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Sustainable Communities Act 2007

Volume 502: debated on Tuesday 8 December 2009

The Government are committed to implementing effectively the Sustainable Communities Act. I shall update the House later this month on how we are progressing with local spending reports. The timing of decisions on whether local proposals should be implemented will depend inevitably on the number and complexity of the proposals shortlisted.

Given that the Local Government Association is due to submit its proposals by the end of the month, can the Secretary of State not simply commit to making a final decision by the Easter recess?

We need to look at the proposals once they have been shortlisted by the LGA. As the hon. Gentleman says, they are due—this is my understanding, although it is not in my control—before the end of the year. We then need to assess the complexity and practicality of the schemes that are proposed.

“Planning for Prosperous Economies”—planning policy statement 4—has a lot to say about sustainable communities and particularly about the viability and vitality of town centres. Will the Secretary of State say what the Government are doing to reaffirm a commitment to “town centre first” policies and adopt a presumption against out-of-town developments, which seem to be creeping back in, and whether there has been a definition of what is meant by “town centres”?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. He will know that some years ago the Government introduced the planning guidance to which he refers with the intention of protecting town centres. Further development of that guidance is under discussion, as he will know, but I assure him that we remain as committed as we ever have been to the effective protection of town centres from unplanned and badly planned out-of-town shopping developments.

Yesterday, the Government published a Command Paper, “Smarter Government”, in which the Prime Minister himself claimed to “put the frontline first” by allowing flexibility in local spending, yet nowhere in all 68 pages is there a single mention of local spending reports. Is it the Department for Communities and Local Government or, once again, the Treasury that has no interest in supporting this flagship policy of the Sustainable Communities Act?

The hon. Lady perhaps has not grasped the fact that the proposals for making data publicly available set out in the White Paper published yesterday are far more extensive and ambitious than those discussed when local spending reports were proposed. I made these points in a debate in the House just a few weeks ago. At that time I promised that, as we developed the work being led by Sir Tim Berners-Lee and Professor Nigel Shadbolt and his panel of experts on making local data widely available, we would not drop our commitment to developing local spending reports in the interim. That is why I shall bring forward our proposals setting out where we will go next on local spending reports, as I promised, before the end of the year.

There are of course only five sitting days left before the Christmas recess, but we look forward to receiving that information. There might have been no reference to local spending reports in the document, but there was a clear reference to arm’s length bodies costing the taxpayer a massive £18 billion a year. What about asking those 750 quangos to reveal in local spending reports how much they spend, or would the Minister prefer taxpayers to be kept in the dark about how much money is wasted on central bureaucracy?

We have debated this point before. The hon. Lady regards the doubling of spending by the quango known as the Higher Education Funding Council as a waste of money, but I do not. I believe that it is represented by a significant investment in universities and by opportunities for young people and older people. It is right that we want to bear down on costs and on salaries that are too high. In our previous debate on this issue, I undertook to bring forward another report on local spending reports, because I took the point that it would be useful for local spending reports to give access to available data from organisations such as the funding council and the Learning and Skills Council. The hon. Lady is quite wrong to say that every penny that is spent by an organisation that funds our universities is wasted money, but she keeps saying that.