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Sustainable Communities

Volume 504: debated on Tuesday 26 January 2010

9. What assessment his Department has made of the 199 proposals shortlisted and sent to it by the Local Government Association under the provisions of the Sustainable Communities Act 2007. (312956)

The Government are currently assessing the 199 proposals shortlisted by the Local Government Association in its role as selector under the Sustainable Communities Act 2007. Many of the proposals are complex and raise significant practical issues, but I am anxious to make progress on those proposals that offer practical benefits and new ways of meeting local needs.

Given that the latest statistics show that the recession is lifting, may I urge my right hon. Friend to prioritise those projects that propose local solutions to address the skills shortages in their locality? Local authorities know their own community best, and they are best able to deliver the solutions that are tailored to local need. That will help people to find jobs as the recession lifts.

That is a very practical suggestion from my hon. Friend, who, as Chair of the Communities and Local Government Committee, has taken a close interest in this Act. She is right; 199 proposals, each of which deserves proper consideration, represents a considerable work load for my Department. Her suggestion that we might look at the areas where we could move more quickly on issues of obvious priority and ability to deliver would be a sensible way for us to approach this big task.

Having listened to what the Secretary of State said, may I ask him to commit to a deadline for setting out his initial response to those proposals before the Easter recess, commit to a date for the next round of submissions, and support the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 (Amendment) Bill?

The hon. Lady listened to what I said but failed to comprehend it. Let me be perfectly clear. The process involved asking the LGA to shortlist proposals, and in the end it shortlisted two thirds of all those put forward. Under the Act, each of those proposals deserves proper consideration by my Department. The hon. Lady needs to understand that the proper consideration of 199 separate policy proposals, many of which would require changes to primary legislation, is not the sort of thing that can be done by a Minister just running down a list and saying, “I fancy that one”, or “I don’t fancy that one.” I suggest to the hon. Lady that rather than having an artificial deadline, we need, as I said in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey), to look at the proposals on which we can make progress and practical advances as quickly as possible. However, we will of course assess all the proposals that have been put forward, because that is what we are bound to do under the Act.

It sounds suspiciously as though the Secretary of State is trying to kick this issue into the long grass beyond the general election. What is so disappointing about this is that this legislation is a real opportunity to engage people on how public money is spent and public services are delivered in their area. If he misses this opportunity, he will be wasting a lot of public good will. Ultimately, the Total Place pilot shows that only 5 per cent. of total public spending at a local level is discretionary to local authorities. If the Secretary of State believes in the localist agenda, will he put our money where his mouth is?

I recognise the opportunities provided by the Act and the proposals that have been submitted, and that is why I want to make progress on those that we have prioritised. The hon. Lady has to be realistic. Policy is not made on a whim, or in five minutes by saying, “I fancy that proposal.” The LGA shortlisted far more proposals than anybody could reasonably have expected, and we now need to do the work that is required to assess them properly. Nobody would be more disappointed than those who put these proposals forward if they felt that they had been rejected simply in order to get a list out by the end of March. I think that we owe those people the respect of treating their proposals seriously and discussing them with the LGA, as we are required to do by law, but that may mean that it is not possible to do it by the end of March.

One of the specific groups of amendments that has been tabled has come from areas most adversely affected by a prodigious growth in student houses in multiple occupation. In my own city of Nottingham, only 2,000 of a total of 7,000 houses in multiple occupation are covered by the current licensing regime, and many of those seeking to avoid it are in the process of converting sheds and garages into living accommodation, with or without removing the up-and-over garage door. Will the Secretary of State give specific consideration to extending the current licensing regime to cover all HMOs and require planning permission for new ones?

Order. I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman, but there is a developing tendency for the narrative to be longer than the question.

The short answer is that a number of the proposals received under the Sustainable Communities Act relate to policy discussions that the Government already have under way. On the particular issues to which my hon. Friend refers, I know that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing will want to make a statement in the near future.

I hope that the Secretary of State accepts that the large number of schemes submitted under the Act demonstrates the degree of public appetite that there is for this. However, does he also accept that there remains disappointment that the original provision in the Act was watered down by the reduction in scope in relation to the spending reports? Will he therefore do what 116 of his own Back Benchers have already signalled in an early-day motion and support the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 (Amendment) Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) when it comes up for debate on 26 February?

We are looking at the issues raised by that Bill, and I believe that the Sustainable Communities Act is now part of the architecture of local government. Aside from party politics, I hope that the House will take me seriously when I say that some issues to do with the process have been brought to light by where we are at the moment, and we need to get them right in future to ensure that we have a cost-effective and efficient way of assessing realistic proposals. If we can do that, I see no reason why the Act will not form a permanent part of the local-national relationship in this country.