Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Ms Butler.)
I am enormously pleased, and I am sure that the Minister is delighted, that we have such a lot of time to debate this important issue—I was very much hoping that the House would have sufficient time to debate Government policy on regional and local government powers. I know that the Minister has received from my office an essay that I published three months ago, which, among other things, set out what I hope will prove to be a positive and constructive contribution to the debate on the new structure for local government in Cornwall. As a member of the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government, which two weeks ago published its own report on the balance of power between local and central Government, I think it is a timely moment to debate this matter. Given that we are on the eve of important elections across the country—not only the European but the local elections—I am sure the Minister would like to take the opportunity to set out the Government’s vision. I hope he will accede to some of the ambitions I shall be highlighting and the points I shall be making.
I am sure that the Minister will have enjoyed reading the 21-page essay that I sent him, and he will have noticed that I attempted to raise the debate above what has often been, in many local areas, best described as petty recrimination and party political tribalism of the worst type. It is unfortunate that so much of the debate at a local government level often resorts to that. That is no less the case in Cornwall than in many other parts of the country. I believe that it is partly a reflection of the relative powerlessness of local people when it comes to considering what local authorities can achieve.
I often describe local authorities not as local authorities or local government as such but as local agents of central Government, given the constraints and straitjackets in which they operate as regards their duties and powers and the targets and responsibilities that are placed on them. In effect, the decisions that they take are often de facto taken remotely in Whitehall or in Government offices. In fact, the latitude available to local authorities is restricted when it comes to their ability to vary the way they deliver a number of Government services. I do not say that simply to make a point against the Labour Government, because I think this trend has been going on for some time and, to be fair, it has been happening across parties. It is part of the dynamic of the relationship between central and local government that we all need to be honest about.
I agree entirely with what the hon. Gentleman is saying. He is making his case incredibly well. Does he agree that that problem is best evidenced in planning, where local councils are often put in an invidious position and end up having to approve developments that they and their local communities do not want? They have no choice because of the plethora of guidance that comes down from central Government.
I certainly agree with the hon. Gentleman but, I think that the one area where a certain amount of power is available to local authorities, in which—surprise, surprise, perhaps—there is often more competition among selected members to go on to the relevant committee, is planning. In fact, the planning committees make decisions on the economic, residential and other development of their communities. That happens very much at a local level and is, admittedly, site-specific and is applied case by case, but that committee has more power. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that that power is not sufficient to allow the committee to direct development in the way I believe local authorities should be entitled to, but planning is probably the area in which local authorities have most power. If the hon. Gentleman reflects on that, he will see that it means that in all other areas of local government, powers are extremely restricted.
It is also worth reflecting for a moment on the Government’s record on regional government and regional government powers. Although I do not intend to take up a lot of time on this issue—it is one that has been widely debated on many occasions—it is perhaps worth reflecting that the Government set out with an honourable objective, which was to try to establish regional government across the country. They rightly set out to deliver devolution in Scotland and Wales and, as part of the peace process, in Northern Ireland. They set out to do so in London, too, of course. That was an appropriate approach to the concept and policy of delivering devolution across the UK.
Of course, devolution is a process rather than a single event, and those who understand how the process works recognise that. When addressing the issue of the vacuum or lack of devolved power in the rest of the country, the Government seemed to forget that the fundamental principle of devolution is that it is a process of letting go, rather than holding on for dear life. I would have hoped that, after 12 years in power, the Government might have had the opportunity to reflect on that but, disappointingly, so far they seem not to have done so.
I say that devolution is a process of letting go rather than holding on, because the Government appeared to take the view that they should define the boundaries of the so-called regions—I call them Government zones—in which powers were supposedly to be handed down. They also set the timetable by which they would deliver those powers. They set out the basis on which the north-east referendum of 2004 would be held. In all senses, the devolution process was very much led by central Government.
I do not come from the north-east; I come from the diametrically opposite end of the country. I come from the far west of Cornwall—the bottom left-hand corner, as it were. If the Government said to Cornwall, “We’ll offer you regional government based on these boundaries, these powers and this timetable. Now this is the question: do you want it or not?”, I am afraid that a lot of people would be rather sceptical and would think there was a centrally driven agenda. The Government have retreated into a rather unhappy netherworld, having established Regional Select Committees, for which there is no cross-party consensus or support. Those Committees are a means of replacing the unelected regional assemblies, which the Government are to abolish; that is about as far as they have managed to go in the devolution of regional powers.
In some senses, in some parts of Government there is a passion genuinely to deliver regional powers—there is recognition that the state is far too centralised. I hope that the Government will open the issue up again, and not come at it from the angle of believing that they can control the agenda in the way they have done. They should set a menu of powers and allow local authorities themselves to decide, perhaps in the same way that they are enabling that to happen through the multi-area agreements. However, I do not think those agreements go far enough, or will in any sense deliver what I believe the Government should deliver.
The Government should allow communities to come together to draw up their own plans for devolved regional settlement, for taking powers away from the quangos, and for allowing decisions instead to be taken by directly elected representatives of local communities, who can shape and steer the ways their communities develop. If the Government were to allow that to happen, it would be easier to recognise that local government itself could be developed following the same principle—the principle that decentralisation is not just a process but is about letting go rather than holding on to the agenda. I hope that that is what the Government will do.
As the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan), knows full well, Cornwall county council and the six district and borough councils in Cornwall went through a painful process, which involved a lot of recriminatory and unsatisfactory debate of the kind that I described to him a moment or two ago, in the lead-up to the establishment of a single unitary authority. Elections to that authority take place tomorrow.
Cornwall put forward two possible patterns for the delivery of a single unitary authority, which I know the Government considered carefully. One proposal was for a single unitary authority with 18 local delivery areas or community networks; the other proposal was for six local delivery areas, reflecting the existing six districts. Both were unitary options. They seemed to be in conflict with each other, but in many senses they were similar bids.
When it came to a decision on the option that the Government went along with, which was the county council’s version of the single unitary authority, the debate was not very satisfactory. Many people in Cornwall felt that there was insufficient consultation. Those who were unsuccessful at the district level, if I may say so, engaged in a recriminatory political campaign to try to stop the initiative going through.
Many of us felt that the process may be worth pursuing if the Government were prepared to give Cornwall some real decision-making powers, but as the negotiation went on it became clear that the Government would not offer Cornwall any meaningful additional powers. It would be the same, but larger, agent of central Government as before, when there were seven authorities. That was a great disappointment.
In the vote on the order last year, I voted, with great regret, against the proposal. I felt that it should be taken away and worked on again, with the Government contributing a great deal more to the process of establishing a stronger tier of government in Cornwall. However, the decision is taken not in Cornwall but in Parliament, and Parliament saw to it that the order went through, so the unitary authority is being set up. As the Minister knows, it has established its interim board, which has been in operation since 1 April, and the first elections for 123 members will take place tomorrow.
In spite of having been opposed to it, I want to ensure that the council is a great success. The Government need to recognise that, underlying a rather frustrated local government sector in Cornwall and a rather disenchanted electorate—we will see by Friday evening what result they produce for us—there is great ambition for Cornwall. In any area there is the silliness of the extreme fringes, but Cornwall, with its own language, history and strong constitutional status on account of the Duchy, has strong arguments to promote its diversity and cultural strength. It is a case not of Cornwall wanting to cut itself off from the rest of the country and to become rather nationalistic and narrow, but of Cornwall wanting to enter into the celebration of diversity in the UK and the wider world, but it can do that only from a position of strength, not if it has little latitude to take decisions.
Cornwall’s great ambition is to be the United Kingdom’s green peninsula. We already have more wind turbines, the Government support the wave hub experiment off the north coast of my constituency. and in Cornwall there are some excellent companies operating in the geothermal and renewables sectors. In Cornwall, there is a lot of imaginative thinking and there are many excellent people to drive that agenda in the county itself. There is a real passion and ambition to champion social justice and to create the conditions for a more equal society. There is an ambition also to put our young people at the centre of policy making, but it is currently difficult to do so given the resources that are available and the way policy is directed from the centre. The careers service and other services are not under local control.
There is an ambition to build a powerful brand for Cornwall, but that is difficult when the regional development agency covers the Government zone of the south-west, stretching from the constituency of the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) down to my constituency, which includes the Isles of Scilly. The south-west, as a Government zone, really has no brand. There are many lovely places in it, and it is worth their establishing their own brands, but there is no such thing as that south-west. It has been difficult to generate any enthusiasm or support from the regional development agency for something that it fears is about promoting a brand within the brand that it wants to create for that invented region.
We also have an opportunity to rediscover the distinctiveness of Cornwall, to build on the cultural and environmental strengths of the county, to be outward-facing not inward-looking and to develop our communications and maritime industries. When the Government look at transport both in Cornwall and, strategically, within the RDA zone, they see the area as some kind of landlocked appendage and worry how much tarmac there is and whether the roads and the rail services are adequate, as if all communications in Cornwall travel just east to west. In fact, Cornwall is almost surrounded by sea and, seen from a much wider perspective, faces out to a much wider world. It has maritime connections, is three miles from the busiest shipping lane in the world, has the second-largest natural harbour in Europe, at Falmouth, and so on. All that potential is being ignored, and Cornwall is simply seen as a pleasant holiday destination.
Cornwall should have the power to shape those matters and its own future. After all, who should decide how many homes are built in Cornwall? The hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) mentioned planning powers, and I know that they are highly contentious both in the House and in local authorities. The Government want to develop 3 million homes by 2020, but Cornwall has undergone such development. We have not tried to resist it, because the county is one of the fastest growing places in the country. It has had the third fastest housing development since the early 1960s. In the past 40 years, Cornwall has more than doubled its housing stock, yet over that period the housing problems of local people have become, if anything, far worse. Simply building houses—heaping up thousands of houses—is not the answer. As far as the plans for Cornwall are concerned, the decisions are taken outside the county. The south-west assembly, as it called itself before it was abolished, was engaged in the process of deciding what the regional spatial strategy should look like. It came up with a figure, which was then overruled by the Secretary of State; one wonders why it bothered in the first place.
Cornwall now has to have 70,000 houses during the 16 or 17 remaining years of the plan. However, having experienced the highest housing growth anywhere within the Government zone, and very high housing growth in the context of the UK overall, we in Cornwall know that simply adding all those houses will not address housing need. We need to establish policies that enable local authorities—in Cornwall’s case, the local authority—and local communities to drive a development process that meets local social housing need.
In my part of the world, a large proportion of properties are second homes; 10 per cent. in Penwith district are, for example. I have nothing against the people who own those homes, but they clearly have an impact on local people’s ability to purchase a property locally. Just last year, I did a survey of estate agents in my constituency, and it showed that three times as many properties were sold to second-home buyers as to first-time buyers. That is the pattern in the housing market of my area. As I have said, simply building more houses is not the answer. People who want to buy second homes will clearly be better able to buy those houses than local people on local wages—in Cornwall, we have the lowest wages in the country. We have to do something rather more sophisticated than simply dumping 70,000 houses in Cornwall. The four western districts of the county are already among the four most densely populated rural districts in the Government zone, so it is not as if a wealth of development land available is available.
Who should decide how many homes should be built in Cornwall? Should it be a Government quango or people elected to the local authority? If we ask people there, they will say, “We want a say on this matter.” I am talking about Cornwall, but if people in any community are asked whether a Government board or people who represent the local community should decide whether 15 per cent. of money spent on elective surgical work should be diverted to private hospitals rather than NHS hospitals, the answer will be clear. People believe that decisions about their local NHS should be made by local people, not by a process that comes down from central Government.
I am listening with considerable interest to the hon. Gentleman’s reasonable and measured analysis of the situation, particularly in Cornwall. I generally agree that it is important that as much as possible should be devolved to local councils and communities, but does the hon. Gentleman not think that there is inevitably a tendency for local county councils to say, “Not in my back yard”—particularly when it comes to issues such as housing? There needs to be another regional tier, below central Government, that tells local councils that they are obliged to play their part in providing land for housing, although they may wish to say that they do not want that housing in their areas.
That is a fair point. The nub of the issue, however, relates to the blunt instrument of simply dumping housing numbers, irrespective of local circumstances or the failure of a policy of simply putting market housing in an area, a policy which has clearly failed to deliver the goods. If the local authority were to allow very high numbers of people on to local housing waiting lists but fail to address, through developments, an unmet demand within the local community for housing, that would clearly be a dereliction of its duties. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that there is a role for central Government in bringing pressure to bear on local authorities that fail to address those issues. We know that merely saying in Cornwall’s case, “You must find the land for 70,000 houses,” will not in itself deal with the problem that we are all most concerned about—those in the community who are inadequately housed or not housed. The failure lies in using the blunt instrument of high housing numbers.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I am sorry to have missed some of the debate, but I have been in Select Committee.
Is not the provision of public housing the best way for central Government, and indeed regional government, to play a part? All the evidence shows that the right relationship between public housing and private housing leads to a much better housing model. What has been seriously wrong for the past 20 years is the belief that the private market can do it all. That approach has failed, and until we get back to proper public housing provision, it will continue to fail. Does the hon. Gentleman agree?
I do, to a certain extent. Certainly, in my own part of the world the best social housing, for want of a better expression, in terms of affordability, comprises the houses that were built by local authorities in the 1930s and 1940s. If there is any clear preference among local people when they are looking for housing, we generally find that it is centred on those estates. In some cases, those properties have gone through various modernisation programmes. They provide housing for local people that is not only decent but decently spaced, of a reasonable size and with reasonable gardens. Since that time, we have built at a much higher density. Before I became a Member of Parliament in 1997, I worked in the charitable sector to meet local housing need. I am not opposed to achieving that by deploying the talents and abilities available in the housing association and charitable housing sectors. That diversity can address housing needs. I agree that there are many lessons we can learn from the activities of the past and what local authorities were able to achieve.
Let me turn to the document. Without poring over it in tedious detail, I am sure that the Minister will have lapped up every single word. He will have noticed that, like the report by the Communities and Local Government Committee, “The Balance of Power”, it lists the extent of the constraints that are placed on local government—for example, the tendency to legislate as a first response; the detailed descriptions associated with legislation; and the proliferation of targets and performance measures, which although reduced have been consolidated. It shows that for 80 per cent. of the time that local authorities spent on performance reporting, they were reporting upwards to Government rather than to the local electorate. There is also the role of inspectorates, backed up by the threat of intervention by central Government.
There is a classic example of that in my constituency on the Isles of Scilly. There are various requirements from inspectorates in respect of a number of the statutory duties performed by the council of the Isles of Scilly, which provides services to 2,000 people on the five inhabited islands. The cost of the best-value analyses that inspectorates require, for example on grave digging, street lighting or trading standards services, is often greater than the cost of providing the service itself. That shows the rather bizarre circumstances in which local authorities sometimes find themselves.
There is the centralisation of financial arrangements and controls, the movement of functions away from local authorities to local appointed boards or quangos accountable to central Government and the proliferation of requirements on local authorities to submit plans to central Government. All those things put constraints on local authorities, and the only thing that local authorities get back is the opportunity to enter into a competition for central Government funding to deliver what should be core public services. Those services could include early years support through Sure Start, economic development through the market and coastal towns initiative, or community cohesion and development through the neighbourhoods for change programme, the parish path partnership or the play pathfinders scheme. That is not an attack on the current Government, because the same approach was taken by the previous one as well, but all those things are constraints on local authorities and a way of making them dance and pirouette for money to deliver what should be core services in any case.
I want to get across to the Minister my commitment to the principle set out in the Communities and Local Government Committee report, in which I had a hand. In paragraph 4 of our conclusions and recommendations, we advanced the principle that
“decisions which primarily affect one area to a significantly greater extent than others, should be taken within that area and not outside it”—
in other words, the subsidiarity principle. Local authorities taking such decisions should, of course, be able to demonstrate that where there is a spill-over impact on other areas, they have taken reasonable steps to take account of that impact. That principle—that decisions affecting one area and no other should be taken in that area—is clearly not being delivered through the Government’s attitude to local government. It has also failed to be delivered within local government itself.
Although the Select Committee recognised that the Government were trying to roll out powers of well-being, for example, and that local authorities needed to use some of the powers that were available to them, many authorities do not feel that they are sufficient. They see them as rather woolly and ephemeral to what they are trying to achieve. One of our main points was that there was
“clearly a wide division of opinion between the Government’s view of recent developments and the views of the majority of our witnesses, many of whom believe that central direction and control remain unchanged or even that they have increased. The Government’s record appears to us to be mixed. There remains a sizeable gap between the newly empowered local government that the Government believes it has established in principle, and the actual impact as witnessed at the local level.”
A comparison of what is available to local authorities in Britain with the European norm shows the need for some constitutional protection and greater financial autonomy and for central Government intervention to be kept in check.
Sadly, I could not get the Select Committee to agree with me about trying to ensure that the Government had a statutory duty to report back to local government annually about what they had done across all Departments to achieve their stated objective of delivering more power to local people through a devolution settlement. I hope that the Under-Secretary will reflect on the points in the Select Committee report and my essay.
I have not given the Under-Secretary notice of my next point and will therefore understand if he writes to me about it. One of my constituents has raised an issue with me on behalf of the Henry Spink Foundation. The Spink family, who live in my constituency, have campaigned for disabled children and adults and their carers for many years. When disabled children and their families have to move from one local authority to another, they often find that the care package that has been agreed with one local authority cannot easily be transferred to another. The Henry Spink Foundation rightly wants to establish at least greater understanding and communication between local authorities to ensure that there is a floor below which services cannot fall. It wants pragmatic and cost-neutral reforms, which, it believes, will genuinely improve the lives of thousands of severely disabled children and adults and their carers throughout the UK. That would involve creating an independent social services tribunal, which would follow the tribunal model in other sectors, establishing an ombudsman for disability, as is found in other European Union countries, and reforming local authority regulations so that care assessments and support packages for children and adults become easily portable between one local authority and another.
I am interested in the Under-Secretary’s comments about the interplay between where the Government state they wish to be and the Sustainable Communities Act 2007, which is relatively untested. In debates before the 2007 Act was passed, people cited the need to address some of the challenges that many local communities face, especially in sustaining town centres—for example, out-of-town supermarkets have an impact on town centres. The Government have been notified that many local authorities want, through the processes that the 2007 Act established, to explore the possibility of getting a more even playing field on, for example, subsidised parking. Parking is available at almost no cost—with no business rates levied—to the supermarkets, which gives them a massive advantage over their town centre competitors, whose customers have to pay prices, which are often high, for parking or face the problems of yellow lines, traffic wardens and so on.
Overall, I know that the Minister is delighted that we have had so much time to debate the issue, and I am pleased as well. I hope that he will take this opportunity to respond to many of the issues that I raised with him in advance. I hope that Cornwall and many other areas now have an opportunity to look with greater optimism to a future in which local authorities will be genuine power brokers in their local communities that can shape the future not only of their public services, which are their responsibility, but of the communities that they serve. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say about enabling councils—not only in Cornwall, but across the country—to deliver a more devolved settlement and about having far better councils in future.
I do not intend to detain the House for long, but may I first congratulate the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) on securing this Adjournment debate? It is about a vital issue that affects all our communities, including those in my part of the world, and clearly in his too. I commend him for that.
I also commend the hon. Gentleman on his speech, which was extremely thoughtful, thought provoking and interesting. He hit the nail on the head many times in talking about the issues that local people are concerned about. There is genuine concern about the relationship between central Government, regional government and local government.
However, one thing that the hon. Gentleman did not touch on, but which may be a fruitful topic for another time, is—to go further down the line—the role of parish councils and where they fit in. Local residents often see parish councils as expensive talking shops, but if they were given the powers that in my opinion they deserve, we could have genuinely local decision making and they would become more much powerful in the local communities that they serve. However, that debate is probably best left for another occasion.
I was particularly struck by the hon. Gentleman’s opening comments about how the relationship between local government and national Government has become more centralised, but not just under this Government, although the situation has got worse. He was right that that has happened under successive Governments of all political persuasions. Let me consider briefly why that might be the case. When a party is in government and people wish to protest about what that Government are doing, they often do so in local elections, which means that the political make-up of local government is often very different from that of central Government. Not wishing to give up their political power, central Government therefore decide to centralise powers, so that their political opponents cannot have them locally. We need a change of culture in central Government, so that they are more relaxed about people from different political parties having local control, because at the end of the day, that is what local democracy is all about. If people decide that they want a party in power locally that differs from the Government of the day, so be it. That is what local democracy is all about. Central Government should be much more relaxed about that and not try to keep all the power for themselves.
In my intervention on the hon. Gentleman, I touched on planning. In my part of the world, planning is the most emotive issue, in respect of the power of local authorities, and it is probably the one that exercises people more than any other. I have great sympathy for local councillors, because they are often put in an invidious position. They get the blame for decisions that are nominally taken locally, but they have little responsibility in shaping the outcome, because those decisions are actually made at a higher level, whether it be at the regional or central Government level. Councillors are put in an extremely difficult position. I would like much more power to be given to local government, which does matter to people. People identify with their local authority and their local area, and they respect that institution. We should be much more relaxed about giving local authorities far more power to determine what are clearly local matters.
No local matter is more important than planning. My constituents are sick to the back teeth of seeing more and more completely unwanted developments going up. Those developments change the nature of the villages, but people feel that they have absolutely no control over the decisions involved. They also feel that the local authority has little control over them. This problem manifests itself in different ways. Sometimes it is about garden developments. I have seen the nature of villages in my constituency change as a result of houses being crammed into every possible part of the village, often in people’s gardens. However, local people find that the biggest handicap they face in dealing with the matter is not the local authority, which is often sympathetic to their concerns.
The problem is often that the sites are designated as brownfield sites, rather than greenfield sites, and that the planning laws are stacked against those who object to the proposals. A local authority might decide that a piece of land forms an important part of the green belt, or that it is of local significance and should be left alone, only to have a planning inspector overrule that decision and put the area into a development plan against the wishes not only of the local people but of the local authority. The land is then developed even though no one in the local area wants that to happen. Such decisions should be made at local level.
I listened with interest to the intervention by the hon. Member for Leicester, South (Sir Peter Soulsby), who was a distinguished local government leader. I certainly respect his experience in these matters, but I am not sure that I entirely agree with the premise of his argument. He suggested that these matters often had to be decided at a higher level because local authorities were full of nimbys and if the decisions were left to them, nothing would ever get built. Perhaps I am simplifying his argument slightly, but that seemed to be the thrust of it. I do not accept his point. If we believe that there is a need for more housing, presumably that need is expressed by local communities themselves. Presumably, people are saying that their daughters, sons and grandchildren cannot find anywhere to live and that more housing is therefore needed. The Government are for ever telling us that we need more housing because all these different categories of people are finding it difficult to get on to the housing ladder. If that is the case, surely local government is just as capable as central Government of responding to those local needs.
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman is somewhat simplifying the point that I made earlier. I merely pointed out that the voices that he is talking about are far too easily drowned out by those who wish to oppose housing development in certain areas. I would argue strongly that it is legitimate for central Government to set housing targets to reflect the needs of people throughout the country, and that there needs to be something in between those national targets and the local tendency to say no. I would argue that that makes the case for an effective regional tier in spatial planning.
What I did not go on to say in response to the hon. Member for Leicester, South (Sir Peter Soulsby) was that we need to recognise the possible need for outside intervention in some cases involving diversity and discrimination. An example would be the provision of Gypsy and Traveller sites. Does the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) agree that, in cases where there might be perceived discrimination, a local authority should be encouraged to address certain needs or achieve certain targets and, if it failed, it should be required to do so?
To be perfectly honest, I am not sure that I would, because my experience of things like Gypsy sites is that they are often a menace in local areas. I believe that it is incumbent on local agencies—whether it be the police, local authorities or whatever—to do something about it when these problems arise. Far too often, local authorities feel powerless to do anything about them because—whether they need to or not—they hide behind the fact that they have all these responsibilities that they cannot do anything about. That gives a bad deal to local people and it is not very good for local democracy.
I think that issues around Gypsy sites are very much local issues that should be dealt with by local authorities. I do not think that it should be farmed out to a central Government who might well be imposing something on local people that they do not want and should not have to put up with. Let us not pussyfoot around this. I know from my experience that some Gypsy sites have caused massive problems to local residents and local businesses, and I think local authorities have a duty to deal with those things. They should not pass them up to anyone else.
I do not want to speak for long. I just want to touch on regional government because I think this is the issue that is now making people extremely concerned. We now often have local government being trumped by regional government, particularly in relation to planning, where we have seen regional assemblies dictating to local authorities how many houses should be built in their area, which to my mind should be a very local decision. It should have nothing to do with an unelected, unaccountable Government quango, which should not be able to dictate to an elected local authority how many houses should be built in the area. The local authority should decide that, based on the needs of the local community, what it can take and the infrastructure implications. Far too often, these decisions are made and local people feel powerless to do anything about them because of the very nature of regional government.
We know how unpopular regional government is because, to their credit, the Government offered the people of the north-east a referendum on regional government, and the people of the north-east, who are a very proud people—it is a very proud region, as are Yorkshire and Cornwall—clearly did not want regional government. They made that abundantly clear. It seems to me that the lesson the Government took from the north-east referendum was a perverse one because they seem to have decided that because the people of the north-east did not want an elected regional assembly, they must want an unelected regional assembly. It seems to me that only this Government could come to that particular conclusion based on the result of the referendum. What was abundantly clear to everybody else—apart, it seems, from the Government—was that the people were trying to say that they did not want regional government in any shape or form and that they wanted the powers to be decided at a local level. Regional government has far too much power; it is unelected and unaccountable.
The Government’s late response to all this has been to abolish regional assemblies, which I absolutely and wholeheartedly support. They should never have been set up in the first place, but, to give credit where credit is due, the Government decided to abolish them. What did they then do? Did they give these powers to the local authorities and say, “We realise that regional government is not what people want; it should be decided at a local level”? No. What they did was give these planning powers to regional development agencies.
It is difficult to think of a worse outcome than regional assemblies, but the Government have managed to stumble across what is perhaps the only one that could be worse. To speak up for regional assemblies, I must say that, at least, they had people on them; they were not elected to that particular role, but they were elected in some form or other—they were probably council leaders and things like that so they had at least some democratic accountability. The Government have actually replaced the regional assemblies with the only body it is possible to think of with even less legitimacy—regional development agencies. The problem is not solved; to my mind, it has got even worse.
Until we have the courage of our convictions and give these powers to democratically elected people locally, people will always feel that they are powerless to do anything about what is probably the most important thing of all in their local community, which is deciding the level and appropriateness of housing developments in local areas. I think that the Government really have to accept that, whether it be a regional development agency or a regional assembly, people do not want these great regions.
The RDAs are spending huge quantities of taxpayers’ money. Yorkshire Forward, the Yorkshire version, has a budget of something like £330 million a year to spend. Who is it accountable to? Nobody. Who is it elected by? Nobody. If it has any accountability at all, it is to the regional Minister. Therefore, we end up with the terrible situation in which it becomes the personal fiefdom of the regional Minister and pursues their pet projects, which are probably based more on political expediency than on the good of the region as a whole. In the modern day, that is no way to allocate hundreds of millions of pounds of public money.
The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful case for the accountability of the regional development agencies, and one that has been accepted on both sides of the House; indeed, it was accepted by the Modernisation Committee when it made the recommendation for Regional Select Committees. The logic of his argument is that he and Members of the other minority parties ought to end their boycott of Regional Select Committees and come and join us in holding regional development agencies to account and filling the accountability gap that certainly exists.
If the hon. Gentleman thinks the solution is Regional Select Committees, he misunderstands the problem. The problem is that these people are getting huge amounts of money, and it could be done far more democratically. Being hauled over the coals once or twice a year by a Regional Select Committee does not make regional development agencies democratic. That does not fill the democratic deficit. The solution is far more fundamental: to scrap regional government once and for all. Nobody wants it—it is a huge Government quango and bureaucracy. It would be good to have more local power.
My final point is on funding. Many Members on both sides of the House feel that capping council tax increases denies local accountability. Many take the view that that should be a local decision, and if people want to vote for a council that puts up council tax by 10 per cent., so be it. A council can stand or fall by that decision at the next local election. I have a lot of sympathy for that view of localness.
However, we cannot forget one important aspect: how things are paid for. My concern about going hell for leather for total localness relates to how local government is paid for. If not everybody pays council tax, there is a democratic problem. People might easily vote for high-spending local authorities knowing they will never have to pick up the tab. The only way to have a free-for-all in which local authorities can put up council tax by as much as they want, is to have a system in which everybody pays something. At least they are then in a position to decide whether they want to vote for the increase. But if council tax is put up, and the people voting for it are not paying it, there is a democratic problem. We should consider how to make local government totally accountable by having everyone contribute something towards it. That would make people much more responsive to what is going on in their local authority.
I hope the Minister accepts that people are sick to the back teeth of local government not having the powers they want it to have. Central Government interfere far too much in local decisions. Trusting local authorities to make decisions for their local community would be good not just for local areas, but for local government, as it would attract higher-calibre people who felt that their decisions would make a difference, and for central Government, as they would not be interfering in matters they should not be dealing with. They could then concentrate on sorting out the problems they should be dealing with.
Tempting as it is to spend the time responding to the interesting contribution of the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), I will try my best to respond to the 21-page essay, which I read late into this morning, and the 43-minute speech of the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George). If there is time, I will then respond to the interesting points made by the hon. Member for Shipley.
I congratulate the hon. Member for St. Ives on securing the debate. I was pleased that the House’s other business finished early, as it allowed the interventions and contributions of other hon. Members to be heard, and it gave him the flexibility to make his speech in a tempered and serious manner. I am pleased that he continues to show a keen interest in matters relating to the balance of powers between central and local government, and that the hon. Member for Shipley and my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, South (Sir Peter Soulsby) also contributed to the debate. The enthusiasm of the hon. Member for St. Ives for discussions on this topic knows no bounds, and I was delighted to observe from his request for the debate that his membership of the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government had further fuelled his appetite.
The hon. Gentleman quoted extracts from the Select Committee’s recent report on the balance of powers between central and local government. I welcome his work and that of other members of the Committee. As he will know, we published an immediate response to the report. A detailed response will be produced in the not-too-distant future, but he will appreciate that for constitutional reasons none of the comments that I shall make today should be taken as a formal response.
Let me put into context some of the relationships between local and central Government before dealing with some of the points raised in his “essay”, as the hon. Member for St. Ives called it. The Government strongly believe that local authorities are best placed to know what their communities need. I was a councillor for 12 years. I am aware of the work done by my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, South in this context, and my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Chris Mole), the Whip, has been a distinguished council leader as well. The Government know of the huge contribution made by local authorities, which is why we have taken unprecedented steps to put much more power into the hands of local government.
Keen historians will know—as will the hon. Member for St. Ives, who has been a Member of Parliament since 1997—that since that year local authorities have gained significant powers, responsibilities and financial freedoms from central Government to enable further devolution of decision making to local communities. I could not but agree with the opening observation by the hon. Member for Shipley that one of the reasons for central Government’s nervous relationship with local authorities might be their different politics. He will recall that one of the justifications given by a former Prime Minister—I am going back four Prime Ministers—for abolishing the Greater London council was her affection for the then leader of the GLC. The hon. Gentleman made a fair point, but I think that even he would have to accept that over the past 12 years an attempt has been made to reverse some of the removal of power that took place during the preceding period.
Key legislation over the past decade has brought about a new relationship between central and local government and between local government and local people. I shall say more about that shortly. It has led to a marked shift in the culture in local authorities, featuring a much stronger focus on performance management and effective leadership on delivery. In particular—as the hon. Gentleman will know—the 2006 local government White Paper signalled devolution of power from Whitehall to town halls, and from local authorities to local communities in England. It set out ways of giving local authorities and their partners more freedom and powers to meet the needs of their citizens and communities, and to enable those citizens and communities themselves to play their part in bringing about the changes they wanted. The hon. Member for Shipley mentioned some of the key changes produced by the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007 following the White Paper.
The hon. Member for St. Ives spoke of the “control freakery” involved in a referendum that can lead to a negative vote. He will, of course, recall the vote in Wales which led to a Welsh Assembly, the vote in Scotland which led to the Scottish Parliament, and the vote in London which led to a Greater London Assembly and a Mayor of London. It is not always the case that local people vote against the regions in referendums.
The point I was making was that, for example in Scotland, the drive for the establishment of the Scottish Parliament was the result of the constitutional convention which was established there. It was driven from Scotland. I congratulate the Government on what they did in enabling that devolution, but the dynamics of the way it happened were different from those of the north-east referendum.
The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. I am sure he would concede that there was also a Welsh experience and a London experience.
On the relationship between local and central Government, we cannot escape the issue of finance. In 2007, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government announced the first ever three-year local government finance settlement, which has given local government an extra £8.9 billion in comprehensive spending review 2007 and the flexibility to make longer-term plans and investments. That has been preserved in the recent Budget.
The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the lack of ring-fencing and the flexibility that local authorities have in relation to the money given to them by central Government. More than £3 billion of funding paid through the completely unring-fenced area-based grant enables local authorities, working with partners, to decide where best to invest their resources in the most effective and efficient routes to deliver local priorities.
My hon. Friend rightly draws attention to the greater certainty that has been given on local government finance and the other measures that have been taken, which I think have been broadly welcomed in local government, but does he not accept that an unhealthily high proportion of local government funding still comes from central Government, and the inevitable feeling is that the person who pays the piper seeks to call the tune?
My hon. Friend would have a fair point if the money given to local authorities were ring-fenced and controlled from central Government, who decided how the money was spent. He will be aware of the number of representations that we in central Government receive from citizens complaining about their local authority, which is often of a different political persuasion, not spending money where we would like it spent. Instead, they build up their coffers for a swingeing council tax cut before an election. They do not use it as the Government would prefer. We recognise that we must let go, and let local people choose their local council and local councillors decide how the money is spent.
We are committed to maximising the flexibility given to local areas through unring-fenced funding with no performance or reporting conditions attached. So Government have already given councils more financial freedom to meet local needs and local priorities, but it is right that we continue to protect council tax payers from excessive increases. The hon. Member for Shipley had huge sympathy for those authorities that complain that they are unable to increase council tax by a disproportionately high figure for fear of being capped. We have no plans to change the current structure of council tax or to introduce a local income tax. To do so would create significant costs and place new burdens on businesses in these tough economic times.
The hon. Members for St. Ives and for Shipley alluded to the local performance framework. The Government have taken important steps to show a clear commitment to, and recognition of, the important roles that local government and its partners play in delivering services to citizens, through the development and implementation of the new local performance framework. In 2008, we introduced major changes in the way national Government, local authorities and local service providers work in partnership to deliver better services to improve the quality of life for local people. Those changes are all about finding out what local people need most, prioritising those needs and taking action to deliver results. It is about empowering residents and making sure that their needs are the driving force behind change.
The hon. Member for St. Ives sits on the Select Committee. He referred to the local area agreements, which cover all 152 upper-tier local authorities in England. They recognise that one size does not fit all and that locally delivered services must reflect what it is that local people need most. He will accept that no two agreements are exactly the same, because every area has different needs. I am sure he would welcome the fact that the new comprehensive area assessment, launched in April 2009, will be fair, rigorous and independent. It will help to ensure that local authorities and other service providers deliver the quality of services that local residents need. There will be less bureaucracy for service providers themselves to deal with, which will leave them free to concentrate on delivering results and driving up standards. Up to £185 million has been made available to regional improvement and efficiency partnerships—RIEPs. The hon. Member for Shipley referred to his love for RDAs, but he forgot to refer to his love for RIEPs. They work with local authorities and strategic partners in each region to support improvement and efficiency in the delivery of services. The hon. Member for St. Ives will recognise that in this recession RIEPs and RDAs have played a huge role in helping to rebuild those parts of our country that were not helped in previous recessions. In those days, such was the control from Whitehall that there was not as much connection as there now is with local communities. RIEPs and RDAs have also brought inward investment from Europe and have created other revenue streams that do not come from Whitehall.
I certainly look forward to a day when there is a performance framework set by local government for central Government, so that local government can see whether government is devolved.
In terms of delivering the devolved settlement and giving powers to local authorities, would the Government be prepared to look at establishing in legislation the European charter of local self-government? Putting that on a statutory basis would demonstrate a real commitment to supporting local government. Also, might it be possible to work with other Departments such as the Department of Health to make sure that the fracture between the NHS, the local community and social care is overcome by locally elected people? I am sure the Government have it in their power to deliver those things.
The problems articulated by the hon. Gentleman are referred to in detail in the Select Committee report. I will not succumb to the temptation to give the Department’s response to it, except to say that the report was clear about some of the things we can do to make government more joined up and to ensure that there can be a basis for filling in the gaps to which he has referred. I am sure our formal response will take on board some of the points he has made in the debate, as well as those referred to in the report.
RIEPs are made up of local authorities—locally elected councillors—working with partners, and they are committed to working together to raise performance collectively. They will work closely with the sector to co-ordinate an analysis of regional improvement and efficiency-capacity building needs.
I want to talk briefly about regional powers. Multi-area agreements are one of the key tools to enable local authorities, working beyond their traditional boundaries, to deliver key economic outcomes better and faster. Ten partnerships of local authorities have so far signed multi-area agreements, with further negotiations under way.
The future is relevant not only because of the context of today’s debate, but because of the Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Bill, which is currently going through this House and which began its life in the House of Lords. Despite the progress we have made over the past 12 years, we recognise there is a need for further reform. Therefore, the White Paper I have referred to was published, which passes real power into the hands of local citizens and communities, giving greater control and influence to more people. Key ways in which this White Paper gives greater substance to councillors’ community leadership role include the following: the new duty to promote democracy; extending the duty to involve people in decisions, policies and services to additional agencies and bodies; a new duty to respond to petitions; and creating a new “empowering the frontline taskforce” to look at the role of the public service work force in empowering users and residents. A practical example of how we have encouraged the passing of power into the hands of citizens and communities is the considerable growth of participatory budgeting, which now gives people a say over budgets in at least 55 local area agreement areas—that is 36 per cent. of them. Since 2005, local people—and not just elected councillors—have been given a direct say over how at least £14 million-worth of local public budgets have been spent.
Could the Minister comment on matters such as local transport? In my constituency, the local residents and the local council want to do something about a congested area, Saltaire roundabout, but they cannot get the funding because it is determined by an unelected regional transport board. Could not these powers be handed down to local authorities, so that local people could have a better say in how money is spent? At the moment, with the regional transport board, they feel that they have no say.
That argument contradicts the point that the hon. Gentleman made in his speech, but local authorities could let go of some of their moneys to local communities and let them decide how to spend it. This is not simply about the local councils bidding for money from the RDAs, the RIEPs, the Government or elsewhere, as they should carry on doing; it is also about local authorities being given record sums from central Government over the past 12 years. Local authorities could let go of some of that money, as it is not ring-fenced, and allow local communities to decide how it is spent. The hon. Gentleman’s example demonstrates why local authorities cannot always work by themselves to get the solutions; they will need to work with other local authorities, which is why a regional tier of government might sometimes be one of the solutions to the problems that he highlights.
I shall not revisit the order of last year; I have read some of the debates in Hansard and found them interesting. I note the objection of the hon. Member for St. Ives to that order. He will be aware—he referred to this when discussing tomorrow’s elections—that Cornwall underwent a major step change when the seven councils were replaced with a single unitary Cornwall council. He made the serious point that, notwithstanding his objection, he wants to ensure that it is a success, and it is important that that is recognised.
The vision that the hon. Gentleman set out in his essay was for a Cornish regional assembly; he described it as “an ambitious plan”. The people of Cornwall clearly feel strongly about certain issues: they believe that Cornwall should act as an exemplar for environmental best practice—the hon. Gentleman mentioned that in his speech; they advocate social justice, with locally focused housing and transport plans; and they want multi-area agreements to be developed. All those issues can be explored further in the context of the new unitary authority, and we stand ready to provide continuing support to achieve success in those areas. As he notes, the advent of a unitary Cornwall marks a jumping-off point for further local empowerment. I agree that it is important that we look towards the future and fully utilising the powers available to the new Cornwall council.
I have dealt with the points made about the north-east referendum. The hon. Gentleman also referred to the agents of vision within central Government. I hope that he will accept that over the past 12 years there has been a genuine attempt by this Government to give more power away. He will see that, notwithstanding the imperfections that any Bill has, the Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Bill is another example of devolving power to the citizen and turning what were previously subjects into active citizens who have more control over their communities.
I have a problem with the hon. Member for Shipley, which is that when I was the Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Leader of the House I found myself agreeing with him far too often for the liking of any Labour Member. He began his contribution by discussing some of the tensions between central and local government when two different political parties are involved, and I could not help but agree. He also demanded that there be more power for local authorities, which surprised me, bearing in mind the fact that his party voted against giving that Bill, which will give such power to those authorities, a Second Reading. I hope that he will be on the Committee and will support the Bill there. He also referred to development on brownfield sites, and that also caused me concern because, as my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, South reminded me, one cannot have it both ways and be against development on greenfield and brownfield land—development must take place somewhere.
On the point that the hon. Member for Shipley made about Gypsy sites, he was in danger of confusing unauthorised encampments and developments with authorised Traveller and Gypsy sites. The hon. Member for St. Ives, in a very responsible way, talked about the need for more authorised sites, because the more authorised sites there are, there less likely there are to be tensions between the settled communities and those Travellers and Gypsies who live on the unauthorised encampments or developments. He accepted the role that regional tiers could play in easing some of the tensions between local authorities that might not want an authorised Traveller or Gypsy site on their patch.
In conclusion, I would say that a great deal has been done to get the balance right between central and local government. I forgot to mention the question raised by the hon. Member for St. Ives about the Henry Spink Foundation. There are national standards of care. I was at a meeting today in relation to a social care Green Paper, and the hon. Gentleman referred to the Sustainable Communities Act 2007. May I take this subject away and write to him to deal specifically with the points that he raised? I will refer to Hansard to ensure that I get the point right, and I will get back to him.
The Government have already given a lot to local government, including greater financial freedom and stability and a drastic reduction in the number of indicators, targets and assessments. We have established a clearer, more transparent relationship between central and local government, allowing policy development through co-design. Long may this continue.
We are at a crucial stage of our relationship. The economic times we face will test us all, but local government and its partners need to grasp this chance and the opportunities that we have given them to show us—and, most importantly, local residents—what they can achieve by working closely together.
I hope that through the matters I have outlined in my speech, I have enabled the hon. Member for St. Ives to agree that the Government have done a lot to devolve powers to local areas, including Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this Adjournment debate and on his interest in this important area.
Question put and agreed to.