, there were no real rules for holding that referendum, in which more than 1 million people participated.
Covering such circumstances would have been a more useful purpose for the Bill. I certainly have doubts about referendums, but there is no doubt that the electorate out there like the idea of holding a referendum on certain key issues. The one in the northern region has been mentioned, and there was also the one in Greater Manchester. Both had a higher turnout than the local elections, and we have to respect people’s views in this regard. It is within the terms of the Bill’s long title for this legislation to become a vehicle for putting regulations in place so we no longer need to hold referendums under strange parts of the Local Government Act. Having to do that in Greater Manchester meant that the so-called returning officer, Sir Neil McIntosh, who was paid £30,000 to do the job, could decide to consult only the promoters of the relevant Bill on what question to put, and did not put into the main question on the referendum paper the most controversial aspect of the proposal—the levying of a congestion charge or a new tax on people. Also, he would not see people such as myself who were opposed to the proposals. I think that that is quite scandalous. More than 2 million people were entitled to vote in that referendum and more than 1 million people did, and we should use this Bill to codify the procedure so that that sort of situation cannot happen again. In fact, the returning officer was so biased that the arrangement actually worked in favour of the no rather than the yes campaign.
We have already discussed the regional development agencies and I would like to ask Ministers to clarify some issues relating to the north-west and co-operation. I have always made my views on RDAs clear: they should not have been set up and they should be abolished as quickly as possible, because they have no role whatever. It is not a question of businesses liking RDAs, as the Secretary of State suggested. No, they do not like RDAs, but they like the possibility of getting grants from them. So long as the money is not abolished and does not disappear, businesses would be pleased to get rid of the bureaucracy and deal directly with local authorities.
I would particularly like to ask my Front-Bench colleagues whether they agree with the following statement from Steven Broomhead, the chief executive of the Northwest Regional Development Agency, who said that there was
“not a shred of evidence that local authorities can deliver economic development on the ground”.
Does anyone in the Chamber agree with that? I think that it is the kind of arrogance that comes with unaccountable quangos; it is not a basis for co-operation. I hope that my right hon. Friend will take note of that statement; I can give her the full reference if she wants it. It remains the case that, sometimes with the encouragement of officials, these quangos see themselves as in competition with local elected councils. They could not be more blatant in seeing themselves as delivering better services than local authorities do.
As with the delivery of services by central Government, however, the reality is different. Because these quangos and RDAs have no democratic mandate, it is difficult for them—I want to be fair—to take decisions. They reach lowest common denominator decisions, where everything becomes a priority: seaside towns are a priority, as are rural communities, Cumbria and core cities. Until we look at the numbers involved and find out what is being consulted on, it is difficult to establish what exactly is happening. When we try to look at where the money is going, it becomes inexplicable.
RDAs should be spending money on two main areas: primarily, creating a better economy and more jobs, and supporting regeneration. However, the money does not go to the areas where we would expect the most added value. The centre of Manchester, for example, should be responsible for 40 per cent. of the GVA—gross value added—for the north-west, and the centre of Liverpool for a significant chunk of the funds, yet the money is spread out quite differently with no justification. My solution is for the Government to take decisions. They should inquire whether the money is there for economic development or to alleviate poverty in some way—the two main reasons for spending public money—and explain what is happening, in a way that the RDA, as it runs around in different directions, does not. What is the Bill’s response to that problem? It is to consult leaders’ panels, but that does not deal with the fundamental democratic deficit. What it does is take the level up and provide some form of fig leaf for the regional development agencies that allows them to carry on, but it does not allow people a say at the ballot box.
Let me finish my remarks. The Bill is a lost opportunity. I believe that local authorities—they are not perfect, and some are poor—are better than quangos at delivering economic development and other services. Even more fundamental, however, is the fact that local authorities are immediately accountable to the people through the ballot box. One of the aims of the Local Transport Act 2008 was to transfer highways powers to the integrated transport authorities. Combining that with leaders’ boards or prosperity boards or whatever they may be called, consisting of indirectly elected people, may well remove not only the highways powers but a series of other powers from people. They will not be able to say, “I do not want those double yellow lines in front of my shops, but I do want investment,” because they cannot vote for or against those with whom they must deal.
The hon. Gentleman is making an interesting speech and a powerful case. Is there not a risk that the establishment of leaders’ boards will repeat the mistake made with regard to the regional assemblies? In the south-west at least, there was rarely any kind of contested vote. The proceedings ended up being strongly influenced by officers who spent as much time talking to the Government offices as talking to representatives who had been elected, even in an indirect capacity.
That is one possibility. A stronger possibility is that deals will be done without the involvement of the electorate. There is a democratic deficit which the Bill will not solve. The English regions in particular already suffer because they are disadvantaged financially by the Barnett formula. What people really want from the Bill is clear democracy.
Let me give two examples. People want to be able to go to their local councillor—as people have come to me in my capacity as a Member of Parliament and in my capacity as a councillor—and say “We have bad private landlords and we want you, as a council, to regulate them.” It has taken nearly 12 years, under a Labour Government, to create a regulatory scheme. That should not have come near Government: it should have been up to local authorities to alleviate people’s problems with bad landlords and bad neighbours. Similarly, people are concerned when their buses do not turn up. We have more powers to deal with that than we used to have, but we are still left with a deregulated bus system.
Anyone who talks to people in shopping parades or advice bureaux will know that those are two of the immediate problems that regularly arise, and that such people are not particularly interested in finding out how to become a councillor or in the detailed names of the quangos to which the Bill refers. We should be legislating to solve the real problems that I have described.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley (Graham Stringer), who made a thoughtful speech. As he said, the Bill provides opportunities; it is just a question of how we make the most of them, given the obvious deficiencies in what we have at present.
I think there is common ground throughout the House on the rhetoric about devolving responsibilities to the local level and giving people a say, but a real division when it comes to how that is to be delivered and whether the words are backed up by actions. I know that the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) likes diversity, but that tells me more about how she voted in “Britain’s Got Talent” than about her party’s position on the devolution of power. Most of the correspondence arriving in my letter box expresses the opinion that the Conservatives would prevent local authorities from having any say in, for example, the way rubbish is collected. It is obviously difficult for the Conservatives to square providing all this autonomy with reserving the right to lay down the law centrally on issues such as taxation. The council tax freeze is nothing other than a centralised measure.
I feel that I should correct the record. The bin tax is driven by central Government’s desire to establish an architecture in which local authorities are cash-strapped and encouraged to buttress the shortfall in their funding. The localist view is that they should be free to decide.
I was not aware that the Conservatives were happy for local authorities to press forward with variance in things such as bin collections should they wish to do so—that was not my understanding at all. I thought the hon. Lady was intervening to tell me that she voted for Susan Boyle, so what she said was slightly unexpected.
The Secretary of State’s contribution took me back to when I was first appointed as my party’s local government spokesperson, because some of the advice I received then was that it is very easy to get sucked into local government finance, which is very technical, and structures. On the local democracy side of things, I share her honourable intentions in trying to give people a voice and setting up structures that are responsible to the people, but I fear that this Bill has morphed into the architecture for delivering services—I believe those were her words—and there is far more about setting up structures that are there for administrative convenience, rather than for the benefit of the people they are supposed to serve.
It is ironic to be debating this issue in this House, given that the mechanics of making local democracy work are what is happening on the doorsteps all over the country. We are sitting in this air-conditioned bubble talking about the theory and the structures, but what really makes local democracy work is the volunteers who go out to make their case on the doorsteps and to encourage people to turn out. It is also ironic that we are, in theory, debating this from a position of moral strength—we are telling local authorities how they should be doing it—given that we are doing so much at the moment to undermine people’s faith in our democratic institutions.
I am frustrated that we are looking at local democracy in isolation. Surely if we wish to restore people’s faith in a process, we have to go through it from top to bottom. That means that we cannot just talk about constitutional reform at one end; we have to talk about how that translates from the grass roots right up to the very top. I am slightly concerned that we are siphoning off this particular aspect. That does not do us any good and does not make the most of the available opportunities.
The Bill is an opportunity to make sweeping changes to restore accountability and to rebuild confidence from the grass roots up. This is something in which I strongly believe: part of the reason I got involved in politics was the feeling that the community in which I was born and brought up did not have a voice. I felt that if I could play a role in getting its voice heard, in whatever way possible, by taking part in a political process, not only would I enjoy that, but it would have a value and purpose. That was why I supported the Sustainable Communities Bill, both when it was first introduced and later when it was taken on as a private Member’s Bill.
That Bill was all about setting up processes that mean not only that people can participate but that there is an impact on the outcome. What frustrates people, and the reason they do not vote, is not that they do not have opportunities to do so, or that the voting age is not low enough or that the offer of an iPod is not being thrown in; they do not vote because they do not think that voting will have an impact on the outcome. If people feel that something will make a difference, they are more than willing to do it. I have seen so many parish plans whereby the whole community has got together to identify the key issues in making its village more sustainable, and the point at which people have got disillusioned is when they have found out that they can do little to deliver the things that they want.
The same applies in respect of, for example, consultations. The problem is that participation is now a dirty word, because people think it is used just to pay lip service to a consultative process, rather than to have an impact on the outcome. That is what I found with the Post Office consultation process. People were more than willing to sign petitions, turn up to public meetings, deliver leaflets, put up posters and do whatever they could, but ultimately they were not being consulted on two different options. Instead, they were being told, “This is what we would like to do. You have the opportunity to vent your frustration, but then we are going to do it anyway.”
The hon. Lady has rightly identified a problem with our democracy: people do not feel that they are being given choice. Academic studies suggest that because the parties have narrowed their differences and they all now subscribe to the neo-liberal model, people have lost interest in voting because the choice is not a real one.
The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point and uses another word, “choice”, that has been bandied around an awful lot and has perhaps become devalued. People feel that whatever they do has no impact on the outcome. That might involve an issue relating to voting reform or purely just to the way in which our structures are set up, but the frustration goes from top to bottom in respect of how our public services are delivered.
The hon. Member for Meriden spoke of the different ways in which the Bill has been described. We prefer to call it a compost heap of proposals, with bits and bobs from many different areas. We are not even sure about the nature of the beast that has resulted. The main sources appear to be parts of the community empowerment White Paper and the sub-national review. However, the Bill is frustratingly timid, and instead of empowering people it will only add to the quangocracy that has built up over the past 10 years.
The key challenge for the Government is how they can strengthen the Bill as it passes through Parliament. There are opportunities to do so, if the Government will only accept them. I hope they will rise to the challenge and engage in a debate on all the amendments that will be tabled by hon. Members on both sides of the House.
I shall give the House a potted history of how we ended up with this Bill. The first part of the Bill derives mainly from the community empowerment White Paper, published in July last year. It was clearly the Secretary of State’s baby, and it is frustrating to see how much of what was essentially a best practice manual has ended up in primary legislation, and how much has been booted into the long grass. When the White Paper was announced, the most memorable proposal was that people would be entered into a prize draw to win an iPod if they turned out to vote. The hon. Member for Meriden criticised that suggestion, but it bears a striking similarity to proposals made by the leader of the Conservative party, the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron). Only the other day he said that what we needed to do to re-engage people with Parliament—as opposed to local authorities—was to put parliamentary proceedings on YouTube and to send people text updates on the progress of Bills. I hope that the hon. Lady will lead the way on this Bill and ensure that all those interested are updated on its progress by text. If we have anything like the 170 amendments that were tabled in the Lords, people’s phone inboxes will be very full.
The White Paper was a best practice manual that essentially restated much of what councils do, including participatory budgeting, transferring assets to the community, spending decisions being made by area committees, and the calling in of the decision-making process. For example, in Kingston it requires only the say-so of 100 people to call in any decision made by the council—real evidence of best practice. However, it is not clear why we needed a White Paper or primary legislation. We thought the White Paper would lead to a community empowerment, housing and economic regeneration Bill, but the Government felt that that would be too unwieldy. If this Bill is a compost heap Bill, that would have been a rubbish tip Bill, and that is why we have ended up with this Bill, which retains about half the proposals in the White Paper.
The other half of the Bill comprises the remnants of a suggested draft Bill which has now been kicked as far as possible into the long grass. In March, a colleague in the other place asked when the Government intended to bring forward the community empowerment Bill. The reply was:
“Given the scope of this Session’s Bill, we have decided not to publish further draft provisions on empowerment for pre-legislative scrutiny during the current Session. We will discuss with key stakeholders how best to take forward any remaining proposals where legislation may be required.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 7 May 2009; Vol. 710, c. WA133.]
The reply also mentioned a communities progress report on the White Paper, although I have not been able to track that down so far. Perhaps the Minister will be able to tell us when he winds up which aspects of that will need primary legislation at a later date, and which will not. I wonder whether the same test should have been applied to some of the proposals in this Bill.
Given the salami-slicing of those proposals, it is no wonder that what we are left with will not set the world on fire. For example, the first clause states that local authorities have a duty to promote understanding of their functions and democratic arrangements. There is nothing to oppose in that, and the Local Government Association describes it as “business as usual” for councils. There is nothing new in it. However, there were some important omissions from clause 1, which have now been included only because the Liberal Democrats drew attention to them in the Lords—including partnership arrangements and even parish councils. When we are talking about local democracy, it is completely mad to ignore the important first tier of local government, as those councillors probably have the closest connection with their communities. That reveals a mindset that is narrowly focused and silo-based, despite what the Secretary of State said. She said we should not be worried about which Department is responsible for some of the new organisations that are being set up or rearranged, but at the same time she was telling us that we need new structures to manage the arrangements. I do not see how we can have it both ways, and how one can say, “We can have flexibility, but we need this new overarching architecture.” Even the first few clauses of the Bill open up the flaw in her argument.
Petitions are another key aspect of the Bill that leads one to think, “Well, it’s all well and good but what are these measures doing in primary legislation?” We are not talking about a couple of clauses—3,000 words and 8 pages of primary legislation cover how councils should respond to petitions. I completely agree that councils need a mechanism for responding to petitions, but they need a mechanism for responding to any means by which members of the community might wish to contact their council.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent point. If I may return her to an earlier comment that she made, is it not the case that many petitions received by local authorities relate to issues over which, although they are consulted on them, they have no direct control? That is one of the key points. Instead, given a Bill with such a title as this one, local authorities ought to be expected to be given greater power to deliver the wishes of people in their community. They could then respond to petitions far more constructively than they can at present.
My hon. Friend makes a very valuable point, which draws my attention to a specific example in my constituency. There was a debate about the transfer of upper gastrointestinal cancer surgery from the only acute hospital in Cornwall to Derriford. There were real concerns about the impact that that would have and, obviously, there was a debate about safety, and the petition that went to the overview and scrutiny committee contained 30,000 signatures. Of course, the council has an overview and scrutiny committee but does not make any decisions on what happens to that service. As a result, people feel massively frustrated, and not only because the petition was not acknowledged. We need a process for acting on such petitions in a way that will make a difference, rather than simply responding with a cursory acknowledgement.
Before the Government start putting forward proposals on how local authorities should deal with petitions, they should probably consider not only how the House deals with petitions, whereby they end up in a baize bag at the back of the Speaker’s Chair, but how Departments deal with them. I notice that in answer to the questions tabled by my noble Friends, only the Department for International Development, the Cabinet Office and the Northern Ireland Office said that they even knew the number of petitions submitted to them in the previous year. Those that said that they did not know included the Department for Communities and Local Government. Only DFID and DEFRA publicise the petitions that they receive. Basically, once again, local authorities are leading the way while central Government Departments fall behind—yet suddenly the expert on all this is the Department that does not have a policy on how to deal with petitions.
Although some improvements were made to the Bill in the Lords—we now do not have the lengthy specification of what a valid petition is—there are clearly proposals that should not be before us at all. What strikes me is that this shows the Labour central-controlling tendency that we saw with the whole Damian McBride affair, when No. 10 Downing street attempted to control the left-wing blogosphere. In the same way, Whitehall is trying to—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) says he is very pleased that Mr. McBride can no longer control what goes on in the Labour blogosphere.
What also surprised me, looking at the progress of the Bill in the Lords, was the lack of enthusiasm among those on the Conservative Benches for tackling the issue. Again, that seems to run counter to the words they use to describe their zeal for local autonomy.
It is interesting that it was the Conservatives who abolished the Greater London council and the metropolitan county councils and took away the business rate, taking it to the centre. They also sought to undermine and dismantle local authority housing provision and many other things. I do not quite believe that they are really in favour of local democracy.
Actions speak louder than words for all parties, which is why I am proud of the Liberal Democrats’ track record. The councils that we control are pushing as many decisions as possible down to a local level, including decisions on budgeting and spending.
It is difficult to see how the Bill’s provisions on local democracy will restore people’s confidence in politics and politicians. We have a weird but certainly not wonderful rag-bag.
Parts 4 to 6 of the Bill, which relate to local authority economic assessments, regional strategies and economic prosperity boards, give me grave cause for concern. I do not understand how the Government can claim the proposals are, in any way, shape or form, bottom-up—I was amazed that the Secretary of State used such language to describe them on the Floor of the House. Regional strategies will be established under the Bill by merging regional economic strategies and regional spatial strategies. However, the structure that we already have is too large and ridiculously unwieldy. The problem is not that there are two regional strategies, but that the regional level is completely inappropriate for such decision making. It is worrying that the proposals are hugely dependent on the Secretary of State, given that there will be reserved powers and the Secretary of State will have a role in specifying what goes into the single regional strategy. I worry that there will be more diktat from on high, rather than decision making at even a regional level.
Many aspects of Government policy have been reviewed in the light of the unexpected economic circumstances that we face, so I cannot for the life of me understand why Ministers refuse to say that we need to review the regional spatial strategy in such circumstances. To make the south-west regional spatial strategy stack up economically, it was based on growth of 3 per cent. a year. That does not reflect reality, and it goes to show that the proposals are completely out of touch with what is happening on the ground, let alone what people want. There is no alternative but to start again by coming forward with a process that is based on local community need, instead of the Secretary of State repeatedly imposing views that bear no relation to that need.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way, although I am conscious that Front Benchers have absorbed quite a lot of our time. Does she accept that although local authorities were asked to set out the number of houses that they genuinely believed were needed and sustainable, a pencil was put through those figures for the regional spatial strategy and the numbers were doubled or tripled arbitrarily, which shows what is fundamentally wrong with the RSS?
Yes. Having attended several Westminster Hall debates on the issue, I could bore for most parts of England about the ineffectiveness of the process. Even the process of deciding where houses are allocated bears no relation to the needs of communities. There is no way of dealing with the needs of more rural areas, where the growth of some villages might increase the sustainability of the community more than in-filling every available space in an urban area. What is even more galling in my constituency is that some of the areas for which thousands of houses are proposed were not even passed though in a car. Given that it is difficult to understand the impact of proposals when policy is set regionally, it is even more difficult to understand how the Secretary of State can increase numbers at the stroke of a pen. It would be preferable to have a radical review, get rid of the existing system, and start with a clean slate. The Bill provides an opportunity to do that, so I hope that we will be able to have a more fundamental debate.
The proposals on leaders’ boards and economic prosperity boards give us an insight into the Government’s concept of democratic accountability. The Government’s view is that we need to replace the unaccountable, remote and unelected regional assemblies with leaders’ boards, which will be not directly accountable, just as far away and not directly elected. Basically, we are to have another top-down arrangement. The set-up will still leave smaller authorities feeling that their voice will not be heard, and we still do not really know quite how the arrangements will fit in with the Regional Select Committees, which are also supposed to provide scrutiny at a regional level.
Instead of tinkering, and rearranging the deckchairs on a regional policy that is clearly sinking, we need to look much more widely at Government policy. Questions should be posed, asking the regional development agencies to justify their existence. I do not see any reason why a lot of their powers should not be pushed down to a much lower level. I have another example, from the debate in the Lords, of how the Government seem to think that the accountability process works. It just amazed me. Baroness Andrews, who speaks for the Government, used the word “accountability” when justifying why not to push down powers. She said, in response to a question, that a “deliberate decision” was taken to set up leaders’ boards and to leave the decision-making powers where they were in order to
“preserve the current flexibility…in the RDAs’ single-funding arrangements, and to keep the direct line of accountability to RDAs for the use of money voted to them by Parliament.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 17 December 2008; Vol. 706, c. 896.]
Most people would think that the accountability should flow from the people at the bottom, rather than from the decisions at the top. The way to get better accountability is to do anything possible to get resources and decision making closer to the people affected. Only the fag-end of a Labour Government could come up with such rhetoric in desperation.
Let me draw on my experiences of the accountability and accessibility of the regional development agencies. I get letters about once a month from my local RDA telling me how difficult its funding situation is, and how it is having to review its programmes because it is not sure that it can deliver everything that it initially thought that it could. When all of Cornwall’s MPs wrote to the RDA to say that we were very worried about that, given the impact that it could have on regional funding and big regeneration projects, we did not even get an answer, let alone an offer of a date on which to meet. In terms of having open and accountable organisations, a lot of people think that the current set-up leaves an awful lot to be desired, and we Liberal Democrats will certainly make the most of any opportunity to re-open that debate that is presented by the Bill.
Exactly the same is true of the economic prosperity boards. Once again, there are the same concerns. Functions currently undertaken by locally accountable bodies are to be transferred to a new quango that individuals and businesses will have to get their heads around. It will not be closer to the people, and, again, there is no guarantee that everybody on the board will be directly elected. The Government should pay heed to the concerns of the CBI, which said that it already finds it very difficult to engage with regional bodies, and was worried about additional responsibilities being transferred to the board.
My hon. Friend makes a good point about the current level of accountability, but there is also the question of the level of awareness. She mentions the CBI; at least it knows that such bodies exist, and roughly what their functions are. Most of my constituents do not have a clue what many of the organisations are, so to create further bodies with new titles, and new and crucial responsibilities, at a time when constituents want to know that they can go to their elected representatives and ask them to justify spending decisions, is completely ludicrous and will only make the situation worse.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I have already been inundated with representations from businesses and individuals who have heard a snippet on the national news about a proposal that they think might help them, but who then find it difficult to find out what the initiative is. Once they investigate it, they usually find out that they are not eligible anyway.
Of course, the economic prosperity boards are useful as forums for debate, and if some local authorities, or groupings of local authorities, wish to participate, as the local government innovation unit pointed out, they will have the opportunity to debate the evolving city regions agenda. If that agenda is about transferring more powers and responsibilities to areas that are economically and geographically coherent, of course it is a good thing, but there needs to be consistency, because there is no Government thought process on what the rural equivalent of a city region is. I represent a series of market towns, and there is more economic coherence among the market towns in Cornwall than there would be in the area covered by the single economic strategy, which would stretch from Swindon to Gloucester and down to the Isles of Scilly. The rigidity of many of the proposals, and the fact that they are compulsory for so many authorities, will be their undoing.
I have a minor, modest intervention to make. Is it not the case that economic prosperity board areas seek not to be defined by city regions? They do not necessarily seek to be defined as large conurbations with a number of satellites around them, either. Instead, they can, on a voluntary basis, involve a number of authorities that wish to work together from an economic development point of view. Indeed, to refer to the hon. Lady’s exact point, such authorities may have considerable coherence, even though they are not based on a city region.
As I said, the economic prosperity boards could be useful forums for debate, but what worries me, looking at the number of powers that the Secretary of State reserves on the issue, is the extent to which the measures are voluntary. Instead of the Bill setting councils free, a lot of what we see in it looks like a below-the-radar move in favour of unitary authorities across the board. What we should favour is real diversity in local government structures, whether we are talking about the cabinet system, a mixture of unitary authorities or multi-tiered layers of authorities. Instead, we have top-down imposed structures, a one-size-fits-all approach and an approach that seems to want to create more quangos and more bureaucracy for everybody—and all that is being done in the name of local democracy and democratic accountability, whereas what underlies all of it is administrative convenience.
No consideration is being given to how it all looks to, or how things will work for, the person on the receiving end of the services. If the Government were serious about closing the accountability gap at the regional or any other level, they would have opened up the question of the allocation of resources. So much of the communities empowerment White Paper was about requiring local authorities to push down resources to the community level. There was nothing about the Government being required to push down resources to the local authority level. Let us look at other legislation that has tried to open up that question, such as the Sustainable Communities Act 2007. In that primary legislation, the Government said that local spending reports would be produced so that, for the first time, people would know not just exactly what their council spent, but what all the quangos in their area spent. That has been completely whitewashed, and proposals are being pushed further and further down the line, so that people will still find it difficult to understand what public money is being spent in their area.
As the hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley said, we also need a much clearer link between the money that is raised locally and the money that is spent locally. That means a debate about how councils raise money, as well as how they spend it. That means reopening the issue of council tax. I was interested to hear what the hon. Member for Meriden had to say about revaluation, because my understanding is that the Conservative party would not abolish the council tax. As the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford) said, we will be left with a Government who are looking either to revalue and continue with the council tax, or to continue with a basis for the valuation of properties that is 30 years out of date. It is just not intellectually coherent to hold that position: one either has to say, “We will support the council tax, and I’m afraid that at some point, that will mean revaluation,” or one has to start looking for other systems of local government finance.
Other questions could have been dealt with in the Bill, such as localising business rates to provide people with a clearer link between the money raised and the money spent locally. There was an opportunity in the Bill to create accountability in areas where there is none, particularly at the regional level, where I am really worried that what we will have will be even more of a dog’s breakfast than what we have now. We should have had options that were flexible, and that local authorities could have tailored to their needs. Those are the kind of things that would have helped to restore faith in local democracy. Instead, we have rigid, compulsory requirements. What the Government just do not get is how it all looks from the public’s point of view. The Bill should be about engaging people, not “building the right architecture”. None of what I have seen bodes well for the Bill, but what is of more concern for Government Members is that I do not think it bodes well for any of their wider plans, or their professed commitment to wider democratic renewal.
May I first draw attention to my interests, as recorded in the Register of Members’ Interests, and to my role as chairman of the Centre for Public Scrutiny? At the outset, I should make it clear that I welcome the Bill. I do not give it an unqualified welcome; indeed, there are some elements of the Bill by which I am not convinced, and there are some omissions from it that I regret. Despite that, the Bill contains a number of measures that will have a significant and positive impact locally, and that is certainly to be welcomed.
In their promotion of the Bill, the Government highlighted three principal sources: the Cave report of June 2007, which led to the recommendation for a tenant voice; the Councillors Commission of December 2007, which made some interesting proposals on enhancing the role of councillors and encouraging more people to stand as councillors; and the “Communities in control” White Paper of July 2008. But there is one glaring omission—the most important report published in recent years on local government, the Lyons report, published in March 2007 and so far not referred to in this debate.
The black hole into which the Lyons report has disappeared is wholly unjustified for an extremely thorough and serious review of local government. It is deeply regrettable that it has not been used by the Government as a source for sensible proposals on enhancing local democracy. The Lyons review is full of sensible and practical propositions that ought to be on the agenda. I regret the Government’s failure to implement Sir Michael’s recommendations, with one exception—the business rate supplement, which is being enacted as part of separate legislation that is currently in the other place. Although there is much in the Bill to be welcomed, there is a wider agenda that needs to be pursued if we are to see effective renewal of local democracy.
Turning from what is not in the Bill to its contents, part 1, chapter 1 is concerned with the promotion of public understanding of the functions of local authorities, the democratic processes and opportunities for the public to participate, and how that activity links with other local and national organisations. There has been real progress in recent years in securing better joint working between public authorities.
I look at my own local authority area and I see relations between the police and the local authority on an entirely different basis from what those of 15 years ago. I see specific initiatives, such as the violent and organised crime unit, which is jointly funded by the Metropolitan police and the local authority and which is doing extremely important work tackling some of the most serious challenges to law and order in our community. I look at the work between the local authority and the health commissioners and health providers, which is far more closely related than it was 15 years ago. We see the benefits of better joining up, and that agenda needs to be promoted and taken forward.
There is a risk, which is not in the Bill but it has been around, and the proposal has been advocated both by those on my party’s Front Bench and by the official Opposition—the risk of a proliferation of separate mandates. I am pleased that our Front-Bench team has backed away from the suggestion of having directly elected police commissioners, but I note that the Opposition are still committed to it. That is a recipe for separate mandates with silo mentalities and exactly the opposite of the joining up between the local authority and other public authorities in the area, which is an important part of the agenda set out in the Bill.
Part 1, chapter 2 deals with petitions, and probably the less said about that, the better. Petitions provide one mechanism for citizens to highlight concerns, but one must question whether 11 clauses are necessary. It looks to me suspiciously like micro-management.
May I invite my right hon. Friend to fast-forward to chapter 5, clause 28, on honorary titles? An absurd instrument is being put through the House of Commons that will clutter the statute book. It states that a local authority
“may spend such reasonable sum as it thinks fit for the purpose of presenting an address or a casket containing an address”.
This is the kind of nonsense that the House of Commons is getting into. We do not need a new statutory provision to provide for a casket. It is absurd. Who is the architect of this? Presumably the Minister or some faceless civil servant, wasting public money putting the clause in. It must mean that all the existing caskets and addresses are illicit—illegal. It is nonsense, isn’t it? I have never been a Minister and will never be one, but I would not put such crap in a Bill.
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would like to withdraw that—
That is very kind of the hon. Gentleman.
I do not disagree with much of what my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) has said. However, I think the provision was inserted in the Bill in the other place, so he may have directed his fire at the wrong target.
Going back to petitions, we must question how it is that legislative space has been provided for a requirement that local authorities make provision for electronic petitions, when no space can apparently be found in the Bill, according to the National Association of Local Councils, for provisions to allow parish and town councils to make payments electronically. If ever there was a case for modernisation, it must surely be to end the archaic requirement that still apparently binds the 8,000 or so parish and town councils to make payments by cheque, each cheque bearing the signature of two signatories.
That was fine in 1894, when the requirement was introduced. It was probably still fine in 1972, when the legislation was last changed, but it is a bizarre anachronism in 2009. I understand that the Government were intending to revisit this in the promised community empowerment legislation, which was due to appear later this year, but as I understand that that Bill will not now be forthcoming, may I urge my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench to accept amendments in Committee to enable parish councils to make payments electronically?
The right hon. Gentleman makes a characteristically powerful point, but is he aware that with only two weeks in Committee, there will be no time for additions to the Bill? We will be hard pushed to scrutinise the existing provisions, without adding to them.
It has been my experience over quite a few years that the Opposition make a huge fuss at the start of the Committee stage about the inadequate timetable and we then find that we end the Committee stage within the timetable agreed. I will not make any forecasts, but the particular point has merit and is straightforward. I gather the Government were sympathetic to it and intended to include it in another Bill, so I hope that it can be easily drafted, agreed and incorporated into the Bill without taking very much time from other matters.
Chapter 4 of part 1 deals with the National Tenant Voice. This is an important provision arising from the Cave review. The review led to the establishment of a new regulator for social housing, the Tenant Services Authority, which is now successfully set up, but it is not the same as providing a national voice for tenants, as highlighted by Cave. Cave recommended that the National Consumer Council might perform that role, but following consultation with tenants and existing tenant representative organisations, a clear consensus emerged on the need for an independent body. Clauses 25 and 26 provide for this. I understand that the plan is that the new body will be set up and running by the end of the year, and I hope the Minister will be able to confirm at the end of the debate that that timetable will be met.
On chapter 6, I welcome the overdue amendments to the unduly restrictive rules on politically restricted posts in local government. There is no question but that it is right to maintain the principle of political impartiality among senior officers of local authorities, but the salary-related restrictions were clearly drawing the net far too wide, and it is right that they should be amended.
Part 2 concerns scrutiny and audit functions. The extension of formal scrutiny structures to local government under the Local Government Act 2000 was an important reform and has led to significant advances in the quality and transparency of decision making in local government. However, it is probably fair to say that the impact of scrutiny across the whole local government family remains patchy. The Government’s commitment in the 2008 White Paper to enhancing the powers of scrutiny bodies and raising their visibility was therefore welcome. The relevant clauses in the Bill are rather modest by comparison with those ambitious objectives, but they are nevertheless a helpful step in the right direction.
Having a designated scrutiny officer in every authority is a step forward, but it will not result in substantial advances in scrutiny if local authorities go no further. All the evidence—the Centre for Public Scrutiny monitors the issue annually—suggests that the resources available to support scrutiny functions remain limited in most authorities. If authorities are to go beyond their current level of scrutiny and ensure that it is more effective in future, the ambitions spelled out in the White Paper to raise the visibility and to enhance the resources available for scrutiny will have to be put into practice. More will be required than just the clauses in the Bill, welcome as they are.
Time does not permit me to comment on parts 3 to 6 of the Bill, but they establish the local authority boundary commission and set out new powers and responsibilities in respect of economic development and planning, which I broadly welcome.
Part 7 gives statutory backing to the important concept of multi-area agreements. The aim of MAAs is to achieve better co-ordinated activity between a number of neighbouring authorities. I have taken a close interest in the evolution of MAAs, because of the intrinsic merit in getting authorities to work together across a wider area, and because my constituency includes one of the five Olympic boroughs—Greenwich, Newham, Hackney, Tower Hamlets and Waltham Forest—where work is taking place to work up a multi-area agreement. That MAA has the prospect of ensuring significant improvements across all five boroughs in the run-up to, and aftermath of, 2012; of making the most of the historic opportunity to host the Olympic games; and of ensuring that the local community as a whole secures some lasting benefits—one important legacy issue that is sometimes overlooked.
The five-borough MAA focuses on three themes that encapsulate economic, social and environmental concerns. First, there is employment—ensuring that the substantial opportunities of building the Olympic venues and hosting the 2012 events are taken in order to reduce the unacceptably high levels of unemployment and joblessness in east and south-east London. Secondly, there is housing—ensuring that the serious problems of poor housing, overcrowding and homelessness which have traditionally blighted all five boroughs are addressed more effectively. That goes far further than just the creation of an exemplary Olympic village to house the athletes in 2012; it means providing sustainable communities with homes for sale and rent after the games. Added impetus will be required throughout all five boroughs to tackle the range of housing problems from which they suffer, and I welcome the MAA’s co-ordinated approach. The third theme is the public realm—recognising the importance of securing real improvements to key public areas throughout the five boroughs, given that they will be the focus of much international attention in just over three years’ time.
In my constituency, there are the obvious challenges of enhancing the two key town centres of Greenwich and Woolwich and, in particular, of securing an appropriate transformation of Cutty Sark gardens. The gardens are the setting for the historic sailing ship, which is undergoing restoration, and the entry point from the river to the world heritage site and Greenwich park, one of the principal and most attractive Olympic sites. I welcome the Bill’s provisions that codify arrangements for multi-area agreements, and I look forward to seeing the positive impact that an MAA can have on Olympic boroughs in east and south-east London.
Part 8 deals with construction contracts. The provisions are essentially tidying-up measures to improve the provisions that were introduced a decade ago under the Housing Grants, Construction and Regeneration Act 1996. They are none the worse for being tidying-up measures, however, and the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) was wide of the mark when she described them rather dismissively as simply inappropriate in the current economic circumstances. These matters have been discussed within the construction industry for years; they are important and necessary reforms. I regret the Opposition’s churlish view towards them, given that the origin of the provisions, the 1996 Act, was introduced by a Conservative Government, with strong support from the Opposition, who in turn, when they came into government, enacted the regulations that gave effect to the powers under discussion. It was a bipartisan approach to construction industry reform, and it was based on Sir Michael Latham’s report, which made some sensible recommendations for ending the unduly adversarial and litigious culture that had historically been a bugbear of the industry.
The measures that have been introduced so far have had a positive impact, and in the construction industry there are few people who would not agree with that. However, inevitably, the practical experience of the past 10 years shows the need for some fine tuning, and, over the past three years, the industry has discussed changes to the adjudication procedures and payment arrangements to try to achieve those improvements. The relevant clauses in the Bill are the product of compromise and, inevitably, do not please all parties, so we will be, and already have been, deluged with pressure for change from different parts of the construction industry. The contractors regard some of the provisions on payment as unduly prescriptive and bureaucratic; the subcontractors do not think that they go far enough. My judgment is that the measures are broadly right. They are a compromise and represent a consensus, but they seek to build on the successful reform that was introduced a decade ago, and they should help to improve the industry culture even further and ensure that the old adversarial and litigious ways are left behind.
This is an important Bill that contains a range of useful measures and deserves to progress through the House. I regret some of the omissions, but, for all that, I believe that it will bring significant benefits to several different policy areas, and I am happy to give it my support.
I draw attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Interests as a columnist for the Local Government Chronicle.
It is always a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford). He talked about the black hole into which the Lyons report has fallen, but I think that Sir Michael himself has fallen into something fairly akin to a black hole, too, given that he is chairman of the BBC Trust. He has had a number of incarnations, and, no doubt, that is not the final one.
We lack another report today: the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government has written a rather hard-hitting report on relations between central and local government—more hard-hitting than I expected, quite frankly. It is a pity that we do not have the benefit of the advice of its members today, but there is a direct clash between this debate and a meeting of the Committee. The Government will have been aware of that, and it just shows that although we talk about joined-up government, sometimes very close parts are not joined up, so it is not surprising that the more remote parts are never joined up.
I want to step back and see, strategically, where the legislation fits with the decade-long struggle by the Government to find good answers to two related questions. First, what institutions and agencies are necessary to deliver growth and meet the needs and aspirations of a growing population at the level below national Government? In what body can we place our confidence to deliver those things—to devise some form of regional architecture, which is the Government’s preference? Secondly, what mechanisms will make the institutions on which we decide accountable? It has been a long and troubled journey, and it still has no destination in sight—perhaps because the destination does not exist. Indeed, it may be sensible to think of a different journey or agenda, because we have been going round in circles, and we are nowhere near a sensible safe haven.
The Bill represents a further attempt to answer those questions, but the Government’s answer is wrong for three reasons. The most substantial reason is that, yet again, the Government have succumbed to their obsession with capacity—size matters, and they have to have scale. We saw it with the failed attempt to merge the police forces and with the mergers of the PCTs. Wherever we look, we find that the Government want bigger scale. However, we lose identity, accountability and flexibility through such measures.
The regional development agencies are to be enlarged with huge new powers, and there will be a vast regional machine, but the irony is that, in a funny old way, the Government have failed their own test. We can argue about whether the old RDAs were good, bad or indifferent—I think that they fall into all three categories—but they were never given one key instrument of economic development, which is skills. Instead, we had the Learning and Skills Council. The hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley (Graham Stringer), a former leader of Manchester city council, made some remarks about the LSC’s expertise in budgetary control, but, given that people wanted a regional structure whose principal target was economic development, it seems ironic that an effective skills base, which every single business tells us every single day is the most important thing, was never part of the agency’s remit. The LSC is, of course, disappearing and giving way to a different body, so the relevant organisations will still not be brought together under one roof.
Accountability through the advisory leaders’ board is also wrong. I never thought that I would see a college of cardinals raised from the ranks of local government leaders. I hope that the wonderful people selected to sit and advise have cloaks, hats and a special uniform; at one time, the Leader of the House referred to people running the quangos at regional level as hugely powerful. Such people are too remote from the citizen. The means by which a citizen can register their views—a common theme today—are suffocated by that form of bureaucracy. The leader of Leeds, Wakefield or Bradford council will not be susceptible to the individually expressed views of the citizen however many petitions or texts they receive, because the bureaucratic haze is too impenetrable for the necessary process of give and take.
The Bill fails to follow the logic of the Government’s sub-regional strategy, which involves their broadly sensible steps towards creating city regions. A huge regional machine is being imposed, yet at the same time the Government are discussing the notion of the large city state, which has a lot going for it and is the one sensible thing that they have suggested. Furthermore, an enormous amount has happened without a legal framework to compel people to do what they find easier to do through voluntary agreement.
The RDAs are a mixed bag. During my ministerial career, I was dealing with City Challenge and the regeneration bodies, and I was always queasy about the intellectual validity of claims about jobs having been safeguarded or created. How on earth would that be judged? We constantly see statistics about virtuous activity. I do not care whether PricewaterhouseCoopers has done a report, because it is almost impossible to apply intellectual rigour to such statistics.
Some of the RDAs have not been too bad, although they were better at the beginning, when they were sharply focused on economic development. Since then, however, all sorts of peripheral tasks have been imposed on them—renaissance towns and the impedimenta of all sorts of mini-initiatives that have drained away their central role. There is certainly no evidence that the RDAs have narrowed regional economic disparities; in fact, there is significant evidence that such disparities have increased, as was inevitable.
I see nothing in the proposals that will make the citizen less convinced that planning is a top-down process. I am thinking especially of housing. We can all say sanctimoniously to our hearts’ content that we need more houses. However, as we all know, the one thing that unites most of our citizens is their opinion that new houses are not needed in their vicinity. Any plan to build 30-odd houses as an extension to an estate or in a field, no matter how unsightly, is bound to raise protest. The citizen should feel that the process is something other than a top-down one imposed on them. Craven, in my constituency, is part of the Leeds city region structure. As part of that, it accepted a programme that would have meant a relatively modest number of houses being built annually. However, the cumulative total looked big and Craven saw the nearest thing to a citizens’ revolt for a long time. The politicians responded to local pressure and backed away from the programme.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) that the Bill will push power upwards, not downwards. It will create a huge motor that will take decisions that are crucial to people’s lives, and that power will be exercised by a quango—with the ornament of the advisory cardinals who will sit and give their opinions. I see the merit in the local area and multi-area agreements, which I welcome. But however virtuous they may be, we still have to accept that to a significant extent the contracting parties are themselves not directly accountable. We are building structures without direct accountability. We can praise their administrative efficiency and capacity, but we must be careful before we lend ourselves to the notion that they are genuinely accountable.
The leaders’ board—this college of cardinals, this cosy coterie of local authority aldermen—will do nothing to make the citizen believe that their voice has been reinforced. We should bring back the term “alderman” for the people nominated to meet the regional development agency. I pass over the Regional Select Committees, which are largely phantom and certainly fugitive bodies, so ham-fistedly and belatedly, and with such obvious reluctance, were they introduced by the Government.
The Government will make a great deal of the bells and whistles of empowerment, such as petitions and the like. I say to Front Benchers from my party that I hope that under a future Conservative Government the citizen will not be subject to text messages on the progress of Bills. I do not wish a Government to intrude on my privacy to tell me about the progress of Government Bills, thank you very much. I am reluctant enough to text as it is, and my reluctance will be reinforced if I feel that the Government are to intrude on me by telling me about the progress of Bills, in most of which I will not have a huge residual interest. Those bells and whistles are at the margin. The central point is the accumulation and reinforcement of powers at the RDA level without effective scrutiny.
We have seen a lot of joint working, but like many colleagues I do not see why it has to have a mandatory, statutory and regulatory framework to work. When people feel the need to, they will work together. The Bill is packed full of things that would be much better left to people’s common sense and willingness to work together.
The economic prosperity boards have a wonderfully Stalinist ring about them—they have overtones of a Soviet plan for tractor widget manufacture in the 1930s. If we called them “economic recovery boards”, at least that would admit that we started from a point of recession rather than suggesting that we are building on unparalleled progress in prosperity. However, I am willing to be convinced. If, in Committee, good arguments are made for a statutory framework—and provided that people are to opt into it, rather than being required to become involved—I may be convinced. However, the incubus of the regional framework on top of the sub-regional strategy, to which I am attached, will be stultifying.
The dilemma at the heart of the Bill has not been mentioned, and it may be a psychological as well as a political dilemma. We all talk about devolution, localism and decentralisation, but we are often not terribly precise about what we mean by those three concepts or what the difference is between them; in fact, there is a significant difference between them. The real issue is where the balance lies between representative and direct democracy. I have heard the Secretary of State say that time has moved on from representative democracy and that we are now into direct democracy. That is a dangerous notion. Putting democracy into the hands of groups of citizens who have no responsibility beyond the subject in which they have passionate interest, who do not have to make the relevant choices and who inevitably become dependent on the Government for the stream of funding that enables them to carry on their activity, would be dangerous indeed. It is essential that we assert the clear primacy of representative institutions if our democracy is to be reinforced.
I agree with what the right hon. Gentleman is saying, but is he not in danger of taking the Government’s propaganda and rhetoric too seriously? There is no real direct democracy in the Bill; as the right hon. Gentleman has been saying, there is just a bit more centralisation. Is that not the case?
It may be. I occasionally make the perhaps naive mistake, after only 22 years in this place, of thinking that when the Secretary of State talks about a problem, she means to do something about it. I heard her say that the time of representative democracy was past, and direct democracy was now the thing of the future. I call for caution before we are seduced by that, because it simply is not the case. I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman, whose speech I agreed with almost entirely and very much enjoyed, that we have seen precious little in this regard. Everybody needs to make up their mind what they mean when they talk about localism and decentralisation. What decentralisation usually means is that the Government find a way of giving local government’s functions to somebody else.
This has been a long journey. We had the directly elected assemblies, which were shot down in the north-east, then we had the regional assemblies, which remained significantly toothless and anonymous, and now we have the wonderful notion of the board of leaders. If we draw the conclusion that we are heading towards the wrong destination, perhaps we need to change train. Perhaps we should look at different sorts of structures—the structures of representative democracy—and abandon the search for a regional promised land.
In the present world, we need to do two things, one of which we all agree on and one of which some of my colleagues are very uncomfortable about. First, we need to respond to the issues that can be dealt with only on an international scale, such as climate change and population movements that may follow it, the migration of economic power to Asia, and competitiveness; we can all list what they are. We saw the G20 began to move towards a G2 of America and China. We have to ask ourselves which forum will be able to represent our interest and the European interest as regards those global issues. Frankly, that means that we will have to shift some competence and power upwards. That may be a difficult lesson to learn, but it is none the less true. If we have to do that, because otherwise we will not have the capacity to make our voices heard, then we need also to push power downwards in the areas where it is practicable to do so and the citizen can really make decisions at the local level.
The background to that is the self-empowering citizenry. I am not a computer anorak; my children will testify that that statement has the ring of truth to it. Nevertheless, the internet has empowered the citizen and disempowered institutions—the Government are the most important of those—like no other invention since the printing press, and printing was limited to a very small circle until relatively recently in modern times. The internet means that in half a day any one of my constituents can become a bigger expert on a subject—with the exception of two or three subjects that I have spent my lifetime dealing with—than I can ever be. What we might describe as the sacerdotal role of the MP as somebody sent to London because they had access to the information needed to enable them to take decisions that the citizen was not in a position to take has disappeared out of the window. The citizen can take power, mobilise and do all sorts of things that were not possible in the past, while Governments are disempowered. As a Conservative, I am in favour of the disempowerment of Governments, which is a good way forward.
As always, the right hon. Gentleman is making an extremely interesting and provocative speech. He talked earlier about the choice between representative democracy and direct democracy. He made very clear his preference, which I strongly support, for a system of representative democracy. In his latest example, he is essentially saying that representative democracy has had its day because citizens will use the internet to insist on a form of direct democracy. How does he reconcile those two trends and ensure the triumph of representative democracy that we agree on?
First, we must, where possible, give competence to the people who are elected, so that the citizen knows that in voting for the council there is a choice of one set of rascals rather than the other set of rascals. If there is a competence there, the citizen is happy to make those choices. Secondly, the citizen will, in the first instance, use the internet as a tool for or against their own council, as we have all seen. We got very large quantities of e-mails about the Gurkhas because of the immediate pressure being put on the person representing those people. At the same time, people can send a fiery cross across the countryside to fight capitalism or mobilise against the G20. If we do not ensure that we safeguard representative democracy, we will allow the technology to become the servant of those who have given up on representative democracy. That is the most important thing.
Because there is now a democratic deficit as regards those who are involved in representative democracy, does my right hon. Friend agree that instead of trying to extend the franchise to 16-year-olds, we should concentrate on trying to get those who are currently qualified to vote to engage better with our democratic process?
On the whole, I subscribe to that point of view. We see disaffection in all sorts of people. The contrivance of getting people to vote in Tesco, or whatever, has demonstrated that sometimes people’s determination not to vote is almost greater than people’s determination to vote.
I gave way twice in the course of my peroration, which was noble beyond the call of duty, so I will now try to perorate towards the end. The Bill will, in effect, spend two weeks in Committee. Having listened to what colleagues have said and read the thing myself, it seems that almost all the amendments could be aimed at deleting significant parts of it. If we did that and left just the bells and whistles, as I have described them, it would probably become an ineffective but entirely harmless Bill, whereas if we leave the bulk of it in place, I fear that it will become yet another oppressive instrument that militates against what we are all trying to do.
I very much agree with what my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford) said about the missing elements in our discussion of the Bill, including Lyons and several factors that go with that. His comments meshed closely with the thoughtful, as always, contribution by the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) about point at which we decide where representation should fall in local government and how we marry the notion of participation, or direct government, with representation, which is the way in which participation and its antinomies can be determined. We cannot just have the white noise of participation determining what happens, through the internet or otherwise, without a representative process that sorts out who gets what, where, how and when, and who does the thinking about that.
Equally, we cannot say that we wish to devolve power right down to the local level—that we will get rid of regional authorities and so on, and that everything will come back to local authorities—while maintaining an undifferentiated form of taxation that increasingly ends up as a flat tax. Without any ability to vary such a tax, particularly locally, it increasingly has to be determined from the centre, which necessitates making up bogus valuations in order to make any sense of how people are taxed in the first place. I understand that the Conservatives said in their green paper on local government that they would devolve power down to local level, and at the same time keep the crude version of that tax in place and freeze it for two years. Under that proposal, no one would have the opportunity to exercise any financial discretion as regards how to go about that devolution and exercise the representative government function locally. There is nothing more centralising than a tax system over which no one has any discretionary control at local level, and in which decisions on how money will be organised locally end up entirely in the hands of central Government. We are not wholly at that point yet, but if we do not do something about the issue over a period of time, we will be.
We must recognise that if we are to maintain some form of council tax or similar system, it will require modernisation, uprating and revaluation to make it function. If we do not bring that about, we will surely have condemned our local government system. Whichever direction the rhetoric about localisation is pointing, we will in fact have secured a thoroughly centralised system with very little local discretion and variation.
In my constituency of East Devon, we have about 4,500 people on the waiting list for housing, yet we have to give about £5.5 million a year from rents to central Government, which is then redistributed nationally. If those rents were given back to East Devon, we could provide the housing that we so desperately need. Surely that would be localism at its best.
The hon. Gentleman has perhaps anticipated some of the comments that I was going to make about the level at which various local government services fall, which the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon referred to. In an ideal world for local government, we would get it right about where services, arrangements and activities fall in the sub-national spectrum.
It is fair to say that regardless of Government, for many years we in this country have made a real pig’s ear of working out where in sub-national government things should be dealt with. The truth of the matter is that local government, as we call it, is not just a number of local authorities, the boundaries of which have been determined by the local government boundary committee or, in the case of county councils, largely by the Plantagenets. Since the county boundaries were put in place, the black death and the industrial revolution have been and gone, and local government has come into its modern form. Aldermen have come and gone, and still we have counties based on the local government boundaries of 1383 or similar.
The reality of sub-national government and what people want from their local services is that those services work at different levels of sub-national determination. Sometimes they work within the local government boundaries as they are now, and those boundaries themselves appear to be rather centralising in the case of some services. Sometimes what we call local government services fall at neighbourhood level and sometimes into local government areas as we have currently decided them. Sometimes they fall at sub-regional level and sometimes at regional level.
The issue to consider is not just the level at which services fall but at what point they should be accountable. Should we determine that at each level of sub-national services, there should be complete representative accountability for them? I have personally considered for a long time that a number of services and functions properly fall at regional level. The question is whether we have got the delineation of the regions right. I believe that the regions of England are based on those originally devised by a Conservative Prime Minister to relate to regional development in the European Union, after which they were declared to be “the regions”. The idea that democracy might conceivably be based on those regions is perhaps a problem for regional development.
My understanding, from evidence that my Select Committee received during its consideration of the Bill, is that the regions have their origin in civil defence maps of the second world war. That cannot be the proper basis, particularly in a strange area such as the east, for economic and rent policies in the 21st century.
The hon. Gentleman’s journey of discovery goes back even further in history than my journey of understanding about how the regions of England, as they have been defined for a while, arose. Certainly the regions as we see them now were put into place as a response to what Brussels had to say about regional development in member states. They have solidified into the regions upon which democracy might conceivably be based.
My point is that whether or not one decides that one would have started out with those regional boundaries, there is a strong case for the functions that fall at regional level—the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon pointed to other functions that increasingly fall above national level, given the problems in the world—to have a democratic mandate related to them. A number of regional quangos have fallen outside the ambit of regional development agencies and the soon to be departed indirect regional assemblies. They could fruitfully be brought within the ambit of a directly elected regional tier of government.
There are further tiers of government. From a neighbourhood point of view, the district or unitary authority often looks distant, so our ideal is to devolve from that tier of local government to another tier, or to a neighbourhood administration that is appropriate for certain functions.
I am listening carefully to what the hon. Gentleman is saying, and we are going through this argument at the moment in my own county of Devon. Among some people there is a desire to have unitary government and others, such as me, desire to retain the two-tier system, which serves us well with enhanced working. Although I agree that some things need to be done at a sub-regional level and others at a supranational level, surely the logical conclusion of what the hon. Gentleman says is that the best local democracy comes from retaining our district councils. They must surely be the most immediately accountable bodies available to local people.
The conclusion that I was going to reach in my description of the journey of sub-national government in this country was to agree substantially with the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon that there is probably no exactly right formulation. Certainly district authorities perform a good function and provide good services in a number of circumstances.
I personally consider, certainly as far as the south of England is concerned, that the tier of local government that is potentially substantially redundant, if services fall at the proper level, is county councils. Other than the fact that a lot of people would be very upset for historical reasons, we could quite happily do without that tier in our local government dealings. When considering what should fall at what level of sub-national government, we would not seriously miss many things that have resided at county council level.
That brings me to some of the purposes of the Bill. I do not want to go through all the clauses because this is a Second Reading debate and we should examine whether the measure merits further consideration. I think that it does, because although it is by no means an overall solution to the problem of representation and where local government falls, it attempts to make clearer some reasonable working mechanisms for how specific local government functions fall, without necessarily leading us down the path of choice. It allows us to consider whether we need a representative level at every stage, and whether devices exist whereby we can ensure accountability, albeit indirect accountability. It also allows us to consider arrangements for local authorities, which are statutorily defined, to work together voluntarily to ensure that the functions that fall beyond them can be tackled and represented adequately.
A little example that springs to mind is local government working between Southampton, the area that I represent, and South Hampshire. Several clear local government functions go beyond the boundaries of Southampton. Yet, as things stand, we have a choice between their residing with the county council or the city’s attempting to lead the functions, with several other authorities, which may be more or less reluctant to have such leadership thrust upon them. Economic development and a range of other matters that relate to the sub-regional economic dimension clearly go beyond the local government boundaries of Southampton. They include transport, planning and housing as well as economic development considerations. Yet if one approached authorities outside Southampton and asked whether they wished to be ruled by Southampton for those functions, they would probably say no.
A much better way of ensuring that those functions are adequately covered is through co-operation between the authorities. That ensures accountability, and that the functions work at the right level in the sub-region and to the benefit of all the authorities in the area. That is beginning to happen with the Partnership for Urban South Hampshire, which was one of the first seven multiple area agreements to be signed last year. The authorities are of all parties and none—not one is currently a majority Labour authority; some are Conservative, some have no overall control and some are Liberal Democrat—but they increasingly work well together.
I agree about the Enver Hoxha-ist resonance of “economic prosperity areas”; the best appellation might be the subject of consideration in Committee. However, in practice, authorities that work as I described want a loose framework and arrangement for what they do and an understanding that they are there for the medium and long term—there is no foot-in, foot-out, “There one week, gone the next” attitude. They want a longish-term arrangement in which they can work together; a statutory recognition that they are working together; and the ability to build on that to increase function, finance and resource as the arrangement develops. That is a genuinely important step forward in the Bill. It provides a framework on a voluntary basis—no one has to do it and it does not rely simply on city regions: top-tier and lower-tier authorities can combine and a range of different arrangements can apply. The central arrangement is catching activities that go wider than one local authority.
The arrangement goes some way towards solving the region, sub-region, local dilemma and how we develop services. It begins to catch services at the right level and make them increasingly accountable. As the idea develops, I look forward to more functions coming under the scope of those arrangements from the top down rather than from the bottom up. However, as one of the Bill’s central themes, it has a great deal to commend it. For that reason alone, if not many others, I am happy to support this Second Reading.
I draw the House’s attention to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Interests.
It is a privilege to follow the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead), and, indeed, a series of deeply thoughtful speeches, all of which expressed some concerns about whether the Bill will remedy the disparity between local authorities’ responsibilities and their accountability to the electorate, and whether it will accentuate rather than alleviate that division.
I begin by considering a narrower issue and by taking it for granted that the Bill’s three key objectives—promoting local democracy, encouraging co-operation between local authorities and facilitating regional planning—are a good thing. I want to draw attention to a phenomenon, which, if the measure does not tackle it, could undermine all three objectives. It is the increasing exploitation of a little known loophole, which allows one council to meet its housing targets by building houses in another local authority’s area. That threatens the first objective, since local democracy cannot properly operate without local accountability. If one council can meet its Government targets at the expense of the interests of residents in another area, to whom it is not accountable electorally, that is the antithesis of local democracy.
The loophole undermines the second objective—promoting co-operation through leaders’ boards and economic prosperity boards—because it is hard to envisage how local authorities will co-operate if one or more decide that they can meet their goals by invading their neighbours. That is a recipe for lack of co-operation rather than for facilitating it.
The same is true of facilitating regional planning and meeting housing targets, which are regional planning’s principal objective, if, once those targets are sub-aggregated to individual regions, houses are not built in areas where local authorities were told that there was a need and a duty to build them, but in someone else’s area—possibly even outside the region.
Colleagues may not know—I did not until comparatively recently—that it is legally possible for one council to try to meet its housing targets by seeking planning permission to build in another local authority area. They may think that, even if it is legally possible, it does not happen in practice.
I understand precisely what the right hon. Gentleman is talking about in our locality. However, would it not be sensible when, for example, a large town needed to expand to accommodate its population, for the land to become part of the expanding authority—for a transfer of territory to take place from one authority to another? That seems the most sensible way forward.
I sympathise with my right hon. Friend’s point, even more so now that I have heard what the hon. Member for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins) has just said. My constituency goes up to the city boundary of Leicester, but Leicester city council would like to expand its authority into the suburban area of my largely rural constituency, in a borough called Oadby and Wigston. The city council does not want the area to build houses in, but it would like to get hold of its council tax base.
That would probably add to the incentive. I have enormous admiration for the hon. Member for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins), but we need to think hard about the consequences of what he has suggested. If an authority was told by the Government, rightly or wrongly, through their regional planning policy, that it needed to build a certain number of houses in its area and if the neighbouring authority needed to build another number of houses in its area, it would be wrong for the first authority to be able to say, “Well, we’ll build that number of houses, but not in our area. We’ll build them in someone else’s.” Wherever the borders ought to lie, such matters should be decided quite separately.
As will become obvious to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, a recent example of the problem is that the local authorities in Luton and South Bedfordshire decided to try to meet their housing targets by making an area in the neighbouring district of North Hertfordshire one of their preferred locations for house building. The area that Luton and South Bedfordshire have chosen was not included in the original Milton Keynes and south midlands spatial strategy, so no one in North Herts was consulted while the strategy was going through. The area in question was not even one of Luton and South Bedfordshire’s preferred options when they were considering how to meet that broad strategy, once it had been decided. It was only when it suddenly dawned on local councillors in Luton and South Bedfordshire that there would be some opposition—there is always some opposition—to building where they had originally thought it would be sensible and right to build, and that they could avoid that opposition, in electoral terms, by transferring their ambitions to a neighbouring area, that they went ahead with the proposal.
Luton and South Bedfordshire have selected the area of Lilley Bottom, as it is known, near the eponymous village of Lilley in my constituency. Not many hon. Members have villages in their constituencies that are named after them, still less parts of their anatomies— or after which they are named—but there we are. The area is a particularly beautiful part of my constituency and probably one of the most attractive valleys in the constituency, which makes it even more abhorrent to those who live there that it has been seized upon in this way. The area provides a vital resource to the inhabitants of Luton, South, who have a beautiful area of countryside on their boundaries, which they greatly want and, by and large, want to keep. Should the plan go ahead, there would be a double loss, for the inhabitants of both North Herts and Luton.
It is not only that area that is affected, however. There is another area where a neighbouring local authority is planning to build, in St. Albans, in the southern part of my constituency, although that plan has recently been stopped. My point is that although the problem may not be common throughout the country, if we do not stop it, we will open the floodgates. There will not be a council in the country with housing pressures in its area that will not think, “How much more preferable to seek planning permission in another area.” I do not know whether there is even any limit on councils choosing areas in entirely different parts of the country. Could the inhabitants of Kent seek to meet their housing targets by building in Northumbria? As the law is currently phrased, I think they could. That is an absurdity. We should take the opportunity provided by this Bill to close that loophole and ensure that local authorities try to meet their targets in their areas and for their constituents, to whom they are responsible.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way again. The problem arises where there is no possibility of accommodating those who need housing within the boundaries of the authority in question, which is certainly the situation in Luton. Perhaps 1,000 more houses might be built in in-fill, but we need much more than that, with 8,500 people on the housing transfer and waiting list. The problem is uncomfortable, but it has arisen from necessity, not perversity.
I hate to tell the hon. Gentleman about his own constituency, but his constituents—his councillors—first identified sites in various parts of Luton and neighbouring areas that were sufficient for housing targets. In my view those areas are quite sensible places to build, but it is up to those councillors. It was only when there was a degree of opposition from some locals in those areas that the councillors thought, “Let’s put the houses in someone else’s area where it doesn’t matter if there’s opposition, because they can’t vote against us as they’re not in our constituency.” There are plenty of areas in the Milton Keynes-to-Luton region, which is what the target covers, where building could be undertaken, without going into another county.
There has recently been a welcome High Court decision that, at first sight, has a bearing on the issue. Hertfordshire county council and St. Albans district council took the eastern area regional plan to the High Court and won, which is the first time that a regional housing plan has, to a degree, been overturned by the High Court. The decision affected both the proposal for Dacorum to spread beyond its boundaries into land owned by St. Albans—the land is the other side of the motorway, so most people do not realise that it is owned by St. Albans—and building work in Welwyn and Hatfield. Knowing that I was going to raise the issue today, my local newspaper, the Herts Advertiser, made the helpful suggestion that we could rely on the court case to achieve what I want to achieve through parliamentary measures. Unfortunately, my understanding is that we cannot do so, although I look forward to a response from the Minister if I am wrong and if the case has indeed solved the problem.
My understanding is that the court said that the east of England plan was wrong because of a failure to carry out a proper strategic environmental assessment of urbanising the belt between Dacorum, St. Albans and Welwyn and Hatfield, and the fact that they would begin to merge into each other if building took place. The decision was not based on a rejection of the right of one council to build outside its own area. I therefore hope that, in summing up, the Minister will correct me if I am wrong. Indeed, I would be delighted if I were wrong and if the case means that the threat from Luton and South Bedfordshire in North Hertfordshire has disappeared.
I hope that the Bill will be amended to close that loophole; otherwise, the Bill’s very objectives will be threatened. I am concerned that it has emerged that the Committee stage of the Bill will be so brief as to inhibit the time to amend it appropriately and close that loophole. I know that the Minister cannot give me a commitment today to table specific amendments, but I would ask him to give a commitment in summing up at least to give serious consideration to introducing an appropriate amendment in Committee. Unless he does so speedily, the opportunity for the House to do its job and amend the Bill to improve it will be lost. I hope very much to hear from the Minister at the end of this debate that he will do that.
I shall briefly make some broader points. The Bill purports to promote local democracy. How does it do that? It does so by telling local authorities what they must do and how they must do it, and then monitoring them and sanctioning them if they do not do it. What is the cost? What are the resources? What is the time frame? How many extra officials will need to be employed to ensure that authorities are meeting the 3,000 words of obligations imposed on them? What resources will be made available from central Government to enable those officials to do those things? If they are already doing them, no extra resources will be required, but then no extra legislation will be needed. The presumption must be that many officials are not doing those things and that extra resources will therefore be required.
At a time of economic crisis, the one thing we ought not to be doing is adding to the enormous deficit that this country faces, which exceeds the entire budget of the Department, as well as the budgets of the defence system and the education system. I cannot believe that we are going to add to it, albeit in small ways, by imposing extra obligations, which will require extra resources, on local authorities. This is a sign that the Government have no idea of the scale of the crisis that we face, not just this year but for years to come. If we are to bring total public expenditure back into line with the taxable resources of this country, why are they seeking to place on local government additional costly obligations that no one in the Chamber has so far suggested are necessary? Nor have I heard any call from outside the Chamber for these duties to promote this, that and the other.
The second thing that the Bill does is to promote local government by transferring power away from elected and partly elected bodies. It moves power from regional bodies—which are pretty bad, but at least they contain some indirectly elected members—to leaders’ boards. We are not told what the composition of the leaders’ boards will be. The presumption is that they will consist of the leaders of the local authorities, although that is not spelled out in the Bill. They could consist of the chief executives of the local authorities—or their wives and girlfriends, or husbands and boyfriends. The composition is not spelled out; we are simply told that a board will be established and that it will be called a leaders’ board. One thing that we know is that people will not be directly elected to the leaders’ boards. The boards will have a constitution and duties imposed on them by the Government. In practice, they will be supervised and monitored by the Government, and they will be dissolved if the Government do not like them. This seems to be going in exactly the wrong direction.
I would like a Bill that genuinely lived up to its title, and that promoted local democracy, economic development and the construction of houses in the right places, but I fear this Bill will not do that. Unless it is modified, it will be undermined by the growing exploitation of a loophole that threatens all its key objectives. It promotes additional burdens on local authorities—and, ultimately, on the local taxpayer—for which there is no demand and no need, and it removes power from the people to central Government and to unelected bodies in a wholly undesirable way, for which the House has so far shown no support.
The right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) ended his speech with a number of wide-ranging considerations that were in line with the thoughtful, even philosophical, tone of many of the contributions that we have heard this evening. He began, however, by expressing a number of highly specific and—as he said himself—narrow concerns. In so doing, he has paved the way for the contribution that I wish to make to the debate. I wish to raise a narrow but important issue about part 5 of the Bill, which deals with the duties and powers of county councils in relation to the economic and spatial planning role of the so-called responsible regional authorities—that is to say, the regional development agency and the leaders’ boards drawn from local authorities in the region.
Let me remind the House that under the current legislation—the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004—there is a duty on the responsible planning body when drawing up the regional strategy to seek the advice of county councils in two-tier areas, and elsewhere of unitary authorities, national park authorities or the Broads authority. There is a reciprocal duty on those authorities to give advice. Further provisions relate to the key role of upper-tier authorities in drawing up sub-regional plans. Those reciprocal roles and duties will be removed by the Bill, and I think that that is wrong. I wish to argue for the inclusion of those roles and duties in the Bill.
I ought perhaps to explain my interest in the matter. It so happens that, five years ago, almost to the day, as the nation’s then Planning Minister, I had the doubtful pleasure of piloting through this House the final stages of the aforementioned Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act. I call it a doubtful pleasure because certain clauses concerning the role of county and unitary councils—the so-called section 4(4) authorities—were the subject of a somewhat acrimonious dispute between this House and the other place. That dispute led to my—I confess it—highly reluctant, even churlish, acceptance of amendments to strengthen the role and duties of the upper-tier authorities. Those amendments went further than I thought strictly necessary at the time, but they were needed to secure closure on the legislation for the benefit of all concerned in the planning system.
I said at that time that I looked to local government, and to the county councils network in particular, to ensure that the arrangements worked and to engage constructively in the regional planning process. Indeed, I put it on record that if the arrangements that we were agreeing to through those amendments proved unworkable because of a lack of good will from the parties concerned, we would come back and amend the law.
I raise this point about the debates on the 2004 Act because I now want to put it on record that, despite my earlier scepticism, I believe that the section 4(4) authorities on the whole have made their best efforts to ensure that the current arrangements for regional and sub-regional planning succeed. My scepticism about the intentions of those authorities was misplaced. In other words, I was wrong. It is not often that one hears a politician say that, at least about a policy decision. I am therefore very surprised that the Bill, if enacted in its present form, would remove from primary legislation the regional and sub-regional planning roles of those section 4(4) authorities.
The right hon. Gentleman might think that this is a rather impertinent intervention. He has said that, as a Minister, he at least thought about the legislation that was being enacted. One problem that concerns me about this Bill and so many others is that Ministers bring them to the House apparently without having thought about their contents or their implications. I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on thinking about the Bill with which he was concerned. He might well have changed his mind since; that does not matter—at least he applied his mind to it.
I hear the hon. and learned Gentleman, but I would not for a moment accuse my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench of presenting this Bill without having given it the most serious thought and consideration. I am sure that that applies to all the Ministers we have seen here today, including the Secretary of State, and not least to the Minister for Local Government, who will respond to the debate and to whom I am determined to offer the greatest possible blandishments in the course of my remarks.
I wonder whether my right hon. Friend could explain further his conversion. The earlier legislation placed a restriction on shire counties, perhaps to prevent urban unitaries from expanding, and he now seems to think that that legislation was right, even though he did not do so at the time. This matter is obviously of concern to me, as I represent an urban unitary authority that wants to expand into a shire county.
I hope that my hon. Friend will forgive me if I have misled him. It was certainly not the purpose of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act, so well remembered by the House, to exercise any discrimination or to make a judgment about the relative merits of county councils or unitary authorities. As I shall explain, the changes to the present Bill that I am now proposing are designed to benefit county councils and unitary authorities equally.
This is an important issue for local government, and I know that the County Councils Network has spelled out its concerns to the Government on more than one occasion. As the House will be aware, the County Councils Network is a cross-party body and its concerns are shared by its membership across all three major parties, so I hope that the Government will give far more weight to its views than they have been prepared to do so far.
The truth is that the present statutory arrangements have worked pretty well up to now and it makes eminent sense to retain a statutory role for county councils in the two-tier areas. They provide much of the infrastructure needed to implement spatial plans—for example, schools and local transport—and they also have a key role in ensuring coherence with other public sector agencies such as policing and health that are organised on a sub-regional basis.
Let us be clear that this is not only about appropriate roles, as it is also about resources. In two-tier areas, much of the technical support to regional assemblies on regional planning is provided by county councils, which also have a key responsibility for sub-regional planning. This resource is vital to ensuring sub-regional differentiation within the regional strategy. I put it on the record for the benefit of my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay), who protested about such phraseology, that what that means is different provision in different parts of the region. These councils also have a vital role in supporting the development of the regional strategy itself. Let us be clear once again that regional teams are not resourced to undertake this work and they would lack the detailed sub-regional and local knowledge to make such planning effective.
The section 4(4) role is essential in order to retain capacity and expertise in strategic planning, including the research and intelligence functions, which provide a key evidence base for the regional and sub-regional planning process. I put it to my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government that we are in the paradoxical position whereby the upper-tier authorities want to ensure a continuing and strong statutory foundation for them to undertake work in support of the regional development agencies, while the Government are putting at risk the provision of that resource by removing the existing statutory duties through the Bill. It is a risk. Who can be at all confident that in the absence of a duty written directly into the Bill, these functions will be preserved by local authorities under pressure to cut costs?
I think I understand what my Front-Bench colleagues will say in defence of the Government’s position. I have, of course, read the remarks of my noble Friend the Under-Secretary—both in Committee and on Third Reading in the other place—and I have read the letter sent by the Minister for Local Government to the county councils network management committee on 21 May. In general terms, Ministers have offered the assurance that these roles and duties will be set out in guidance and regulation. Indeed, my noble Friend the Under-Secretary—an excellent Minister, by the way—went so far as to say that the counties will have a number of “clear statutory roles”. Those roles are arguably—one would have to see the detail—close to the status quo. If that is the case, let me say to my right hon. Friends: why go through the time-consuming trouble of laying separate regulations before the House? Why not restore directly in the Bill the roles and duties set out in the 2004 Act, which I do not believe would be a contentious proposal?
It may be that the reluctance to include these detailed provisions on the face of the Bill is defended in the name of local democracy. In other words, it may be argued that the regional leaders’ boards should be allowed to draw up their own schemes, but what if such a scheme omitted a proper role for the upper-tier authorities? That would not be very democratic, would it? Indeed, would it not be likely to attract the centralising intervention of the Secretary of State in order to ensure appropriate roles and duties for these authorities? If such roles and duties are to be anticipated—or, indeed, in the words of my noble Friend the Under-Secretary, to enjoy statutory status—why not save a lot of trouble, why not spare the county councils the uncertainty and why not restore these roles and duties directly in the Bill? The relegation of the county and unitary councils’ role to as yet unspecified regulations and advice notes seems to me to be both pointless and harmful.
Now the Minister for Local Government knows that my position is not a veiled attack on the need for regional planning of the economy, housing, transport and the environment—I leave that to the Conservative Opposition, whose policies are in my view a prescription for nimbyism, and I believe that there would be only a minimal level of house building under a Conservative Administration. On the contrary, I want to see strong regional and sub-regional planning, owned by as many as possible of the key players. I thus conclude by asking my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government to consider having further discussions with the County Councils Network with a view to rethinking this part of the Bill.
I just wish that the right hon. Member for Streatham (Keith Hill) had stopped a little earlier, as all my friends in my county and district councils would have been very pleased with much of what he had to say. I hope that his speech will elicit a positive response from those sitting a few Benches in front of him.
This Second Reading debate has been quite curious. The debate has been pretty severely crippled by comments on the Bill’s inadequacy and questions about why it should be here—I exempt, of course, the Secretary of State. Much of the debate has been on what could and should have been, but is not, in the Bill.
I thought that the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry), particularly what he said at the beginning and end of his speech, were most apposite. He pointed out that the Select Committee, of which I am a member, has just produced a report. It is interesting to think of the Government ploughing the Bill through—to the detriment, I believe, of local government—while answering the Select Committee’s recommendations for local government to have more powers devolved down to it. His last point, which was interesting and intriguing, was that the Committee stage would be very much shorter if a lot of the irrelevant stuff had been taken out of the Bill and if the Bill had been pared down to two or three of the Government’s most important points. On that basis, the Committee stage might be dealt with in about a week.
My first reaction to the Bill was, like that of many others, why is it here and what is it going to do? Perhaps the Secretary of State explained that with her mantra, “places a duty”, which she kept saying. Yet again, local government will be loaded with more and more duties and costs. Most competent local authorities are already doing much of what is in the Bill, so one wonders whether it was concocted and put together by Ministers who looked at local government and its co-operation with local communities and themselves and decided that because it is working quite well and to the benefit of local communities, they would legislate and put in yet more Government restrictions and more duties.
When I asked the chief executive and the leader of a big unitary authority for their first reaction, they both pointed out that if the Bill had to exist, it should be revised to take away many of the plans that local authorities were currently required to produce by the Government. I am adding to some of the thoughts already expressed about what should be in the Bill, but with a slightly different slant. Their authority, like many local authorities, is overloaded with reviews and requirements for plans, checks and so forth.
That particular local authority—a unitary authority—estimates that the Government require approximately 80 major reviews and plans regularly from it. I am sorry that the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford) is not in his place. When he was Minister for Local Government, he genuinely promised dramatically to reduce, and perhaps even to halve, the number of plans and reviews that this local authority, among others, had to produce for the Government. I understand that nominally there has been—or was at that stage—a large reduction in the overall number of plans. However, since then, more have been added and where there were two plans, they have often been combined into one or one has been made a sub-plan to another. In effect, then, there are more plans and more reviews than there were when the then Minister for Local Government asked for reductions.
Most of those plans and reviews require the input and expertise of senior local government officials, who must produce detailed plans, often with ludicrous parameters. Let me give just one example. Local authorities with an influence on housing have been required to present a 30-year housing plan. Given that the Treasury seems to be unable to predict year on year—especially at the moment—the idea that local authorities could spend time and money guessing 30 years ahead with any reliability overstretches the imagination.
It is hard to get to grips with this vague Bill. Some of the plans have the distinct appearance of old-fashioned, socialist “great leaps forward”. It is a mongrel Bill. Apparently it is partly about “economic development”, but, flicking through it, I failed to find any link to, for example, the business community. If we must have all these quangos and boards, which I severely doubt, it is critical for the business community to have a strong input on policy that affects economic development. After all, even under this Government the private sector must have the biggest role in generating wealth in any locality. As I have said, the Bill reeks of the Government’s desire to produce old-time socialist plans, and one waits for the phrase “great leap forward” to appear.
Many of the proposed changes, especially those involving local authorities directly, are best left for local authorities to make without rules, without regulations, and without Government overview. That haVE been the theme of many of the speeches that we have heard today, and of one key, noisy, slightly long and emphatic intervention from the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay). I found his intervention intriguing, because we had discussions in the past when he was a union leader.
Given that English local authorities have probably accepted petitions for more than 100 years, we should pay attention to chapter 2 of the Bill, which deals with petitions to authorities. Over time they have responded to various kinds of petition, and have responded more emphatically and effectively. Petitions are received in many forms—some are received electronically. Currently authorities acknowledge and respond to all of them, with the possible exception of the utterly ridiculous. I remember a few of those. I am tempted to suspect, however, that even the utterly ridiculous receive a formal response after consideration.
The Bill contains a clause entitled “Democratic arrangements of principal local authorities”. How can the Secretary of State possibly think that local authorities do not promote democracy and explain the roles of councillors, how to become a councillor, the support available to councillors to assist them in their role, how to approach councillors, and when their meetings and surgeries take place? That is common practice. It is done by all local authorities, and there is no need for legislation. Local authorities and indeed councillors, political or otherwise, naturally try to persuade other competent individuals, in particular, to become councillors and to take part on the democratic process. We do not need this legislation.
Let me take up a similar theme. I am astonished that the Government feel the need to dictate to local authorities that senior officers are liable to be called to account. Local authority meetings are almost always—indeed, perhaps without exception—held in public. The appropriate senior officers are present, and they are held to account by the elected councillors. That arrangement has been the norm for decades, and it has been developed as local authorities have adopted more openness. I find it amazing that the Government require the central diktat that runs through the Bill and, perhaps even worse, will run through the secondary legislation that follows it.
Perhaps the biggest opportunity that has been lost is the chance to return RDA functions to local authorities. The system worked very well before. The responsibility should be left to elected authorities, even if they work in groups—perhaps not dissimilar to the leaders’ board, but without the need for legislative diktat.
The Bill talks of—yet again—reviews, of further examination in public, of what is to be reviewed, and of even more approval of revision by the Secretary of State, who, of course, has reserved powers to revise and make further regulations. The same seems to apply to the economic prosperity boards: there are constitutions, rules and regulations on membership and voting, costs to be met by constituent councils and still further reviews of the boards and the various schemes. As I observed earlier, the business community does not seem to be involved.
In the middle of this hotch-potch of a Bill is clause 29, which has not been mentioned so far. It removes the restriction on senior local authority employees undertaking political activities such as standing for election or speaking publicly in support of a particular political party. I believe that that restriction has worked well in the past. I understand from senior local authority officials—local government officers—that it has strengthened their impartiality and standing and has actually given them more authority. Although clause 29 is small, I think that we shall come to regret that retrograde step.
I believe that most tenants—certainly those whom I know on many of the estates that I have visited—will be bemused to find that yet another new national body is being set up supposedly on their behalf. It is likely to be no more than a remote talking shop at taxpayers’, or perhaps tenants’, expense.
I have flicked through a few of my concerns about a Bill which proclaims that it sets out to increase local democracy but which will, in my view—like all the Government’s local democracy Bills—do exactly the opposite. I remain absolutely opposed to it.
Because I agree with a great deal of what many Members have said, I will not repeat it but will try to have my own take on the Bill. I must, however, comment on what was said by the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley), who, although his constituency is not contiguous with mine, is a near neighbour. I think of Bedfordshire as well as Hertfordshire, because the expansion might take place there, too.
I believe that urban local authorities that run out of land for house building and that have house building needs should be able to expand around their borders, and I believe that conurbations present the most efficient way for human beings to live. We do not want to see strings of houses and little settlements scattered across the countryside; it is much better for them to be situated around large towns. Sometimes towns have to expand.
The hon. Gentleman seems to be advocating the policy of urban extension that has been a feature of regional spatial strategies. Does he think that such policies should be pursued, even if every community and elected representative at every level, from parish council to European Parliament, opposes them?
Obviously each case should be viewed on its merits, but something must be done to help people who desperately need housing and cannot be rehoused because there is no available land or housing in their local authority area. We need sensitive extension of urban boundaries that takes account of the need for some green belt or green wedges. It should also be borne in mind that cities and towns over a certain size—with a critical mass—are more capable of providing better services because they have more resources.
A town the size of Luton, with a population of nearly 200,000, is less able to provide services than larger places, such as Nottingham or Leicester. Light rail systems, for example, are not viable in towns with populations below about 400,000. It would be difficult to argue the case for a light rail system in Luton. I think that light rail systems are very attractive, and I would like to see one in Luton, but unfortunately we do not appear to have the necessary critical mass. However, we must find some way of housing people. Ideally, we would have slightly smaller populations, in which case we would not have the problem of housing crowding.
My constituency has the youngest age structure of any in the country; it has more children at school than any other constituency. Those children will grow up, they will want to be housed and they will want somewhere to live that is close to where their families live, so we will need more houses. I understand the concerns of those who represent the areas bordering big cities and big towns such as Luton, but we have to do something about housing.
When it comes to local democracy, we have lost a great deal. Local authorities used to have responsibility for business rates; many more powers over raising local finance; large historical equity in local authority housing, which they could use to build more houses and provide housing at reasonable rents for local people; and so many direct services that have now been outsourced or put into trusts. That was a much better way of organising things.
I also regret the move from committee systems to the cabinet and back bencher arrangements that now exist. I agree entirely with my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) about that, although I would not put my case in quite such a robust way—he has his characteristic, charismatic way of speaking, which I would like to emulate but am unable to. I know councillors who now sit as back benchers and are not cabinet members or portfolio holders. They sometimes think, “What am I doing here?”
I was also astonished to find—I obviously voted for the legislation without realising what I was doing—that a decision made by the whole council can be overturned by the cabinet. I know that because it has happened twice in Luton. The council, which was Liberal Democrat and Conservative-controlled for a period—only just; it is now Labour-controlled—made a decision about school travel with a one or two vote majority, but the cabinet, which was controlled by the Liberal Democrats and one or two Conservative members, overturned the decision twice. I find it astonishing that a legislature could be overturned by an executive, but that happened and it is profoundly undemocratic. I would like to see much greater involvement of back benchers, the traditional system of committees with strong chairs, a great deal of openness and the full discussion, in party groups, of all policies. That used to happen in my time as a councillor. Sometimes the meetings would last five or six hours, but every detail of policy was discussed, voted upon by all members and taken to the council. That was a much more democratic way of carrying on.
I do not think that it has been desirable that government has tried to force local authorities to get rid of their local authority housing, via arm’s length management organisations or privatisation, as has happened in some cases, and handing over to housing associations. Council housing was a tremendous success for perhaps a century or so, and the best council housing—much of my constituency’s has been sold off—was built during that time. Millions of people grew up in good homes, with comfortable gardens and all the usual facilities one should expect in council housing, because of successive Governments, Conservative as well as Labour. That has been lost and I want to see it restored.
Indeed, I would like capital receipts and, indeed, business rates and the borrowing powers that local authorities used to have, to be handed back to local authorities. I would like them to have the degree of independence that they had in the past. That was largely taken away by Conservative Governments, but the approach has been continued by Labour Governments ever since. I do not wish to look back to a golden age, but at times in the 1970s we did wonderful things with our local authorities; we built regional sports centres, swimming pools and thousands of houses—we housed a complete waiting list. We did great things, and they were decided at the local level. Of course, this was counter-cyclical and helped to keep people employed too. That is the sort of local government that I want.
Recently, some of our Ministers have talked about reviving or reinvigorating pluralism, which is a system of democracy whereby there are different centres of power. It is not just centred in government, because there is also strong local government, strong trade unions, a strong legislature balancing the Executive, lobbying, business representation and so on. Those different centres of power rub against each other and ensure that power does not become over-centralised in government and at the highest levels of government, as has been the case in Britain in recent years. I strongly believe that we must restore local democracy, much more independence for trade unions and a strong, independent and non-politicised civil service. All those things were valuable parts of our democracy, and I want them to be rebuilt in the future.
In a sense, those things were not what I came here to talk about. I wished to make some points that might appear rather trivial, but are none the less important. The Bill is about promoting democracy and democratic arrangements. One of my concerns, which is a very real one, is that turnouts in elections are low and have been getting lower. There are all sorts of reasons for that, one of which, as I have found on the doorsteps in my constituency—this is not true of everyone, but it is the case with a good number of people—is that people have a poor understanding of the process of voting; they do not actually know how to vote. Many people say that they have voted Labour, Conservative or Liberal Democrat for years, but we have records showing that they have never voted or have not done so for the past decade. They clearly think that they are voting when they are not voting or they are forgetting what they have done.
Just last week, I spent 20 minutes explaining politics to a lady in my constituency—I explained what the European Parliament, the national Parliament and the council were all about—at the end of which she was very grateful. She had her card with her, so I told her that she should take it down to her local polling station—to the school next door—and put her cross against her preferred party, whatever it might be. She said, “I never knew all this before. Thank you for telling me.” She was a sensible person, but she just did not know about this.