Wednesday 8 September 2010
[John Robertson in the Chair]
Football Clubs (Governance)
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Stephen Crabb.)
I am delighted to have been granted the opportunity to debate this issue. I am equally delighted to have been joined by Members from both sides of the House; their presence confirms the interest in and importance of the subject at the highest level. I also welcome the many people in the Public Gallery.
I am aware that a debate on this subject in this very Chamber was initiated in February by my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester Central (Tony Lloyd). That debate touched on many of the ills currently afflicting our national game. I am keen to establish from the outset that I do not seek to open up a brand new wide-ranging debate today; I simply want to continue a dialogue that has already begun and to highlight an idea that has already gained considerable traction. I should add that I am aware of the excellent work carried out by the all-party group on football, and I acknowledge its commitment and expertise. I am pleased to see members of that group here today and I look forward to their contribution to the debate.
It is important to acknowledge the progress made on football governance by the previous Government—particularly that made by senior members of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. Thanks to their efforts, much of the ground work has been done. I hope that colleagues will welcome my humble attempt to build on that foundation.
I do not propose to discuss football governance per se or any other of the plethora of football-related topics. Instead, I intend to address one specific aspect: the role of supporters in the governance of football clubs. Today’s debate feeds into the wider debate on the reform of football governance. In my view, a broad package of reform should include changes at every level of the football hierarchy—but that is a debate for another day.
I declare an interest at this juncture. Not only am I a self-confessed football fanatic, but my constituency happens to play host to two renowned football clubs—Everton, which I have to mention first, and Liverpool FC. I also declare an interest as a season ticket holder for the red half of that duo. I hasten to add that that is not the sole reason for my being keen to secure this debate—not entirely, at least. Indeed, Northampton Town Supporters Trust, the country’s longest established supporters collective, says that this subject has an inescapably political dimension. I shall elaborate on what I mean by “politics” a little later.
I start with the basics. In 2009, the all-party group on football found that those who are most under-represented in football are those who should have the most say—the fans. One of the biggest problems connected with football governance is that, at most levels of the game, those who pay for it are excluded from the decision-making structures in clubs, leagues and governing bodies. This debate would be an entirely academic exercise if football fans were satisfied with that state of affairs and if there was no appetite for change. However, the evidence suggests otherwise. A YouGov poll conducted in April this year reportedly found that 56% of fans wished to take control of their clubs. In Manchester and Liverpool, where fans are outraged at the way in which their clubs are being exploited by wealthy foreign businessmen, the figure rose steeply to 82% and 72% respectively.
We might expect such findings in relation to supporters themselves, but there is a broad in-principle consensus among politicians, sport analysts, football governing bodies and clubs that fans have a role to play. In 2003, the then chairman of the Football Association, Lord Triesman, said that clubs should be owned by people who embrace the history and values of football and who want to see their clubs succeed. In 2008, the then Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, my right hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham), urged Liverpool supporters to take back the club from within. In 2009, UEFA president Michel Platini told a newspaper:
“I think it is a great idea…that the supporters invest in a club because they at the end of the day defend the club’s identity”.
Parties across the board profess to be supportive. What is more, the concept of support and engagement is neither new nor—at least in theory—controversial.
A range of ownership and governance models exist, from token support and representation on club boards to outright ownership. In the United Kingdom, football supporters’ trusts have been established at more than 160 clubs, and 15 clubs are owned or controlled by such trusts. More than 110 trusts have shareholdings in their clubs, and almost 60 trusts have directors sitting on the club boards. Progress has clearly been made, largely due to the effort and commitment at grass-roots level, and that is to be commended.
I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. I have to declare an interest; I am a season-ticket holder at Port Vale football club. Does my hon. Friend agree that the way in which the fans of Port Vale bought out their club when it was in administration also suggests a way forward? The dilemma and the main cause of tension is that football clubs depend on investment. The degree of investment now needed because of the unlevel playing field brought about by the premiership gives the impression that people can simply come in with that money, but it is not necessarily available at the local level.
I imagine that my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Joan Walley) and Robbie Williams are both Port Vale supporters. She is probably right that the premiership is top-heavy, given its revenue.
I return to the question of football governance. The problem, as I said earlier, is that it is patchy and sluggish, and is largely the preserve of lower division clubs and non-professional governing authorities. They might be proactive and continue to reform their own governing structure, but it happens at a snail’s pace; the premier league, however, remains a law unto itself, with little apparent interest in seriously engaging with the very fan base that sustains it. It is no coincidence that supporters of nearly 70% of clubs in the top five divisions of English football and the top four divisions in Scotland have established supporters’ trusts. However, a 2009 report indicated that only 19 of the 92 Football League and premier league clubs have supporters’ representatives on their boards, which suggests that the supporters’ movement is thriving but that the clubs do not take them seriously.
The mood is changing, however, and momentum is growing. Premier league supporters are not prepared to do things by halves. They are pushing for outright control. Supporters of Manchester United and Liverpool FC, both iconic premiership clubs, have taken collective action and set their sights on more than token representation on their boards; the Manchester United Supporters Trust and its equivalent on Merseyside, SOS-ShareLiverpoolFC, advocate a long-term vision of outright club ownership.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on obtaining what is probably the most popular debate ever in Westminster Hall. He is clearly making history here today.
As my hon. Friend knows, in 2005 the Glazers took over Manchester United. The club is now £700 million in debt, with £69 million a year being paid in interest—and that money comes from the fans through tickets and merchandise. It is an appalling situation. Does my hon. Friend support a more rigorous “fit and proper person” test in respect of takeovers of football clubs? In Germany, every club has to be 51% owned by the supporters. Does he support a similar provision for clubs in this country? Such a scheme would make a real difference.
Absolutely. As for the “fit and proper person” test, it was one of the recommendations in the 2009 report, and it needs to be acted on. I will come later to my right hon. Friend’s point about the German model, in which supporters have a 51% stake, and to the models in Spain. It is interesting that a YouGov poll survey earlier this year found that supporters would be prepared to invest on average £600 each to buy their football clubs. If we do the maths, the prospect of supporters seizing control is not quite as far-fetched as it may initially seem.
The amount of money that my hon. Friend mentions demonstrates the extent to which such a suggestion is out of reach for many people. At one time, football was very much the working man’s game, but it has become an increasingly expensive pastime. If one has to have £600 to own a stake in a club, the prospect will be out of reach for a large percentage of our society. The example of the Glazers, who bought the club with the club’s own money and then put it into debt, shows how the game has been stolen away from the supporters and become merely an interest to big business.
Just to build on what I said, the proposal is very doable. A recent example of democracy in action has been demonstrated by Arsenal Supporters Trust, which invited fans to invest in a new “fanshare” scheme. For as little as £10 a month, Arsenal FC supporters can now contribute to a pool, which, in time, will be used to buy a stake in the premier league club. That will entitle shareholders to vote on club policy, receive financial and corporate information and attend the annual general meeting. The club is fully behind the scheme. The chief executive described the enhanced supporter-club relationships as
“good for the club’s soul.”
The four major shareholders all fully endorse the scheme. Arsenal FC is one of the more enlightened premiership clubs, but the success of its trust demonstrates that supporters are quite capable of forming intelligent, committed and influential collectives.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on his choice of subject for today’s debate. Does he accept that the incremental nature of the Arsenal model is one way of getting over the difficulties of the vast sums of money involved in fans’ taking over at any given club, particularly in premiership land?
I totally agree with my right hon. Friend; there is not a one-size-fits-all response to this problem. First, we must identify that there is a problem, to see what we as Members of Parliament can do to alleviate it. Football supporters are shouting from the rooftops about it.
In my own neck of the woods, the pressure group Keeping Everton in our City achieved its objectives by stopping its club from being used as a pawn by big business. The aforementioned SOS-ShareLiverpoolFC has more than 30,000 members and a board packed full of expert professionals with a detailed proposal for funding and securing a buy-out of its club and for governance restructuring along more democratic lines. Supporters are thinking and talking big.
On the specific point about governance from the fans, does the hon. Gentleman know—perhaps the right hon. Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham) can help as well—what the fans who may be running a club would think, say, of the commercial viability of a ground share between Liverpool and Everton? Would that be an example of fans’ passions overriding the business case?
Give us an easy one! The tribal nature of football, which I will come to later if I have the opportunity, can sometimes override the common-sense approach. The example that the hon. Gentleman gives is a good one. Although the economics stack up in favour of Liverpool and Everton sharing a football ground, there are not many examples in the whole of the United Kingdom of such ground-sharing schemes. It is like suggesting to a Man United supporter that they share Manchester City’s stadium. If that is what the hon. Gentleman is suggesting, it would be a difficult proposal to sell on the doorstep.
There are those who would say, “Leave them to it. Keep politics out of football and football out of politics.” The UK Government have traditionally veered away from being heavy-handed in football business, leaving the sport to its own internal devices and regulatory systems. However, the game itself is now a huge, complex and lucrative industry, which, by definition, impacts on the economy. Premier league clubs alone are saddled with an estimated cumulative debt of about £3 billion. We ignore that and the culture it has permitted it at our peril.
Another major money-yielding industry that, until recently, was deemed untouchable and was pretty much left to get on with things on its own went belly up. On that basis alone, there is a strong case for the Government to intervene. I will go even further and say that the Government not only have a right but a responsibility to get involved. Football has received much financial and political support from Government over the past decade or so, and, at a national level, with Government support, it is bidding to host the World cup. Therefore, in return, the Government have a right to expect the highest standards of governance and a duty to step in when the game falls short of those standards, which it currently does.
However, the case is more nuanced than that; for many, it is personal. The football industry is unique because football is a product like no other. Supporters in general are not simply consumers who can exercise purchase power and walk away from the product if they are unhappy with its quality or performance. Football fans invest emotionally as well as financially in their clubs. Club allegiances, as we have just identified, are deep-rooted and passionate and are often passed down from generation to generation. They are inextricably bound with community ties and identities. In that respect, football, like politics, is tribal. It commands loyalty and constancy and requires member engagement if it is to thrive. The industry itself should recognise and respect that.
The issue is political in other ways. It is said that the new politics is about transparency and accountability, and about more rigorous and meaningful forms of democracy. It is precisely those democratic principles—transparency and accountability—that football followers wish to see enshrined in the conduct of their clubs. It is entirely in keeping with the spirit of the age that football fans should seek greater influence in how their clubs are run, particularly when they see the clubs being run into the ground by profit-fixated asset strippers with little or no understanding of or empathy with a club’s heritage or culture.
I congratulate my fellow Liverpool supporter on securing this debate. However, I do not agree that Governments should intervene in this matter. The whole issue has arisen, particularly for the supporters, because of the financial engineering that has been going on. Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that instead of trying to regulate in a particular way, we should use tax incentives to encourage mutuals, such as the Arsenal share scheme? Instead of debt-financed football clubs, which rely on tax incentives, we should have a different approach that encourages supporters’ ownership of the clubs.
I think that if that recommendation emerged from this debate and was supported by Members in the hon. Lady’s party, that would be a fantastic outcome. Hopefully, during the rest of the debate, we can tease out some further recommendations.
This is a timely debate, because the calls for greater supporter involvement chime with the coalition Government’s much-vaunted big society idea. It is altruism that drives supporter activism. Supporters’ trusts are run by people who give their time, money, effort and skills for the love of the game. Their overriding motive is to see their clubs prosper, on and off the pitch.
If the big society is all about citizens engaging proactively with activities and institutions that impact on their lives and the shared life of their communities—although, frankly, it all depends on which Minister is trying to define it—football governance reforms provide an ideal opportunity for the Government to push for improved supporter representation and involvement.
The social benefits of supporter involvement are already in evidence. A report recently commissioned by Supporters Direct entitled “The Social and Community Value of Football” examined this issue in full and detailed the specific advantages of supporter ownership, including
“a greater sense of engagement and inclusion with fans and wider stakeholders; better integration with the community; more open and responsible governance; good relationships with local authorities, and partnerships with voluntary organisations.”
So there is really no excuse not to take this idea on board.
The Conservative party made the right noises in its election manifesto, pledging that
“we will reform the football governance arrangements so co-operative ownership models can be established by supporters”.
I note with a little concern that the coalition Government made a rather more non-committal promise to “encourage” reform in its coalition agreement in May. I may be splitting semantic hairs here, but I sincerely hope that that did not signal a downgrading of the commitment.
My own party has a proven track record on football governance reform. It was the Labour Government who introduced the umbrella organisation for fans, Supporters Direct, in 1999. It also commissioned the Burns inquiry into football governance in 2005, and tackled the Football Association and other football governing authorities in 2009 over their failure both to work together and to implement reforms. The new Government have talked the talk on the big society and the role of football supporters in the governance of football clubs. The challenge now—I throw down the gauntlet for the Minister—is to walk the walk.
I should say a word about supporters’ trusts, as they are crucial to the success of this kind of democracy in action. They are formal, democratic and not-for-profit fans organisations and they aim to extend supporter ownership, representation and influence at their respective clubs. Sadly, if unsurprisingly, they have commonly been founded in response to financial or mismanagement crises at a club; crises that have compelled supporters to take matters into their own hands.
On a far more positive note, supporters’ trusts are generally voluntary, they operate effectively on minimal funding and members are motivated purely by their passion for the game. In that respect, they are true grass-roots movements and their successes prove that fan ownership, control or representation can work. Many of them are run along the lines of the extremely professional Northampton Town Supporters Trust, which was established in 1992. At that time, it was the first collective of its kind. It enjoys a shareholding in the second division club, as well as representation on the board of directors.
In Barrow, many people share their love of Barrow AFC with support for other successful clubs; I would say that those clubs are Liverpool, Manchester United and Sheffield Wednesday. Will my hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to the supporters right across the country—who would imagine that there are Manchester United fans right across the country?—who have lobbied Members of Parliament to get involved in this debate? I find their energy extraordinary and it is a real sign that this can be a successful venture for football organisations.
I absolutely join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to those supporters. I think that we ignore football fans at our peril. It is not just about Manchester United or Liverpool, or the other big clubs. Bees United acquired a 60% stake in Brentford football club in 2006, which made Brentford, who are in league one, one of only two Football League clubs to be majority-owned by their supporters. My hon. Friend mentioned Sheffield Wednesday; I think that it was Brentford who enjoyed a resounding victory over Sheffield Wednesday at the weekend.
As I have said, no discussion on this subject would be complete without reference to the Spanish and German models of club ownership, which I suspect are feared and grudgingly admired in equal measure by the corporate football world in the UK. Both Spain and Germany boast thriving, long-established equivalents to our premier league. Clubs in those two leagues exist in a culture of mutual or co-operative club ownership. In both leagues, it is a matter of civic pride that top-flight football clubs should be controlled or owned by their supporters. Spain’s FC Barcelona, which is the “big daddy” in this respect, is routinely held up as a utopian ideal of football club governance and is structured as a co-operative society owned by some 170,000 members, with a democratically elected president—and Barcelona do not do so badly, generally. It is a case of “horses for courses”.
I have been listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman. However, it is only fair to say that Spain has an entirely different model for distributing television revenues from Britain. Spanish clubs negotiate TV rights individually and they go directly to Barcelona and Real Madrid, so the majority of TV rights and therefore the majority of TV money goes directly to those two big clubs, and the smaller clubs underneath them, which constitute the larger Spanish football family, suffer accordingly. By contrast, here there is collective negotiation for those TV rights, putting British clubs on a very different financial basis.
I hear what the Minister is saying. I myself do not think that the Barcelona model or any other model is a panacea. I am not suggesting that, all of a sudden, the fans of every single football club will go out and seize control of their clubs in a revolution, but regarding the way in which clubs such as Barcelona are structured, the argument cannot be made that those structures make them less likely to be successful.
As I was saying, it is a case of “horses for courses” and it would be naive to suggest that we should simply adopt the Barcelona model or anything else off the rack. Clubs such as Barcelona are long-established products of their respective cultures, politics and histories, and there is little evidence that their ownership models would prove suitable, or even desirable, here in the UK. It would be equally naive to suggest that supporter ownership or control of major clubs in the UK would prove to be some kind of panacea. Teams will always have lousy seasons, as my team did last year. There will always be controversy surrounding management decisions, many clubs will intermittently struggle financially and there have been failed, or at least unworkable, experiments in supporter ownership before now.
A useful lesson that might be drawn from those experiences, and from the European models that I cited earlier, is that mutuality alone is not enough. Mutuality must be coupled with effective business practice and regulation. Supporters fully appreciate that. Manchester United Supporters Trust has declared that
“we have neither the desire nor the intention to run the day-to-day affairs of the club. A club like United should be run by professionals whose experience and expertise will ensure its success.”
Such a sentiment should allay the fears of those who view supporters as little more than a bunch of amateurs who wish to take over the show, or lunatics taking over the asylum. Supporters are not stupid—they want and recognise what is best for their club. The point is not to establish some type of cure-all for the systemic problems in the game’s governance but to seek ways to make that governance fairer, more robust and more fitting for a global sport in the 21st century.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on the timeliness of this debate. Does he not agree that an essential element in coming to grips with the problem of the modern-day game is that however difficult it is, we must grasp the nettle of the obscenity of the six-figure-sum-per-week footballer, which is totally unsustainable and is corrupting the game from within?
It is a difficult issue. I am a supporter of one of the supposedly big four—Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool—and that is how we and some other clubs attract the big footballers. Implementing that idea would be like turkeys voting for Christmas, but I understand the rationale behind the obscenity of somebody earning such huge sums when the people paying his wages are on a fraction of what he earns a year.
I have described the “Why?”, so the next question is “How?”. What can we as politicians do to assist? The social value report that I mentioned concluded with several recommendations on how national Government can do their bit. Time constraints prevent me from listing them, but they are excellent ideas worthy of serious exploration, and I urge interested colleagues to take a look at the document.
Having made a fundamental commitment to encouraging reform, the coalition Government have not yet revealed how they intend to proceed, but the previous Labour Government published a raft of proposals before the 2010 election. They include making Government support—especially financial support—conditional on co-operation, creating the right framework for better regulation from the top down and grassroots up, and working with governing bodies to enshrine supporters’ rights to buy their clubs and/or be represented in the ownership and governance of the club.
One thing that people have mentioned to me is their concern about admission fees. A well-heeled Chelsea supporter can attend matches on a regular basis; an Arsenal supporter does not have to be as rich, because Arsenal’s system allows admission; a Bradford supporter can probably go to every match. A Leicester City supporter like me unfortunately cannot attend due to distance. In the governance Act that the hon. Gentleman proposes, will supporters’ clubs have input into admission fees?
The dichotomy is that in some of the foreign models where football supporters are represented on boards, match ticket prices are much lower than in the premier league. Anyone who goes to Europe—as we will do this year, although on a much lesser basis than in previous seasons—will find out when they buy tickets that European games are always much cheaper than their equivalents in the premier league. One does not always go with the other. Football supporter representation at least gives that concern a voice.
It is more easily said than done. In the current political and economic climate, many difficulties and setbacks lie ahead. Any lack of will or any outright resistance by the parties involved—the Government, the governing authorities and the premiership clubs—will make the task more challenging. In its 2009 report, the all-party parliamentary group on football recommended a straightforward, one-size-fits-all solution: an elected supporters’ representative drawn from the relevant supporters’ trust should sit on the board of all 92 football league and premier league clubs. The group also suggested that a requirement to involve supporters should be a prerequisite for future takeovers—that is interesting to a few of us here—and that the football regulatory authority can evaluate that as part of the reformed “fit and proper person” test.
I am a Portsmouth fan, so I welcome the momentum behind football reform, but I would like to introduce a note of caution. I support fan ownership, but we might be asking fans who are already paying clubs large amounts of their disposable income to have a stake in those clubs that is not genuinely meaningful. A Portsmouth fan might want a veto on a new owner or the sell-off of land. I welcome what the hon. Gentleman says about focusing on governance structures, and I hope that we do not miss some quick wins on that front by focusing solely on ownership.
What happened to Portsmouth is an absolute disgrace. Football supporters on the relevant boards might at least have been able to inform other Portsmouth supporters what was going on. Apparently, one owner did not even know that he was no longer the owner after the club was sold. That is an absolute disgrace to football governance, which is why something needs to happen and the Government need to take some control.
The football regulatory authority is a good starting point, but it makes no provision for supporters seeking outright control or ownership or those locking horns with the behemoths of the game. We need to go further and faster. Given all that, and in the absence of any overarching, fully independent body to propel matters forward, I urge the all-party group on football to undertake a fresh and specific inquiry into the subject of this debate, with the aim of developing a spectrum of practical solutions and models allowing for a range of supporter involvement options.
I have spoken at length, because I have taken many interventions. I thank everyone for their patience, but I ask to be indulged for a minute or so longer. As we have heard in Members’ passionate interventions, football is not just our national sport and a source of national pride—even for the Scottish Members here today, who will remember that 97th-minute winner. At one end, football is a multi-billion-pound industry; at the other, it is a local business offering local employment opportunities. It cuts across age, class and geographical boundaries, and is one of the few unifying activities in our society. Every one of us here today, irrespective of the demographic profile of their constituency, represents significant numbers of football supporters.
For some time now, the beautiful game at its highest level has stood in danger of being blighted by controversy, debt, bitterness and poor performance, because it is structurally and organisationally out of kilter with modern Britain and the expectations and aspirations of our 21st-century democracy. Many football fans feel disillusioned and disfranchised by this great British institution. Let us put that right by doing all that we can as enlightened and socially responsible politicians to help to return football to the very people in our heartlands who made it so great.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram) on enticing a bigger attendance than even the antics of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority. He is greatly to be congratulated. I suspect that I speak for virtually everyone here when I say that I share the sentiments in his final peroration about his passion for the game. I am also a keen and lifelong football fan, having followed the fortunes of Bury. I am glad to see that my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall) is here; he will point out, as I suspect will many hon. Members, that it is the only Greater Manchester football club to be located in a Conservative constituency, although we will hopefully work on that in time.
I have been the vice-chairman of the all-party group on football, and I played a role in the debates and reports of 2003 and 2009, to which the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton referred, on the governance and finance of the game. We have long argued that football as a whole is far too loosely regulated.
English football has undergone a dramatic transformation in the 18 years since the creation of the premiership, as the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Joan Walley)—perhaps I should say the hon. Member for Burslem and Stoke—pointed out in her intervention. There is now an unprecedented and in many ways unbridgeable gulf between the top clubs and the rest, partly as a result of lax governance and the absence of effective regulation. The fact is that English football is a multi-billion pound global branding industry, with a hugely complex domestic structure and turf wars between the Football Association, the Football League and the premier league. As the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton pointed out, frankly, such a situation works only to the interest of the very largest premier league clubs.
The new coalition Government have sought to introduce more co-operative types of club ownership, for example, by the fans. However, in reality, that will be virtually impossible to impose without ripping up company law and effectively nationalising privately owned businesses.
If my hon. Friend will excuse me, I will not. I know others want to contribute, so I shall speak for only a few moments.
Those people who push a somewhat idealistic view are a little misguided. In citing both Barcelona and Real Madrid as model clubs, the Minister made the important point that the massive advantage those two Spanish clubs have over any of their potential competitors in their home country is that they can sell their television rights in that market individually rather than collectively, as happens with the premiership. Before the world is too much older, I fear that there may be a big push to do something similar in this country—if not from the big four then from a big seven or eight that might emerge. That should be resisted at all costs.
I should also point out that the role of the president of a club such as Barcelona is similar to that of an owner in the UK—one must not get confused by the terminology. In Spain, a club that narrowly came fifth in its league, Real Mallorca, has been disbarred from European competition this year because of the magnitude of its debts. That is obviously a debate that will particularly affect Liverpool and Manchester United in their current state.
Some clubs do flourish under co-operative ownership; for example, Exeter City briefly dropped out of the league and have come back much stronger. However, co-operative ownership has also led to some big problems. Stockport County is a good example of a club that has ended up in administration. It has only just come out of administration after a damaging period in its history, which occurred after following that particular model. Forcing a single one-size-fits-all ownership model on all clubs is wrong. I am sure that some clubs would gain from co-operative ownership models, but others could fail. One ownership model will not necessarily fit the demands of every single football club. The reality is that vast majority of clubs are in one form or another owned by fans. Sometimes that might involve individuals—men and women—pumping millions of pounds into their team. They might get very little credit or support from the supporters of a club for doing so.
I would like to mention a couple of things that are happening outside the premiership, because much of the debate has inevitably focused on the big four—or at least the big 20—within the premiership. The attendance of Football League games last year exceeded 17 million, and the league clubs’ community teams worked locally with more than 1.5 million people. I have had a chance to see one or two of those projects over the years and, most recently, I have watched what has been happening with Crystal Palace. That club has been in great financial difficulties, but it has done a tremendous amount of work with its academy and has ensured that educational standards have remained tremendously high for young players, some of whom are breaking into the first team already. Such clubs are very much at the heart of their communities, and I think that many hon. Members in this Chamber who are here to represent football clubs will share the community values referred to by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton.
The reality is that there are quite effective cost controls in league two—the fourth tier of the English professional game—because clubs cannot spend more than 60% of their turnover on players’ wages. That measure has been extremely effective and I hope that it is rolled out to other parts of our professional game. There is no doubt that the championship—the second tier of football—is massively financially overstretched because of the huge incentive of going into the premiership. Parachute payments have been extended from two to four years for clubs that come out of it—in other words, provided that a club spends one year in every five in the premiership, the road seems to be paved with gold. However, all sorts of problems arise as a result of that.
We need to make it absolutely clear—I hope the Minister will do so—that it is important to pay immediate attention to proper cost controls within our national game. If we can find a way forward in that regard, it will allow our clubs to focus on what they do best in their communities. We need to ensure that they have proper community facilities and are engaged in youth development at academy level and within their local vicinity. The funds required for that crucial work, which is very much part of the big society, can be obtained only through having proper cost controls within our game. There is a vicious cycle that must be broken at the earliest opportunity.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram) on securing the debate; he spoke very well. I am not speaking as a football fan, but am here to represent fans. I have received more than 50 notes from constituents who are supporters of Manchester United. I am sure many hon. Members in this Chamber have also received such correspondence—those from Salford and further afield.
And those from much further afield. The constituents who have contacted me are also members of the Manchester United Supporters Trust. They have become disillusioned with how their club is being run and are concerned about the state of the national game. They think that football must start to be regulated properly and have its governance reformed.
Many Manchester United supporters in my constituency are greatly concerned that their club is now the most heavily indebted club in the world, after a hostile and highly leveraged takeover by the Glazer family in 2005. My right hon. Friend the Member for Salford and Eccles (Hazel Blears) touched on the debt situation of that club. Prior to the takeover, the club had no debt at all. It now services debts in excess of £750 million. Although the club is still reporting a healthy operating profit, the money is not necessarily going into improving the club; it is being spent just on servicing the debt. The 2009 report by the all-party group on football points out that supporters paying off the debt in such situations do not even have a tangible influence over the direction of the club. As with Portsmouth’s situation, the longer-term future of the club is no longer assured.
That level of debt and uncertainty has a clear impact on supporters. Many feel that the decisions made by controlling interests in the club in the boardroom do not demonstrate long-term commitment to the club and its supporters. That is why dissatisfaction sometimes breaks out and there is a sea of green and gold instead of red at big matches at Wembley. My constituents rightly feel it is time for dedicated football fans to be given some sort of stake in the clubs that they and their families have helped to build over many years.
Football clubs are an integral part of the community, and their ownership and financial management should not just be dealt with through company law. Indeed, I remember when Manchester United behaved as if it was part of the local community in Trafford, where the club is based. When I was a Trafford councillor, a young David Beckham came to open a new centre for young people leaving care. Members of the team made visits to schools to read to children during reading weeks and the players were much more involved in the community that was home to their club. That changed and the players started to be seen more as a corporate resource. Prices for tickets and kit increased dramatically and players’ salaries soared. It has become much harder to see clubs such as Manchester United as part of our local community.
There should be stronger regulation to ensure that those owning and running football clubs understand their wider responsibilities to the community. Football clubs should not be run on the basis of massive debt, which can threaten the stability of both individual clubs and the health of the game as a whole. At the moment, the game has clear laws enforced by referees and assistants on the field. However, off the field, it is like trying to play a game with hardly any pitch markings, unclear laws and no referees. That is why, off the field, various forms of financial crisis are appearing all over the place—from Cardiff City to King’s Lynn, from Chester City to Southend, and from Manchester United and Liverpool to Portsmouth. We could say that governance in the football industry is no better than the governance of the banking industry over recent years.
There is plenty of legislation on football, but it is directed at the fans—for example, on all-seater stadiums, football banning orders and controls on drinking in sight of the pitch. What about some legislation to constrain what goes on in the boardroom? Legal models from elsewhere could be adapted to work in England and Wales. We have heard about examples from Germany, but there are also examples in France, the United States and Canada. Spain already has a national sports law that establishes a statutory national sports council and a special company status of sporting limited company. That law is not perfect—I understand that the Spanish Parliament is considering reforming it—but it does give a clear legal context for professional and amateur sport and recognises the unique characteristics of professional sports clubs. Will the Minister say whether he has considered or intends to consider other models of governance for professional sports clubs?
The Minister can do so when he is summing up, given the number of hon. Members who wish to speak.
It may also be time to consider the tax regime that gave financial incentives to leverage buy-outs, such as the takeover of Manchester United by the Glazers, and whether such tax breaks are any longer appropriate.
Supporters and fans need the Government to take action to improve the governance of football in this country. The Sports Minister made commitments to do that, but more recently he seems to have softened those commitments, saying:
“We’ll give football the chance to sort itself out first by seeing how they plan to reform over the summer, and if it doesn’t work then the Government will step in. We need to take a serious look at reforming the governance and structure of football in this country.”
Will the Minister tell us today what plans the Government have after the summer to step in and take action, and when does he propose to start?
On fans owning their clubs wholly or in part, I believe that ordinary company law is insufficient because football clubs are not ordinary companies, which is shown by the fact that they are called clubs. That is how most of them started: they were clubs that were rooted in their local communities, not profit-making entities. They trade on the name, history and traditions of the city and the community they come from. They are unlike other businesses and should be treated as such. Football clubs are unique, and their sole purpose should not be to make profit for one individual or company at the expense of their fans and the wider community.
I will finish by saying that one never hears of anyone wanting to have their ashes scattered on the car park of their local supermarket or business park after they die. However, fans do want their ashes to be scattered in their football clubs. That is why football clubs are different.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram) on securing this important debate. I agree with many of the sentiments that he expressed and with the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) on tax incentives to encourage more democracy in football clubs. Football is close to my heart. I am proud to have a good and strong club in Harlow, and regularly meet its owner to discuss its plans; it is good to see the club back on track after years of difficulties. The new management team have some exciting plans, which I am sure will mean a great season.
I am a community Conservative, which is why I support moves for co-operative ownership of football clubs and other football institutions. I believe that we must have a democratic revolution that will give fans a greater say in the running of their local clubs. As the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton mentioned, the Conservative pledge was to reform football governance arrangements so that co-operative ownership models could be established by supporters as part of a wider package of reform of football finance and governance. To adapt what Abraham Lincoln famously said of democracy, I hope that our Government will give football clubs a new birth of freedom, so that football of the people, by the people and for the people shall not perish from the earth.
However, the problem is not only with local clubs ignoring their fans. In my view, the real obstacle is the failed managers, failed contracts and the failed payouts—some say that it is up to £50 million or £60 million—of the Football Association itself. Some Members will have read my early-day motion 329, tabled before the recess, which called for the FA board to resign following the England World cup debacle. I said that that was the time for a democratic revolution, led by the fans, to transform football governance in our country.
The FA board is run like a Byzantine court, with decisions being made like puffs of white smoke appearing from the Vatican rooftops. The FA enjoys a virtual monopoly over the sport. It is a semi-public body and its activities are of great public concern, so the public must have some means of redress. Currently, its board is not democratically accountable to fans, and it is not even bureaucratically accountable to any outside body. That is why I tabled early-day motion 374, which calls for a complete overhaul of the way the FA is run so that the organisation can become truly accountable to England fans. There must be a form of voting rights that would give England supporters the opportunity to have their say on who should be in charge at the FA. If the FA board can be booted out by the fans, it will start to sit up and listen.
My solution would be the introduction of a paid subscription system—perhaps £50 a year—whereby England fans could exercise voting rights in the FA. It would be like a co-operative shareholding, but limited to one vote for each person. It would be in the national interest for England fans to be able to vote for the FA board and chairman and to fire them if they did a bad job. Fans could vote for the board and chairman for a three or four-year term. They would also have the right to decide the level of spending on grass-roots and community football, and to vote on the annual budget report.
I wholeheartedly support our coalition agreement, which refers to reforming football governance and institutions so that co-operative ownership models can be established by supporters. My plea is that the FA should be included in those reforms and freed from the iron grip of the premier league. As a Conservative, my hope is that the FA would adopt those reforms voluntarily. Just as the people of this country elect the Government, so the fans should have some say in the state of our national game. I want all England fans to be able to say genuinely that we are all in this together, and for that to be backed up by real community power. Enough is enough: if England are to win a major tournament, we cannot go on as we are. If the FA does not reform itself, I urge the Minister to develop a framework for serious reform.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram) for securing the debate—he has been in the House only since May but he is already making a major impact, both here and in his constituency. I declare an interest as a lifelong member and supporter of Liverpool FC. Ever since my father first took me to the Kop at age seven, I have been lucky enough to be a supporter of the most successful club in Britain, and the one with the greatest fans—there, I have started my comments with an uncontroversial point.
I agree wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend that the recommendations in the report and the suggestions that he has made today are the right way forward to ensure that no further clubs fall into the same position as Manchester United and Liverpool, but I do not think that they will address our problems with those clubs. When one looks at the finances of both clubs, it is hard to see how they will reverse their terminal decline and move forward in a positive way. That is because the politicians and the football authorities have badly let down the fans by accepting that football is nothing more than a business.
I remember having a discussion with someone from the premier league who said, “It’s just like Tesco; it’s a business.” I replied that there was a massive difference between a football club and a supermarket. If I do not like the product or the price in Tesco, I can go to Asda, but it is highly unlikely that I, as a Liverpool fan, would go to watch Everton if I did not like the product or the price. It is unlikely that a Manchester United supporter would go to watch Manchester City—that is not going to happen. There is a massive difference, and we must take that into account when looking forward at how to deal with the problems.
I know that that club has an illustrious past. I remember that a prominent member of the Liverpool squad—Tony Hateley—signed for Prescot Cables in later life, and he did well.
We need to think about how we can move on. We have let the fans down badly by allowing people such as Glazer, Gillett and Hicks to take over our clubs, frankly, with no money. They borrow money from elsewhere before taking over a club and treating it like a cash cow. When Glazer wants some money for his other businesses, he goes along and takes the money out of the club. In the case of Hicks and Gillett, they bought the club to sell 12 months or two years later for twice the price they paid, without having put anything into it. We cannot accept the current situation or trust the football authorities any further. We need an independent regulator who will put the fans first and take into account the vested interest that already exists in the premier league.
I agree with the comments made the hon. Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) on the need to reform tax legislation, and with the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley) on company law. We will address the problem only if we make special provision for football and take into account the fact that it is not just a business, but something that is important to people. As footballs fans, we might be politicians or take a great interest in politics, but the one thing that normally overrules that—I see it all the time—is people taking as much interest in their football team as they do in politics. For ordinary people, it is a way of life, but we have already priced millions of fans out of the game.
I support the proposals of my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton, and hope that Ministers will listen to them and take them on board. We need to ensure that no other clubs fall as Manchester United and Liverpool have fallen, but also to look carefully at their situation. We need to see what we can do to get rid of those three individuals and to ensure that people who have the best interests of the club and the community at heart take over the clubs.
I shall be brief because I have a bit of a cold.
I am probably in a unique position. When I was seeking to stand for Parliament, and my party was interviewing candidates, one question was a catch-all about any indiscretions I might want to describe. My reply was, “Actually, I don’t like football.” I am here not because of that but because many of my constituents are passionate about football. It is an essential part of the fabric of the English character. I am here not only because many of my constituents support national football teams, but because of the work of the Bedford Eagles Supporters Trust, which is a community organisation supporting football. It has worked through the generations to support our team, even when we were sometimes competing against the likes of Arsenal, Everton and Newcastle in the FA cup—relatively successfully. Bedford Town is not one of the big teams, but it is a home for people who believe passionately in football. No more vivid illustration of the character of supporters is drawn than when, as many hon. Members have mentioned, clubs are in trouble—and the supporters come to their rescue. Why do they not have a voice in the good times as well?
I am here because of the supporters’ work and because I am passionate about the concept of the big society. The Government have a huge opportunity to make real the concept of the big society, and to introduce plans about what they will do to support organisations such as the Bedford Eagles Supporters Trust in the case of community teams and, as the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram) said, the supporters of large teams, to make real and tangible to the people of this country what is meant by what my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) called community conservatism. We can all agree with that. We do not want to hear vague recommendations about trying to work with people or trying to get support. We want real action from the Government to support the people who, every day and every week, in their hearts, believe in the clubs they support and represent.
Thank you, Mr Robertson, for the opportunity to speak in this important, significant and—judging by the number of hon. Members here and the number of people in the Gallery—popular debate. I, too, have had e-mails from members of the Manchester United Supporters Trust. I am sure that nearly everyone has. I am not sure whether the hon. Member for Guildford (Anne Milton), is present, but I suspect that she might have had the most of all.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram) on securing the debate. As he said, his constituency is home to two professional clubs, which have had problems at various times over governance, ownership, fan involvement and stadiums. My constituency does not have any professional clubs—Celtic and Hamilton are just outside the boundaries—although it is home to the junior clubs of Rutherglen Glencairn, Cambuslang Rangers and Blantyre Victoria.
I wish to declare an interest, as a Co-operative Member of Parliament: Supporters Direct was born out of the co-operative movement, and the Co-operative party was very involved. As the founding chair of the Fulham Supporters Trust, I would like to speak from the perspective of being involved with, establishing and running a supporters’ trust. I was involved in that long before I had any pretensions to enter elected politics.
The Fulham Supporters Trust was born from a specific and ultimately successful campaign about a football stadium. The people running Fulham football club deigned to believe that the future of the club would be better served by moving away from our traditional community and catchment area to a new ground, for the financial benefits that they prescribed would follow. Such circumstances are typical, and many trusts have come into being in response to a campaign. The issues arise when people running clubs make a mess of things: of the finances, of the issues around the stadium or of how they communicate with and involve supporters.
Such a situation shows where the importance of supporters’ trusts lies and what we need to make clear in discussion. Often, club ownership, which is so disparate in character, is not the issue. However, the people below the level of ownership—those who are in charge of running clubs—often take the attitude that football supporters and fans have no business in being interested in or involved with, or in taking a view on, what is happening in the running of their club. Yet we have seen from examples, to which hon. Members have alluded, that they can in fact do a far better job than some of the paid professionals. Supporters have had to ride to the rescue on far too many occasions.
One of the most important aspects to be dealt with is the involvement of trusts other than at a time of crisis—that is, not just when rescuing a situation because no one else is prepared to take up the challenge. The role of Supporters Direct is therefore crucial. For those of us involved in establishing and running trusts, Supporters Direct has been a superb resource—an efficient and effective organisation run, as far as I can tell, on very little money. It has done a great job of providing guidance and advice to supporters’ trusts. I have asked questions of the Minister and we corresponded on the issue early on in the Parliament. I hope that since our exchange he has had the opportunity to meet Supporters Direct and to understand its work. I hope that he will refer to that in his closing remarks.
As other Members have mentioned—I welcome the words of the hon. Member for Bedford (Richard Fuller) in particular—the coalition Government have said a lot about mutualism, the big society and such issues. It would be great if we could see a concrete example of that sometimes rather difficult-to-grasp concept in how supporters are involved in their clubs—not just football clubs, but rugby league clubs and other sports that are starting to develop the trust model.
My main point is that supporters are often underestimated and quite often dismissed. Too often, the attitude of clubs is to see supporters as an irritant. If the clubs expended as much energy and time in involving supporters and their organisations as they do, in some cases, denigrating them, that would be a much better use of time and energy. I hope that that message comes out of today’s debate. It is not about what some people have alluded to as imposing a model on all clubs and all situations. It is about involvement and awareness, which can help the way in which clubs are run. That is why I commend the direction in which Arsenal has developed: a progressive trust that might allow early involvement, to prevent some of those problems that would need trusts and fans’ organisations to ride to the rescue. I hope that the Minister can respond to some of the issues that have been raised and give assurances about how Supporters Direct will exist in future.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram) on securing the debate. We have all enjoyed having lots of football-related e-mails, which makes a pleasant change from some of the casework that is sent to us.
I will be brief because I am conscious that a lot of other people want to speak. Many Members have made excellent points, but I want to touch briefly on three issues. The priority has to be to tighten up the “fit and proper” test. As we have seen with Manchester United, Liverpool, Portsmouth, some of the previous owners at my local club, Swindon Town, and huge swathes of non-league football clubs, unsuitable individuals rip out the heart of the community and decimate something that is so important to many people.
I fully support the need for fan representation on clubs. I am interested in the idea of fan representation being built into any future takeover. Working with the Swindon Town supporters’ trust in previous years, I pushed hard to get fans included for two reasons: first, so that the club would be open and transparent, and, secondly, because surely it makes commercial sense and is a good thing for football clubs to be connected to their supporters—their customers, the people who are digging deep to fund ever-growing transfer fees. Actually, at non-league level, Swindon Supermarine, the other club in Swindon, faced dropping down two divisions this season unless it found £40,000. The fans got together—many hands make light work—and I am delighted that the club is still in the same division and competing well.
My final point, which I shall make quickly, is that there must be reality checks in the system. As was mentioned earlier, not all individuals who invest in clubs are terrible people. A good example was Jack Walker at Blackburn Rovers. Not only did he invest in the club that he supported from his youth—my mother remembers standing next to him on the terraces—but the trust is still putting some £3 million into protecting the club. That is an example of looking after fans in the community, and is a bit of a reality check. For all the bad individuals, there are many good individuals—it is a matter of getting the right balance.
I am deliberately wearing a Merthyr rugby club tie this morning, and I have come to talk about Wales, women and football.
I am wearing the tie because I am a supporter of the soccer club. That sounds bizarre, and it is bizarre, in the sense that Merthyr is a particular place. It has always had an interest in both games, both of which flourish in the town. It is odd, perhaps, to see that in a Welsh valley town. Merthyr soccer club is 100 years old, and is now a trust. It has struggled, kicking and screaming, to get to that position, and it needs assistance. This is not just about Liverpool, Arsenal, London or England. It is about something bigger than that. It is about the game of football, which is also about health and community. It is not about potentates, oligarchs and bandits of various descriptions from around the world manipulating the UK tax regime to make profit. That is not really what it is about. Football has a power beyond that, and we need to get a regulatory framework in place at the top of the game because the money-making process at the top, which we all know is now the real power of sport, perverts and distorts the whole of a process that could be something much greater than that.
Let us be clear on the business of sharing facilities. If we democratise the process a little and speak to the people who are really interested in the game of football, and to those who actually play it, we find that what they really want is for the game to flourish, not for it to be perverted by some process. One of my local pubs has now formed its own team. People are trying to play football—they want to do it—but they are not being helped to do so.
When Merthyr soccer club was in private ownership, it received some television money. They had one game in the FA cup, because they play in the English pyramid—they do not play in the Welsh league. I believe they lost 1-0 to Walsall. Sky was bumping gums about Merthyr Tydfil a lot yesterday. It did one thing for Merthyr: it provided that one game. In one night, a little bit of Sky TV money provided two years’ revenue. Where did the money go? I have no idea. It went into some financial soup that the owner of the club was involved with at the time. There was no transparency.
The one word that we need to hang on to in all of this is “transparency”. We need a process in which people can see what is happening in the game. They will then understand it, and they will exert pressure. A social enterprise model would be the right one for many places. It would build the community, and clubs would run academies if we allowed them to—they have a lot to say about education—and run them properly. We know all those things, so that model is crucial.
I am afraid that, yes, television money has to be part of the discussion. The situation is difficult and unfortunate, but television money is perverting the process—that and the tax regime.
I ask the Minister to deal with those three things: television, tax and transparency. Obviously, everyone is waiting for him to say what he will do. Was he serious when he referred during the summer to drinking in the last chance saloon? I would like to know what plans the clubs have come up with for reforming themselves. If they do not do that, my money is on him as the man to do it for them.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram) on securing this debate, and on the large turnout of right hon. and hon. Members from both sides of the House. It is important that football authorities get the message that we will not go away. Some people in the football authorities think that politicians should have no truck with the running of football, and I believe they were rather pleased when there was a change of Government. Perhaps they are not now—we will hear what the Minister has to say shortly.
On the momentum of what the Labour Government were trying to achieve on governance issues, there is always a problem for a Government in their relationship with sport. It is the Government’s role not to run sport but to create the circumstances in which sport flourishes. Football is our national game. Some progress has been made, but not enough and not fast enough.
Supporters’ trusts are important, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for pointing out that it was a Labour Government who introduced them and, indeed, Supporters Direct. I would be grateful if the Minister updated us on funding for Supporters Direct. Richard Caborn, who was then the Sports Minister, entered into an arrangement with the premier league to look at the Football Foundation and new ways of funding Supporters Direct. I hope the Minister can give us some comfort about that funding, because it is important that Supporters Direct continue its work not only in football but in other sports.
So the debate is about momentum. It is about ensuring that we keep the pressure on football authorities. My right hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham), now the shadow Secretary of State for Health, wrote, as Secretary of State for Department for Culture, Media and Sport, to the premier league, the Football Association and the Football League about the very issues that we have been discussing today—the “fit and proper person” test, transparency, and clubs looking to their communities and fans for support—but also about the different models on offer. It is right that we do not have a one-size-fits-all model; there are different models, and they should be developed.
We have been told that the Government should not get involved because the international federations would not like it—that UEFA and FIFA take exception to Governments trying to get involved in the running of football. Up to a point, that is true, but I know from discussions I had with FIFA and UEFA that they were concerned about the sustainability of debt in the English game, and that is why it was important that we put pressure on the football authorities to respond.
The FA has a tremendous role to play. Obviously, I am saddened by the demise of Lord Triesman in the role of independent chairman and by the resignation of Ian Watmore as chief executive. The FA has a key role to play, and how it replaces Lord Triesman will be important. The Minister might want to develop that theme. I am surprised at the time that it will take, given what needs to happen.
The hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr Field) spoke about turf wars. The FA has a key role in sorting them out, and in ensuring that, for the good of the game and our communities, supporters’ trust models can develop and we can look at other ways of doing things.
My hon. Friend mentioned supporters’ trusts. Will he congratulate the Tranmere Rovers supporters close to my constituency who ingeniously came up with the Les Aid fund to aid the manager, Les Parry, in developing the squad? The supporters came up with great fund-raising models and are able this season to inject cash into the club and get it through its league one campaign.
I am happy to do that, and to congratulate all supporters’ trusts on the innovative models they have come up with for their own clubs. There are some tremendous examples of supporters’ trusts working with local communities.
Clearly, financing the game is a key factor, and people have spoken about the disparity between the premier and the lower leagues. I was heartened by the conference league’s changing its rules to ensure that clubs have transparency and the right approach. The Football League is now going in the right direction with the league two regime. We cannot say that there has been no progress. There certainly has been progress, and we have seen some real changes in the premier league and Football League. We are happy that they have taken place, but change needs to continue and to happen more.
It is also important that the Government do what they can to support clubs when they are in trouble. The Revenue’s relationships with football clubs needs to be looked at. I understand that Sheffield Wednesday may have a problem at the moment, so the Minister might want to consider that.
On the Labour party’s election manifesto, we were prepared to legislate, because we had tried to get the authorities on board but that approach was not working fast enough or quickly enough. I am interested in hearing what the Minister has to say about that.
During the election, both major parties promised to tackle the issues of debt, better regulation, transparency and supporter ownership. What practical steps does the shadow Minister suggest that the Minister take to make those things a reality?
A starting point would be to follow through with the seven questions put to the football authorities. People have talked about the “fit and proper person” test, but there are three tests and those need to be reduced to a single one on transparency. My hon. Friend made a good suggestion about the all-party group’s continuing to consider this matter, because that will help the Minister. One frustrating thing about being Minister for Sport—the best job in Government—is the amount of time that dealing with football takes. It is helpful for the all-party group to be involved and to continue the discussion on the issues raised this morning.
I will stop at that point, because right hon. and hon. Members want to hear what the Minister has to say.
Before I start, Mr Robertson, may I pay tribute to the work done by the hon. Member for Bradford South (Mr Sutcliffe) in this and so many other areas across the sports spectrum? This is the first time I have had the opportunity to do so, because questions were not asked directly during the first round of Culture, Media and Sport questions. The hon. Gentleman had a good innings as Minister for Sport, and many officials in my Department rate him highly. I thank him for his contribution.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram) on securing this debate. He reiterated, as he did in his maiden speech, his views about the current ownership of the club that he supports—Liverpool—and his desire for supporters to have a greater role in running football clubs. The twin aims of greater supporter involvement in running football clubs and the reform of football governance are shared across the political spectrum and are, as the hon. Gentleman correctly said, part of the coalition agreement. However, I have to tell him that, although the issue is widely agreed in this place, it is not entirely shared in the wider football family. There is a battle to be fought to convince the football family of the merits of this case.
I will deal in a moment with various points raised by hon. Members, but before we get into that, it might help if I say that developments at Arsenal football club have been some of the most encouraging in recent months. I intend to meet that club urgently to examine precisely how we can encourage other football clubs to put in place a similar scheme. If one thing that anybody has said to me or that I have read about this matter has stood out in recent months, it is a quote from Arsenal’s chief executive—an enlightened, able individual—who said:
“I think we are moving into a post-materialistic world.”
That is an interesting phrase, which sums up my approach to football. People who think that football can be run solely and completely as a business have got it wrong. Of course there are business elements in football—it has to be run properly; nobody in this Chamber would deny that—but it is a business with a social conscience. Football is an important part of the lives of the many millions of fans who turn up to watch and play the game, or who follow it casually in the newspapers or on television. Everybody involved in the game ignores that at their peril.
May I caution the Minister against seeing a solution for the rest of football in the example of Arsenal? The owners of Arsenal want to protect the club from the sort of people who have taken over our club, and Manchester United. It is not a typical example and we need to be cautious about that.
Absolutely. Here we get into the problem with the process. It is pointless for me to pretend that there is a one-size-fits-all solution. If there were, I am sure that it would have been implemented in the past few years.
The Spanish model has been cited at length this morning, but, as has been said correctly, two clubs sit at the top of La Liga and they have huge financial resources because they negotiate their own television rights. Hon. Members asked about Spanish sports law. I asked about that a month ago and was told that there were so many faulty aspects to it that the Spanish are now trying to re-regulate. The Spanish model is not always a great example, although some aspects of it might be relevant. We are not starting from the same point as many of the Spanish clubs.
As a young Army officer in the middle of the siege of Sarajevo, I remember saying, “I wish this was different, because this is a disaster.” Someone replied, “You can’t deal with a situation you wish you had. You have to deal with the one that’s in front of you.” That is the problem.
The hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr Field) mentioned the difficulties in dealing with privately owned clubs, particularly at premiership level. The one negotiating chip is the ownership of the fixtures list, with all its consequences in relation to television rights. Is the Minister prepared to consider that?
To be honest with the right hon. Gentleman, whom I know well, I am prepared to consider any sensible suggestion that will move this discussion on. What he has mentioned is part of a much wider debate that many sports are having about betting rights and image protection. There are considerable problems with betting rights, because if a levy were taken from the bookmakers they would simply move offshore. Many Opposition Members who represent constituencies where bookmaking is a big thing would notice that. The shadow Minister will have scars on his back from that debate.
I agree with the point about one size not fitting all. Will the Minister return to a point made by a number of hon. Members about the future of Supporters Direct, which has surely been the key to capacity building for supporters’ trusts, enabling them to find the right business model? The co-operative and mutual business model has been successful, and not just in football.
I am happy to deal with that point, which relates to points made by the hon. Member for Bradford South. Let me reassure the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Lady that the approach taken on either the wider governance agenda or the funding of Supporters Direct is no different from the position that the hon. Gentleman was negotiating at the end of his time in office.
The strength of this morning’s debate lies in its representing the feeling throughout the House that something needs to be done. It is useful because it allows me to go back to the football authorities, put pressure on them and tell them that we had a Westminster Hall debate that was better attended even than those on the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority. This debate is a pretty good weather vane, showing the strength of feeling on this issue. I am determined to make progress and to push ahead with both the wider reform agenda and football supporters’ involvement.
It all comes back to the issue affecting every Member of Parliament in their constituency surgeries: there is a moment when they face somebody and ask, “What exactly do you want me to do about this?” There are a number of possible outcomes; some might work well for one club, but not for another. Many suggestions were made by hon. Members today and we might follow up on the issue of a tax concession, but no hon. Member in this Chamber will need reminding about the state of the nation’s finances. Currently, six demands for taxation breaks for sport are sitting on my desk, including subs for junior sports clubs—[Interruption.]
The shadow Minister is nodding; he has been through all this. Other demands include corporation tax exemptions for sports governing bodies, so that they can invest in the grass roots; tax breaks to entice international federations back to London, so we can increase our influence; and a levy on the betting tax—and so it goes on. I am determined to ensure that the money that we have as a Government is targeted on getting more people, particularly young people, playing sport. That remains my overriding priority. However, I will consider the demands that have been made.
I am lucky that Huddersfield Town, the football club that I support, which is on the edge of my constituency, is owned by a local businessman who is a lifelong fan. Social conscience is important. Last season’s shirt sponsor for Huddersfield Town was the Yorkshire Air Ambulance charity. More than £100,000 was raised for that charity and for an academy. However, not all football clubs are so lucky; we have heard about Liverpool, Manchester United and others.
Please will the Minister push forward on considering how the Government can intervene? I do not have total confidence in football’s governing bodies at the moment. There are issues to do with fit and proper persons and with transparency. The manager of Manchester United cannot even be made to fulfil his media obligations. Please continue pushing forward, to see how we can intervene and ensure that all clubs can have confidence that they are being run as well as Huddersfield Town is.
The trouble with debates such as this is that they quickly turn into a basket of issues. We have not even touched on the 2018 bid, which I am sure all hon. Members will support and is the Government’s top priority.
I thank the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton for instigating the debate and I thank all hon. Members who have taken part in it. The governance reform agenda and how we secure greater involvement for supporters are both issues that I am—
As the terraces empty from the previous debate, I want to make a few comments about unscrupulous landlords in the private rented sector. As a Portsmouth football club fan, I wish I had been present for the previous debate because I would have had something to say.
I apologise for my croaky voice—I am full of cold—but to set the scene, I shall read two quotes that clearly detail the Government’s thinking. The first is from the Minister for Housing and Local Government, the right hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps) who said as recently as June:
“With the vast majority of England’s three million private tenants happy with the service they receive, I am satisfied that the current system strikes the right balance between the rights and responsibilities of tenants and landlords.”
The second quote is even more recent, and was placed on the website of the Department for Communities and Local Government in August:
“In the past, over-regulation drove landlords out of the rented market. We don’t want to introduce any measures which would form a barrier to potential landlords considering renting out their properties.”
Those two quotes are unequivocal, and we conclude that the Government do not see a need for further protection for tenants or for the regulation of unscrupulous landlords, and that they believe the current arrangements strike the right balance, not least because of the fear of red tape. That is in contrast with the previous Government’s views. At their departure, they had plans for a new national register of landlords, regulation of letting and management agents, and compulsory written tenancy agreements. The current Government’s status quo position is unfortunate, and Shelter today announced a new investigation into rogue landlords, which aims to raise the profile of the private rented sector as a political issue.
Let us consider one basic statistic from Shelter. Nearly 1 million people throughout the UK have fallen victim to a scam involving a landlord or a rented property in the past three years, so on average, every MP will have just under 1,500 constituents who have been the victim of landlord scams. The purpose of this short debate is to help to raise awareness, to praise Shelter’s campaign, to raise some concerns, and to ask the Government some questions. We want the Government to recognise the problem of rogue landlord activity in the private rented sector, and to take action because rogue landlords cause enormous damage to the lives of often vulnerable tenants, which may spread to the wider neighbourhood, resulting in run-down properties blighting communities.
I commend my hon. Friend for securing this debate. My constituents include 165 leaseholders of the Peverel Group, which is a massive freehold landlord with 500 estates throughout the country. At a recent tribunal, they managed to claw their way to overturning a scam whereby leaseholders, when paying their service charge, find that one third of it is an odd cash-back arrangement between the insurer and the freeholder. There are many loopholes in the law, and I hope that he will press the Minister to change his mind and to take a more proactive stance today.
If my hon. Friend will bear with me, I want to raise that precise matter. I appreciate and respect his experience.
The essential points that I want to make include the following. Most private landlords are responsible and honest in how they deal with their tenants. That is beyond dispute, but those who are not bring down the reputation of the whole sector. The Government must accept that Shelter’s investigation has uncovered significant problems with rogue landlords that require action. Many aspects of existing law are not properly enforced by local authorities. They often do not treat this as a matter of priority or do not have a properly resourced enforcement team available.
Let us consider some basic statistics from Shelter. There are just over 3 million private rented households, representing 14.2% of all households. In that sector, 1.3 million tenants—approximately 40%—are in receipt of housing benefit. The sector has surged in popularity in recent years, with the percentage of households renting privately increasing by 40% since 2001. If that rate of increase continues, there will be more private renters than social renters within the next five years.
Some 80% of private renters are aged under 55; almost one third are aged 25 to 34; 58% of 16 to 24-year-olds are private renters, and 59% of private renters expect to buy in future, compared with 27% of social renters. However, compared with two years ago, private renters expect to rent for longer before being in a position to buy their own home. Vulnerable households who rent their accommodation privately are more likely to live in non-decent homes compared with social tenants—the averages being 51% and 26% respectively.
MPs regularly deal with problems associated with unscrupulous landlords, and my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham East (Chris Leslie) touched on this. They include harassing tenants or throwing them out of their homes without notice, effectively making them homeless; failing to carry out essential maintenance, leading to unhealthy or unsafe conditions; deliberately ignoring the legal requirement to protect tenants’ deposits using an approved scheme, and then unfairly withholding the deposit at the end of the tenancy; and driving tenants into arrears by adding exorbitant fees or charges to their account without telling them, and then presenting them and their guarantors with a huge unpaid bill at the end of the tenancy.
What does the law say? Harassment and illegal eviction are criminal offences. Local authorities can prosecute landlords who commit such crimes, and can serve improvement notices or prohibition orders if housing conditions fall below acceptable standards. If the landlord fails to comply, they can be prosecuted. Landlords and letting agents are legally obliged to protect tenants’ deposits using an approved scheme, although that can be enforced only if a tenant takes the landlord to court. Landlords are now obliged to obtain a licence from their local authority to rent out larger houses in multiple occupation, and must meet certain standards to do so. Failure to obtain a licence is a criminal offence.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate, and I commend the Shelter campaign. Does he agree that proper regulation of multiple occupation properties and private landlords must go hand in hand because the problems overlap? Indeed, in retreating from and watering down the measures that the Labour Government were introducing, after much campaigning by many MPs on behalf of tenants in that sector, the coalition Government risk giving a green light to rogue landlords.
I agree totally, and I shall conclude my comments with similar questions. My right hon. Friend will agree that rogue landlords escape the law because of three basic elements: lack of awareness by tenants, lack of enforcement, and lack of resources afforded to authorities to carry out such tasks. On lack of awareness, victims of rogue landlords frequently do not report them because they are not aware of their rights, or fear that if they come forward their landlord will find out and evict them. On lack of enforcement, the law is not enforced often enough. For example, in 2004 only 26 landlords were convicted or cautioned for unlawful eviction, and in 2008 only one person received a custodial sentence under the Protection from Eviction Act 1977.
I do not dispute that there are occasionally problems on the other side, and I think we all agree on that. Such problems also need resolution, but they are completely and empirically outweighed by tenants’ problems that confront us as MPs.
On lack of resources, the Government’s Rogers review showed that more than 60% of councils devote a low or very low proportion of their regulatory resources to enforcing health and safety requirements or HMO licensing.
What can be done? The problem could be split between local and national Government. The Government could prioritise the private rented sector and give councils the tools that they need to force out rogue landlords. They could tighten the law to close the loopholes that rogue landlords use to exploit tenants, and they could make it easier for tenants to enforce their legal rights. Transparency and accountability could be increased, so that the public are better able to hold local politicians to account.
Local governments could prosecute rogue landlords and make use of the full range of tools and powers already at their disposal. They could be proactive in protecting tenants by carrying out regular housing condition surveys, and they could make sure that enforcement is properly resourced. They could also take advantage of the Housing Act 2004, which allows them to recoup costs by charging them to the landlord.
Today, Shelter has launched its campaign, and a new section of its website focuses specifically on action to tackle rogue landlords. It highlights the top scams that rogue landlords use against their tenants and releases the results of a survey produced jointly with the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health. It publicises the online and face-to-face advice service for people who have fallen victim to rogue landlords, and it encourages MPs to approach Shelter directly if they know of rogue landlords operating in their areas and to refer their constituents to the advice services.
I would like to refer to some of the key findings in the Shelter-CIEH survey. The results are stark: 99.2% of environmental health officers working in the private rented sector claim to have encountered landlords who persistently ignore their responsibilities; 96% of environmental health officers have encountered damp and mould; over 90% have found electrical hazards; and more than 91% have found fire safety hazards in the private rented sector. More than 60% of environmental health officers say that cases involving vulnerable people make up more than half their work load, and over half those officers believe that environmental health problems in the private rented sector are set to get worse over the next year.
Those issues cannot be separated from the wider policy context, which cannot be ignored. Many vulnerable people have been forced into the private rented sector because of the shortage of social housing. Local authorities increasingly look to the private rented sector to house homeless families, which in turn has forced up the bill for housing benefit. The Government spend millions of pounds on the private rented sector through the local housing allowance, and as a major customer in the sector, it is important that they properly monitor and question quality and standards. The recession has changed the nature of the private sector. There has been an increase in the supply of private lettings as home owners defer sales or are unable to sell and become “reluctant landlords”. Meanwhile, the majority of people whose homes are repossessed will move into the private rented sector.
The National Landlords Association has warned that the coalition Government’s planned changes to the local housing allowance will drive vulnerable tenants into the hands of rogue landlords. Making local housing allowance payments directly to landlords would make the market more attractive and secure for reputable landlords, while helping tenants who find it difficult to manage their finances.
As I said earlier, the Minister for Housing and Local Government has announced that Labour’s plans for a new national register of landlords, the regulation of letting and managing agents, and compulsory written tenancy agreements will be scrapped in the name of protecting “good” landlords from red tape. The national register of landlords planned to allow tenants to make basic checks on prospective landlords. It aimed to make it easier for councils to identify local landlords, thereby making the enforcement of letting rules simpler. The regulation of letting and managing agents was aimed at tackling rogue landlords and driving out the worst practices, such as wrongful eviction. It aimed to raise standards and provide protection for landlords and tenants in the event of a dispute. The compulsory written tenancy agreements sought to strengthen the hand of tenants in the event of a dispute and to ensure that tenants and landlords were clear about their rights and responsibilities. In the light of Shelter’s report, perhaps the Government will look again at those ideas and give them another hearing.
I know that my colleague, the hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay (Stephen Gilbert) wants to say a few words, so I shall conclude with some questions for the Minister. Does he recognise the problems with rogue landlords that Shelter has identified? Given the steady increase in the number of private renters, does he agree that tackling those problems should be a Government priority? Will the Government introduce measures in the decentralisation and localism Bill to ensure that local authorities can be properly held to account for their policies on tackling rogue landlords? What steps will the Government take to tackle rogue landlords who repeatedly commit the same offences?
Many MPs urged the last Government to fast forward their plans to implement the national register and to crack down on those unscrupulous landlords whom we have all come across. Those ideas appear to have been kicked into the long grass. I urge the Minister to study in detail the report launched today by Shelter and to come back and think again about what can be done to stop exploitation, harassment and negligence in the private rented sector.
I commend the hon. Member for Dagenham and Rainham (Jon Cruddas), and I thank him for securing this debate on the important research that Shelter has published and for allowing me to say a few words. Cornwall is experiencing an acute housing crisis, and the private rented sector continues to play an important role in addressing that crisis for my constituents. However, Shelter’s research should be a cause of concern to hon. Members from all parties. We all know that the majority of landlords act responsibly and treat their tenants reasonably. Nevertheless, a minority of landlords are inflicting great suffering on vulnerable people.
Across the United Kingdom, 3 million households live within the private rented sector—that is 14.2% for statistics junkies. That number has grown massively over recent years, and in my constituency, latest statistics show that in Newquay, one in five homes—20%—is in the private rented sector. That is well above the England average. We must ensure that private landlords look after people in their care. That is an important issue across the country.
During the three or four months in which I have been a Member of Parliament, my constituency postbag has shown examples of the kind of rogue landlord activity that Shelter mentions in its report. That includes illegal evictions, sometimes including violence, or cutting off water and electricity to force people to leave their homes.
Last summer, a family of four were evicted without warning, under the threat of violence and the use of knives. They were left with only a car to sleep in while one of the family’s daughters was doing her GCSEs. Another couple in my constituency, who have a small baby, were living in rotting, damp, leaky conditions. They were threatened by their landlord for reporting the situation to the environmental health officers that the hon. Member for Dagenham and Rainham referred to. The situation culminated in their utilities being cut off during a cold spell last winter.
Cases such as those and the many others across the country are unacceptable. We are hugely indebted to Shelter for its research and for bringing the problem to light at a national level. However, the issue is not just about violence and evictions. Tenants can suffer if landlords refuse to carry out essential maintenance and basic repairs, thereby wilfully neglecting their responsibilities and putting the health of their tenants at risk.
The Minister for Housing and Local Government is clearly experienced and knowledgeable about housing, and he is committed to ensuring that everyone has somewhere decent to live. He has already said that he expects councils to use
“the full range of powers at their disposal to make sure tenants are properly protected.”
I believe that local authorities must take a zero-tolerance approach to rogue landlords and that they must use all levers at their disposal to root them out. Enforcement powers are available to local authorities, but all too often such powers are not used. We do not necessarily need a raft of new legislation, but priority must be given to the enforcement of current legislation against rogue landlords. Councils must be proactive in protecting tenants by ensuring that they know where the problems are locally and prosecuting when necessary, and by considering the use of existing powers to introduce selective licensing.
Again, I congratulate the hon. Member for Dagenham and Rainham on securing the debate. This is a vital issue that affects millions of people across the country and I will be interested to see what plans the coalition Government have to tackle the problem.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Dagenham and Rainham (Jon Cruddas) on securing the debate and other colleagues on their potent interventions. In particular, let me mention my new colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Stephen Gilbert), and thank him for bringing to the attention of the House some of the specific and horrific examples that he described.
I think that everyone present understands the importance of the private rented sector in delivering affordable and suitable accommodation for households. As has been reported, there are 3 million private tenants in this country. In the area represented by my hon. Friend and in London, a much higher percentage—as many as one in five—are in private rented accommodation. The sector provides a lot of choice and flexibility at all levels of the housing market.
The Minister makes the point that there is quality provision in the private rented sector, but I should like to point out the situation in my constituency and the east Lancashire corridor, which probably reflects that in many areas of the country. In my area, 40% of properties do not meet the decent homes standard and 11% are unfit for human habitation; and within those statistics, it is predominantly the private rented sector that features. How can he say that there is adequate provision and no need for regulation when such squalid conditions exist? Urgent action is needed on rogue private landlords. The hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay (Stephen Gilbert) made the good point that environmental health officers are really struggling. The sector does need regulation, because such landlords are able to evade legislation. They are able to work round—
Indeed. I am getting a bit cramped for making my own speech, if I may say so, Mr Robertson. I shall just challenge the hon. Member for Hyndburn (Graham Jones) on one point. He says that 40% of the homes in his constituency are below the decent homes standard—a figure that I fully accept. I do not know what proportion of them are in the private rented sector—he did not say—but of course a lot of homes below the decent homes standard are not in the private rented sector, and I do not want him to get away with the idea that the coalition Government believe that there should be no regulation. On the contrary, I shall outline in a moment, I hope, what we think is there and should be there and what should be done to enhance the situation that we face.
The hon. Member for Dagenham and Rainham, in introducing the debate, was, I think, criticising my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Local Government for saying that the vast majority of private tenants are satisfied with the service that they receive. Well, 75% of them say that, which I think is somewhat near to being a vast majority, but I certainly recognise that there is poor practice.
I think that it would be a courtesy to the House if I continued with my speech at this point. Perhaps there will be a space at the end of the debate.
There is bad practice; a minority of landlords clearly behave in an unacceptable way; and the management of the poorest-quality stock is an issue. Those properties are often the ones that are occupied by the most vulnerable tenants, too. That causes real problems, as my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay pointed out.
The Minister for Housing and Local Government is well aware of the position that some people face. He is also well aware of the Shelter campaign. I can tell hon. Members that he will attend a public meeting with Shelter in a couple of weeks’ time, when he visits the Liberal Democrat conference, so I am sure that if he is in any doubt, he will be able to understand the position fully there.
What can we do to tackle the problem? Local authorities already have significant powers. Some hon. Members talked about illegal action that has taken place. Illegal action can be confronted by local authorities, whether by environmental health or by rent officers. Indeed, in Liverpool, there is an interesting situation in which such action is being confronted by the primary care trust, which is also involved in local health issues. It is certainly our intention to work with those who have an enforcement role, to ensure that the barriers to them using their powers effectively are lifted. Of course, those are mostly powers that are given to local authorities, which is exactly as it should be. Where landlords fail to maintain their properties, local authorities can use the housing health and safety rating system to make a risk assessment.
The health and safety rating system involves very minimum standards. Does the Minister not agree that it involves appallingly low standards and does not come anywhere near meeting the decent homes standard? When environmental health officers are asked to go round and look at properties, they have no power at all to make the house reach a decent standard, as has been pointed out by the hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay.
I am not quite sure what the hon. Gentleman is asking me to do. If he thinks that there should be a legal requirement for private landlords not to let if their home is not of a decent standard, I think that that will give a number of social housing landlords problems as well. I fully accept his point that standards in some places are low and need to be brought up to standard. I was trying to illustrate the fact that local authorities have powers at their disposal to achieve that.
There is an extensive enforcement framework. Where high levels of hazard are identified—categories 1 and 2—the local authority can compel private landlords to make the necessary improvements. It can issue improvement notices and require property to be closed down. Failure to comply carries a fine of £5,000.
One of the points that the hon. Member for Dagenham and Rainham made was that there are repeat offences, and one of his questions to me was what the Government will do about repeat offenders. Repeat offenders go to the courts, and the courts will take the decision based on the facts of the case. I strongly support the hon. Gentleman in thinking that the courts should take those breaches very seriously.
Given that the legislation in place to pursue rogue landlords is not strong, and even if we take the Minister at his word that the current legislation is strong enough, is it not the case that when local authorities are being asked to make cuts of 25% to 40%, the ability to pursue those landlords will be curtailed?
The reality that we face means that there will be less public money to spend. The policy of the Department for Communities and Local Government and of the Government is to devolve the priority-setting process to local councils. If local councils share the hon. Gentleman’s view that increased enforcement is an essential core activity that they must build up, they will have much more freedom to do that. They will have to set priorities, just as the Government have to set priorities.
Conditions in the private rented sector have improved. Since the early 1990s, the gap in the level of decency between owner-occupied and privately rented homes has narrowed. Indeed, on average, the private rented sector has become more energy efficient than the owner-occupied sector. I fully understand that averages disguise highs and lows, but we should not demonise one sector of the housing market without taking better account of the evidence.
Local authorities have powers in respect of management standards. Under the houses in multiple occupation regime, there are statutory requirements for HMOs of three or more storeys occupied by five or more people who form more than one household. It is a bit of a rigmarole to say that, but we know what we mean. There is also the power for local authorities to have discretionary licensing schemes in their areas, covering smaller HMOs that do not meet the mandatory licensing criteria where they have identified problems with management and property condition. Hon. Members will know that there is a selective licensing scheme to cover all privately rented property in areas that suffer from low housing demand and persistent antisocial behaviour.
As part of the previous Government’s localism agenda, local authorities were granted, from April of this year, a general consent to introduce discretionary licensing schemes without reference to the Secretary of State. It is right for local decisions to be made by those who are directly accountable to local communities. We certainly have no plans to repeal that power.
Licensing schemes mean that local authorities can impose conditions on licences, such as a specified maximum number of occupants and that adequate amenities are in place. Private landlords have to be identified as “fit and proper” in terms of their suitability to manage the property. That perhaps deals with the repeat offenders point from a different direction. A breach of a licence condition is an offence. Letting or managing a property that requires a licence without one could result in a maximum fine of £20,000. Given all that, the Minister for Housing and Local Government came to the view that there was no need for more regulation at present. We do not want to introduce new burdens for landlords that will discourage them from letting homes to those who really need them.
Several comments were made about the tenancy deposit protection scheme. Of course, that is statutory. It helps to ensure good practice in deposit handling, so that when a tenant pays a deposit and is entitled to get it back, they can be assured that that will happen.
Perhaps in the last second of the debate, I can say that when it comes to raising tenants’ awareness, I am entirely with the hon. Member for Dagenham and Rainham. I believe that it is of absolute importance that at national and local level, and by us as MPs, the point is made to tenants—
[Annette Brooke in the Chair]
The debate title given in the Order Paper is “Unauthorised encampments and development in the countryside”; when that topic comes up, it is often accompanied by the words “Gypsies” and “Travellers”. When seeking this debate, however, I deliberately omitted reference to any community or tradition. I did so for the simple reason that most Gypsies and Travellers are not engaged in unauthorised development. What we are talking about today would be just as problematic for any community.
The vast majority of Gypsies and Travellers are entirely law-abiding. Four fifths of caravan pitchings are in authorised locations, and many more among these communities live in bricks-and-mortar homes. We are therefore talking about a small segment. We should acknowledge up front that Gipsy and Traveller communities face particular problems. In health and education, they are among the most disadvantaged groups—their life expectancy is 10 years less than the national average and their attainment at GCSE is less than half the national average. As politicians, we have to rise more fully to those challenges, to ensure good life chances for all. Without doubt, the provision of decent sites in workable locations is an important part of that; so, too, is mutual understanding with others in the community, to ensure that everyone is on board.
As I said, most Gypsies and Travellers are entirely law-abiding, but the small segment who are not—those who occupy land illegally or make unauthorised developments to land that they own—can sour relations with local communities. That, in turn, can make it harder to secure the improvements in life chances and outcomes that we all want to see.
Problems that arise can be roughly categorised under one of three headings: first, trespass and occupation of public land by Gypsies and Travellers; secondly, their trespass and occupation of private land; and thirdly, unauthorised development on land owned by them. That last category has seen big growth in recent years and is the source of the greatest problems in my constituency of East Hampshire—and, I dare say, in many other constituencies.
Since 2004, there has been a national increase of more than two thirds in the number of Gypsy or Traveller caravans stationed on unauthorised sites owned by Gypsies or Travellers. I note in passing that that increase occurred at the same time as a large increase—indeed, in absolute terms a much larger increase—in the number of authorised sites.
This is a typical scenario. Someone buys a field from a farmer to keep horses, for example; after a while, an electric line and water supply are installed in connection with the keeping of the animals; then, over a weekend or a bank holiday, one or two caravans or mobile homes arrive, along with the heavy machinery needed for laying a hard surface and other works. A retrospective planning application is then made. It often turns out that the field in question is located on the edge of a settlement in what the planners define as a sustainable location. Temporary permission may be given, and so a cycle begins.
It is said by some that local authorities have only themselves to blame because they do not make adequate provision for sites within their borders—even if, for example, a site is available just outside the boundary. The assumption may be that one new authorised site will mean one unauthorised site less, but that will not always be so. Nevertheless, I repeat that I support provision of good authorised sites, and I welcome the Government’s inclusion of Traveller sites in the new home bonus scheme; I hope and trust that that will result in more sites.
Hon. Members may have read in the press about the village of Ropley in my constituency. The local community woke up to find that a Traveller site had been developed overnight. It was not the first in the area. The villagers knew that the matter could lead to months or years of appeals and uncertainty. So little faith did they have that the matter would be resolved that they clubbed together through voluntary subscription to buy the site at a substantial premium over what it had changed hands for previously.
If a small village community feels compelled to find a six-figure sum because they simply have no faith in the fairness of the legal and planning systems, there is clearly something wrong with the system. We need to find new ways to deal with the problems of unauthorised development and encampments in which the whole community can have confidence. People want fairness; they want to see the same rules applying to all.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. I entirely support his proposals, and I congratulate him on securing the debate. Does he agree that, in trying to rebalance things to recognise the human rights of those who live next to Travellers’ unauthorised sites, we should give greater recognition to those already living in the location, tipping the balance away from what was proposed by the previous Government? They appeared to favour greater human rights for those who illegally occupy sites, such as the three that have been occupied in Gloucester during the last 12 months. They are all public sites and the most recent is on school land.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. What he says goes to the heart of the issue. I believe that people want to see not so much a tipping of the balance towards or away from one group or another; they want to see the same rules applying to everyone. That is what underpins the compact of a cohesive society.
Some steps are already being taken. I welcome the announcement made by the Department for Communities and Local Government on 29 August, which revokes flawed Whitehall planning circulars. It gives new incentives to provide sites, which is important, and it gives stronger tenancy rights to Gypsies and Travellers on official council sites. The Secretary of State said in the same announcement that he was looking for new ways to empower local authorities to deal with rogue developments. I wish to suggest one, and I would be interested to hear the Minister’s opinion of it.
I understand that there is a role for retrospective planning applications, but it must be possible to construct a set of principles that allows for genuine mistakes yet excludes the wilful abuse of the system to create wholly new dwelling places. That would not solve every problem, but it would go some way to restoring public confidence in the system, which has become badly discredited. I hope that the Minister and his colleagues will consider the idea.
I conclude where I started, by stressing that we are talking about the actions of a small segment of the Gypsy and Traveller community. We need fairness and equality before the law. I am confident that that would aid rather than impair community cohesion and mutual understanding, with further improvement of the conditions and outcomes for members of the Gypsy and Traveller communities. I know that many hon. Members wish to speak, so I shall stop there. I look forward to hearing their contributions.
I am grateful to you, Mrs Brooke, for calling me in this debate, not least because I have in my constituency a very large community of travellers, some of whom have been resident there for a very long time. Some live on the Good Friday site, which came about, predictably, on Good Friday when a group of Travellers moved in. They fell under the third category of Travellers mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds), whom I congratulate on securing this debate. Those in that category buy land and then illegally improve it.
The group moved in with diggers and concrete-laying equipment, and laid out a properly made up caravan site. They had no permission, and, unfortunately, the council was caught napping. The chief executive was not available and nor were the councillors who might have been able to do something about it. As a result, we have a major problem there. Other sites in the area that have been purchased and then improved without permission have also proved to be very difficult to remove. That infuriates local communities more than any other issue. We have seen such developments across Warwickshire, Hampshire and Gloucestershire, and it infuriates law-abiding constituents to see the law flouted in such a way.
A related issue is the allocation of housing after an appeal. In the Markfield area of my constituency, a site went to appeal and, as a result, 112 new houses, which had been opposed by local people, are now being imposed on the community. That further increases the tension, not least because at Groby, just by Markfield, I have had another problem of illegal encampments on roads.
What we need is a new policy. I very much welcome the plans of the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government to introduce new powers for councils in relation to Traveller sites. The plans do not excuse councils from not implementing the existing rules; for planning officers, that can be a huge challenge because such an issue is not necessarily at the top of the list. Nonetheless, I welcome the plans to give new powers to local authorities.
In addition, we should not automatically be expanding areas on which we have a large number of existing sites. There should be a fairer distribution across the country. [Interruption.] I am most grateful for the applause from my hon. Friends. It is absurd that this tiny community in my constituency, between Bagworth, Newbold Verdon and Barlestone, should have a disproportionate number of sites. Moreover, why should we not put the new sites nearer roads, so that travellers can actually travel? Not all the communities are settled.
Why allow travelling people who are coming into the area to park their caravans way off the roads? The situation has been further exacerbated by the policy in the Republic of Ireland, which, paradoxically, took a very tough line with itinerants. As a result, we have a large number coming over here.
Moreover, we also have large numbers of illegals coming over from the European Union. Romanians, for example, have chosen to come into the area. I have to say that Leicestershire county council has been magnificent in the way in which it has helped the children of those communities in the schools. In particular, Barlestone Primary Church of England School, which has a disproportionate number of Traveller children, has made very great efforts.
Notwithstanding how we feel about trying to help such minority communities, we have to come back to the fact that the majority is very dissatisfied. If we have a situation in which most people think that the law is an ass, they will take the law into their own hands. On that note, I will end and ask the Minister to take note of my concerns.
I agreed with my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) when he said that we needed fairness, which is why I am speaking out on behalf of the settled community in Sittingbourne and Sheppey. People there are fed up to the back teeth with the way in which the previous Government allowed a two-tier planning system that explicitly gave preferential treatment to Gypsy and Traveller sites. Settled people in my constituency do not object to Gypsy and Traveller sites per se, but they believe that planning applications for those sites should be treated in exactly the same way as any applications from the settled community.
I could give any number of examples of unauthorised sites that have sprung up in my constituency. They have infuriated a number of communities, including that of Upchurch, which is surrounded by seven unauthorised sites, and Brambledown on the Isle of Sheppey. I should add here that, historically, the Isle of Sheppey has never had any Travellers or Gypsies, yet a site has now been installed.
One site in particular epitomises the concerns that settled people have with the two-tier planning system. In the small semi-rural community of Bobbing, just outside Sittingbourne, a crematorium has been established for just a handful of years. Opposite is a large field that was being used as a paddock. A couple owned the paddock. Unfortunately, the chap’s health deteriorated about three or four years ago and he became disabled. He wanted to be close to his horses so he put in a planning application to Swale borough council for a bungalow to be built on that land.
The planning officers and the development committee turned down the planning application on the grounds that the building of a bungalow in a countryside gap was inappropriate. The couple then decided to sell their land to somebody who lives in Medway, which is outside my constituency. As soon as the land was purchased, a planning application was submitted for a static caravan and a Travelling caravan to be installed on the site and for outbuildings to accommodate them.
The planning officers, who only 18 months before had turned down a planning application on the grounds that it was inappropriate to have development in an important countryside gap, recommended approval of the planning application on the grounds that, because the applicants were of Gypsy extraction, it was appropriate to have a development in the countryside gap.
That type of contradiction infuriates settled people. People go through the correct procedures to submit planning applications and then somebody else comes along and gets approval. The officers were following Government policy; they were not making it up on the hoof. They were following guidance put out by the previous Government. I very much hope that, as a priority, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government will scrap that particular guidance note, which persuades local authorities and makes them give preferential treatment to one community over another.
I know that there is some talk about local authorities not being able to move people on because they are not providing sufficient sites. In my view, however, this issue is not about providing additional sites; too often, it is about somebody making a fast buck. That is epitomised by the case that I have just mentioned.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) for raising this issue.
I want to talk about the issue of people illegally developing land, and to focus particularly on the issues caused by multiple temporary consents. The established practice of a community’s moving on to land and putting down infrastructure before the local planning authority can respond has been referred to already. When that happens, the usual procedure is for the local authority to invite the people carrying out the development to apply for permission and, if that permission is granted, for it to apply retrospectively. That is not just in respect of this type of development; it is in respect of all types of development.
However, when somebody goes on to agricultural land and puts down infrastructure, in most cases the application is refused. Of course, that application then goes to appeal and in many cases the appeal process is very lengthy. The matter then becomes one of enforcement, but enforcement cannot take place while an appeal is pending. All these things take time.
During that time, development becomes entrenched, roadways are often made up, hard standings are put in place for mobile homes and fences are erected. While that is happening, the law-abiding settled community sees laws apparently being disregarded, often by another group, and they become frustrated at the lack of progress. So it is clear that the system needs attention and that councils need stronger powers.
The concept of retrospective applications should not be available in certain cases. By way of example, I want to focus on a particular area that has suffered from multiple temporary consents. It is a village or hamlet called Barnacle in the northern part of my constituency and it is in the green belt, where there is a presumption against development.
Barnacle is a small community, with 105 households and a population of 267, according to the 2001 census. It is approached by narrow country lanes and its parish council describes it as an ordinary place where working people enjoy living in a friendly, sociable environment. However, those people now have on their doorstep a site comprising 50 caravans and 10 mobile homes, and it is believed that there are 28 separate households on the site. It is the contention of those who live in Barnacle that the scale of the site is out of all proportion to a village containing 100 households.
I want to set out the sequence of events that has led to this situation, which started as long ago as April 2003. On the Good Friday, unauthorised use of a paddock began and the local authority immediately issued an enforcement notice. An appeal was immediately lodged against it. It took until February 2004 for the Planning Inspectorate to uphold the enforcement notice, but it set the period of compliance at 18 months.
At the end of that period of compliance, in August 2005, a planning application was submitted for a temporary two-year permission to be granted for people to reside on this particular site. That application was heard by Rugby borough council in October 2005. The council refused the temporary consent, but it extended the period of compliance, with the enforcement notice delayed until August 2006.
In April 2006, four months before the new compliance period expired, a planning application was submitted for a permanent dwelling. It took until July 2006 for the local authority to refuse permanent consent, but at that time the authority extended the period of compliance, so that the enforcement notice ran until August 2007. An appeal against the refusal was submitted and in September 2007 consideration of the planning appeal was deferred while the council considered the matter further.
We now move on to January 2008, when the Planning Inspectorate again granted a temporary planning consent at the site for a further two-and-a-half years, to expire in July 2010. At that time, the residents got in touch with me, as I was the new Member of Parliament for the area. The application made in July 2010 has not yet been heard; it is likely to be heard by Rugby borough council in October. The anxiety of the residents of Barnacle is that a further temporary consent may be granted, meaning that there will be no resolution to the issues that they face.
The problem that I want to draw attention to is the number of temporary permissions and extended compliance periods that have been granted. Temporary consents were granted principally on the basis that suitable accommodation would be available at a later point in time at a redeveloped caravan park nearby. That development has not happened, and it is feared that that new site is still not available. The concern of the residents of Barnacle is that there will be a further temporary consent. They have suffered from the “nowhere for them to go” issue; despite continued unauthorised development, that issue has enabled the site to be occupied for seven years already. And as each year passes, the site becomes more established and more permanent in its nature.
The residents of Barnacle find on their doorstep a development that contravenes both national and local planning policy and one for which local elected representatives have consistently refused consent. Yet they have lived with it for the past seven years. This issue needs to be redressed, with a review of the legislation, so that residents of places such as Barnacle can again enjoy their normal quality of life.
I want to thank my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) for securing this debate today.
I think that many if not all of us in Westminster Hall today have had to deal with the very difficult problem of Gypsy and Traveller sites. It is an absolutely critical issue in South Staffordshire. Only last weekend, in the village of Coven Heath we had an illegal invasion of a field, involving nine caravans. I can see an application going in to make that site permanent in the very near future.
South Staffordshire already has to carry a great burden in terms of providing accommodation for Gypsy and Traveller sites. From 2007 until today, 30 pitches have been granted planning permission in South Staffordshire for Gypsy and Traveller sites. Every single one of those 30 pitches was rejected by local people and local councillors, but they were forced on them by the last Labour Government. That is an utter and total disgrace.
It does not stop there. We already have three applications involving another 16 pitches that are going to the planning inspectors at Bristol. Because of the last Labour Government’s idea that there should be one law for the settled community and a different law for the Gypsy and Traveller community, there is every chance that those applications could get passed, too. What is even worse is that it does not stop there. Another 13 pitches have already been applied for that are due to go to planning.
Through their famous circular on Gypsy and Traveller caravan sites—ODPM 01/2006—the last Government have created an imbalance in the law, which discriminates against every person in this country who is not a Gypsy or a Traveller. I know that it has been announced that that circular will be changed, but I urge the Minister to ensure that it is changed swiftly.
The Government have announced that the regional spatial strategies are going to be abolished—
I am told by my hon. Friend that they have been abolished, but we know that the Gypsy Traveller accommodation assessments are being used to get these sites passed on appeal. I urge the Minister to do all he can to ensure that they are scrapped.
The Gypsy and Traveller accommodation assessment for the west midlands was pulled together by Salford university, which went around the west midlands and decided that, if there were 40 encampments in a district, it therefore needed another 40, and if a district had one encampment, it needed one extra. That is incompetent. My daughter of five could have done a better and more worthwhile report than Salford university’s. I urge the Minister to freeze every single planning application until new rules are drawn up. This Government have signalled their intention of dealing with the problem. I demand of the Minister not just to talk but to do.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) on securing this important debate. I have been moved to contribute by a recent situation in my constituency involving incidents in Southwold and, subsequently, Brampton. When I voiced my concern and my support for the local permanent community, I was accused of racism. As a consequence, I feel strongly that many of the viewpoints being expressed today are not about racism but about fairness, being seen to be fair and having a law that backs those who want to be fair.
The situation that I am going to describe is not too different from many others. Some hon. Members may have been on holiday to Southwold; the last Prime Minister certainly visited once. Those who have can imagine the surprise when a sudden development happened on the common. It was, I think, no coincidence that it happened at the weekend, when access to lawyers and councils was an issue, or that when the community were approached, they said, “We’re only coming here on our holidays; we’ll move off in a week.” My retaliation was, “Well, why don’t you pay to go down to the Caravan Club site rather than encroaching on the common?” It is a fine piece of open land that exists for the enjoyment of all the community and visitors.
Concerns were also expressed—I did not see this myself, so I cannot categorically affirm it—that a scrap metal business was being developed, which suggested that the encampment was not going to be temporary. There were concerns about what would happen further along the line. I believe that the community kept their word and moved on, but only a few miles down the road to Brampton, which is also in my constituency. Again, similar issues gave rise to a need for intervention.
We all know that police are reluctant to intervene. To some extent, I do not blame them, because of the cost and the resources required and the possible issues involved in moving on families. Councils and trustees of commons up and down the country must face legal costs every time the situation arises, which is not fair either.
I do not think I am alone in thinking of examples—perhaps not in Suffolk but in Hampshire, where I used to live—of the temporary, almost semi-permanent sites of more traditional Traveller communities. I can think of one on the Harroway near Whitchurch and another on the way to Hurstbourne Tarrant where people have taken up a sort of residence set away at the side of the road, deliberately not trying to create an effective empire with a number of permanent pitches.
The unfairness of retrospective planning has been discussed extensively. I support the new Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government in tearing up some of the nonsense that came before us under the last Government, recognising that councils may wish to provide sites appropriately and giving them financial incentives to do so, as my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire mentioned. It irritates me that people are often buying agricultural land at cheap rates. Once planning permission is obtained, of course, we all know that the value increases astronomically.
I am not attacking transient communities. They are a welcome part of society. Everyone in society makes choices about how we live, but we must also accept the responsibilities that go with those choices. We should also be considering not only our own solutions but other countries’. I find it ironic that the landmark ruling in 2000 giving Irish Travellers ethnic status does not apply in Ireland, which has made a different decision about how to categorise them that does not afford them protection under the Race Relations Act 2000 or subsequent legislation.
It is not racist to be concerned about unauthorised development. It is not racist to press for fairness for our constituents. It is not racist to say that the law of the land should be respected or that wilful trespass should be dealt with promptly and effectively, without costing a small number of local taxpayers a fortune. I welcome the actions thus far and look forward to seeing more.
I am grateful to you, Mrs Brooke, for calling me so early in the debate, and to my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) for securing it. It is hugely important to the situation in South Derbyshire. Since February alone, we have had 24 illegal incursions, in a district with authorised sites. That is why it is so galling for the people and voters of South Derbyshire. When we do the right thing, we are taken for mugs. Frankly, we are fed up. We will not put up with it any more, and nor will our voters. I assure the Minister that there will be civil disobedience over the issue.
I am grateful for the strong messages issued by the Department for Communities and Local Government. We have finally won our appeal with the inspectors against illegal encampments and planning permission. It is the first that I have known in all my time in politics in South Derbyshire, which I assure hon. Members is a long time. We have an achievement, so I thank the new Government.
For goodness’ sake, when councils do the right thing and authorise encampments, can we please push forward with eliminating the John Prescott 21-day rule? It requires public authorities to go through a long process of sorting out whether there are human rights implications and goodness knows what else for these people, and it does not apply to anybody in our settled communities. It is complete nonsense.
We have good police action in Derbyshire, where we seek to assist private landowners to go down the 24-hour bailiff route to remove people where—I say this again—vacancies are available on authorised sites. But when the land is owned by the authority, Severn Trent, the Highways Agency or similar, there is still the nonsense of having to do the dance of the John Prescott 21-day rule. Will the Minister assure us as much as he can today, and later in writing, that that rule will be scrapped?
We are delighted by the strong ruling to get rid of the regional spatial strategy and the pitches rule. It assisted enormously when we wrote to the Planning Inspectorate and helped us fight off the latest planning inquiry. That was the first one ever. I wrote the strongest letter I have ever written in my life. The language was not particularly parliamentary, but it got the point through and we won. Will the Minister please carry on with the issue and ensure that it is sorted out? My electorate expect it to happen in the coming Session, and I look to him to see it through.
Like my hon. Friends, I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) for securing this debate. He said in his opening remarks that he wanted to focus on three aspects of the issue. I will make a few remarks about the first aspect, trespass and occupation, based on incidents in my constituency, although I do not claim that we have had the same number of incidents as the constituencies of other Members who have spoken.
I wanted to highlight the fact that some small groups of Travelling communities are clever in exploiting tactically chosen sites. The ownership of the land might be disputed, it might take some time to find out who is responsible and a lot of time is wasted before an enforcement notice is made.
We have had particular problems with this in Folkestone, where a single group of Travellers have moved between different sites. They have been able to stay at sites for several months. Recently, a community spent three months on a piece of land backing on to a residential community in Birkdale drive in the Park Farm area of Folkestone before an enforcement notice was made. That was largely because of a dispute between Kent Highway Services and the Highways Agency as to which of them was responsible for the site. It turned out that the Highways Agency believed that it had transferred ownership to Kent Highway Services, but there was no record of any such transfer, and the community stayed on the site during the to-ing and fro-ing.
I have every sympathy for the district commander of the local police, who was keeping a careful eye on the site, but who was powerless to do anything until the enforcement order was made. Even then, when the dispute had been resolved, and Kent Highway Services agreed to go to court to try to get the enforcement notice—it was still not clear whether it owned the land—it took time to get court time and to get the notice granted. Residents felt that no one was really doing anything to resolve their plight. The Travellers cleverly exploited the ambiguity to enable them to stay, and they have moved from site to site doing the same thing.
My constituents’ question is whether we could look at the law on trespass, alongside some of the other points that have been raised, and which I know the Department is considering. If Travellers have gained access to a site, and it is clear that they do not own the land and have made no efforts to establish contact with the landowners or do not know who they are, there should be some obligation on them to prove that they have a right to be there. It should not just be for the public authorities to prove that the Travellers do not have the right to be there, particularly when the process might take quite a long time, and it is clear that we are dealing not with a temporary encampment, but with a permanent occupation of the land until an enforcement notice has been granted.
In the example that I gave, the Travellers made no attempt to create an illegal, permanent camp or to alter the land in any way; they were simply going to stay on the land for as long as they could, until they were moved on. However, they did that in the full knowledge that that could take quite some time, and there was nothing that the resident community could do while we were going through the relevant processes. I would be grateful if the Government looked at the issue and gave us some advice as to whether we can simplify or revise the law. Could some consideration be given to the databases and the land registry for the ownership of public land where land is passed between public bodies and there may be some confusion as to who is the responsible party?
I will try not to fill the long period that you described between now and the winding-up speeches, Mrs Brooke. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) on raising this issue, which I have heard debated four or five times in this Chamber in the past five years or so. That, along with the number of my hon. Friends seeking to speak in the debate, demonstrates what an extremely important issue it is. Indeed, it affects communities across the whole of England, and those hon. Members here today probably represent only a small number of those on both sides of the House who have significant worries about the issue.
My hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) raised the particularly interesting topic of trespass. As far as I can recall, the issue was dealt with quite well in one of the last Acts passed by the previous Conservative Government in 1997, which made some efforts towards putting the point right. Although the legislation no doubt needs improving, the basic machinery is there. With the exception of my hon. Friend, however, all the others who have spoken in the debate have addressed the identical problem of people of one sort or another—I will come back to who they are—illegally occupying a vacant site, of which they have taken ownership, nearly always on a bank holiday Monday. Within a few days, they insert hard standing.
The interesting point about trespass is that there is no criminal trespass law on which we can rely in relation to public authority land. We are looking for our new coalition Government to bring forward from our manifesto a new intentional criminal trespass law that will allow us to have the same rights for public authority land as for private authority land. That would be a major development, and I thank my hon. Friend for allowing me to mention it.
My hon. Friend makes a similar point to my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe. Both my hon. Friends are quite right, although their point is not absolutely central to the topic of today’s debate, which is the illegal occupation of land owned by Gypsies, Travellers and others.
As I said, the pattern we see is a similar one, and many people have described it in the debate. People move on to land, often on a bank holiday weekend. Before anybody knows what is happening, hard standing has gone down, toilet blocks have been erected and gardens have been put in. Often, little bungalows—we are not talking about caravans—are established in a very short time, as I have seen in Minety in my constituency. I have eight or 10 illegal Gypsy encampments in my constituency, including at Calcutt park, near Cricklade, and various other places. In a short time, something that looks for all the world like a village has been established. There are wheelie bins at the end of the drive, electricity has been laid on and these people have established something that no one else would be allowed to establish.
I will not bore hon. Members by repeating what a number of my hon. Friends have eloquently described. However, I want to address the reason why such developments are allowed to occur. My hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire (Heather Wheeler) referred to the way in which the noble Lord Prescott—what a noble Lord he is—introduced planning circular 01/06. Hon. Members will recall that the circular told planning inspectors that where local authorities are not able to demonstrate that there is adequate provision for Gypsies and Travellers elsewhere in their area, there should be a presumption in favour of illegal Gypsy and Traveller encampments. That has meant—I have had several such cases in my constituency—that where the planning inspector sits on an appeal, the law requires him to say that unless the local authority can demonstrate that there is adequate provision elsewhere, he must give the Gypsies and Travellers permission for their illegal encampment. I do not blame the inspectors; they have no other option but to do that, because that is what the single planning note requires them to do.
Leaving aside the two-tier planning system that such an arrangement implies—I will come back to that in a second—there are several specific problems associated with the circular. First, it does not stipulate who Gypsies and Travellers are. No distinction is made under law between hippies, new age travellers, people who are homeless, traditional Romanies, of whom there are many in my constituency, Irish Travellers, Roma and people coming in from France. Indeed, the French Government recently expelled a large number of Roma, and there is nothing to prevent them from coming here and declaring themselves to be Gypsies or Travellers. There is therefore no definition in the law to distinguish between those people.
As another speaker mentioned a moment ago, when the Gypsy and Traveller assessments were made under the regional spatial strategy—I am glad that that document is now defunct—local authorities were required to assess how many Travellers there were in their area and what provision there was for them. However, there is no way of doing that. By definition, these people are Travellers. Are we talking about the Travellers resident in the county of Wiltshire, the south-west of England, the west of England, Wessex, England or what? There is no scientific way of assessing who these people are, because, by definition, they do not live in one place. A very large number of the Travellers in my constituency come from Ireland. Others come from the continent of Europe.
Incidentally, one interesting side issue is that the Irish and the Romanies will not live on the same site. The site at Thingley junction in my constituency has vacancies, but it is occupied by Irish Travellers. The Romanies, perfectly reasonably, say that they do not want to go there, because the two groups do not like each other. I am just not certain, however, that society has a duty to provide for people who do not happen to like each other. If somebody came to my constituency surgery and said, “I want a council house, but I’m not going to live in that council estate full of Irish people, because I don’t want to live with the Irish,” I would say, “I’m extremely sorry about that madam, but you’re jolly well going to have to put up with it.” The same applies in this case.
As I said, we do not know who these people are. By definition, they are Travellers. The Traveller population in the United Kingdom has been increasing exponentially over the past 30 or 40 years, and I will come back to that in one second. Asking a local authority whether it has enough provision for these people is an impossible question to answer. It cannot, by definition, say, “Yes, we do.”
I am not sure whether my hon. Friend has witnessed a similar situation in Wiltshire, but a number of Gypsies and Travellers in South Staffordshire have successfully applied for planning permission and obtained established sites. I then notice in the local newspaper that those sites are being commercially marketed to people who are not Gypsies and Travellers. People are exploiting the law for personal profit.
I noticed that episode when it was recently mentioned in the newspapers, but that has not been my experience. All the illegally occupied sites in my constituency, and I think throughout the west country, have gone on to be fully occupied by Gypsies and Travellers. I have not seen any being sold on, although I suppose there is no reason why they should not be. However, I have my doubts about whether a local authority would give planning permission to a settled person to take over a Gypsy encampment afterwards. I certainly recommend that it should not.
The numbers are extremely interesting. When I was special adviser to the then Secretary of State for the Environment we had the great joy of repealing the legislation that required local authorities to make provision for Gypsies and Travellers in their counties. We did so because when the Labour Government passed the provisions there were, from memory, 3,500 illegally parked caravans in England. In 1996, by the time we had repealed them, there were 6,000 illegally parked caravans, so the illegals had more or less doubled. That was in addition to the 7,000 pitches that local authorities had by then provided. Those authorities had provided twice as many pitches as they were required to under the Act, and a further 6,000 were illegally parked. That total of 13,000 caravans in England has now become 18,355, according to a recent survey. The number went from 3,500 to 18,500 in as many years.
My hon. Friend is right. It is what I would describe as a Parkinson’s law of Gypsy caravans. No matter how many sites are provided for them, more appear. That takes us back to the original question of the definition of what those people are. Who are Gypsies? What are Romanies? What definition do we have under the law? The answer is none at all: the more sites are provided, the more people appear to fill them.
I therefore do not subscribe at all to the underlying principle behind planning policy guidance note 01/06 that somehow a local authority must demonstrate that it has made adequate provision. It is not possible for a local authority to demonstrate that. No matter how many sites it provides, it is perfectly possible for the Gypsy and Traveller community to say that there are not enough. Indeed, there seems to be a moth-to-a-flame attraction: the more sites are provided in a county, the more Gypsies and Travellers appear to try to fill them. Wiltshire and the west country as a whole seem to be a bit of a hot spot for that.
That seems to me to be completely wrong, and the Government have indicated their intention to address the situation. We must do so by abolishing Lord Prescott’s planning guidance note and the regional spatial strategy and by telling local authorities exactly what they are told in relation to homeless people from the settled community: the rule for the settled community is that if someone needs a council house they go to see the local authority or—too often—their MP, or a housing association. To get a house one must demonstrate need, in a certain prioritised way, and a local connection. If someone came to my constituency surgery and said, “Hello; I come from Inverness and I am homeless. I want you to get in touch with the local authority and get me a council house,” I would say, “I’m awfully sorry. You must get back to Inverness and get your council house there. You aren’t going to get one in Wiltshire because we demand a local connection.” Precisely the same applies to the Gypsy community. They are very nice people. A number are close friends of mine. Those who live in Wiltshire have a right to proper Gypsy encampments there. However, those who come to Wiltshire from elsewhere have no right to demand that the people of Wiltshire should pay for sites to accommodate them. Exactly the same rules should apply to them as to anyone else with regard to planning and housing.
An example from my constituency, which I think is an outrage, highlights what has gone wrong with our planning process. A very nice lady came to see me. She had an organic farm in the village of Box in my constituency. She had a caravan, in which she lived, in the centre of the organic farm, which was about 15 acres. Rather bizarrely, the local authority looked at the profitability of the organic farm and concluded that it was not profitable and was not a going concern, and that she could not make it a going concern. Had it been profitable my constituent would have been allowed to carry on living in the caravan. That in itself is bizarre. She was required to leave the caravan, although, incidentally, she was allowed to leave it for chickens. It could remain where it was as long as she did not live in it. Fine so far.
Next door, just down the road, is an entirely vacant field that was bought at a very high price by a group of Travellers. They moved on to the site and are in the same position as the non-Traveller organic farmer. They went to appeal and said, “We are Gypsies” and the inspector was required by law to give them permission to remain in the field, adjacent to the one from which someone from the settled community had been removed. That seems to me to be disgraceful. There is no reason why any group in society—white, black, green, gay, straight, Chinese or anything you like—should have different planning rules from those affecting anyone else. There should be one law for one, and one law for all.
I am curious about the example that my hon. Friend has raised, and the more general implications. He has rightly said that there is no formal legal mechanism for assessing whether someone is a Gypsy or a Traveller, yet local authorities regularly make such assessments. Does he have any experience of how local authorities make the decision? Perhaps the Minister will elucidate the matter and tell us how local authorities can make a better job of assessing who is, or is not, qualified under the Human Rights Act 1998 or other legislation.
I am afraid that my hon. Friend and I will not agree on this issue. I take the view that it is not up to local authorities to decide who is a Gypsy, who is a Romany, who is an Irish Traveller, who is a dropout, who is a hippy and who is a settled person. Every human being, of every kind, whatever their colour, race, background or class may be, should be treated identically by the local authority, which does not need guidelines about what to do. The same applies with respect to the Human Rights Act, about which some hon. Members in the Chamber have reservations. I do not think that it should come into the consideration of whether land should be set aside for Travellers or anyone else. The Act is about human rights, but the issue that we are talking about is planning, and I do not think that Travellers or anyone else should be given preference over the settled community merely because they are Travellers. What a perfect definition of racism that is—for a local authority to say “We are required to do something for you, not because you are a good man, or a bad man, but because you claim to be some kind of Romany, Irish, Roma, Gypsy or who knows what. You claim you are that, and therefore I must do something for you that I will not do for someone else.” That seems to me to be unacceptable in 21st-century Britain and I hope that the new Secretary of State will do away with it.
I apologise to the hon. Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) for missing the opening speeches; I was detained on other business. I intervene on the eloquent speech of the hon. Member for North Wiltshire) to ask whether he is denying the existence of Travelling people as a community in the UK. If so, presumably he would disagree with the approach that I believe the Government have retained, that local authorities should, wherever possible, find and provide sufficient official sites to meet the needs of the Travelling community. If that were done, we would not be debating the issue of illegal encampments because sufficient pitches would be available for those in need.
The hon. Gentleman and I have crossed swords for many years on many subjects. He was late for the debate and I am not sure whether he missed any of my speech as well; I certainly was not denying the existence of the Travelling community. Quite the opposite. I said at the beginning of my speech that I felt strongly that the Travelling community had a perfect right to be Travellers; good luck to them. That is fine. It is not my way of life. I cannot stand camping at all. However, if they want to be Travellers, that is fine. It is right that the local authority should make suitable provision for the Travelling community, as it does for the settled community. It is right to do that for the local Travelling community, but I see no reason to do so for the wider Travelling community. I certainly do not deny its existence, nor the state’s responsibility to make proper provision for it. It is right to do that, but we are discussing the means by which that happens, not whether it should happen.
I welcome the stricter stance taken by the incoming Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, and the abolition of the regional spatial strategy, which is the document behind much of what we are debating. I hope that as part of what happens we shall do away with the Gypsy and Traveller assessments, which were flawed, to say the least, whoever did them—Salford technical college or anyone else. I call on the Secretary of State to stipulate that the planning status of Gypsies and Travellers is precisely identical to the planning status of everyone else—indeed, their rights in every other respect should be identical to everyone else’s. I also call on him to introduce stronger enforcement powers, so that when these outrages occur, local authorities have the power to go on to these sites and deal with these people as they would anyone else. I very much welcome the fact that he has stipulated in his general approach to planning that the people who decide whether or not these things occur, whether with regard to Gypsies or to houses, should be local councillors who are answerable to local people. They should make up their mind about how such things happen; it should not be down to Lord Prescott or his successors in the DCLG.
I will try to be brief, Mrs Brooke, so that other hon. Members may contribute. Thank you for calling me. My comments may seem repetitive to the Minister, but I am told that repetition sometimes helps when dealing with Ministers. The huge number of hon. Members present should demonstrate to him how much of a national problem the issue is, although the Labour party does not seem to be aware of that. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) on initiating the debate and on how he has balanced his comments. All hon. Members recognise their obligations to the Traveller community, as they do in respect of every other community in Great Britain. No one would wish to detract from that, and I congratulate hon. Members on how they have dealt with the matter.
The focus of the debate has moved geographically; I think my seat, Lancaster and Fleetwood, is the most northern one represented by hon. Members here. That surely proves the national scale of the problem. I first became aware of the matter that I wish to raise on the evening of 6 November 2009, which happened to be a Friday. At 6 o’clock on a Friday evening, council offices and the planning department shut down.
I was informed by the residents of a small hamlet called Preesall Hill—just 50 or 60 houses—that a triangular piece of land surrounded by roads was suddenly covered in Travellers. They told me that hardcore was being moved in, electricity was being supplied and boarding was being put up. That development went on all over the weekend, when no one could get to the council. I would like to repeat the reference to the word “wilful.” My hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire made a significant point about that, and we hope that the Minister will reply to it. If anything can be called wilful, the actions that I have described must fall into that category.
On Monday, the police were called, so they were diverted from other matters. The council was also called—everyone and his aunt were called to consider the matter. It was then discovered that the Travellers had actually bought the land, which posed the council with another problem. The council sought an injunction—in the end, it had to seek three injunctions—to call for a retrospective planning application. By that stage, some of the Travellers’ children were going to the small village school, on which there was also an impact. So, the impacts were starting to add up. The people living in Preesall were saying, “What is going wrong around here? Who can get away with this?” Other hon. Members have mentioned similar responses.
On 2 September last week, the matter finally got to planning—by the way, when it first went to planning, not enough information was supplied, so it had to be deferred. As I say, the matter got to planning on 2 September and there were all the relevant reports—ecology, engineering, highways and so on. The land had been designated as countryside by the local Wyre district plan, and was actually a field. The difference with this case is that a company called Green Planning Solutions turned up at the planning. Its website states:
“we specialise in winning planning permission on difficult sites, usually rural locations including the green belt.”
Meanwhile, a Preesall action group of concerned neighbours had been set up and people who were in the process of selling their properties were unable to do so. People who have jobs and other things to do were taking action to try to restore their community. To be fair to those people, they were also trying to establish some sort of relationship with the Travellers who were by that time arguing that they needed a permanent pitch. By the way, twice over the past 12 months, the Travellers have disappeared somewhere for three months, so they must have sites in other places.
I return to when the matter got to planning. At the meeting, a Mr Green—who apparently runs Green Planning Solutions, which advertises in the way I have described—boasted to the Wyre planning committee that he usually wins most of his cases. He said that 47% of his cases go to appeal and that he usually wins 94% of those. Apparently, he warned the council that if it dared to appeal, it would cost the council and taxpayers dear.
I hesitate to interrupt because my hon. Friend is in mid-flow and, as ever, he is excellent to listen to. What I find absolutely galling—this may help other hon. Members in this Chamber—is that we have had five planning permissions go through under which Travellers have now got authorised sites, but the Travellers are not there. Where are they? Why do they need those sites? They have got them, apparently, only because of need, but they have not been on them for 12 months. Lancaster and Fleetwood should get on with it. This is just outrageous.
Thank you, Derbyshire. I totally agree—whether Travellers want permanent or non-permanent sites. I should also compliment my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray) as he has some history on this matter. The point about the definition of Travellers and so on was really pertinent.
In the case that I have mentioned, the Travellers are obviously waiting to see whether there will be an appeal. Nothing has changed on the site, and they are assuming that there will be an appeal, which will lead to costs for a small district council. Meanwhile, Mr Green has boasted that he wins most of his appeals. What does that say to people who pay their rates and do the usual law-abiding thing? As all hon. Members have said, all they want is fairness and for local councils to have the ability and powers to deal with the issues that affect them and their residents.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Brooke. I congratulate the hon. Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) on a crisp and temperate presentation of the issues that not only he but other hon. Members in the Chamber have encountered. I was particularly interested in his strong focus on the issue of unauthorised occupation—that matter has come across strongly today. Some of the difficulties surrounding that issue are very different from those surrounding the debate about the need for authorised sites, which again has been robust. I shall try to bring out some of those issues in my remarks.
I start by mentioning some of the facts and the chronology of what the previous Government did—or, indeed, attempted to do—regarding some of the matters raised. I understand that some Conservative Members may not be aware of those points. That is not surprising, given that a “year zero” approach seems to have been adopted by the Department for Communities and Local Government website; all reference to what was done in the six months before the election has been removed. However, with your permission, Mrs Brooke, I shall touch on some of the things that were done in that period.
In March 2010, DCLG launched guidance that was sent to police, local authorities and other agencies. That guidance focused particularly on adopting a multi-agency approach to helping communities tackle the problems of antisocial behaviour on Travellers’ sites, including the use of antisocial behaviour orders and acceptable behaviour contracts. I shall return to those important points.
In introducing that document, my right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr Denham), the then Secretary of State, said:
“local councils and the police have strong powers and tools to crack down on anti-social behaviour—and I expect them to be used to the full. This guidance will help ensure that the local agencies understand the powers available to them.”
The Home Secretary at that time, my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson), said—it is important to make this point because various hon. Members have mentioned it—
“The Gypsy and Traveller community is treated no differently than the rest of the community. Perpetrators of crime and antisocial behaviour will be punished and, where appropriate, taken through the criminal courts and jailed.”
From the Opposition’s point of view, I would like to emphasise that that principle, elucidated by the former Home Secretary, stands four-square.
In addition to that, on the question of unauthorised developments, a statutory instrument was laid before Parliament on 9 March 2010, which reduced the period of appeal against refusal of an unauthorised development from six months to 28 days. That reduced the ability for the time frame to be exploited where unauthorised developments are in situ.
That did not come out of the blue; it was based on the findings of the Briscoe report, which was set up in 2007 and revised in 2009. It is worth noting that that was regarded as a priority by DCLG Ministers, which is why it reached the statute book before the wash-up and Dissolution. That was because of the importance of the need to reduce the period of uncertainty for local residents after local authorities refuse a planning application. In addition to those enforcement measures, the previous Government continued to support local councils in their bids to establish authorised Traveller sites, and £32 million was pledged from the Homes and Communities Agency budget as part of the site grant for 2010-11.
I have mentioned the difference between authorised and unauthorised sites. Although I appreciate that in some circumstances there can be significant problems with authorised sites, I believe that the development of authorised sites helps to combat the problem. To be fair, the current Government believe that as well, but the question of where the money will come from is another matter. On that main point, however, there is a consensus between the Opposition and the Government. There is evidence that the creation of authorised sites saves councils significant amounts of money. Once Bristol city council invested in a transit site, for example, having relied on enforcement action before, it reduced its related annual costs from £200,000 to £5,000.
The previous Government also intended to amend the Mobile Homes Act 1983 to give improved security and right of tenure to Gypsies and Travellers on official sites. Unfortunately, as the present Government were kind enough to acknowledge in a statement to the House on 27 July, there was no parliamentary time to debate those statutory instruments before the general election. They do, however, relate to the application of the 1983 Act. The Minister will no doubt remark that the Government intend to make a decision on section 318 in due course, in the context of the wider strategy. There is no difference between the policies of the previous and current Governments.
I now turn to what the current Government have said and done since taking office. In May 2010, as part of the first round of spending cuts, the Homes and Communities Agency ended the Gypsy and Traveller programme grants for the creation of authorised sites. As far as I am aware, the regional spatial strategies have been revoked but not yet formally abolished. Their formal abolition will no doubt be presented later in the year as part of the decentralisation and localism Bill that the Government are promising—or threatening us with. That removed the obligation for local authorities to identify sites that could be used for authorised Travellers. However, nature abhors a vacuum, and I suspect that that will be the case if there is no formula whatever.
On the point about returning to regional spatial strategies, there will be no formula whatever for dealing with what will be a continuing problem. I put it to Members and the Minister that without some form of overarching framework there is a danger that local authorities will pass the parcel and try to shift the onus of provision on to neighbouring authorities, which will be doing likewise.
I would not accuse the hon. Gentleman of nimbyism, but I think that such action is common sense. Indeed, in his eloquent contribution he explained that Travellers move around a lot. Simply playing pass the parcel with those people is no mechanism for dealing with them, and I find the idea that it is rather bemusing.
I wish to elaborate on the issue that the hon. Gentleman is addressing. It is clear from many studies that authorised sites are far better for community relations within an area, and for the health and welfare of Travellers, than unauthorised sites. In areas where the Travelling community clearly needs an authorised site, but where the local authority refuses to provide it, how would a Government ensure that that need is met? That is the crux of the problem.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his contribution. He is absolutely right; it is for the Government to decide how to deal with that conundrum. My point is that one cannot just assume that the problem will go away, so it needs to be addressed.
In his policy announcement in August, the Secretary of State talked about liberating local authorities from Whitehall control, but he did not offer any clear substance or resources with which councils could act on his guidance. It is all very well talking about improving security of tenure for Travellers on local authority sites, but what local authority sites are likely to exist when funding is cut and obligations are removed? Surely that will lead to a growth in unauthorised sites and the associated costs of enforcement.
The Secretary of State also announced that Traveller sites would be delivered as part of the new homes bonus scheme, but the details of that scheme will be set out in a public consultation later this year. Concerns have already been expressed about how the new homes bonus scheme will operate. I invite the Minister to elucidate further how the funding for Traveller sites might be delivered under the scheme.
A lot of strong rhetoric has been used in relation to planning circulars 01/06 and 04/07. Given the subject, I understand that but the Government have made no concrete announcements on how enforcement powers will be increased. Again, further announcements are to be made in due course. Once again—I am afraid that this has been a characteristic of DCLG Ministers since they took office—rhetoric and talk of abolition has come before any thoughtful addressing of new structures and guidance.
I invite the Minister to say a little more on the matter and on antisocial behaviour and acceptable behaviour contracts. We believe that those remain an important tool for preventing antisocial behaviour on Traveller sites. However, the Government, and the Home Secretary in particular, have talked about their desire to move beyond ASBOs and acceptable behaviour contracts. Would the Minister state what consultations DCLG Ministers will have with the Home Secretary before they spell out some of those changes in chapter and verse in the decentralisation and localism Bill?
I congratulate you, Mrs Brooke, on chairing the debate today and my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) on his measured introduction to what is undoubtedly a difficult issue for many Members. Eleven other Members have also made speeches and a few more have intervened in the debate, so I hope that they will forgive me if I do not respond to every point that was made.
The Government share the concern that has been expressed today about unauthorised Traveller encampments and developments and their effect on local communities. The record will show some strong stories from across England. The Government want to see fair play and everyone treated equally and even-handedly, whatever community they come from or lifestyle they choose to pursue. We certainly will not allow a small minority of Travellers to set up unauthorised encampments and developments to create resentment and give other Gypsies and Travellers a bad name, worsening community cohesion along the way.
It is worth putting on the record the fact that 80% of Gypsy and Traveller families—those who are on the move and not already in bricks and mortar—are on authorised public or authorised private sites and therefore outside the scope of the complaints and discussions that we have heard today. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] I am pleased to hear hon. Friends acknowledge that reality. We must be careful not to demonise the community because of some bad behaviour by some bad apples, whether they are Gypsies, Travellers or individuals from any other community.
About 13% of Gypsy and Traveller families are on their own land, but unauthorised sites. About half as many again are trespassing and encamping on land that they do not even own. We want to ensure that we provide stronger enforcement powers for local authorities to tackle such unauthorised sites and encampments. We want to limit the opportunities for retrospective planning applications. I fully share the frustration and anger that has been expressed in the debate about how those applications can be manipulated in such cases.
I am sure that hon. Members who have recently joined the House will find, as their in-trays get fuller, that they get complaints of a similar kind about retrospective planning applications of all sorts, not simply about Gypsies and Travellers. The localism Bill will be taking a completely fresh look at planning legislation and will include specific provisions about that. I hope that hon. Members understand that I am not in a position to spell the provisions out in detail.
We want to incentivise local authorities to provide appropriate sites. The hon. Member for Blackpool South (Mr Marsden), the Labour spokesman, suggested that we were speaking far too often before we had worked out the detail, but then he was pressing me to speak before we had the detail. I assure the hon. Gentleman and the House that the detail is being worked out but, as with so many other things, as a junior Minister I must say, “Await the Chancellor’s statement on 20 October.”
I do not expect the Minister to have every dot and comma to hand—the devil is indeed in the detail, and he does not want to be tackling the devil until he needs to. However, I gently point out the issue about the regional spatial strategy. The Secretary of State set out his intention in a five-line letter, causing considerable concern—and, in some cases, hilarity—among the planning departments of various local councils as to its legal force.
For every sign of distress, I saw 10 signs of joy.
I want to make the point that we are also committed to addressing the discrimination and poor social outcomes experienced by Traveller communities. Some of those issues have been mentioned—schooling, health and the security of their living accommodation. In the longer term, we want to see a plan, policy or strategy that can deliver the Travelling community authorised sites, where they can live in harmony with the settled community and with the access to health and education that everyone else has and is entitled to.
As the hon. Member for East Hampshire said when introducing the debate, some of the figures are dramatically bad—length of life, maternal and child mortality, educational attainment—and ought to fill us with despair and a determination to do something about the situation.
Let me come back to the core of what has been said today. We have already written to local authorities, reminding them to be alert to the particular risks of unauthorised development over bank holidays and to be ready to respond to that. The revocation of regional strategies means that the decision making about housing of all types, including Traveller sites, will come back to local communities. We have announced our intention to revoke circular 01/2006 and to bring local authority Traveller sites into the Mobile Homes Act 1983, which was on the verge of happening before the general election, as the hon. Member for Blackpool South correctly pointed out. We believe that it is right that that should go ahead.
I have been asked to give more detail about the New Homes Bonus scheme, but I must hold back and refer hon. Members, once again, to the statement on 20 October. However, the work is there and everything is ready.
I now turn to exactly what the problem is. Under the previous Government, the number of caravans on unauthorised developments increased from 887 in 1997 to 2,395 in 2010. My hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray) drew attention to that—the problem has not been getting smaller. The problem is not a reducing, residual one, but a continuing and, in some ways, growing one. We will ensure that the planning laws provide fairness between the settled and Travelling communities.
Given the vacuum following the removal of the RSS requirements and the Minister’s statement that local authorities must now provide adequately for the Travelling community in their own areas, what do the Government propose if the need is clear but the local authority is unable or refuses to ensure such provision? How can the need be met in order to avoid circumstances in which such illegal and unauthorised encampments occur?
I am not announcing the details of the Government’s policy on Gypsies and Travellers in today’s debate—I cannot pre-empt such an announcement. However, we are looking at such matters carefully, with some policies to be made explicit in the localism Bill, together with what we are doing about planning powers and enforcement, and some policies from other directions, as we work through the implications of providing incentives for local authorities to provide sites where needed.
The Secretary of State has made it clear that we are repealing circular 01/2006. I hope that the hon. Gentleman feels that that is the answer he needs. If I have missed a point, he can write to me and we can explore the issue in a little more depth.
In the course of preparing for the debate, I had the opportunity to speak to the assistant chief constable of Warwickshire, who holds the Gypsy and Traveller portfolio for the Association of Chief Police Officers. He takes responsibility across England for the police approach. His views were clear. Of course it is right that there should be strong enforcement and that the existing law should be followed through—and promptly. There should not be long delays while sites that should never have been there in the first place get unofficially authorised, as outlined so eloquently today.
However, as a senior police officer speaking on behalf of ACPO, he was also clear that the policing of such issues cannot be tackled solely by increasingly rigorous enforcement. We must tackle the underlying conditions of deprivation and alienation that beset the issue. That is why, as well as following through on what the Secretary of State has already announced and on all the other work to ensure fair treatment for both the settled and the Gypsy and Traveller communities, we are also making sure that we tackle the underlying issues of disadvantage.
I was asked one or two specific questions and, for the most part, I hope that I have dealt with them. I have tackled and explained retrospective planning permission, which will be dealt with in the localism Bill. As far as treating planning applications equally is concerned—some examples were given by the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson)—we will have guidance and a light touch, rather than a prescriptive national code overruling local common sense.
I noted a point made by the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins). He wanted to know whether we could have a proper land register of public land and assets. Oh, how I wish we could, and how I wish it was possible to settle all such questions. Hopefully, local authorities of all sorts, and the Government, will become more alert to what they own, why they own it and whether they need to, thus proceeding towards a more rational estate.
Direct Democracy Initiatives
I appreciate this opportunity to speak about direct democracy, and I thank the Minister for attending the debate.
In recent years, we have undeniably seen a mass disengagement from the political process. The figures speak for themselves: former allegiance to political parties has plummeted over the past 15 to 20 years, and turnout at elections has followed a similar trajectory. I believe that the last three general elections had the lowest turnout of any since the second world war, so much so that the Commission on Parliament in the Public Eye said two years ago that no Government could now claim democratic legitimacy. Therefore, it is heartening that the coalition Government have embarked on a programme of reform.
However, whatever changes are brought in, it is key that they are real, not synthetic, and that, at their heart, they have a commitment to reducing radically the distance between people and power. I shall focus on two areas—the recall mechanism and local referendums—and others may add to them.
The new Government have already promised to bring in a recall initiative which, theoretically, would allow voters to get rid of MPs mid-term, or between elections, as happens in several different countries, including Switzerland. Some states in the United States of America have the same mechanism and right. However, the measures proposed by the Government fall far short of genuine recall.
The terms of reference are to be restricted to serious wrongdoing which, as far as I know, has yet to be defined properly. However, even with a definition, it will be for a parliamentary sub-committee—the Committee on Standards and Privileges—to determine whether an MP qualifies for such treatment. Instead of handing power down to voters, which is the whole point of a recall initiative, we would see power handed up to a small group of MPs. That is not by any stretch or interpretation a true recall mechanism. Ironically, it could actually aggregate even more power at the top by handing a tiny group at Westminster the power to rid Parliament of difficult, troublesome MPs.
True recall allows people to sack their representatives, for whatever reason, if a majority have lost confidence in them, and it certainly is not subject to approval by a central authority. The right should exist not just in respect of MPs but at every level: councillors, the Greater London authority, mayors, mayoral candidates, representatives and so on. This country could not be further from that at present.
I accept that this does not happen in practice, but, theoretically, it is possible for a new MP to jet off to the Bahamas the day after the election, delegate all their parliamentary and constituency work to a team of people employed at public expense and return four or five years down the line, probably to be booted out in the next election. It is likely that they would be deselected by their local party; if not, they would have the Whip removed by the central party. Nevertheless, the fact remains that the local people who put them in position would not be represented at all during the entire lifetime of the Parliament. True recall would change all that, and would make politics much less remote and much more responsive. I urge the Minister to look again seriously at the Government’s plans.
My second and final point, before I hand over, relates to local referendums. This, too, is something that the coalition Government have promised to facilitate. In my view, such referendums are absolutely key. If people have pulled away from politics—I do not believe that anyone can really argue with that—it is not because of a lack of interest in politics. Millions and millions of people around the country have signed up to pressure groups, a million people marched against the war in Iraq, and half a million people marched against the ban on hunting. We have endless examples of a very political population.
The reason why people are pulling away from the political process is that it has become far too remote, and that is true at every level of political activity. It is true at the level of the European Union, as has been debated ad nauseam in Parliament itself. It is certainly almost inconceivable to ordinary people that they could influence any decision made at any level in the EU.
Nationally, the equation is only marginally more favourable. In real terms, in the 1,500 or so days between general elections, people are denied any meaningful access to the decision-making process. Local authorities, meanwhile, have been almost completely stripped of their powers; in effect, they have been neutered. There is very little their local electors would expect them to do that they can do.
Direct democracy would provide a direct answer. It is a simple concept: it would allow people to intervene on any local issue at a time of their choosing. Assuming that they have majority support, decisions could be challenged and new ideas could be proposed. The direction of local political activity would be determined by the people most likely to be affected by those decisions.
The Government have said that they will introduce local referendums, but the details remain unknown. They mostly relate to the mechanics: how referendums would be triggered, on what issues could they be triggered, and so on. The really big issue is whether the results of referendums would be binding. It would be a huge mistake if, as some people fear, the proposal is simply to give people the power to force their representatives to debate an issue.
There is an argument that councils would feel obliged to adhere to the results of a local referendum held in their area, but, in reality, that is merely a far-flung hope. We can all reel off endless examples of local authorities ignoring local opinion, hiding behind bureaucratic procedure and so on. In reality, non-binding referendums would be an expensive gesture. We would almost be better off without them, and I say that as someone who is passionately committed to introducing them.
I thank my hon. Friend for securing this important debate. Would he agree that a corollary of having binding referendums is a requirement that the decisions that voters attempt to influence are those that the people on whom they are binding can indeed influence? He referred to the impotence of local government. Would it not be an absolute requirement of binding local referendums that there should be a great deal more flexibility for local governments to fund themselves and spend as they wish?
I strongly agree with everything that my hon. Friend just said. I am thrilled that the coalition Government have already begun a programme of radical decentralisation. I believe that 1,200 targets were imposed on local government in the past 13 years—the figure may be slightly out, but it is thereabouts. The effect is that local authorities cannot do the things the electorate expect them to do. That means they often hide behind that ambiguity when it comes to unpopular decisions, but also that they often get the blame for bad decisions when the fault lies with central Government. I absolutely accept that both processes need to happen at the same time.
Shortly before the election, a major part of the coalition Government—the Conservative party—invited people to join the British Government. It was a message that went down well in some quarters, and one that I certainly welcomed. If we do not introduce binding referendums, we will undermine the very core of our message. It would be almost an insult to voters, who would be told, in effect, that they are not to be trusted with taking decisions that directly affect their lives.
I have set out provisions for genuine recall in my recall of elected representatives Bill, and for binding local referendums in my local referendums Bill. I shall publish them soon, and I hope that Members will support them. More importantly, I hope that the Government will incorporate them in forthcoming legislation.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) on securing this debate. It is fundamentally important that we consider ways to revive our moribund democracy. I would go so far as to say that, if one good thing came out of the previous, rotten Parliament, it was a recognition that there is something profoundly wrong with our democratic system and that we need change.
It is not surprising that our democratic system is not working, given that seven out of 10 constituencies are safe seats—one-party fiefdoms—which makes Members of Parliament inwardly accountable and inwardly responsive to party Whips, rather than outwardly responsive to the people. Direct democracy can help us change that in two or three key ways and I am pleased that the Government are toying with some ideas. However, with respect, I fear that Sir Humphrey Appleby and the powers that be in Whitehall fear the full implications of direct democracy and are already trying to water down some of the radical intentions of the coalition agenda.
Open primaries are the most significant way that we can make democracy outwardly accountable and responsive. Instead of leaving it to the party machines and hierarchies in London to decide who gets to be a Member of this legislature, we can have open primaries to throw open the question, particularly in safe seats. If Senator John McCain, a well-known national figure in the United States who has stood for the office of President, is forced to contest the nomination to be the Republican candidate in his home state, Tory, Labour and Liberal MPs in safe seats should be subject to the same process.
We must ensure that open primaries are not open caucuses. They must be full elections involving the entire constituency, rather than just matters of sectional, self-selecting self-interest. We must overcome the problem of the cost. In this country we have had three open primaries: in Totnes and Gosport, and for the Mayor of London. The cost was prohibitive in other constituencies. We must, without resorting to state subsidy, taxpayer-funded politics or, heaven forbid, giving the party chairman the power to decide where open primaries should be held, find a way of allowing people to have a say about who gets to be the candidate in their constituency. A simple way to do that is to piggyback primaries on to pre-existing local ballots and allow people to petition their returning officers to trigger the process.
I hope that the Government listen and get this right, because if they get it wrong it will mean strengthening the power of the big corporate party hierarchies in London, rather than opening up democracy to local people.
The Government need to get two other things right. People should be allowed a direct say in law-making. Rather than contracting out the process to a professional caste of politicians and a priesthood of party managers, we should allow people a direct say. I am delighted that the Government are toying with the idea of a great repeal Bill—a freedom Bill—written by the people. However, I fear that they are not running this project as a wiki Bill, like the wiki Bill on Wikiversity, which is run completely as a crowd-sourced, open-source project. Instead, they are running it as a Government-owned online consultation. The difference is that, if something is genuinely crowd-sourced and the people are allowed a say, it tends to be pretty optimistic and liberal and is not dominated by demands to legalise cannabis, for example. There tends to be a much more angry and illiberal exchange in respect of a project on a Government-owned website. I hope that the Government amend the online architecture of their freedom Bill proposal, replace it with what is available free on the Wikiversity site and try to introduce the latter to the House.
The Government talked about a right of popular initiative, meaning that, instead of leaving it to the Sir Humphrey Applebys and a few Ministers to decide the legislative agenda of the Commons, we should give the people a say. There was a wonderful proposal for a threshold mechanism, under which, if a proposal got a certain number of signatures it would be introduced or at least given time and MPs would be forced to debate and vote on it. I ask the architects of this proposal in Whitehall, again, to be cautious about allowing thresholds for this popular initiative. A far better way of ensuring that the outcome is liberal and inclusive—sunshine politics, rather than reactionary, angry and sectional politics—is to ensure that different proposals have to compete for Floor time in the House of Commons, rather than having to pass a certain threshold. If we allow the threshold mechanism to be used, we would be asking for proposals that, as a liberal, I would feel uncomfortable supporting.
I hope the Government listen to these concerns and ensure that, through the mechanisms they introduce, direct democracy means more liberalism, rather than reactionary illiberalism.
I am grateful for your chairmanship of this debate, Mrs Brooke. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) for calling the debate and my hon. Friend the Member for Clacton (Mr Carswell) for chipping in with his thoughts on direct democracy.
My hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park correctly set out some of the problems that we face, including public engagement with Parliament. Some issues with the previous Parliament that my hon. Friend the Member for Clacton highlighted are well known, which is why political and constitutional reform is one of this Government’s central features. We need to ensure that people are properly engaged with Parliament and politics—those are not always the same thing—and that we do a much better job than the previous Government did.
Let me respond to the two things that my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park mentioned: recall and local referendums. I will come to the issues raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Clacton later. The prominence given to recall by all three major political parties at the general election reflected its importance. There was consensus among all those parties, particularly off the back of the expenses scandal, that we needed to do something to deal with that issue.
Under the Government’s proposal, which my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park does not think goes far enough, the recall mechanism would be set in motion only if there were, effectively, a trigger—if an MP were engaged in serious wrongdoing. At that point, if 10% of constituents signed a petition, a by-election would be triggered in which the individual would be able to stand and defend their record. Effectively, that would put the decision in the hands of the people.
We decided to do that to deal with specific issues in the previous Parliament, because members of the public were rightly saying, in respect of matters raised with an MP early in the Parliament, “We’ve got an MP who’s been judged to have fallen below the standards we expected, but they can continue sitting in Parliament, taking their salary for the rest of the Parliament and there’s nothing we can do about it.”
My hon. Friend thinks that we should go further. We balanced that right because we do not want this mechanism used as a political tool by political opponents, with Members of Parliament consistently being faced with a recall challenge based on nothing more than the fact that people disagree with them.
I respect the Minister’s statement that it is important that we should not have a system that allows vexatious attempts against good, legitimately elected MPs, but will he consider the example of Winchester in 1997, when a vexatious attempt was made by the Tories to trigger a judicially sanctioned recall election because they felt that they had lost, unfairly, by two votes? They went on to lose that election by more than 20,000 votes. Surely, we should trust the people, who have pretty good judgment to decide what is and is not a legitimate complaint against a Member of Parliament.
I remember that well, as I suspect my hon. Friend does. I went tramping round the streets of Winchester in that rather thankless by-election.
In his article in the press, my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park mentioned the Californian recall system, through which every governor since Ronald Reagan in 1968 has faced a recall petition. Clearly, most of those petitions were not successful. The state of California is of a significant size, compared with the United Kingdom, and it takes a fair amount of organisation and initiative to even get a recall petition sorted out.
Given the size of a parliamentary constituency and that most hon. Members face significant blocks of Opposition voters, recall could easily turn into a tool used by our political opponents. I will explain in a moment why I think that that would be particularly bad, and I will try to do so in a way that my hon. Friend the Member for Clacton will find appealing.
That is right. I hinted at that in my remarks. Let me mention one reason why recall would not be a good idea. My hon. Friend the Member for Clacton wants legislators and those in positions of power to be fearless and to put forward bold ideas—to be able to come up with challenging ideas, demonstrate them and argue for them in public. I think that I have characterised some of his views correctly. Under the recall system that we are talking about, legislators could be subject to recall by their constituents at any moment. If that fact were held over MPs, it would drive away any opportunity to set out bold or challenging ideas that took a while to deliver.
If someone had an idea involving a tough and difficult period with a payback taking some time to come to fruition, and if there were a recall petition hanging over them that could be triggered for political reasons, I suspect that they would be off. People who wanted to bring forward bold and radical ideas would be deterred, and the proposal would have the opposite effect.
I do not wish to labour the point, but under our proposal, recall would be a two-stage process. The people, rather than a committee of grandees in this place, would decide in a vote whether there should be a recall, and there would then be a by-election. I would rather face the judgment of the good people of my constituency than a committee of grandees in Whitehall.
I understand why my hon. Friend might think that, but Members of Parliament might feel constant pressure. There is always a challenge in politics when putting forward bold ideas and having time to allow them to come to fruition before facing people’s judgment.
Those of us in the business of putting forward such ideas, whether in Government or outside, must make a judgment, and the Government’s view is that it would not be sensible if a recall could be triggered at any time without there having been serious wrongdoing. We have set out what we want to do, and triggering a recall on serious wrongdoing was a policy proposed in the manifestos of all three major parties at the last election. My hon. Friends the Members for Richmond Park and for Clacton still have some way to go to persuade the Government to change position.
I turn to local government. Reference was made to whether recall should apply to other elected officials. Clearly, we want high standards of behaviour from local councillors, as well as from Members of Parliament. We have announced that we will replace the existing standards regime, which is centralist and leads to vexatious complaints. We are working closely with colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government and local colleagues to decide what sort of regime will replace that. My hon. Friends had a meeting with the Minister with responsibility for decentralisation earlier this week, and I know that he will welcome any ideas about what that regime should look like.
I understand what has been said about the need for politicians to be able to make bold statements and to think outside the box, but the recall process would necessarily take many months. The right to trigger a recall would have to be activated and in turn, if that were successful, it would lead to a by-election in which the same candidate—the person who had been recalled—could stand. The process would be lengthy, and the time would give any challenged MP, local councillor, MEP and so on an opportunity to sell their ideas to the electorate. If they failed, they would lose their job, and that would be a consequence of democracy.
I am sure that every hon. Member here can think of individual local councillors who waste public money and deliver almost nothing. There must be a mechanism that allows local people who feel under-represented by councillors in safe wards, and who are given a limited menu of options at elections, to assert themselves and to ensure that they are properly represented. I again urge the Minister to consider including councillors in the recall mechanism.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) for this debate. Engagement with the public is vital, particularly now. We need to know that we can hold our elected representatives to account. In respect of the recall mechanism and direct democracy, is there not a need for greater sanctions within the establishment as a whole so that the public can see what goes on in the House and in their councils, and whether they are being correctly dealt with internally, as well as externally?
My hon. Friend raises a good point. I referred to the standards regime and one reason why we will sweep that away is that we do not believe that it works adequately. The Secretary of State said that if councillors are guilty of illegality, sanctions and a system exist to deal with that. If they are guilty of political foolishness, the ultimate sanction is that electors can throw them out. That is why we will change the conduct regime, and we are considering how to do so. I am not sure what my hon. Friend is proposing on specifics, but that is why we will change the system.
In the few minutes remaining, I want to touch on the local referendum issue, which is a little closer to what my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park was talking about. We want to give citizens much more say in terms of local referendums than at the moment. We have made a commitment to give local residents the power to trigger local referendums on local issues. That was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley (George Hollingbery). The issue must be local and the local authority must be able to do something about it.
We intend to include the necessary legal provisions as part of the Decentralism and Localism Bill, which was announced in the Queen’s Speech. That work will be taken forward by the Minister with responsibility for decentralisation. The measures will set out the nature of local referendums and whether and in what circumstances they will be binding.
My hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park touched on the extent to which authorities will be bound by the decision. This is a significant step forward. At the moment, local authorities can have referendums, but they, not local people, decide whether to have them. Clearly, my hon. Friend will engage in that debate and consider the Government’s proposals when they are published later this autumn.
Something else that we will do—this was set out in the coalition programme for government, and my hon. Friend the Member for Clacton touched on it—is to ensure that any petition that secures 100,000 signatures will be eligible for debate in Parliament. The petition with the most signatures will enable members of the public to table a Bill that will be debated and voted on in the House.
I listened carefully to what my hon. Friend said about how we should deal with the details of that proposal to ensure—this will be music to the ears of the Deputy Prime Minister—that measures that are brought forward are liberal rather than illiberal. We will announce details of that proposal in due course; they are currently being worked on. I will share the views of my hon. Friend with the Deputy Prime Minister and the Leader of the House. We will think about them as we develop our proposals. That is a positive step forward.
My hon. Friend knows that the coalition Government’s programme includes a commitment for open primaries. I heard what he said about how he would like them to operate, and I have taken careful note of that. I will pass on to the Deputy Prime Minister his thoughts about how the debate on what is in the freedom or great repeal bill could be more liberal than the way in which the Government are undertaking it.
My final point picks up on the intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley about local government and its scope. I hope that he will be pleased that, to promote devolution of power and greater financial autonomy, we have made a commitment to have a review of local government finance. That is a brave undertaking, given the history of local government finance reviews, but we want to do it because it is clear that unless local authorities are given more control over revenue and money, we cannot shift more power in that direction.
The Government have said that they will have a serious and wide-ranging examination of local government finance and its powers, I hope that my hon. Friend will welcome that. It is an important measure to give local authorities more power and responsibility, and will make the ability to have referendums and to engage local people in what local authorities do more meaningful. It is meaningless to have local referendums if the local authority cannot do much in response.
The coalition Government’s package of political and constitutional measures that come under the heading of direct democracy, even if they do not go as far as my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park wants, are a step forward in reconnecting this House and this Parliament with the country and getting the public to feel that they have more ownership of how we do politics.
It is good to see you in the Chair this afternoon, Mrs Brooke. I am in the Chamber to talk about what I believe to be the most important issue in Parliament—my constituency. Of course, every hon. Member quite rightly thinks the same thing about their own constituency. As hon. Members will know, I represent the new town of Telford that was so designated in the 1960s and is one of the most successful new towns built post-world war two. The town comprises a mix of older communities on the east Shropshire coalfield such as Oakengates, Dawley and Madeley. In the 1960s, a number of new developments were created to infill the area between those towns. In many ways, the community is rooted in east Shropshire, although people have moved in, largely from the west midlands conurbation, when issues such as overcrowding and slum clearance were tackled during the 1960s.
There is a big challenge facing all new towns as a result of the fact that, because they were designated at a particular time, the fabric of the town ages over the same time period. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, significant parts of the new town estates in Telford needed to be regenerated. In addition, the older communities in our town also needed support and investment over time. Therefore, there is a mix of older towns that, as I have said, are focused around mining communities, engineering and heavy industry, much of which has now sadly gone. There are also new town estates that were designed in the 1960s and often based on the Radburn layout where non-traditional design patterns and architectural patterns were used to put housing estates together. That has thrown up a series of challenges that I will touch on in my speech.
I will now run through Telford geographically, going broadly from north to south, touching on the issues confronting each particular community. Before I do so, I will mention two key issues. First, housing has got to be the cornerstone of any regeneration activity. It was right for that to be the case when the new town was designated, and it is right for that to be the case now. There are a large number of people on the housing waiting list in Telford, with over 10,000 people seeking social housing. Over the past 20 to 30 years, we have not built enough social housing in the town and we must address that problem. I do not place blame on any particular Government; we must come together and acknowledge that we need more social and rented housing. That must be the cornerstone of our regeneration strategy.
Secondly, Building Schools for the Future is proving to be particularly successful in Telford, where the Minister will be pleased to know that the BSF programme is going ahead, largely because it has been well put together. The initial bid by the old council was good, as are the schemes being pursued by the existing council. It is a pleasure to say that I support the scheme and welcome the fact that it is continuing and that we will see over £100 million of investment in new schools across Telford. Some schools have already been rebuilt and are proving incredibly popular with pupils and parents. In many communities, those new schools will form the focal point of regeneration activity, which is why I am delighted that the programme is going ahead and will be effective in towns such as Dawley and Stirchley, and right across the borough.
I would now like to canter through some of the local communities and mention one or two of the key issues and challenges facing them. My home town is Oakengates, which is one of the older communities in Telford. I shall begin by saying what an excellent job the chamber of trade is doing in trying to sustain and promote the local economy through its activities and its superb website, visitoakengates.com. I grew up in Oakengates, which has received investment over recent years. The theatre has been refurbished, and there has been a significant amount of housing-led regeneration on former industrial sites throughout the town. Partner agencies have come in, such as the Salvation Army, which redeveloped a new hall that is a fabulous facility. We have also seen investment through the primary care trust and with GPs in new surgeries. However, Oakengates faces continuing challenges that are the same as those confronting many towns. The street environment needs to be improved—I know that the council has been talking to the community about that. The town has serious parking problems, which are dangerous. We must redesign the centre of the town to make it more attractive to retailers and the public, and we must make parking safer.
There used to be a vibrant market, and there are still two or three stalls on market day, but there used to be a lot more. We need to see a revitalised market in Oakengates and in other towns across Telford. Perhaps the Government should go back to the drawing board and think again about how to promote markets, not just in Telford but across the UK, and what more we can do to support their establishment and survival.
In many ways, Oakengates is the centre of the night-time economy in Telford, and CCTV provision must be improved and enhanced. There is also an old, classic building called the Walker Tech. I know it well, but it has fallen into disrepair and is boarded up. It and must be brought back into use as quickly as possible. It is owned by a private developer who I hope we can encourage to bring the scheme forward. The Government must think about how they can encourage developers who own older, empty buildings to bring forward investment and bring classic old buildings, such as the Walker Tech, back into use.
Another area I want to mention is St Georges, which I also know well, as it is where I went to school. Continuing with my theme, there is another classic building in St Georges called the Gower street youth club. It was an old school building but it is now empty. It could be converted into flats to provide high-quality accommodation, but again, that scheme needs to be developed quickly. I gathered a petition of over 300 signatures from people in St Georges who want the building to be brought back into use. We must develop a strategy for new youth provision in St Georges. Regeneration is not only about bricks, mortar and fabric but about sustaining communities. As I have said, youth provision was taken away when the Gower street youth club was closed, and it has never been properly replaced. There are also significant parking issues in St Georges.
I will now briefly mention one of the new town areas—Hollinswood and Randlay. Hollinswood is a classic new town estate based almost on a Radburn-style layout with a road network that is different from a traditional road layout. We need investment in the fabric and in things such as estate roads and footpaths. It is simple: often, regeneration is not about grandiose large schemes but about sustaining the investment that has already been made. In Hollinswood, we need investment in the local centre and in the general infrastructure of the estate.
To the council’s credit, plans for the Randlay centre are extremely good, but we need to get on with them as quickly as possible. The community has been waiting for a long time to see the local centre in Randlay redeveloped. It is a partnership with the private sector; it is a good scheme and it should be moved forward as quickly as possible.
Dawley was the town on which the new town is based. It was called Dawley new town before being redesignated as Telford. Dawley is an old community that has undergone a lot of change. I welcome the investment in Dawley centre even though I have concerns and reservations about the new bandstand in the centre of the town and the reintroduction of traffic to the high street. However, I am open-minded and willing to be proved wrong about my concerns.
I very much welcome the investment going into Dawley, but we must do more, as we need a renewed drive against antisocial behaviour in the high street. I continue to raise that with the police, as it is an ongoing problem. Local residents constantly say to me that it is a serious issue, particularly at night. When they go in to use the town, there are gangs of young people concentrated in the town. We need to divert those people and give them something else to do, but we also need to crack down on antisocial behaviour, which is unacceptable. That must be a priority for the police in Dawley.
We also need the market back in the high street in Dawley on a Friday. Because of the street works, the market has been moved to the adjacent car park. We need to get the market back in the high street as quickly as we can, so that we can support local traders and continue to have a popular market in Dawley.
Stirchley is another new town estate, and is a good example of where Building Schools for the Future will sustain the area and help us to develop a new local centre with a focus. It is a good example of how investment through a project such as BSF can come together with a range of partners—the private sector, retailers and the health service—to remodel a local centre. I look forward to seeing exciting plans relating to Stirchley.
Brookside in my constituency is another new town area that needs investment. The local centre is a mess. The buildings are incredibly unattractive, and the street pattern has turned the area in on itself. It needs to be cleared and redeveloped, and we need to put together an exciting initiative, in partnership with the private sector, if that is to happen. There are serious street drinking problems outside that local centre, and the police need to deal with that effectively.
The Wrekin Housing Trust has been using people engaged in the future jobs fund to progress improvements on the estate. Unfortunately, that programme is coming to an end. More than 20 people have been involved. I would like to think that agencies could look again at how we engage people, through schemes such as the future jobs fund or a replacement for it, to get people active, cleaning up neighbourhoods and receiving training as well. We need Government support to develop a major regeneration plan for the Brookside area.
One of the first major regeneration schemes that we pursued in Telford was at Woodside. I am very proud to have been involved in that project over the years, right from its start. We have done some fantastic work up there. We are now starting to see work progress on the local centre and on the area to the east of the estate, which needs to be redesigned. I would like to hear from the Minister today an ongoing commitment to Woodside. I am sure that he will be able to give one—I hope he will—because the project is the lynchpin of regeneration in southern Telford.
Similarly, I would like the Minister to give a commitment to further investment on Sutton Hill, which was the first new town estate to be built. It has major design and infrastructure needs. There is a big scheme on the anvil to redevelop the centre of the estate, alongside the investment that has been made in the children’s centre and in the new school over recent years. There is a very positive agenda for Sutton Hill, but the local centre needs to be remodelled, and we have to examine the layout of the rest of the estate as well, because regeneration does not just involve the centre. We need to remodel the roadways and the neighbourhoods, because of the design of the estate.
I welcome the work that the police have done in recent weeks to tackle fire starting in Sutton Hill. Someone has been setting fire to vehicles and caravans there. The police have been working very hard on that, with information from the local community, and I very much welcome that. However, there are other issues of antisocial behaviour on Sutton Hill where, at night, young people gather and intimidate others. We need to think about how we police that area and, again, how we divert the people involved and make the environment safe.
I have mentioned a number of new town estates, and one of the big issues on those estates is empty homes, which are often owned by private landlords, who perhaps own one, two or three properties. They are very often absentee landlords who do not look after their properties. The Government need to re-examine how to secure possession of those empty homes, which are owned by a single landlord or small groups of landlords, because they drag an area down very quickly and a whole street can be blighted if one property is empty.
Madeley is a good example of how the private sector can lead regeneration. The scheme in Madeley is excellent, and I congratulate Tesco on the fantastic job that is has done there. The centre has been completely revitalised through a good partnership with Tesco, involving investment in the local street scene, rather than an out-of-town store. Tesco deserves some credit for that.
I now want to discuss Telford town centre, where there are a number of key private sector interests and where the local authority, too, has its offices. There is a real opportunity to transform the environment and create a lively centre with high-quality shopping, entertainment and office and residential development. My concern is that the partners are not producing a comprehensive vision for the area because the owners of the shopping centre—Hark Group Ltd—and the local authority seem to be at odds over the best way to proceed.
The council sold its Malinslee House headquarters to Asda, which is moving out of the shopping centre. I disagreed with that decision, as the original plans for the redevelopment of the Telford centre envisaged the Malinslee House site as a mix of residential, office and small retail units. In my view, that is still the best use of the site. That said, local government means just that—government, not administration. The council has taken its decision democratically, which is fair enough. However, I am concerned that an application by Hark to create a new supermarket and a range of smaller shops and restaurants on the Red Oak car park site has been with the council for some nine months. That application must be determined as soon as possible. Hark invested £450 million when it purchased the Telford shopping centre, and that scheme could provide 400 jobs that the town desperately needs.
I welcome the initiative in the town centre to redevelop the Southwater area, and the council and the Southwater Event Group seem to be working well together. The Telford international centre is, by the nature of its name, a venue of international quality, and we need to support it fully. There is a real opportunity to transform the environment and we should grasp it.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on initiating this important debate. He is a fair-minded Member of the House, so will he congratulate Conservative-controlled Telford and Wrekin council on the regeneration partnerships that it has already formed and the regeneration not only of wards in his constituency, but of market towns in other parts of the borough? Also, will he put on the record his support for the formation of a local enterprise partnership with Shropshire council and other stakeholders in the county and in the borough, devolving powers from Advantage West Midlands to ensure that rural areas and places such as Telford and Wrekin—urban areas—receive more funding, rather than just urban areas in Birmingham?
It is good to see my hon. Friend, as I shall call him, here this afternoon. There has been a good record, under both the Labour Administration and the Conservative Administration we have now, of putting together partnerships. Woodside was put together under the Labour Administration and has been very successful. Other partnerships put together by the Conservative-controlled council have also been successful. I do not think there is a need for us to divide up on that. We have a good record over a number of decades of putting together regeneration programmes, which is positive. We are meeting about the local enterprise structures in the next two or three weeks, and I shall be keen to see what the council is proposing on that score.
I am conscious of the time and I wanted to secure from the Minister a commitment to the regeneration programmes that we currently have in Telford through a confirmation from him that existing funding is safe, that schemes will be completed and that budgets through the local government settlement and through the Homes and Communities Agency will be protected. I would like to think that he will agree to commit the HCA to work with the local community on the creation of new regeneration plans for areas such as Brookside, and that he will look positively on proposals that may be made to extend the scope of regeneration activity under way or planned in areas such as Sutton Hill.
Finally, will the Minister take another look at some of the housing issues? Housing will be a central element of our plans to regenerate the town. Will he consider any proposals that may be made to develop more social housing in the town and will he take another look—a serious look—at empty homes and their impact, not just in Telford but throughout the country?
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mrs Brooke. I join in the congratulations to the hon. Member for Telford (David Wright) on securing the debate, which he has made full use of on behalf of his constituents. In addition, I welcome my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard), who is also interested in this issue. It is an important one, and I appreciate the way in which the hon. Gentleman put his case.
Regeneration is something to which the Government are absolutely committed, and I was interested and pleased to learn about Telford and Wrekin’s ambitious regeneration agenda and the projects and programmes that were mentioned, including the multi-million pound borough town initiative. That tailored approach to meeting the needs of six individual and distinctively different towns demonstrates the importance of local understanding in developing successful regeneration programmes.
Local people have not only the knowledge but, more importantly, a vested interest in the best sense of that phrase in driving forward the changes needed to improve their communities and areas. That is why the Government are committed to devolving power to neighbourhoods, scrapping regional planning and allowing communities and local councils such as Telford and Wrekin to have much greater control and power over their own destiny. By removing the regional tier of government and abolishing the regional development agencies, neighbourhoods—and their councils and partners, as we heard—will finally be at the very heart of regeneration.
I am conscious, however, that no two areas are the same and that each has its own priorities and faces its own challenges. That was amply demonstrated by the hon. Gentleman. That is why we invited local authorities and business leaders to form local enterprise partnerships. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman looks forward to finding out the details. My hon. Friend is right that there is a bid from the local authorities and the business community in the Marches to join local authorities in forming exactly such a partnership, with interventions focusing on enterprise, employment, planning and housing, transport and infrastructure, education and skills, sustainability and strategic leadership. I know that the bid picks up on a number of those factors, including housing, education and skills, which were referred to during the debate.
Those partnerships are key regeneration vehicles. They will empower local areas to provide the strategic leadership needed to drive economic growth and enterprise and to meet local priorities. It will give local authorities, businesses and the voluntary sector the opportunity to join in rationalising existing arrangements and focus economic activity at the local level. Those reforms, together with the new general power of competence, will make it easier for local authorities to bring about real change and drive forward the regeneration that their communities want.
Alongside that more permissive neighbourhood-based approach to delivering regeneration, we are developing a new way of thinking. We need to get away from the idea that things can be fixed only through Government intervention. The Government are not always needed to fix things. We need to get into the habit of finding local solutions to local problems, driven by local people. However, that does not mean that the Government are entirely out of the picture; of course we have a responsibility to provide communities with the right incentives, tools and information that they need if we want them to participate actively in the regeneration and economic growth of their local areas.
That is why, in addition to the introduction of local enterprise partnerships, the Government are establishing a £1 billion regional growth fund to provide support for projects that offer significant potential for sustainable economic growth that can create new private sector employment. As hon. Members know, the fund will operate for two years and will play a central role in rebalancing the economy in those regions where, historically, there may have been some reliance on public sector spending. Proposals for that could come from both private and public bodies—and, I hope, private-public partnerships. I am sure that local enterprise partnerships will play a key role in that process.
I am conscious that the spending review dominates a great deal of thinking at this time. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that I cannot pre-empt its results.
The local enterprise partnership submission to the Government from Shropshire, Telford, Wrekin, Herefordshire, the Marches and business partners makes various recommendations and requests. One relates to the Homes and Communities Agency, which has significant assets in Telford and Wrekin. I hope that the Government will look carefully and favourably on allowing HCA assets to come to the LEP in order that regeneration can take place locally.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. I am aware of that ambition, and Ministers in my Department and in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills will want to consider the bid carefully. I am glad that the LEPs are ambitious in such matters. We will obviously need to consider the detail of the bid, which was received only recently. I am sure that the growth of LEPs, together with the regional grown fund, will be of benefit for exactly that sort of consideration.
I am well aware of the hon. Gentleman’s interest in housing and housing growth in Telford. He spoke of the shortage of affordable housing in the borough. Areas such as Telford, where there appears to be a recognition of the need for housing and a willingness to grow, are precisely the areas that will stand to benefit from the Government’s new homes bonus scheme, particularly in relation to the need for social or other affordable housing. Funding at 125% will be a particular incentive for such authorities. I am sure that that will be a material benefit.
I understand that Telford was one of the first authorities in the west midlands to develop a local investment plan with the HCA, in which it set out its key housing priorities for the next three years. As we have heard, it is focusing on town centre renaissance and regeneration, including the projects referred to by the hon. Gentleman, and the establishment of a housing and regeneration partnership board with the borough council and the HCA—another good example of community working.
In relation to the specifics of Woodside raised by the hon. Gentleman, I am aware that Telford and Wrekin council is currently working out proposals for the next phase of the project, including the provision of affordable homes, open space and the remodelling of existing areas. We will of course consider those proposals with interest. I hope that the levers that we have will encourage the council. Similarly, in relation to Sutton Hill, the first phase is under way, focusing on the local centre benefiting from HCA investment, match-funded by the local authority, and the strategy for future phases is being considering further by Telford and Wrekin council. Again, we look forward to seeing its proposals.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned empty housing; he made a fair point. It is still a problem in various parts of the country, and local authorities have a key role in identifying empty homes and working with owners to bring them back into use. The Government have given a commitment to explore a range of measures to bring empty homes back into use, and we began the process in the summer and autumn as outlined in the Department for Communities and Local Government’s structural reform plan. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will have seen that plan; it is available on the website. Again, the power of general competence gives a further potential lever for local authorities to use in that regard.
I turn to the question of markets. As a local councillor, I had a spell as chairman of my borough council’s markets committee. It was a fascinating period of my political life. Markets make an important contribution to the local economy. We are alert to the matter, and my fellow Minister, the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell), is working on the matter and will shortly be issuing further proposals. We hope to work with the market and retail sectors, giving advice and support for existing markets and encouraging new ones. The Government can work with the retail sector to encourage such things. The hon. Gentleman has made a timely intervention on that topic, and we are endeavouring to take it on board.
I look forward in due course to finding out more about Telford. I have done my best to deal with the points raised by the hon. Gentleman, and I am grateful to him for having drawn those points to our attention.
Question put and agreed to.