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Sustainable Communities Act 2007

Volume 518: debated on Tuesday 16 November 2010

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Turner.

Back in 2007, I was one of the sponsors of the Sustainable Communities Bill, which was so ably steered through its various stages by the hon. Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (Mr Hurd), who is now a Parliamentary Secretary in the Cabinet Office. I know that he would agree that the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 is rightfully the legitimate offspring of more than 120 national organisations, which came together under the umbrella of Local Works.

Pressure for the Act came out of the experience of people up and down this country who had watched their communities decline over the years and who recognised what that meant for their quality of life. At the heart of the problem was the loss of key local services. There was the closure of a fifth of the post office network in just a decade, and the loss of a quarter of our local grocery stores; also, a fifth of local bank branches went over that same time frame. More than 30,000 community retailers were painted out of the picture.

However, that process was not just about the high street or the village store, but about the quality of our public spaces and the run-down of community halls, community centres and children’s playgrounds. In addition, it was about recognising that losing community resources is not only bad for the local environment but impacts on the bigger picture, as it forces people to travel further and further from home to gain access to what used to be on their doorsteps. At the same time, Local Works and its contingent parts observed our country’s increasing disengagement with politics, while also picking up the message that people are prepared to re-engage and get involved if they believe they can make a difference by doing so.

The philosophy behind the drive for what became the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 is simple. First, community decline is a national and ongoing problem, and it will clearly worsen if nothing is done. Secondly, in most instances, the best efforts of local citizens and communities will not be enough to reverse the trend, so Government must help. However, communities are the experts on local problems and the solutions to them, so Government actions must be directed by communities and not central diktat. What was needed was a mechanism by which local people could drive Government action to reverse community decline and promote local sustainability. The Act was and is the vehicle for doing so.

I have said that the Act is the baby of the Local Works coalition. So it is, and I congratulate the coalition, but we should remember that the gestation period was very long and that a succession of hon. Members volunteered to act as midwife along the way. Essentially the same legislation was promoted by Julia Goldsworthy, by the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker), now Minister of State at the Department of Energy and Climate Change, and by the much-missed David Drew, then MP for Stroud. That demonstrates the cross-party nature of support for the legislation, just as early-day motion signatures and attendance at the Second Reading debate in 2007 demonstrated the strength and depth of that support in all parties.

One thing that united MPs with the organisations and communities so actively campaigning on the issue was the determination that the Act should not be just another consultation exercise. Of course consultation has a valuable place in our political development, but to reverse community decline, we needed something that delivered rather more. The Act sets in law for the first time a bottom-up process in which central Government have a duty to co-operate and reach agreement with the designated selector, the Local Government Association, on which proposals for Government action made by communities and councils will be implemented.

What has happened since the passing of the Act? In October 2008, the previous Government launched the first invitation of proposals. Local Works responded by holding more public meetings across the country, and organisations, communities and individuals lobbied their councils to resolve to use the Act. Some 100 local authorities responded, and in partnership with their communities they drew up 300 proposals for Government action and submitted them to the Local Government Association by the end of July 2009.

The scope and breadth of the proposals is eye-opening. They included measures to protect local post offices, shops, pubs and other suppliers; to increase the sale and production of local food; to protect local public services; to promote local renewable energy, microgeneration, energy efficiency and recycling; and to increase democratic participation. The wide-ranging nature of the proposals showed how enthusiastic communities had become about various aspects of the sustainability agenda.

The Local Government Association shortlisted 199 of the proposals and submitted them to the Government in January this year. Of those 199, Local Works identified 30 that it described as a vision for local sustainability, arguing that it is vital that the Government agree those proposals to protect and create truly sustainable communities. Many of the proposals involve no extra financial burden to the Treasury, as they simply devolve power, give councils new powers or change existing rules. So far, so good.

In preparing for this debate, I read the Hansard report of the Third Reading debate on the Sustainable Communities Bill. It is noteworthy that Members from all parties regarded the Bill as important legislation, especially for a private Member’s Bill. It is also noteworthy how many of them—including Ministers in the current coalition Government—looked forward to seeing the Act’s impact. There was a sense of urgency in the Chamber on that day.

The situation in which we find ourselves is therefore astonishing and extremely disappointing. To date, no negotiations have been reported between Government and the Local Government Association, as required by the Act, to reach agreement on the shortlisted proposals. Delaying doing good is always a cause for concern, but I believe that in this case there is an additional danger. Many people have spent time and energy getting involved in identifying how the Act can deliver for communities throughout the country. The feedback I have seen shows that some of those people are becoming extremely disillusioned, and disillusionment is often followed by disengagement.

To demonstrate that point, I shall quote from a few councillors and organisations worried by what they see as unnecessary delay. Councillor Anne Ward of South Hams district council said:

“It’s a disgrace that there’s been no movement on this for over a year—makes you wonder why we all bothered!”

Councillor Richard Robinson of Broxtowe borough council said:

“It has now been over a year and three months since proposals were submitted and yet they have still not been dealt with by the Government. There is now widespread grave concern that the huge numbers of people who put their time and energy into getting involved in the Act are becoming disillusioned and disengaged.”

Councillor Clare Hopkinson of Warwickshire county council said:

“It is unacceptable that government moves so slowly.”

Councillor Elaine Hall of Moor Monkton parish council said:

“It has now been a year and three months since these proposals were put before government and we need to see some action.”

Councillor Robert Dyson of Shadwell parish council wrote to the Minister, saying:

“I gather that 300 ideas were finally put forward to the last government some 15 months ago, since which time there has been neither feedback nor action.”

Tellingly, he went on:

“You are now part of a new Government, which is promoting the idea of the ‘Big Society’. If the idea is to be something more than a mere slogan, can you please give me some assurance that some active consideration will be given to the ideas put forward to promote local sustainability?”

Ruth Bond, chair of the National Federation of Women’s Institutes, said:

“We now are encouraging the government to ensure the Act is properly implemented by dealing with the proposals. It is important that this is done soon as it is over a year since the proposals were submitted…When our members and others start to see results at a local level their involvement will have meant something and more people will be inspired to engage in this new democratic process. However if things drag on there is a serious risk that disillusion will creep in and further damage public involvement in democracy.”

Mike Benner, chief executive of the Campaign for Real Ale, said:

“Since early last year, many communities and councils, as well as our members and branches, have been involved in the Act. Hundreds of exciting ideas for government action to promote thriving communities, many of those relating to protecting and enhancing local pubs and local beer, were submitted as proposals. However, we are concerned that the process is dragging. It is over a year since the first set of proposals was submitted. Our members and others who got involved are starting to ask what is going on. Because of this we believe it is vital that the government deals with the proposals made under the Act urgently.”

I have similar comments from the chief executive of the Rural Shops Alliance, the director of Unlock Democracy, the chief executive of the Association of Convenience Stores, the chief executive of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations and the executive director of Friends of the Earth.

A while ago, to try to stimulate action, I tabled early-day motion 178, which calls on the Government to deal expeditiously with the proposals under the Act. That motion is now supported by 236 Members from across the parties in the House—by far the highest number of signatures for any early-day motion this Session. I understand that the Government have said that it might be next year before all the proposals are dealt with. If so, the disillusionment I have demonstrated will deepen.

It also raises another question about process. Before the end of this year, the Government must announce the timetable for the second invitation of proposals required by the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 (Amendment) Act 2010.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate on such an important issue. On process, does he agree that local authorities should have the option to submit proposals when they want, so that the 2007 Act creates a continuous, streamlined process?

It will be a continuous process, but I support the timetabling in the original Act, because it ensures that projects are considered and should have ensured that the Government were engaged by now with the Local Government Association.

I mentioned the consequences of the 2010 Act. That Act will mean that a new tranche of proposals will be invited very soon. As I say, if the Government do not pull their finger out, they will have to announce the second invitation before having dealt with the proposals from the first. That will send out all the wrong signals about the Government’s commitment to sustainable communities. Let us get things moving right now.

I recall that the Minister was at the Bill’s Second Reading debate. He intervened on the hon. Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner on the issue of garden grabbing—a subject I know is close to his heart. In responding, the Bill’s promoter described the Minister as

“a well-known champion of localism”—[Official Report, 19 January 2010; Vol. 455, c. 1041.]

Today, I am asking him to prove that that description is accurate.

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr Turner, and it is a privilege to respond to the debate, which has been initiated by the hon. Member for Gower (Martin Caton). Throughout my time as an MP, and before then, he has been a passionate advocate for all things local and sustainable. Indeed, he was described to me just this morning—I know he will take this as the compliment that it was intended to be—as being the new David Drew, to whom he referred earlier.

The hon. Gentleman has the admiration of the House not only for helping to secure the passage of the Sustainable Communities Bill, which he did with the now Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (Mr Hurd), but for rightly keeping up the pressure on the Government to take the required action. I join him in paying tribute to the Local Works coalition, which has been absolutely indefatigable from beginning to end. It was a tortuous process to get the Bill passed, and it is quite right that he is taking a continuing interest in ensuring that the provisions are enacted.

In responding to the hon. Gentleman’s passionate speech, I would like to do three things. First, I reiterate my personal view of the importance of the Sustainable Communities Act 2007—indeed, the Government share that view. Secondly, I am pleased to say that I can give him substantial reassurances on the points he raised. I hope that that will also reassure people listening to the debate. Thirdly, I shall discuss how, in the next round, we can respond to some of the bureaucratic problems that have beset the process to ensure that we can address the issues more speedily in future.

I supported the Bill during its passage through Parliament. I regard the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 as one of the most important pieces of legislation to be enacted in the past decade. The principles established by the Act mean that local people have the right to know what is being spent and done on their behalf in their communities. Armed with that information, local people should have the right to suggest alternative ways of proceeding. Local people’s right to have their suggestions seriously considered, rather than rebuffed, is the essence of a new approach to government that is fundamental and will change how government is done. I am determined to ensure not only that we follow those principles in the decisions we make about the Act, but that such principles underpin the localism Bill that will shortly be introduced to the House. It should no longer be possible for people in authority to say to community groups and local community institutions, “You can’t do what you want to do just because we say so.” Such an approach is not terribly good parenting and it is certainly not good government. We need to move away from it once and for all.

On the hon. Gentleman’s particular concerns about the timetable, he is right that the first invitation was issued in October 2008. Some 301 submissions were received by the LGA in July 2009 and a short list of 199 was supplied just before Christmas, on 23 December 2009. I share his frustration. When we came into government, I was pleased to be appointed to the portfolio with responsibility for the Act. Frankly, I hoped to be able to pick up a substantial body of work that had been done from December to May and to find that things had been properly scrutinised and were ready to be enacted. My inheritance was that no decisions had been taken and no decisions were ready to take.

Although incoming Ministers do not have access to previous Ministers’ papers—and rightly so—my understanding was that only about a dozen of the proposals were minded to be introduced with any particular speed. I will be candid with hon. Members: that was a disappointment to me when I came into office. However, I was determined that we should not simply progress a select, hand-picked few proposals that might catch the eye of Ministers, but that we should take a comprehensive approach and adopt the demeanour of wanting to say yes, rather than trying to find reasons to say no. Far from there having been no negotiations with the LGA selector, I have, in fact, been through all the proposals with it. We have already agreed with the LGA selector on half the proposals.

I have no doubt about the Minister’s commitment to localism, but I am a little worried that he says that there have been negotiations with the LGA. Openness and transparency are at the heart of the Bill, and the process by which the selector—the LGA—chose which measures it wanted to send on to the Minister was done openly in open meetings. He now informs me that there have been negotiations, but they have not been reported to anybody. They have certainly not been reported to those bodies and organisations that are the driving force behind making the Act work.

In fact, the term “negotiations” is a misnomer because we found it easy to agree. There is positive volition on the part of the Government to say yes to as many of these proposals as we can. Within the next few weeks, I hope to be able to agree—I am meeting the chairman of the selector again next week—with the selector on all the proposals made under the Act. What the hon. Gentleman says is absolutely correct: if we are to move on to the next round—as, indeed, we will be doing—we ought to have dealt with the current proposals. I have been very careful and have personally gone through every proposal made—there are a lot of them and they consume much paper—and I hope to be able to give a positive response to about two thirds of the proposals selected by the selector. That relates to two thirds of all short-listed proposals. I hope that our response, which again I hope will be made soon, will be very positive.

My Department’s business plan commits us to making these decisions by the end of January 2011. That is our published commitment. As I say, it is a source of frustration that more preparatory work was not done by the previous Government. I do not want to make a party political point; it is more of an administrative point. It would have been nice not to have had to start from scratch on the matter but, in the time we have had, we have made pretty good progress. I would like to be in a position to make that announcement well before the published requirement of the end of January 2011. I would much prefer to be able to do it before the end of the year—before Christmas—and I will be pushing for that.

What the Minister is saying is very welcome indeed. I would just like to challenge him on two things. He is being a little unfair on Ministers in the previous Government. Obviously he has not seen the papers, but I think considerable progress was made—although admittedly that was initially on, as he says, about a dozen projects. More importantly, is he saying that we will have the announcement on the projects before the end of this year?

That is my intention. I should reiterate that our public commitment is to making the decisions by 31 January 2011, but I am doing everything I can to bring that forward. If we can make the decision before the end of the year—before Christmas even—that is what I would like to do. I am personally working with my officials and with the LGA selector to try to do that. In any event, the published self-imposed deadline of 31 January is a backstop, but I would like to use best endeavours to bring that forward.

In response to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti) on the subsequent invitation for the next round, I would like to make a simultaneous announcement on the arrangements for the next round of submissions from community groups across the country. It is not a one-off exercise, but the beginning of a different way of approaching government, and I am absolutely determined to build on it and go further. We want to do that as soon as possible, and certainly before we are obliged to do so.

What proposals are there to ensure that more proposals come forward from community groups and citizens, rather than simply from councils?

My hon. Friend touches on an important point. I pay tribute to the selector panel and, in particular, to Councillor Keith Mitchell, who has put a great deal of effort and personal commitment into scrutinising the measures and putting them forward. Here we get on to the wider agenda, because the principle embodied in the 2007 Act is that communities of all descriptions, including, but not exclusively, local government, should have access to the machinery of government so that they can unblock the barriers that prevent them doing what they could do. I want to look at how we can extend that.

One of my earliest impressions when I became a Minister was that I had access to a wide range of talented people in the Department who are there to help turn ideas into reality and policy ideas into law. However, my view, which I suspect those hon. Members present share, is that the best ideas are not the exclusive preserve of Ministers, or even of senior officials, in Whitehall, but actually come from people in communities. It seems to me, therefore, that the support and advice that Ministers have access to ought also to be available to people in communities. That is a commitment that I have made and am working on so that we can, almost literally, turn government upside down in the Department, to make help and support available to people in communities, rather than being exclusively for Ministers to help them get things done. After all, if Ministers need help in overcoming some of the barriers, goodness knows that people in communities will, too.

I have established a team that we refer to as “barrier busters”. During the last Communities and Local Government questions, I extended an invitation to Members who have examples of burdens, rules, regulations and barriers that are standing in the way of local action, and which only central Government are able to remove, to contact the Department so that we can give them access to people who can help them to look at the regulations and the law or to bang heads together in Whitehall if that is necessary. We will not always succeed, but we will certainly do the best we can to achieve that.

The opportunity in the next round is to make access to our “bureaucracy busters” more widely available across the country and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham suggested, to see whether we can ensure that we do not need to wait for a long time before acting on good requests. If something is a good idea, we should get on with it.

By coincidence, I happened to have a meeting with Local Works and my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner this morning to discuss how we can really build on the ambitions and the early success of the Act to go ever further and better in future. I hope that we can make some improvements to the system that will make the Act even more effective in the months ahead.

I welcome the invitation to visit the bureaucracy busters. On the theme of consulting Members of Parliament, if it proves that the Minister cannot deliver the accelerated timetable that he clearly hopes to deliver, would he be prepared to meet a cross-party delegation of Members to discuss how we move forward?

I do not need to make it contingent on that eventuality: I am happy to meet the hon. Gentleman at any time and with any colleagues who have a contribution to make. MPs are leaders in their communities and have experience and knowledge, as he has in spades, about some of the obstacles we need to overcome, so I would be happy to meet him and other colleagues in the weeks ahead. Our formal commitment, which I ought to respect, is to make a decision by the end of January, but I will do everything in my power to make that earlier.

The approach embodied in the 2007 Act that local and specific approaches to problems can provide lessons on how things can be done better by other communities, not only in that area, but across the country—possibly around the world—is a powerful way of thinking about government. It is about helping with the specifics, learning the lessons and then taking practical action. I am determined that our response will respect the spirit of the Act and indeed will imbue our whole approach to government. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving us the opportunity to discuss the matter today and hope that all Members, and everyone who has given their time, effort and commitment to the process, will shortly see that there is an even greater prospect of success in the future than we have heard today.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.