I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
I have great pleasure in presenting this Bill which, as the House will note, is a short amendment to the Sustainable Communities Act 2007. That Act, and therefore this amendment to it, is the product of an extraordinary grass-roots movement that brought together two significant forces, both of which are as relevant today as they were three years ago: a concern that the sustainability of town and country life was being imperilled by myriad changes, gradually leading to a loss of facilities, large and small; and a sense of frustration that people were powerless to do anything to change the situation. This short Bill builds on both those sentiments.
I wish to outline briefly what the Bill is about and then remind the House of the forces that brought the 2007 Act into being. I hope to demonstrate what has happened since then: how early progress in implementing the provisions is encouraging and why, therefore, this short amending Bill is helpful and timely. I then propose to look in rather more detail at this Bill’s provisions and I shall, of course, be pleased to respond to concerns or queries from the House about them.
My first task is to acknowledge that I stand on the shoulders of a number of giants who were responsible for the passing of the original legislation and who remain in close contact with the process of carrying out its intentions. At grass-roots level, Local Works remains the driving force of the campaign to revitalise local community through this effort in what might be termed “the new democracy”. The House should acknowledge an extraordinary coalition of interests that has come together to support Local Works. The coalition includes the Federation of Small Businesses, the Campaign to Protect Rural England, the National Federation of SubPostmasters, Age Concern, Help the Aged, the Woodland Trust, the National Federation of Women’s Institutes and the Campaign for Real Ale, to name just a few. Any idea or concept that can bring together so many people, not simply to pursue an abstract ideal, but to make something work in practice, has to be worthy of serious recognition.
Local Works sees its manifestation around the parliamentary estate mostly in the person of Ron Bailey, who is known to many of us. His hard work and his knowledge of parliamentary procedure are of immense benefit to us all, and I am very grateful for his help in putting together the background work for today’s Second Reading debate. May I also acknowledge the help and support that some of the original parliamentary drivers of the legislation have given? In particular, I should mention my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Hurd), and the hon. Members for Falmouth and Camborne (Julia Goldsworthy) and for Stroud (Mr. Drew). That powerful all-party coalition has also sponsored my Bill—their names are among others—so the House can see instantly that the Bill has attracted the all-party backing that was crucial to the passage of the Sustainable Communities Bill.
Once again, the leadership and efforts of Local Works have inspired an early-day motion. Early-day motion 143 has attracted some 348 signatures, which constitutes more than 50 per cent. of the Members of the House and a significantly higher proportion of Back Benchers, as can be seen once Government Members who are not able to sign such early-day motions are taken out of the equation. The motion reads as follows:
“That this House notes the success of the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 as the first step towards building a bottom up democracy; further notes the enthusiasm shown by local authorities across England in deciding to use the Act, with 100 councils having already used that process and a further 50 councils having stated their intention to do so at the next available opportunity, showing that nearly half of all councils wish to use the Act's process in the future; notes also the genuine cross-party support that the original Act commanded; and so supports the provisions of the Sustainable Communities Act Amendment Bill introduced in Session 2008-09 which would extend the 2007 Act by ensuring that the process of involvement established by the Act becomes an on-going process rather than a one-off event, by involving parish and town councils and their county associations in the process and by empowering citizens to petition their councils to use the Act if they are not already doing so.”
This Bill builds on that early-day motion, which is well supported by Members of all parties.
The 2007 Act, which the Bill seeks to amend, had its Second Reading debate in this House on 19 January 2007. In moving that the Bill be read a Second time, my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood said:
“The Bill will make the Government more responsive to an issue that arouses genuine passion and concern—the problem of community decline in Britain. It will push the Government to go further in giving real power to local authorities and the people whom they serve. That is the only path to delivering sustainable communities that will stand the test of time.”—[Official Report, 19 January 2007; Vol. 455, c. 1037.]
As the House of Commons Library research paper helpfully reminds us:
“The driving force behind the Bill was Local Works, a pressure group representing a sizeable coalition of organisations. The campaign began following the publication of studies by the New Economics Foundation entitled Ghost Town Britain. These highlighted, in particular, the decline in numbers of corner shops, grocers, banks, post offices and pubs which meant that communities and neighbourhoods no longer had easy access to ‘such essential elements of both the economy and the social fabric of the country.’”
That brief précis can do little justice to an extraordinary series of meetings that had taken place around the country and engaged the interest of Members of Parliament of all parties. They found a vibrancy in both defending local communities and challenging the forces that had changed them, in some cases radically, which people feared they were powerless to stand against. While recognising the institutions of democracy in this country upon which we all rely, particularly local and national Government, the campaign expressed an unease that the modern working of these institutions seemed to leave communities and people behind. What was needed was a new way of engaging with them, which would not circumvent their democratic powers or those of local authorities, but would complement them by suggesting a radical process for the presentation and consideration of ideas.
On 12 July 2007, Lord Marlesford said, in moving that the Bill be read a Second time in the other place, that
“the campaign had to take a view on what we were seeking to achieve in place of ghost town Britain. The answer must be sustainable communities. Bearing in mind our starting point, that clearly meant the reversal of the decline in local economies, services and communities highlighted in the reports that I mentioned. But sustainable, healthy communities should also be environmentally sustainable. They should be inclusive and encourage citizen participation; otherwise they will not be sustainable as communities. Hence, the four limbs were: promoting local economic activity, the environment, social inclusion, and citizen involvement. What is certain is that this problem will continue unless action is taken to stop it.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 12 July 2007; Vol. 693, c. 1565.]
The principal aim of the Act therefore was to promote the sustainability of local communities, which meant encouraging the improvement of economic, social or environmental well-being. The mechanism of delivery would be for local communities to work with their local authorities, following the invitation of the Secretary of State, to make proposals that would contribute to promoting local community sustainability. These proposals, which, by definition, would be drawn from a wide range of groups and organisations interacting with their local councils in an innovative way that is typically described by many of us who are involved as bottom-up rather than top-down, would go on to be evaluated by a selector. That selector became the Local Government Association, which would use its skills, expertise and experience to draw up a shortlist of proposals to offer to the Secretary of State. It would then be the Secretary of State’s job to come back to explain what he or she would like done with the proposals and how they might be implemented.
A further radical part of the Act was to require transparency in detailing what public money came into a local area through the publication of local spending reports. That would enable the public to see at a glance exactly what was being spent in an area, what was committed and what might be deemed to be discretionary and could therefore be transferred to a different area of community priority. We will return to these local spending reports, perhaps, a little later.
It was a considerable success for my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood to get that Bill passed. It had initially met with some scepticism from the Government, but through the honest and patient work of the hon. Member for Oldham, East and Saddleworth (Mr. Woolas), when he was at the Department for Communities and Local Government and, in particular, of his then Parliamentary Private Secretary, the hon. Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown)—I am delighted to see her in her new place as a Whip on the Government Front Bench—a constructive relationship was formed that enabled the Government eventually to support that Bill once it had been through Committee and the process of refinement that that involves.
The practical impact of all that was that the right hon. Member for Salford (Hazel Blears), then the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, issued an invitation on 14 October 2008 to local authorities inviting them to make such proposals as were suggested in the Act. The process was thereby triggered and 100 local authorities submitted proposals in the first round. All in all, 301 proposals were submitted, and of these, 199 were shortlisted by the LGA in its role as selector. They are being considered by DCLG, but no decisions have yet been made.
The bare figures are only one part of the story, however. A number of different sources provide testimony to the impact not only of the original campaign but of the Act on local communities that have been stimulated to take part in the process that originated in the legislation. I shall quote from some of them.
Councillor Keith Mitchell, chairman of the LGA selector panel, said after the first round:
“It is great to see so much enthusiasm from councils, ready to expand their responsibilities to do everything they can to make life better for their residents and we would expect nothing less.
The proposals which have been submitted are practical responses to specific local conditions, plans which councils are uniquely placed to be able to generate and upon which they can act. Unsurprisingly the recession is a strong theme as councils look to continue their efforts to offer support to local businesses and vital assistance to local people…Innovative projects will be created in many parts of the country as a result of these ideas and some will no doubt be rolled out more widely where they are shown to have the potential to improve things on a larger scale.”
Let me give one or two particular examples.
A Hackney resident was delighted to find, after he had worked with local residents groups and made a suggestion to Hackney council, that his proposal had been submitted to the LGA and shortlisted, and that it is now before the Secretary of State. His idea was subtly to change the planning rules for betting shops—Hackney currently has the highest concentration of betting shops in the country. A Wiltshire librarian, Mr. Brian Purvis, suggested increasing the tax on chewing gum to help to cover the expense of clearing it from the pavement. His proposal, one of 20 shortlisted by his county following the introduction of the Act, has reached the LGA’s shortlist.
Evidence also shows that councils have made positive efforts in the first round to involve under-represented groups. For example, in Islington the proposals went to a newly formed panel for consideration. The panel included residents from groups with which councils had traditionally struggled to engage, as well as forum members of such groups. It included a blind resident, a resident with learning disabilities and a resident—with an interpreter—who spoke English as a second language. Another example was the “Making Chorley Smile” panel, which included a range of people of varying ages, gender, ethnicities, residence and employment status. Paul Scriven, the leader of Sheffield city council, said of the first draft proposals from Sheffield’s citizens panel:
“This is the first time anything has been endorsed by the council’s cabinet that has been drawn up by local people rather than the other way around. It’s so refreshing.”
Let me give two or three more examples from different parts of the country. South Hams district council suggested that Government and local authority housing and planning requirements should be amended to allow private individuals and non-profit groups to build affordable homes for their own use. Teignbridge district council suggested that the Government should acknowledge the role of community land bank trusts and ensure involvement at a local level in future housing development. Liverpool city council suggested that post offices should not be closed until the local co-operative development office has been given the time and training budget to see whether an increase in capacity could result in local people taking over the management of the premises. Bearing in mind what my Front-Bench colleagues were saying last week about the co-operative principle, which I am delighted to see is alive and well on these Benches, the idea that groups of people can come together and put forward such a proposal seems a good thing.
May I give another excellent example of that? The Government sought to close a series of rural post offices in my constituency, but there was uproar in the local community. Essex county council was sensitive to the needs and demands of local people and gave the extra financial support that was needed for a short period of time effectively to give those post offices a second chance. The community said that they wanted to use them, so Essex county council said, “Okay, we will give you another x months.” More people then went in and made a post office sustainable whereas it once had not been.
My hon. Friend cites an admirable example of local community involvement provoking a change to what might otherwise have happened. The Sustainable Communities Act has allowed more of that to be engendered around the country and has given people the sense that they have some power.
Let me digress for a moment before I come to the substance of the Bill. This has all posed serious issues for those of us in representative positions. We have taken it for granted for a long time that we do this job—people come to us, we make the decisions, we organise, we tell people what to do. When there is enormous trust and a clear bond between those who are elected and those who elect them, that is fine. However, experience in recent years has shown that that bond has been more difficult. We have seen the numbers of people voting at local council level decline steadily. We have had our own issues with the number of people voting in general elections in recent times and, of course, we have had the issues in relation to the authority of this House, which are too well known and painful to bear repeating. So to create a mechanism that encourages people to engage with their local authorities and with Government in a new way has been refreshing and exciting. My hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr. Newmark) illustrates how something can happen as a result of that positive engagement, and this new Bill is coming along to keep that going. I shall return to that point in a moment.
I shall give one or two other examples of local authorities making use of the proposals under the Act. Hackney borough council suggested the introduction of wider powers for councils to reflect residents’ views and influence the shape of local high streets, where the concentration of particular kinds of businesses can mean that the needs of local people are not met and local communities cease to be sustainable. Planning is an issue that has surely crossed all our desks at various times, when local communities seem, almost to a man and woman, to be against a particular proposal or have some particular idea, yet for some reason in planning law those views are not taken into account. Inspectors’ decisions always seem to follow a line that the community cannot follow, and people wonder why their voice is the least heard voice in the entire process.
As a final example, the Bristol city council panel proposed amendments to the Local Government and Housing Act 1989 to support the employment in local authorities of young people and people with learning difficulties. Thus, a range of ideas has been presented under the original Act.
With all that in the pipeline, what need is there for the Bill? Successful though the previous Bill was in becoming an Act, there were one or two areas where, on reflection, more might have been done to fulfil the objectives behind the campaign and the Act. This Bill seeks to redress those omissions. Rather than wait for settled practice to surround the Act and an amendment to be made to it at a later stage, I, together with those who signed the early-day motion, which I remind the House is a majority of its Members, and campaigners outside believe it would be helpful to make changes now, before the procedures associated with the Act become set.
At this point I should mention a technical matter. The long title of the Bill needs a short amendment. The House will be aware that the purpose of the long title is to ensure that when the Bill is drawn up in more detail at a subsequent stage, all the various elements have been captured at the time of First Reading. What is unusual today is that I hope to take the Bill through all its stages in the Commons at one time. Accordingly, I wish to give notice that should the Bill go into Committee, I will move a short manuscript amendment which, I believe, is available on the Floor of the House. It proposes that in line 1 of the long title, the words from “2007” to the end of line 3 should be left out.
The amendment is designed with two aims—first, to remove the word “town”, as legislation does not make specific mention of town councils. They are considered to be akin to parish councils, for which statutory definitions exist. Secondly, the amendment would knock out the word “expenditure”, as there is no expenditure involved in the Bill. Both the Table Office and the Clerks have been informed of the proposed manuscript change.
The substance of this short Bill is twofold. The intention behind the original Act was not to engage the interest of the community for a one-off round of proposals, which would then be subjected to scrutiny and eventual decision. It was, rather, to involve the public in a process with their local authorities and government, but no specific provision was made in the original Bill for a continuing process, despite the intention. This Bill seeks to achieve that. It therefore requires the Secretary of State to specify the date on which an invitation to make new proposals by way of a second round should be issued. This notice must be given by 1 January 2011, as set out in clause 2(2).
We have got where we are today following negotiation with the Department for Communities and Local Government and with the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Stevenage (Barbara Follett), who is here today. I thank her and her officials who assisted her in arriving at this point. Those of us promoting the Bill have not got everything that we sought at the outset, but we have come to what we think is a realistic estimation of what can be achieved, and we are grateful to the Minister and her officials for assisting us to get to this stage.
We believe we have a clear understanding that under clause 2, where we suggest in proposed new section 5B the power to make new regulations, this will allow for further proposals to be made in future and those regulations will be used to create the continuing process that we are looking for, having got one new starting date included in the Bill. I am particularly encouraged by the comments made by the Secretary of State in the House on 26 January:
“I see no reason why the Act will not form a permanent part of the local-national relationship in this country.”—[Official Report, 26 January 2010; Vol. 504, c. 667.]
Although the Bill contains only the date for the second round, we fully envisage that proposals will come forward for future rounds through the regulations and that they will make provision for that.
In support of this part of the Bill, the Local Government Association says in its briefing for the debate:
“The LGA Group supports the content of the proposed legislation. Councils supported the introduction of the original Sustainable Communities Act in 2007, recognising the unique opportunities it provided them to bid for additional tools to tackle issues specific to their locality. The LGA is specifically supportive of the proposals within this Bill to introduce a further round of submissions. This will remove some of the uncertainty which currently encompasses the future of the current round of proposals.”
Councillor David Shakespeare, the leader of the Conservative group on the LGA, said:
“It is vital that this process”—
he was referring to the process initiated by the original Act—
“is continued . . . This new Bill will mean that the ‘proposals to government process’ ushered in by the 2007 Act will continue: a date for this and a stated ongoing process are essential—otherwise enthusiasm will turn to yet more cynicism about local political involvement.
Action is needed, anything less will send another negative signal to voters and lead to further withdrawal from activity.”
Councillor Richard Kemp, the leader of the Local Government Association’s Liberal Democrat group said:
“It is crucial that the…process is ongoing, so that the involvement and engagement can continue. The Amendment Bill will ensure that the Act’s process is ongoing.”
Others who supported the original Act through Local Works have also made their support clear.
My hon. Friend has kindly quoted the Local Government Association’s support, and earlier he referred to the campaigners, but will he inform the House of the main campaigners and pass on our gratitude to them for their success with both the original Act and this Bill?
Indeed. I made a reference to the campaigners at the beginning of my speech, but I am happy to reiterate it. Local Works drew together a wide variety of bodies that campaigned for the legislation, and there was a substantial list, which I shall briefly repeat: the National Federation of Small Businesses, the Campaign to Protect Rural England, the National Federation of SubPostmasters, Age Concern, the Woodland Trust, the National Federation of Women’s Institutes and the Campaign for Real Ale—the one that we all cite, because anything that keeps CAMRA on our side is exceptionally good news. I also referred specifically to Local Works, and to Mr. Ron Bailey for his indefatigable work in promoting the legislation.
For my hon. Friend’s benefit, I must also say that, at each and every stage, everyone who is represented by a national organisation or title draws their strength from what has been going on right the way through at a grass-roots level. He will know the efforts that have been made to support his local hospitals, which were under threat from the processes that the Department of Health initiated. A strong local community came together in Worthing, looked at the availability of finance and thought, “Is this something we could get into in future so that, when the totality of spending in an area is considered, we might have some say even on these very big decisions?” The scope of the 2007 Act has yet to be determined, but my hon. Friend will have particular experience of working with and, indeed, leading local opinion in his area when confronting a national decision on which local people have said they deserve a voice. To an extent, this debate is a reflection of that happening throughout the country.
Another key proposal in my Bill is to refer more specifically in the process to parish and, by implication, town councils. The involvement of parish and town councils was very much in the minds of the promoters of the original Bill, but their role was not stated explicitly and became lost in the proceedings. The determination of such councils to be more explicitly involved has influenced our negotiations with the Minister and DCLG, and it is reflected in the regulations under proposed new section 5B of the 2007 Act.
I have some 50 parish councils in my constituency, together with the town councils of Arlesey, Stotfold, Biggleswade, Sandy and Potton. No Member who engages regularly with their local parish and town councils can doubt their effectiveness or their involvement in so many matters that affect the daily lives of the communities that we seek to represent. I meet my local parish and town councils regularly, either individually or more often as groups, to discuss subjects ranging from traffic, crime, planning and how to care for the most needy in their area, to unemployed youngsters.
I have parish councils that wish to take advantage of the new processes in order to enhance their status, and others that are content to remain as they are, and have been for many years. When I was approached about the Bill, I felt particularly strongly that their involvement with proposals that emerge from their communities should be more explicitly stated. On behalf of such councils I am pleased that that has been recognised by the proposed regulations in the Bill, and by the Minister’s comments during our discussions.
I shall again cite proceedings in the other place, quoting two comments that show the importance of parish councils not only to this House but elsewhere. On Second Reading in the other place, Lord Cameron of Dillington said:
“I was sorry to see that the earlier intention of giving more direct control to parish councils got squeezed out in the Bill’s passage through the other place, and that it is now the principal councils that have control. However, I am glad that they are specifically obliged to have regard to parish plans. One of the biggest bugbears of parish councils is that, having gone through the often rigorous process of devising a parish plan, they then find that no one in authority pays any attention to it. As your Lordships will be aware, parish councils have all too little control over the future of their community, either in terms of planning decisions or meaningful spending powers. Anything Parliament can do to help in that respect is most welcome.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 12 July 2007; Vol. 693, c. 1573.]
I have a final quote from the other place. The late and much lamented Lord Bruce-Lockhart noted:
“I support the noble Lord, Lord Cameron. Devolving to parish councils is extremely important.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 12 July 2007; Vol. 693, c. 1574.]
That endorsement from Sandy Bruce-Lockhart for parish councils is particularly important; hardly anyone in either House of Parliament was more respected in local government circles than Sandy Bruce-Lockhart, who understood the workings of local government and devoted his life to it in an extraordinary way. I appreciate this chance to pay a brief tribute to him. He spent most of his life at the other end of the local government spectrum; it is particularly important that he should have recognised the importance of parish councils.
Having set out the basic provisions of the Bill, I should help the House by indicating some of the stimulus behind bringing forward the Bill at this point. As I said, those promoting the legislation at grass-roots level saw the need to continue their efforts and have strongly supported the process of saying that more needs to be done. Quotes from some of the people whom Lambeth borough council involved with the original processes show that this matter is not just for aficionados and those in the know; it gets right down to those involved at the grass-roots level. Julian Kirby, a Lambeth resident, wrote to his council:
“I am pleased to see you’re already asking for ideas re the next round of the Sustainable Communities Act. Unfortunately my input is going to be negative, though I stress this is not aimed at the council.
As you may know, central government have not yet announced a date for a second round. Until they do is there any point in asking for involvement for residents? Why would residents want to get involved when we don’t even know a timetable or a process for submitting more ideas?
Whilst I was excited to see this Act become law I am now worried that it will just be a one off.”
Well, Mr. Kirby, it will not just be a one-off because our determination and the determination of your council, the House and the Minister is that that should not be the case. I have just given an example of how at absolute grass-roots level people know about the Act and want it to move on. The National Association of Local Councils, which supports parish and town councils, is particularly keen, on behalf of the hundreds of parish councils and their thousands of members, for the Bill to be taken forward.
In view of the late point of the parliamentary process at which the Bill is being introduced, I hope that it might be possible to complete all its stages here today. I fully appreciate that that is an unusual request, and it is one that I would not normally be part of. However, I want it to happen for three particular reasons.
First, as I have said, there is a need for the Bill, as set out by those campaigning for it and those who see the need for amendment now. Secondly, and particularly importantly, the principles of the original Bill were extensively argued in this place a very short time ago. The original Act started as a private Member’s Bill that went through all its stages, with a great deal of discussion, and with amendment and reflection. The amendments that I propose today do not involve any new principle that has not already been discussed extensively by the House.
Thirdly, before we reached Second Reading there was extensive consultation, with the support of Local Works and others, with all colleagues in the House. On more than one occasion, I have made available to colleagues the original draft of the Bill and the subsequent draft, with a clause-by-clause description inviting the comments of colleagues. I was prepared to deal with concerns as and when they came up. I have tried to be as transparent as possible in these relationships, to enable us to contemplate taking the Bill through all its stages today. I appreciate how unusual that would be and how unusual it would be for the House to allow it.
So there we are. This is a relatively simple two-clause Bill. It deals principally with the opportunity to keep the Act going, to assure the public and councils that it was not a one-off, to provide for regulations proposing its further continuation, to place the importance of parish and town councils more in the Act and more in the mind of the Government, and to allow the possibility of regulations on petitioning councils that do not wish to take part in the process, so that their local communities might also feel engaged and involved.
The Bill comes with the hope that we might be able to take it through all its stages today, because of the shortness of time left in the Session and given the explanations offered to the House three years ago when the Act was originally considered and the processes that we have undergone since then to make people aware of what it is about. It has the support of the majority of the House, as expressed through the early-day motion, and of those outside, so I hope that it will go forward.
I will not detain the House long, because there is broad consensual support for the excellent work of the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) and others. That work has involved not just colleagues in the House such as my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Julia Goldsworthy) but, as the hon. Gentleman demonstrated, a huge number of outside bodies from CAMRA down that support the amendment to the 2007 Act.
The Act has already led 100 councils to put forward more than 300 issues, which demonstrates how important it is for local involvement. The Bill would encourage the development of the Act in an important way, by creating the rolling, ongoing programme that my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire described, by involving parish and town councils—that would be particularly important in rural areas such as Herefordshire—and, as he said, by allowing citizens to petition their local authorities to ensure that they take part. I am sure that all parties support those sensible suggestions.
I hope that we will be able to take all stages of the Bill today. The most important thing about the Bill is that it would increase the engagement of local people in the democratic process, and surely the House should support wholeheartedly anything that can do that. I add my support and that of my colleagues.
It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. Keetch), who was having trouble projecting his voice. None of us was expecting to be called to share our thoughts with the House so soon, but I will make quick progress.
I begin by paying warm tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) for having been successful in obtaining a high placing in the private Members’ Bills ballot and for his generous, sincere and erudite speech. He outlined the progress of the 2007 Act through the House, and he took a cross-party, consensual approach to it and to his Bill. It is appropriate for me also to pay tribute to all the Members who were responsible for the original Act, including the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Julia Goldsworthy), with whom I cross swords from time to time, the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), who sometimes ploughs a lonely furrow on the Labour Benches, and of course my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Hurd), whose Bill became the 2007 Act.
As has been said, the Bill is straightforward. It would require the Secretary of State to invite local authorities to submit a further round of proposals to be considered under the 2007 Act, and publish regulations regarding the future process, and the extension of the qualifying organisations that make proposals under the Act beyond local authorities.
It would be apposite briefly to look at the main parts of, and the process and rationale behind, the 2007 Act, which was made up of 10 sections and a schedule. The Act added the word “sustainable” to the term “community strategy” and put into legislation the duty for local authorities to consider the long-term sustainability of the communities they serve, which was already central to their thinking, and how local services and plans contribute to that sustainability. Specifically, it created a duty for the Government to produce a local spending report that details for each local authority area the amount of public money spent by all relevant central, regional and local agencies on services and projects in a given period.
The idea, as initially proposed in the Conservative party policy document, “The Permissive State”, was that local authorities would be allowed to make recommendations on the allocation of any relevant spending in their areas by drawing up a local spending plan, but the Act is more circumspect, albeit a similar outcome could be achieved through section 3, which invites
“local authorities to make proposals which they consider would contribute to promoting the sustainability of local communities”
and states that
“a proposal may include a request for a transfer of functions from one person to another”
following consultation with partners. The Act also states that the local authority must
“establish or recognise a panel of representatives of local persons”
to be consulted on a proposal.
It would be remiss of me not to mention the wider context of the Act. My party, if elected to government, is committed to legislating for a power of general competence, which was promised by Labour before and after the 1997 election. That power synthesises with the ethos and philosophy of the Act and the Bill.
There is consensus on the Government’s piloting of, and strong support for, Total Place—it is supported not least by the Treasury. Total Place ties neatly into local spending reports and the philosophy behind the Bill and the Act. It is important to see the Bill in that context—it is not necessarily a partisan issue.
I concur with my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire on the public meetings that have been held. My meeting, which was extremely well attended, was held at the Great Northern Hotel in Peterborough in April last year. There was lots of interesting debate and argument—and good will—and a willingness and strength of feeling on the part of the community to facilitate action by my local authority, Peterborough city council, and to get the maximum number of people involved.
My note of caution is that I am not entirely convinced that every Government Department is as committed as it should be both to the Act and to Total Place. I shall name a guilty party: the Department for Work and Pensions, which spends a significant amount of public money at local level, is not necessarily fully on message with that agenda.
With that caveat, I shall make some progress. As my hon. Friend said, local policy proposals have been extremely successful. There are a few concerns, but the Local Government Association is generally considered to have been successful in its important role as a national selector, assessing and shortlisting councils’ proposals. That function has been successfully carried out and has drawn support from the four major party groups in the LGA. We know that the LGA reported on 5 August 2009 that nearly 300 proposals had been submitted by some 90 different councils. My hon. Friend mentioned the comments by Councillor Keith Mitchell, chairman of the selector panel, which were very positive.
According to the LGA, the next phase of implementing the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 will start in earnest in the next few months. The Government are required to reach agreement with the LGA as selector on which proposals to implement. The DCLG has not yet formally announced the format and timetable for this process, and a parliamentary answer on 4 February 2010 revealed:
“The Government are consulting the Local Government Association in its role as selector under the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 and are seeking to reach agreement on which of the 199 short-listed proposals should be implemented. Many of the proposals are complex and raise significant practical issues but the Government are anxious to make progress as quickly as possible on those proposals that offer practical benefits and new ways of meeting local needs.”— [Official Report, 4 February 2010; Vol. 505, c. 531W.]
The LGA is lobbying for two key commitments. The first is for the process to be completed in a timely and effective manner, and the LGA would like the process to be completed by the Easter recess. The second is that the process should provide genuine opportunity for dialogue and negotiation. We would like a process that involves face-to-face dialogue at both senior official and member/ministerial level. It might be appropriate for the Minister to address that particular point when she responds to the debate.
We have heard of the excellent community-based initiatives and proposals put forward by a wide range of councils, and I shall not detain the House by rehearsing all of them again. They include authorities as varied as South Hams district, Hackney borough council, the excellent Conservative council in Hammersmith and Fulham, Southampton city council, Herefordshire county council and Bristol city council, which have all put forward eye-catching, forward-looking and progressive proposals.
We have also heard about the organisations that have been responsible for driving forward the political will through the sometimes complex layers and checks and balances of our legislative and political system to get this on the statute book and get these proposals taken seriously. The proposals will have a demonstrable impact on the quality of life for many thousands, if not millions, of our constituents, so I pay tribute to those organisations.
My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire mentioned the early-day motion tabled by the hon. Member for Stroud in November last year, and it is worth mentioning that very few early-day motions attract so much support. All parties share a commitment to the issue, because it affects not only rural and suburban areas, but urban areas such as my constituency. The advantage of the legislation is that it is flexible and can be adapted locally. It is also dependent on the policies, strategies and behaviour of local councillors, who are directly responsible. So not only is there top-down pressure from the legislation and the responsibilities on local authorities, but community-minded people will put gentle pressure on their elected councillors to facilitate this progressive change. As we know, 346 hon. Members have signed the early-day motion.
The LGA is concerned about the proposed measures allowing the Secretary of State to publish regulations on the procedure for making proposals. Such regulations are likely to set out increased prescription around consultation, engagement with parish councils, and petitions, as well as cause confusion over the form, content and timing of proposals. According to the LGA, the resource implications for local authorities of participating under the Sustainable Communities Act should not be underestimated.
Many authorities have set up new consultation panels, run events and commissioned work to ensure that communities were genuinely involved in the process and to give hard-to-reach groups an opportunity to have their say. In addition, significant officer time is used to research and develop proposals to the level of detail required for them to be considered viable. The LGA argues that increased prescription would, first, threaten to derail the innovative practice that has emerged under round one around community engagement and consultation and, secondly, risks tying the process up in red tape. One of the strengths of the current process is the implicit acknowledgment that local councils are best placed to determine how best to engage with local communities and determine the content and form of proposals.
To summarise: let us not throw the baby out with the bathwater and be too prescriptive in establishing a national template on what is best for everyone in terms of consultation and engagement with local community groups, and let us trust local authorities to be responsive to local community groups in respect of that consultation. We must work on the basis that they all want to achieve the best end result and objective. Of course, in the less than benign financial situation in local government at the moment, anything that puts cost pressures on local authorities from a top-down Whitehall perspective cannot be a good thing. I am sure that the Minister would not argue with that.
Finally, I shall make some brief comments about my own party. We will be supporting the provisions in the Bill, and again I welcome the comments of other hon. Members. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr. Newmark) will bring to bear his expertise on this issue, if he is fortunate enough to catch your eye in the next few minutes, Madam Deputy Speaker. In our local green paper, “Control Shift”, published in February last year, we wrote:
“The main purpose of the Sustainable Communities Act is to enable local governments to identify money spent in their area by central government agencies and then (after consultation with local people) to recommend ways in which it could be spent better by redirecting it to local priorities. The next Conservative government will work not just within the letter of this new law, but also within its spirit”.
It also stated that
“we will operate the system set up by the Act to ensure that, when local people have a particular priority, central government money is directed towards fulfilling that priority wherever possible.”
We also support the extension of the Sustainable Communities Act to parish councils.
The Bill is commendably short, but it is extremely important and builds on the solid and firm foundations that we established in the 2007 Act. My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire touched on the important—almost existential—point that to rebuild the faith and trust of people in this country in their elected representatives, they must believe that their views, thoughts and priorities can be translated into real, progressive and forward-looking change. This Bill plays an important part in that process, and on that basis, Her Majesty’s Opposition are delighted to give it their strong support.
In the dying days of this Parliament, we are all keen to leave the country in a better condition than when we first entered the House, and many hon. Members have hopes of pushing through Bills that will leave a lasting legislative legacy. However, the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 (Amendment) Bill, which we are debating today, really does offer the chance to embed historic change in the system of decision making in this country.
The 2007 Act, which today’s Bill seeks to amend, was an important benchmark towards building a bottom-up democracy and a clear repudiation of the centralised Whitehall diktat that we have endured for so long. Now, with the benefit of hindsight, we have the opportunity to add some important finesse to the 2007 Act, which was truly empowering. Indeed, it was nothing short of revolutionary, when we think of what it means for people up and down the country. Participation, not consultation, was its watchword, with communities able to draw up local sustainability strategies that suit the residents, and both to halt community decline and embed local sustainability for the future. That is government by the people, for the people.
The Act was passed because of cross-party consensus. The Bill benefits from similar backing. Indeed, early-day motion 143, which it might help to quote at some length, shows just how strong that sentiment is, and also shows the hard work done by Members of all parties to get us to where we are today. To reiterate what my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) said, it is worth stressing the key points of that motion, which says:
“That this House notes the success of the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 as the first step towards building a bottom up democracy”.
That emphasis on a bottom-up democracy is key. The motion
“further notes the enthusiasm shown by local authorities across England in deciding to use the Act, with 100 councils having already used that process and a further 50 councils having stated their intention to do so at the next available opportunity”—
I gave my hon. Friend an example of that from Braintree council—
“showing that nearly half of all councils wish to use the Act’s process in the future; notes also the genuine cross-party support that the original Act commanded; and so supports the provisions of the Sustainable Communities Act Amendment Bill introduced in Session 2008-09 which would extend the 2007 Act by ensuring that the process of involvement established by the Act becomes an on-going process rather than a one-off event,”—
this is key—
“by involving parish and town councils and their county associations in the process and by empowering citizens to petition their councils to use the Act if they are not already doing so.”
Early-day motion 143 has been signed by 346 hon. Members, and a pretty diverse mix they are too. At the last count, of the three main parties we had 62 Liberal Democrat signatories, 134 Labour signatories and, just edging into the lead, 138 Conservatives.
The Bill not only has that wide-ranging support in the House; it also benefits from a groundswell of public support. A whole spectrum of groups, from the Countryside Alliance and the Federation of Small Businesses to Age Concern and the Local Government Association, can all see the importance of the Bill that my hon. Friend is taking through its Second Reading today. If we cannot get a Bill through with that much support, from all parts of the House and from outside it, surely that prompts the question: what private Member’s Bill can we get through? If the Government fail to support the Bill today, it will send a negative signal to voters: that political involvement locally is something that this Government just shy away from.
Before I look at the Bill—and, naturally, the Act that it seeks to amend—I would like briefly to outline why I am standing in support of it. I am a firm believer in localism. The residents of parish and town council areas in my constituency all want to take responsibility for improving their own lives. I have seen that they are more than capable of identifying problems and, more importantly, of finding innovative solutions to them. Indeed, I often think that they are far more capable than many of us here in the House and in Whitehall. But there is no reason why they should have to fight for this on their own. Legislation should not only support their attempts to improve their communities and make them sustainable long into the future; it should also enable them to do that.
I speak with the support of my constituents, and my parish and town councils, when I say that decisions should always be taken as close as possible to the community that they affect. When it comes to shaping the future of the communities that we live in and depend on, we must accept that local people know best.
Parish plans, through which people become involved in shaping the future of their community, are a wonderful idea, but does my hon. Friend agree that they seem to hit the buffers because there is no process available to take their proposals further? The Bill provides an opportunity for similar plans. I wonder whether my hon. Friend has shared that experience of parish plans, where individuals have been engaged in a plan, only to end up asking, “What now?”
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. I have been to a number of villages in the north of the constituency that I hope to represent, and some of them have held meetings to discuss this matter. However, there needs to be a cultural change as well as a legislative one. We need to change the culture among district councils and among those officiating and planning in those areas, so that they can accept a little more flexibility and reflect the needs and desires of local people much more than they have done historically.
We must give people greater power over the policy and spending decisions that will forge the future of the area they live in for years to come. The Bill embodies that aim in letter, and I hope that the many contributions that we will hear today will embody it in spirit as well.
It is impossible to look at the intentions and substance of the Bill without first scrutinising the Act that it seeks to amend—the Sustainable Communities Act 2007. Like today’s Bill, the Act was introduced by a Conservative Member, my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Hurd), as a private Member’s Bill. After several previous attempts to take a sustainable communities Bill through the House, that one was successfully steered through Parliament in 2007, with cross-party support. As the Secretary of State said only last month, it is his intention for the Act to stand part of the permanent architecture of local government.
I hope that those are all positive omens of things to come, as my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire takes his Bill through its Second Reading today. I was a strong supporter of the previous Bill when it passed into legislation in 2007, and I welcome the Act’s initial success. All of us present in the Chamber know how important it is in fighting the corner of local decision making. It might be a comparatively short Act, but what it lacks in length, it more than makes up for in impact.
The existence of the Sustainable Communities Act owes a considerable debt to the impassioned advocacy of Local Works, a coalition of about 90 national organisations fighting for the cause of localism. The sheer size and voracity of this coalition is a real testament to the strength of feeling about sustainable communities, and there is a clear appetite for further progress. A real catalyst for this campaign was the work done by the New Economics Foundation to highlight the danger of a ghost-town Britain if the decline in corner shops, grocers, banks, post offices and pubs—to name just a few—were to continue unabated. This would soon snowball into neighbourhoods and communities no longer being able easily to access what the New Economics Foundation aptly describes as
“such essential elements of both the economy and the social fabric of the country”—
and, I might add, of our local communities.
Tackling this worry head on, the 2007 Act sought to address the previous lack of a coherent Government strategy to arrest both the community decline that so many of us have seen in our constituencies and the lack of transparency and civic participation seen in the way resources are allocated to, and within, a community. Local and central government must attach greater priority to the long-term development and protection of communities—something that my constituents are definitely pleased about. The Act has two central elements: action plans for achieving and maintaining communities, and local spending reports on public expenditure in local authority areas. What is so revolutionary about these action plans is the new chain of information established, flowing right through from the individual, through regional structures and directly to the Secretary of State in Government. This way, local residents have a direct say in proposing changes at a national level, which will help deliver sustainable projects locally.
Under the purposely broad remit of grouping these proposals under the four headings of the environment, the local economy, social inclusion and democratic involvement, the scope of the Act is dramatically expanded, along with the power of local decision making. Theoretically, no matter how small the voice propounding it, if a proposed scheme will improve a community’s sustainability in any of those four areas, it will be given a fair hearing by the Secretary of State and the appointed selector, the Local Government Association. Whether implemented or rejected, each proposal—and those who submit it—will be given feedback, ensuring that local people—those best able to diagnose specific localised problems—can provide tailor-made, practical and often highly innovative proposals to deal with specific local conditions.
Does my hon. Friend agree that our party’s commitment to repatriate regeneration moneys, regional spatial strategy and housing and planning powers to the local level, particularly to local authorities, is entirely complementary to the philosophy behind the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 and this amending Bill?
Not only is it complementary, it is truly within the spirit of what people in our constituencies say they want when we talk to them—local people know what is best for their own communities and they are the best drivers of what is best for the communities in which they live from day to day.
Earlier, my hon. Friend gave the example of Essex county council intervening to help post offices. That was done completely outwith the umbrella of this particular legislation, demonstrating that local authorities can be very effective operating within the currently available powers. Does he accept that that was much more timely than what we have before us now—a whole lot of proposals having gone forward, none of which have yet been determined by the Government, notwithstanding the fact that it is getting on for two and a half years since the legislation that my hon. Friend supports was first enacted?
I sense my hon. Friend’s concerns from noises off, suggesting that he has strong feelings about this issue. I am sure that, like me, he will be given time to elaborate his point admirably later. I hope that the amending Bill will not just facilitate but accelerate the process of taking the action to alleviate my hon. Friend’s concerns, so that things move on a little faster than they have in the past. I share his frustration that progress seems to have been made at a fairly slow pace—perhaps much slower than was the original intent in the 2007 Act.
Does my hon. Friend agree that one consequence of the implementation of clause 1 would be to give the Government an excuse for yet further delay in reaching decisions on the submissions that have already been made to them, and which were submitted by 31 July last year?
I understand the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope), but I hope this provision will allow the Government and Secretary of State to have greater flexibility in handling existing proposals, which should help them to decide on some of them more quickly. My hon. Friend makes a fair point, as some proposals have been on the books for a long time, and the Government have been pressed on that on a number of occasions, but I hope giving this flexibility might address the problem.
I hope that when the Minister comes to deliver her winding-up speech, she will address the concerns that my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) will no doubt raise, perhaps not at too great a length, but certainly with a high degree of veracity.
The 2007 Act introduces some much-needed transparency and accountability into the process. The Secretary of State is compelled to produce local spending reports that provide information on public expenditure within a locality, the effect of which is to make visible those areas of public spending that are not already in the public domain and to give the public an extra opportunity to have more say on expenditure in their area. People will be able to see how much the Government are spending, and what they are spending it on. If they do not like what they see, they can submit new proposals.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood summed up the legislation well when he said:
“The Bill is an honest attempt to help communities address the social problems that arise from community decline and the loss of local services.”—[Official Report, 15 June 2007; Vol. 461, c. 1026.]
The Act was also greeted with much acclaim by people outside Parliament. Local organisations have heralded it as
“a remarkable piece of legislation. For the first time we have an Act of Parliament that discards the usual top-down decision making and also the nonsense that ‘consultation’ by the Government is somehow empowering, when the opposite is the case as most people know.”
The importance of the Act should not be underestimated. By empowering citizens themselves to make choices on the issues that affect their everyday lives, it begins to address the democratic deficit that, under Labour, has been growing ever wider. As we begin to stutter out of the worst recession since the second world war, and with the public finances in such a dire state, the Act also offers enormous potential in terms of economic value added through savings and efficiencies.
The sheer number of proposals submitted under the Act provides an easily quantifiable record of success. In the inaugural round of submissions, 301 proposals were received from 100 councils shortly before last Christmas, and about two thirds of them were shortlisted for the Secretary of State. Indeed, with this unexpectedly large number of proposals ratcheting up his work load, the Secretary of State is, perhaps, the only victim of the Act’s success. That should be no excuse for delays, however. Two months have now passed since the Local Government Association submitted this shortlist to the Secretary of State, and it would be instructive if he were to advise us on what discussions he has had with his Cabinet colleagues on taking some of the proposals forward.
I am a firm believer in local democracy. Far too many decisions that affect local communities are taken by officials in Whitehall, ignoring the nuances and diversity that shape our country and communities.
Not only does this de facto disfranchise residents; too often, it imposes identikit policies that are entirely unsuitable for whichever context they are haphazardly applied to.
I hope that I am not pre-empting the Minister, but does my hon. Friend agree that the Government could produce an action plan next week? They are statutorily required under section 4 of the existing legislation to produce such a plan. It could be produced within a week or two and should be produced before the Easter recess.
And certainly before the general election—whenever it is called.
The diktat of top-down, one-size-fits-all solutions is to the detriment of local communities, local government and politics generally. When it was introduced in 2007, the Sustainable Communities Act was an important step towards reversing that trend, and it is in this spirit that I support today’s Bill. This is about re-engaging people with politics and democracy. Local citizens and communities are the experts on their own localities and issues: they are the ones who live with them each and every day, as I pointed out to my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson). It is only natural to see that, from this unique vantage point, it is precisely local residents who are often best placed to produce the best solutions to their problems. Local Works is right when it says that
“citizens and councils are the experts on their own problems and the solutions to them”.
Quite simply, they know what works and what does not, but until the 2007 Act was enacted, the Government seemed blind to that truism.
I have often heard constituents voicing their concern that people feel powerless—powerless to stand up and make a change for the better, powerless to stop their communities losing access to vital services and facilities. Now, for the first time ever, we have a law, and thus a legal mechanism, whereby Government cannot simply say no to any or all requests made of them for different services or changed policies. Uniquely, the Act does not consult; it requests participation. Rather than being limited to raging when a far-off bureaucrat decides to close a well-loved community asset, local people can fight it. The potential for that to bring lasting change to the power structure within our country should not be ignored.
The Act is important not only for what is embodied within its letter, but for the spirit it engineers. A paper by Anthony Brand, published by New Local Government Network in October 2008, suggests:
“If used well, this Act could be a driving force behind the next stage of the devolutionary process. It provides local authorities with an opportunity to take a more proactive leadership role in formulating policy and making stronger arguments for the devolutions of powers, responsibilities and funding to the local level.”
Of course, I recognise that communal decision making does not always produce the neat and tidy results that can make life seem easier in the short term. In fact, suggestions rarely receive unanimous agreement in the first instance. Inevitably, there will be disagreements at local level on what proposals to make and the form they should take. Councils will no doubt have their own views, as will the Secretary of State and the Local Government Association. This may not be perfect, but democracy, as we all know, is not perfect. By its very nature it is a messy business, but this is the best, and only, choice. Consensual and co-operative politics and decision making far outstrip adversariality and diktats in what it can achieve for our country and our local communities.
Local democracy can be a self-perpetuating phenomenon. The very fabric that keeps our society together, the communal meetings and chats in the street, are all encouraged under the Sustainable Communities Act. Bringing people together to discuss the needs of their area not only gets people talking and communicating in the here and now, but builds an ethic of social responsibility.
As with any legislation during these difficult economic times, the financial implications must always be thought through. That applies to this Bill, but a look at the economic arguments for the 2007 Act, which we seek to amend today, shows an economic imperative. Not only have we been grappling with a long and deep recession, and a recovery that cannot be confidently described as anything beyond minimal at the moment, but the Government have sent our public finances rocketing to a record and unsustainable level. They should be jumping at the chance to make savings and efficiencies, and this legislation provides the opportunity to do just that.
Crucially, the 2007 Act matches local interest with investment. Too often I have seen local communities that are passionate about the cause that really affects them finding that few funds are available to help them achieve their objective, be it large or small. Let us contrast that with a project down the road whose rubber stamp from Whitehall has brought a flood of investment but which is of little use or interest to residents. The 2007 Act could change the whole dynamic. As I have mentioned, local residents know what makes communities tick, and by harnessing their knowledge not only can we increase their wealth and well-being, but we can do so without spending more money—there is even the potential to save money.
The 2007 Act offers at least three opportunities. The first is that councils may use it to request additional money. With the advantage of local knowledge, that can produce net savings. For example, using new money to keep a local public service open saves extra CO2 emissions, because people do not have to drive further to the nearest public service. In addition, such an approach provides an intrinsic good to those living close by. Thus, the Government need not spend more money elsewhere in the economy to reduce those emissions.
The second opportunity is that councils can request a transfer of public money from another Government funding scheme that they think is not proving effective for the community. An obvious candidate here would be to take control of some of the money of any one of the faceless quangos. The money could be put to much better use through promoting specific local needs. Given that recent Local Government Association research shows that these unaccountable, centralised quangos spend a staggering £43 billion of public money a year, surely it is time for local people to be given much more of a say in how their public money is spent in their local areas.
My hon. Friend will know that there has been much debate about the content and form of local spending reports. The Government have been criticised for being over-cautious in how they have published and used the information in the reports. Although this is not provided for in my Bill, the Government have spoken of a clear intention to improve them. Does he agree that honouring that requires greater transparency in the reports? They should be web-based, because the greater the information available to the community, the easier it is for people to identify what funds might be transferred if discretion is available, so that they can be put to community use that has greater local priority.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point, particularly in these times when transparency has been a big issue for the public. I hope for a change of Government and I hope that transparency, not just locally and in Parliament, but in our public finances, will be a hallmark of a new Government,
The third and final opportunity is that councils can request new powers to make their own money, for example, by charging a non-domestic local rate to the large car parks of out-of-town superstores. The revenue could then be used to promote local shops and to revitalise town centres. Given these myriad opportunities for efficiencies, savings and profits, the economic benefits of the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 could snowball. Clearly, we are at the early stages, and the proposals are still with the Secretary of State, but I look forward with interest to seeing how the economic argument develops over the coming years.
Legislation means little unless we take a closer look at those whom it affects—in this case, the local people and communities that stand to benefit from the 2007 Act. The Act allows proposals that pursue sustainability through the environment, local economies, social inclusion or democratic involvement. In my constituency, there is plenty of scope in those areas and I can already see the outline of work emerging.
First, I know that many of the younger generation, in particular, feel passionately about improving the sustainability of the community through environmental means. I have spoken with many children and students who outline their creative solutions to “green” Braintree. Many of those solutions would make formidable proposals to the Secretary of State, and I think that this offers a bright hope for the future. In some of the more rural parts of my constituency, I have heard from individuals who are looking to set up their own highly localised renewable energy sources. That is a great idea, both for those involved and for the greater environmental good.
The promotion of local economies is perhaps the strand of the Act that holds the most resonance at the moment. I have seen first hand in my constituency the devastating consequences for those who are personally involved, and for the wider community, of the loss of local facilities and services on which we all depend. Well-loved shops have shut or relocated elsewhere. They include the local Woolworths branch and the Marks and Spencer in Braintree town centre, along with many of the locally owned and more specialised stores in our villages. Rural post offices have fought an especially long battle against closure, and I recently had news that the local HMRC office in Witham is closing. Looking ahead, I heard only a few weeks ago of the possible relocation of an employer of many of my constituents from Stansted.
Under Labour, we now have about 5,400 fewer post offices across England, 200 fewer libraries and 3,500 fewer pubs. However, in Braintree we are thankfully not an embodiment of ghost-town Britain. For example, we are fortunate enough to have a very active county council which has supported a long campaign to restore the rural post offices savagely cut by this Government, which I mentioned earlier in the debate.
I know that many other hon. Members are seeing local shops and businesses, along with pubs and post offices, dropping like flies. The steady creep of closures seems particularly insidious and, like all hon. Members, I am worried that the effects of the recession will continue to spread across our constituencies—and that in mine, they will spread across Braintree, Witham and our rural villages.
Does my hon. Friend share my view that the undertaking our party has made to keep the needs test for out-of-town shopping centres will protect small niche retailers in urban areas and in constituencies such as his from the pernicious effects of larger retailers who will put them out of business without the support of local people, local communities and elected representatives?
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point, but people shop at these big stores because they like to go to them. We need to bridge those desires and the evidence that people like to shop in big shops. I have that problem locally—we have Freeport shopping village, which is very popular with people who come from out of town, in particular, and has a devastating effect on Braintree town centre. I do not think that we have done enough work collectively to try to draw those two communities together. We could perhaps draw people who are shopping at Freeport into the town centre, but that means revitalising the town centre. I know that Braintree business council and the district council are working together to try to achieve that, and I am working with them on it.
The chairman of the selector panel has certainly seen evidence of such proposals in those already submitted. He says:
“Unsurprisingly, the recession is a strong theme as councils look to continue their efforts to offer support to local businesses and vital assistance to local people.”
So of course I can recognise the importance of having legislation in place swiftly to stem the tide of closures of local amenities, were it to grow.
When much loved amenities and assets are forced to close their doors, that can devastate the local community. Inevitably, that is often felt more keenly in the rural areas of my constituency. In towns, too, there is little more soul-destroying than seeing a once bustling street full of boarded-up buildings and closing down sales. Once a community is in a cycle of decline, it becomes so much harder to pull it out and restore it to a sustainable trajectory.
Community decline takes no prisoners among those whom it affects—whether the elderly and infirm, who rely on easy access to the shops, or the young children with nowhere to play and an environment where aspirations are dwindling by the day. But the story is not only one of gloom. I have been enthused to see the enterprising spirit and get-up-and-go of so many of my constituents. Those facing unemployment look to transfer their skills or work voluntarily, and the whole community rallies round as much as possible. In Braintree, we recognise that the best way to beat the recession and emerge the stronger for it is to work together. That strand of the Sustainable Communities Act gives us a much more structured and supported way in which to do that.
Communities can only ever be sustainable if they include all those whom they encompass. Social inclusion should stand at the heart of a community. I know that many groups in my constituency have some excellent thoughts on how to integrate all citizens, regardless of race, colour or creed. Let us take Braintree pensioners action group, for example. I regularly meet those pensioners and I am amazed by the direct insight that they give me into what life is like for the elderly in the community. Whether it is problems with bus services, dental care or fuel poverty, they have their fingers on the pulse of the type of action that we need to take for our elderly citizens. I congratulate them on all their hard work and on ensuring that they communicate with me as often as possible.
Another type of proposal that we could do with locally relates to the public services on which we all depend. They need to be inclusive for the whole community. Bus services are an example. All too often, the timetables and routes in my constituency are cut or altered to suit the needs of the bus company, rather than of the residents who rely on them. That can particularly exclude those in rural areas, creating both physical and psychological exclusion from the wider community. As Witham town council reminded me, it and local residents can act as the best eyes and ears for bodies such as the police or district or county councils. They can quickly identify where problems of social exclusion are emerging.
Finally, the promotion of a sustainable community goes beyond the bricks and mortar of buildings and shops, important though they are. It touches the very sense of community and social fabric that binds neighbourhoods together. Through increasing the ways in which people in Braintree can participate in local decision making and rejuvenate civic democracy, the Sustainable Communities Act offers a real chance of building a better society for the future. That has wholehearted support among many of my constituents and parish and town councils, such as Sible Hedingham parish council.
Of course I could go on. I have given just a small picture of the scope of the 2007 Act to arrest community decline and provide a channel through which my constituents can not only be heard, but have their proposals enacted.
We all agree that the 2007 Act was a huge step in the right direction, invigorating local decision making and democracy, offering economic benefits and securing accountability and transparency through the system. But why should we halt progress there? Rarely, if ever, are we lucky enough to encounter perfection at the first attempt. Robust and enduring legislation with a truly transformative capacity to revolutionise decision making and communities is more likely to involve a gradual process. Delicately crafted amendments, such as the Bill, enable us to correct any flaws that may have crept into the original Act, and they hold the Government to account for any failure to see through the original spirit of such Acts.
Today’s amending Bill, like the original 2007 Act, has the support of Local Works, which says that
“an ongoing Sustainable Communities Act process is absolutely crucial.”
The Bill is a natural evolution of the original Act, providing value-added measures and fleshing out more details, and if we want to enhance our existing momentum we must pass it soon. CAMRA’s chief executive says that
“there is an urgent need for the Act’s process to continue.”
Councillor David Shakespeare, leader of the LGA’s Conservative group, points out why, saying:
“Action is needed, anything less will send another negative signal to voters and lead to withdrawal from activity.”
I shall now consider some of the most pertinent issues that the Bill raises. The Bill sustains the 2007 Act for a further round of submissions. It removes the uncertainty pervading the future of the current round of proposals, and it makes sense. Indeed, given that the public’s appetite is strong, and that participation under the Act has already exceeded 40 per cent. in some areas, it would be ridiculous to halt the process just as it gathered momentum. Given also that the LGA says that
“submissions received were impressive and are reflective of the huge appetite for change and innovation across councils working closely with their communities”,
many proposals have every chance of being accepted by the Secretary of State.
There may be further merit in laying out explicitly the longer-term future of the Act. However, that may be better pursued in further amending Bills once we have seen more evidence of the success of the projects proposed in the first round. Today’s Bill shows that the 2007 Act was not a one-hit wonder, and this legislative commitment should maintain civic activity and quash any emerging cynicism that the Act is a gimmick with little intention of allowing through any truly local proposals.
The chief executive of the National Association of Local Councils has noted:
“The Act has created an excitement: our members want more—but unless we name a date a ‘second round’ of suggestions then we fear that the usual cynicism will take over.”
If we are to produce bottom-up legislation, we must do so with a conviction that shows that we truly want it. This Bill proves that point.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is rare to see “councils” and “enthusiasm” in the same sentence? This is a fantastic opportunity to see the resurgence of some enthusiasm, and to see local councils enthused by the measures before us. It is an opportunity that must not be missed.
Notwithstanding the continual enthusiasm of Braintree district council, I accept my hon. Friend’s point that we need to build on the enthusiasm that the original Act kicked off. No doubt people will be enthused even more by this amending Bill.
Today’s Bill enables the Secretary of State to publish regulations on the proposals embedded in the 2007 Act. That includes such prescriptive measures as engagement with parish and town councils, petitions and the form, content and timing of proposals. The former is particularly pertinent to my constituency of Braintree, which has a number of excellent and active parish and town councils.
Following the initial hype and fervour around the 2007 Act, a few town and parish councils have voiced disillusionment. Although the LGA has found that in a number of cases the parish or town council is acting as the driving force behind the proposal, some, after being heavily involved in the long campaign to bring the initial Act to fruition, are feeling neglected and omitted from the process of decision making and the provisions of the Act.
Given the excellent organisational structures of our parish and town councils and their ability to canvass and reflect local opinion, I agree with the principle, enshrined in today’s Bill, that they could be given a more explicit and mandatory role in the chain of local decision making. The citizens’ panels that the Act requires, to reach out to and involve electors in the ideas of action to put to the Secretary of State, provide an obvious means through which to insert the representation of parish and town councils. As Great Bardfield and Finchingfield parish councils point out, powers that have already been devolved to parish councils have proved to be cost-effective and to work well.
However, I recognise the LGA’s concern that that would risk establishing a parallel Sustainable Communities Act-lite process whereby the consultation requirements are simply that only the members of parish or town councils are heard. That, of course, would be inimical to the spirit of local democracy. A more durable solution may be to ensure the representation of such councils on the citizens’ panels while still providing scope for the voices of those not involved with such councils.
Given the current levels of disillusionment—
Let me finish my paragraph, and then I shall give way.
Given the current levels of disillusionment and disengagement from politics, we should do all we can to get everyone involved in democracy; my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich (Mr. Carswell) has been an extraordinary advocate of that. Exclusion is simply not an option if we want to give people a real sense of ownership of the whole process.
I do not believe that my hon. Friend said that; he encouraged me to talk about the importance of localism, which he knows that I have supported as long as I have known him.
I am pleased that the messages I am getting in my constituency are that parish and town councils want to be involved. Why not make use of them and hear their ideas? The 2007 Act took us from a process of Whitehall consultation to local participation. Today’s Bill could go a step further and make the Act a truly enabling one. A good example of the need for parish and town councils to have a firm footing in creating sustainable communities relates to planning. I know that both Cressing and Black Notley parish councils in my constituency find that a particular frustration. As the representatives of the local community, those councils seek to promote the common good. They are often a good judge of which planning applications would promote the sustainability of Cressing and Black Notley, yet they feel that inappropriate applications are receiving the go-ahead from those who do not truly understand what villages need in order to prosper. Castle Hedingham parish council has gone to great lengths to produce a village design statement, outlining the types of developments that would fit in with and enhance the community. Yet such councils are frustrated and feel that local knowledge carries little weight.
That is indicative of a broader, serious problem in our country. Whether it is building new housing developments or giving the green light to new business parks or leisure facilities, the whole planning process can be divisive and frustrating, with developers, residents, councils and all interested parties fighting it out and things either never getting built or causing massive resentment when they are. Let us imagine giving local people real control over the look, shape, feel and character of the community and letting them decide how many houses they wanted built or whether they wanted a new park or playground. If those proposals were within the letter of the Act and could support local economies or the environmental aspect of sustainable communities, the potential for change would be enormous.
My constituents are fortunate that both Essex county council and Braintree district council support the 2007 Act, but many others are not so lucky. Indeed, when I checked the Local Works website, I was surprised to see that swathes of the country have still not opted in to the Act. I am surprised by that, because councils have nothing to lose and everything to gain. Despite pressures from residents and parish and town councils, some local authorities and county councils remain resistant to change. What about the local people in those areas? Under the Act as it stands, they have no form of redress and depend on the whims of their local authority or county council to get their voices and proposals heard. The Bill would give the Secretary of State the option of prescribing a mechanism whereby residents could petition their local authority to take up the Act. Although we currently seem to have no clearer proposal than that, I know from various petitions in my constituency that they can often serve to invigorate local residents even more. Surely that is yet another positive step forward for local democracy and political engagement.
I have one concern about the Bill, which is the absence of a mechanism to force the Government to publish full local spending reports. Although I recognise that that absence may have been necessary both for brevity and to gain cross-party support, I hope that we can return to the matter at a later date.
I, like local residents, am disappointed that the Government have backtracked on a vital part of the 2007 Act, and I hope that the Minister will address it. It is the section that requires the amount of Government expenditure in each area to be made public. They have taken a decidedly minimalist approach to the concept of, and commitment to, local spending reports as originally agreed in Parliament. The then Minister promised that the Government would publish a local breakdown of spending and proposed spending by all public bodies, but they have broken that promise and substantially watered down the Act. Rather than a full breakdown, local spending reports currently contain only information about local bodies.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech. Does he deprecate, as I do, the fact that when the Government had the opportunity to address the issue of local spending reports in the later stages of debates on the Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Act 2009 a few months ago, they chose not to include a provision that would have ameliorated the concerns that he mentions?
Again I concur with my hon. Friend, and perhaps the Minister might address that point. I shall press on, because I appreciate the concern of my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich, who I am sure is keen that we ultimately move on to his Bill, notwithstanding the importance of this one.
If we are to restore faith in politics, now more than ever we need greater transparency in public expenditure. We need to be able to see how politicians and organisations that rely on public funds are spending taxpayers’ hard-earned money, and, if necessary, challenge it.
Everyone in this House ought to be able to recognise that the days when taxpayer-funded organisations could keep their accounts under wraps are well behind us. The last year in Parliament has taught all MPs a painful lesson in transparency, but we need to reflect that in legislation that has implications throughout and beyond Whitehall. The LGA agrees. It remains wholly unconvinced by the arguments that full local spending reports are simply too expensive and that they would be of no benefit. We understand the need to approach the matter in a way that ensures value for money, but expecting basic figures on public expenditure is not an unreasonable request.
However, the Bill is about not only the principle of transparency, important though that is, but about efficiency. As I have stressed, local communities are best placed to understand what they need for sustainability. If they can easily scrutinise the costs and details of current projects, they can quickly deduce whether there is a cheaper or more efficient option. If communities and councils can look at the streams of funding in their areas, they can identify duplication and scope for greater co-ordination, and where resources could be more effectively deployed in another way. Put simply, by lifting the lid on public spending, we stand to get better outcomes in how taxpayers’ money is spent.
I recognise the concerns of both the LGA and some hon. Members that some proposals in the Bill lack clarity. However, I remind them that it is a short, amending Bill, designed to nuance the Sustainable Communities Act rather than create a new one. The prescriptive powers that the Bill would grant to the Secretary of State give a large degree of wiggle room, which is exactly what the 2007 Act needs. It is comparatively new legislation, so we are still at the early stages of the process, and proposals for implementation are still not finalised. To rush ahead with too many specific clauses, without learning what is going right and what is going wrong with the process, might be impetuous.
I support the Bill. We have the opportunity to show the country that “bottom up” is more than just a fashionable term for politicians to tack on to concepts—it can be one of the most important weapons in a local community’s arsenal and serve the greater good of so many of our constituents, as I have seen in my constituency. The Act has enormous transformative potential and radical implications for the decision-making process in this country if local people choose to use it.
This is why I believe in the importance of the Bill. First, it will extend the time for proposals to be submitted under the 2007 Act, and secondly, it will add some important nuances to what is already an historic measure. A key criterion on which to judge the Bill will is whether it offers the opportunity for local people to have their voices heard. If it does that, it will have done a good job. The words of support that I have received from residents and councils, along with the relative consensus in the House today, are encouraging.
All here today recognise the opportunity the Bill offers truly to engage people on how public money is spent and how public services are delivered in their areas. If we miss this opportunity today, I fear we will not only set back the cause of local democracy a few steps, but squander a lot of public support and good will. Today we have a clear decision to make, which is eloquently summed up by Local Works:
“We believe that we (civil society and politicians) now have a choice: we can support this Bill and give this new shoot of increased involvement a boost; or we can reject it and risk that shoot withering on the vine.”
I hope we make the right choice here today.
I have always been a great supporter of my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr. Newmark) and I hope that if his speech achieves nothing else, it will gain promotion for him in an incoming Conservative Government. He has served the Conservative Front Bench’s purposes well today by ensuring that the amount of time available to discuss the Lisbon Treaty (Referendum) Bill and the European Union Membership (Referendum) Bill will be greatly curtailed. We have five hours for debate on Fridays and my hon. Friend has spoken for one of those hours. In so doing, he has ensured—as far as I am concerned—that it will not be possible for this Bill to go through all its stages today, if that were ever a serious proposition—
No, I will not, because he has already spoken for an hour and I wish to make a few brief remarks. It will not be possible for this Bill to go through all its stages today because so much time has been taken up already. If the Bill is as simple as its promoters suggest, I am surprised that it took more than half an hour for my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) to introduce it and more than an hour for my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree to explain why it would be such a good idea.
The 2007 Act was introduced when our great friend Eric Forth was very active on Fridays, and he shared the concern of many of us that it would not achieve much. I am sure that he will be looking down on our proceedings today and saying, “Well, I told you so.” The original objectives of the Act included halting the decline in the number of corner shops, banks, grocers, post offices and pubs. Two and half years later, we have seen a substantial and continuing reduction in the number of those businesses. The Government have not even decided on any of the proposals that were made by individuals—perhaps naive individuals—who thought that the 2007 Act would actually give them an opportunity to contribute to significant change for their local communities.
The Act has been a complete failure. Hon. Members have suggested that it has been a success, but they are living in a completely different world from the one in which I—and, suspect most of my constituents—live. My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire gave some examples. He said that a Wiltshire librarian had put forward a proposal to increase the tax on chewing-gum. However, action could have been taken much more quickly if the librarian had communicated with the local Member of Parliament, who could have tabled an amendment to the Finance Bill and we could have had a debate on the issue. Similarly, a proposal from Hackney suggested changing the planning rules relating to betting shops. It so happens that a private Bill on London local authorities is going through the House at the moment, and it would have been open to Hackney council to include that proposal in that so that we could debate it. The Second Reading of that Bill is coming up soon. Those two examples are of suggestions that could have been implemented more quickly through a direct relationship with Members of Parliament.
My hon. Friend also cited the further example of Liverpool city council trying to restrict the closure of post offices. That has not achieved anything. The only success that I am aware of was in Essex, and in that case the county council took direct action in defiance of the Government. The Government say that they support the Act, but people are given an incentive not to pay their road tax renewal at the post office but to do it online, because they are then entered into a prize draw for some foreign-manufactured car. That is meant to be an incentive not to use the local post office, and it is supported by the Government. It is ludicrous that the Government are promoting and encouraging that by giving people financial incentives not to use local post offices, while purporting to be interested in sustainable communities. The whole thing does not add up; the whole thing is a complete farce.
As my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire made clear in his extensive speech, the 2007 Act received Royal Assent on 23 October 2007, but it took almost a year for the Secretary of State to invite local authorities to make their submissions. Conveniently, the deadline was nine months later—they had to make their submissions by 31 July last year—and as of today not a single decision has been taken. Indeed, the Bill before us today is a recipe for further delay by the Government, because clause 1 would enable the Secretary of State to say, “Well, although I have all these shortlisted proposals put forward on a particular basis, we are now changing the basis on which I should assess them, and I can now decide, not whether to implement them, but whether to implement them in whole or in part.” That introduces a completely new dimension that was not available to the local authorities when they decided which proposals to put forward, and neither was it available to the people when they came forward with the proposals in the first place.
It is not surprising that people are cynical, because they are being misled into thinking that the way to make change in this country is to go down the route suggested in the Bill. However, change is really made through direct engagement with Members of Parliament and the Government. I shall give a few examples. When I was involved in local government politics in Wandsworth, we were fed up with the Inner London Education Authority: we thought that we would have a sustainable community in Wandsworth if we abolished it. We did not go namby pambying around trying to get people to make submissions under something like the 2007 Act; we engaged in direct action. We held public meetings, engaged the people and lobbied the Conservative Government strongly for its abolition. That was achieved and since then things have got a lot better in Wandsworth as a result, and many more people now stay there to enable their children to go to good-quality local schools.
Something similar happened when the people of Wandsworth, and a lot of other people in Greater London, decided that they would like to abolish the Greater London Council. Pressure was put on the Government, and the changes were made. Another example: a lot of people thought it extremely frustrating that their local councils were not prepared to engage in competitive tendering. There was a strong lobby of Parliament, including early-day motions with more than 200 signatures, and eventually a Conservative Government decided to legislate requiring local authorities to engage in competitive tendering—and that is what they did. As a result, the costs of local government were reduced.
Obviously, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s long service in local government and to the House. Surely, however, he is not suggesting that local spending reports and compulsory competitive tendering are mutually exclusive. In fact, the greater transparency brought about by local spending reports would assist local people at all levels in understanding the tendering process and the services provided by local councils.
I do not think that there is anything that a council cannot do already in terms of a local spending report—whatever that might mean. We must trust local authorities to do their work. We do not want to encourage them to waste a lot of time with bureaucracy or trying to make proposals that are then sat on by the Government. That raises local expectations and increases cynicism about the whole electoral process.
I shall not speak at greater length. However, I put down a marker that I think that the Bill is far from perfect, despite the enthusiasm of my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire. I think that it seeks to change after the event the basis on which people made their submissions under the original Act. If one goes through the detail of the Bill, one finds that, frankly, it contains a whole lot of top-down mandatory requirements, coupled with vague propositions and superfluous requirements. In short, it is bad legislation, and it should not go on the statute book, or indeed go any further, without substantial amendment. I hope that there will be an opportunity to consider the Bill further in Committee and that the points that I have put forward will be expanded on by others with similar concerns about its content.
The Bill sounds good: who could possibly be against sustainable communities? I am not against sustainable communities; what I am against is trying to suggest to people outside this place that the only way to have a sustainable community is to comply with the requirements of the Bill. The way to get a sustainable community is to have a strong Conservative council that works closely with local Members of Parliament and, where change is needed, engages with this House and Parliament as a whole to bring about legislative change.
It has been a privilege to take part in this debate and to work with the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) in the formulation of the Bill. Let me congratulate him, first on his luck—which is not something that he can control—in doing so well in the private Member’s Bill ballot, and secondly on tabling a Bill that has attracted such vocal and passionate support, both inside and outside this House. I also thank him for the constructive way that he worked with my Department before the Bill was published.
Members will recall, from when I spoke on another aspect of the Bill last December, my dislike of yah-boo politics. It is a sad fact that most of the public think that that is how we behave all the time. It is also a sad fact that yah-boo politics is playing a role in turning the public off something that is essential to the very fabric of their lives and everything that they value. As hon. Members will know, it is not true that we behave like that all the time; in fact, there is quite a wide consensus across the House on what the issues are. Where we disagree is on how we deal with them.
The hon. Gentleman’s Bill is an excellent example of another, better kind of politics: the sort of politics that I call “me too” politics. That is where someone might say, “This is a problem and I believe something should be done about it,” and someone else goes, “Yes, me too. I think that.” In other words, “me too” politics is the kind of politics that mirrors the way people in the real world generally work together on problems. However, “me too” politics is not bland, as we have seen here today. In seeking solutions to problems, there is always the “me too, but” factor, and that is the important factor. The 2007 Act has had a long and occasionally turbulent history, with plenty of buts and a few outbreaks of yah-boo politics. However, thanks to the hon. Gentleman’s efforts, we are starting a new and, I hope, more consensual chapter in its history today.
With your permission, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I would like briefly to pay tribute to the people who, before the hon. Gentleman, helped to make the Bill and the 2007 Act possible, both inside and outside the House. The work done in this House by three particular Members, from three separate parties, was hugely influential in the passing of the 2007 Act. They are: my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) and the hon. Members for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Hurd) and for Falmouth and Camborne (Julia Goldsworthy). I would like also to mention the dogged determination of my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) and my predecessor as Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, East and Saddleworth (Mr. Woolas).
I would like also to make particular mention of the good-humoured way in which my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud—who, like the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire this year, had the good fortune to do well in the private Member’s Bill ballot in the previous Session—took the disappointment of seeing his Bill fall because of lack of time. I hope that today’s debate will make up for that disappointment.
On Second Reading of the Bill in 2007, my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud said that dealing with such revolutionary legislation warmed the cockles of his heart. Although today’s Bill will be an excellent addition to that revolutionary legislation, it is more evolutionary than revolutionary, as the hon. Member for Braintree (Mr. Newmark) pointed out. That is a good thing, however. In a democracy, legislation must necessarily evolve if it is to continue to deal with our constantly changing world and requirements. The Bill will mean that the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 will continue to evolve and strengthen as the dialogue between the public and local and central Government also evolves.
As has already been mentioned, the Bill and its predecessor have attracted the support of more than half the Members of this House in early-day motion 143. That support is due in no small part to the campaign run by Local Works. Its national co-ordinator, Steve Shaw, and its redoubtable champion, Ron Bailey, are responsible for a great deal of this. Local Works has attracted huge support and is living proof of the veracity of its title. As the hon. Member for Braintree has said, this is about re-engaging people with politics, about doing politics slightly differently, and about listening to people and ensuring that we are as transparent as possible with the information that we present.
Will the Minister join me in acknowledging that Local Works has continued to work on this campaign? I first had a meeting with it in 2003, which feels like a long time ago, and this is testament to the strength of its campaign. We will all be knocking on doors in the lead-up to the next general election, and people will tell us that they cannot make a difference. This campaign gives us an opportunity to tell them that they can. It started on the streets in individual constituencies.
I agree absolutely with the hon. Lady. We all recognise that terrier-like determination. All hon. Members have done some work on the ground in which we have eventually got something done that we did not expect to get done. We have had to get through layers of bureaucracy and entrenched ways of doing things. We in this House are part of those entrenched ways of doing things, but we must try to be more open to other ways of working.
The subject of spending reports was raised by the hon. Members for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson) and for Braintree. Future local spending reports will be published online in a more user-friendly format. I have used the reports for my own constituency, and for other constituencies in the east, and I understand the criticisms of them. The reports will also include a much wider range of data. Indeed, the December reports already do so. We are working towards improving the reports but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, East and Saddleworth stressed during the debates on the 2007 Bill, this is an evolving process, and part of the brake on that evolution is resource.
Another part of that brake has been the simultaneous development of another strand of transparency, in the form of Total Place and the “Putting the front line first: smarter government” strategy. The hon. Member for Peterborough will know that a lot of work on this is being done in the region in which he and I have our constituencies. We have two of the 13 pilots there, but also 77 unofficial pilots. They are all aiming to find ways of making information more transparent and more accessible. Information can be written down but it can still be meaningless. Anyone who has read “How to Lie with Statistics” knows that there are huge opportunities in some of that information, and we must ensure that the statistics used are relevant and useful.
Turning to deal with the current process, which many hon. Members have mentioned, those not familiar with the logistics of the 2007 Act might have found our discussion rather arcane. It might also seem odd that we are attempting to amend a Bill that received its Royal Assent only a short while ago in parliamentary terms. As happens so often when good ideas are put into practice, the process of doing so reveals ways in which that practice can be improved.
What we are working with here is quite revolutionary in respect of how the British state behaves at all its levels. I believe that the Bill presented by the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire represents a real step forward in making the process more responsive by making it more flexible and by streamlining it. It is necessary to do that, because the process is at present cumbersome and resource-intensive, to put it mildly.
Providing the Secretary of State with the flexibility to ensure that both local and national Government can move more swiftly is a necessity, particularly if we want to engage with people, because their time scales are quite different to those of, say, a council or Whitehall. Our time scales are more elongated, but people are looking for a much swifter delivery than we have traditionally managed.
I know just how much work went into the formulation of the 301 proposals received by the selector body, the Local Government Association, and just how much work was put in by Councillor Keith Mitchell and his team to make sure that the shortlisting process was fair. So many of the proposals were good that 199 of them made it to the rather long shortlist. They were sent to the Secretary of State for consideration just before Christmas.
As many of us know, consideration in government does not mean looking at proposals and thinking, “That’s okay, we’ll have that one.” Other Government Departments have to be consulted in order to achieve a collective agreement through an arcane process known as the “DA round”—involving the Ministerial Committee on Domestic Affairs, to which we have to write in to say what proposals we are thinking of putting forward and to ask what the committee thinks about them. The relevant Government Department has to go through the same process. It has taken us quite a long time to arrive at a shortlist that is acceptable to all areas of government—but I think we are there.
I realise how this looks to the public and to some hon. Members, but believe you me, Mr. Deputy Speaker, my officials and I have been driving this. I am deeply committed to this kind of work. I am leaving this House in four or five weeks, but I do not really want to leave it without seeing progress made on this Act. That would be a failure, as far as I am concerned: my personal commitment is clear, and Members will have heard the Secretary of State’s personal commitment to it. We are not standing still; we are looking at the complex issues in detail. As I will make clear in a few moments, we have broken them down into those that can be actioned swiftly—thanks to this Bill—and others that might take slightly longer, but will still be addressed.
The hon. Member for Braintree asked me whether an action plan could be produced next week. I really wish it could, but the honest answer is, “Probably not next week, but, boy, we are working on it for pretty soon.” We all know that there is a cliff facing us—a cliff that I am going to walk straight off, although some Members will go down a ledge and return. As I say, I am going off it, as are some other right hon. and hon. Members, but before we drop to the bottom of the cliff, we are keen to see that we leave something verdant on the top of it.
I am aware of the difficulties facing private Members’ Bills, and I was a great supporter of the Cook reforms—which I urge newer Members to study—in part because I believe such Bills deserve more time than they sometimes get. I am therefore trying to make swift progress through my speech.
The Bill will increase the opportunities for parish and town councils to become even more directly involved in this process in future. I have enormous respect for parish councils. Like the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire, I have a lot of extraordinarily active ones; our constituencies are fairly close, and the area is well endowed with parish councils. The hon. Gentleman’s Bill allows us to develop that role, by taking them out of the guidance section, which is where they currently reside in the 2007 Act, and putting them into the main part of the Act.
The National Association of Local Councils is an extremely important partner of my Department. Indeed, we have allocated £750,000 of funding to it for the period between 2008 and 2011, in order for it to lead a programme of activities to promote the role of the local council sector. We are consulting the association, and exploring with its members how parish councils can get the most out of the Act.
Parish councils may be small, but they certainly punch above their weight, and we have seen what can be done with a bit of imagination—such as in Croxley Green, where a free bus service has been put in place for local senior citizens. That is a great example of using the powers councils already had—in this case from the Local Government and Rating Act 1997—to make a real difference to people’s lives. I want to see more of that, as well as more development under the 2007 Act. We therefore intend to use a power specified in section 5 to explore how parish and town councils, or county associations of parish councils, might submit proposals in certain circumstances, to further drive the progression of local idea to national action.
I want to look briefly at the Local Government Association proposals. There were 301 of them, 18 of which were joint proposals, and they came from 90 lead authorities with a further 10 district councils contributing to the joint submissions. That represents 28 per cent. of all authorities in England. As the hon. Member for Braintree remarked, not all authorities have engaged in this with the same level of enthusiasm; after all, we are talking here about 100 out of 353 authorities. The south-west submitted the highest number of proposals, with 84, or 28 per cent., followed by the London boroughs, with 45, or 15 per cent., and the south-east, with 44, or 15 per cent. The region with the highest number of lead councils submitting proposals was, again, the south-west, with 18 councils, or 44 per cent., of its lead councils. The greatest proportion of proposals, however, came from district councils, with 107, or 36 per cent., followed by unitary authorities, with 96, or 32 per cent. County councils, with 18, or 6 per cent., submitted the lowest proportion of proposals. That perhaps shows that the higher tiers of government are less responsive to this grass-roots movement.
The scale and range of the proposals submitted was incredibly diverse; I know that from having studied them late one evening. For instance, 43 per cent. wanted power given back to the local level through finance, decision-making powers or transfer of functions, whereas 25 per cent. wanted additional legislation, or existing law to be strengthened. On the other hand, 18 per cent. wanted the Government to raise the profile of certain issues or concerns, thereby providing both the resources and moral support necessary to have a local knock-on effect, and 12 per cent. wanted to encourage a change in the behaviour of groups of individuals through the use of incentives, while 7 per cent. made explicit reference to the reduction of legislative restrictions or barriers imposed at national or regional level. It is important to note, however, that relatively few—I was disappointed by this—proposed change that was relevant to the local area from which they originated, which is the basic idea behind the Sustainable Communities Act. Some work needs to be done at local authority level to ensure that we make such proposals a little more locally responsible. The vast majority of proposals would require blanket national reform.
The Government and I have worked with the LGA, and I was very pleased on 23 December to receive the 199 proposals. However, once disaggregated, some 242 separate requests for Government action are in fact contained within those proposals, and they cut across Departments. Many of those would require changes to primary legislation, but we have not lost momentum. Officials from across Government met officials from the LGA to discuss each proposal in turn. This took time. Issues relating to individual parishes and individual people were discussed in depth in Whitehall, which is a reform in itself. This is what we mean when we say that the Act is a wonderful tool to encourage a new dialogue between local people and local and central Government.
The LGA continued to challenge the Government and press us to address the issues and ideas raised by these local communities, and I will be talking to Councillor Mitchell about these proposals again next week as we try to come up with the shortlist that the hon. Member for Braintree and I are so keen to see.
This has been a very interesting process for all concerned, not least for me. It shows the priorities of local people and the barriers to the delivery of those priorities. I congratulate the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire on his foresight in consulting people about how his Bill would work before producing it. That shows a real commitment to the values in it. It is clear from the many responses we and he received that it is absolutely vital that the system be reformed. I know that some Members of this House—we have heard from one today—disagree with the view that the Bill can work, but if there is sufficient will and terrier-like action on the ground, it can. However, that does require us—all of us—to be responsible citizens and to have an input into the process as far as possible.
The Bill requires the Secretary of State to give notice of a further invitation, and I welcome that; we are more than happy to do it. That will give local authorities the time to prepare for the conversations that many of them have held so well, and that some have not. The Bill also gives us the power to specify other organisations that can submit proposals. The Government have a radical ambition for strong and accountable local government. Although we want to see local authorities firmly in the driving seat, free to innovate and take their own decisions, we also want to give others the opportunity to have their say. We are therefore delighted to explore how parish and town councils can submit proposals, in certain circumstances, further to drive progress in the idea of local action.
The Bill is also fully in line with our belief that the founding principle of local government is that citizens should have the right to influence the decisions that affect their lives and communities. Through the petitions duty in the Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Act 2009, we are supporting this principle. Regulations made under the Bill will promote that opportunity by making clearer the link between citizens’ right to request that a proposal be submitted to the Secretary of State, and the opportunity for councils to demonstrate leadership by doing that.
The role of the LGA, which is so significant in the process, remains and can be enhanced to give it more influence to press matters of real importance. Through the use of regulations, the hon. Gentleman is giving it the opportunity to help shape its role, to add real value and to cut red tape and the cost to the taxpayer. The crucial element of its role—a power and an opportunity for a body to influence the Secretary of State, with the expectation that the Secretary of State will reach agreement on what to take forward—remains in full. Although new section 5B would give the Secretary of State the power to appoint more than one person, I can assure the House that the Government do not intend to spend more in implementing the new arrangements than they do on the current system.
The Government believe that the 2007 Act should be part of the architecture of local government. The Bill will strengthen the Act, reduce red tape and provide greater responsiveness to the needs of local people. I am extremely happy to report that the Government will support the Bill and to commend it to the House.
With the leave of the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker, may I thank the Minister and both the other Front-Bench spokespeople for their support for the principle of the Bill? It reflects the sense of the early-day motion to which I have referred, which has the support of more than half the Members of the House. I am grateful for the support and I appreciate the Minister’s comments. I think that the Bill will make a contribution to the changed architecture to which she refers. On the basis that it is unlikely that she and I will stand across the Chamber from each other again before she stands down, may I thank her formally for what she has achieved as Minister, both in this particular area of work and in her work in the east of England, where both of our constituencies lie?
I have come back from my constituency, where I was visiting schools, to support my hon. Friend’s Bill. I congratulate him on the way in which he has approached it and on his success today. I particularly wish to congratulate the Minister on, and thank her for, the way in which she has approached the Bill. Her approach is the sort of thing that will restore trust in Parliament, and I am sorry to hear that she is leaving the House.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his kind remarks. He, too, has a good feel for and appreciation of the way in which grass-roots political activity contributes not only to this place, but to the success of local government and the like. I appreciate his comments and I am sure that they will be noted by the whole House.
We have had a robust debate in the time available to us. Disappointingly, we did not hear a great many contributions from Labour Members—the Labour Benches were empty—but Conservative Members engaged in a robust debate. I appreciated the support given to me by my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr. Newmark). I appreciated his comments about the Bill and how he made them, and his extensive knowledge of why this matters to local communities in his area and beyond.
My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) takes a slightly different view. His knowledge of and commitment to local government is considerable. I am with him in saying that what makes a difference to local government is having strong Conservative authorities—he is completely correct about that. However, I also think that because local government is moving on, engagement with the people, which perhaps he was able to engender in Wandsworth during his time there, is slightly different in many other ways now. The sort of engagement that is suggested through this Bill will assist in ensuring that strong local government and strong parties in local government will succeed and endure. I take what he says as a compliment, rather than something different, but our views differ and he has made it clear that he feels that this Bill should go into Committee to be considered further.
I accept my hon. Friend’s judgment on that so, unfortunately, we will not be able to complete all the stages of the Bill today. However, we will seek to establish the Committee as soon as possible and I hope that we can resolve the concerns there. That will ensure that the commitment of all Opposition Members to the principle of the Bill remains intact. Although it cannot go through all its stages today, it can be refined very quickly, we hope, and we can then return and, I hope, get it on the statute book just before proceedings come to an end in this Parliament. Thank you for the time allowed to produce this Bill, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I hope that it will now receive its Second Reading.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read a Second time; to stand committed to a Public Bill Committee (Standing Order No. 63).