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Localism Bill

Volume 519: debated on Thursday 25 November 2010

The localism Bill contains a wide range of measures to shift power from central Government into the hands of individuals, communities and councils. The Bill frees local government from central and regional control and strengthens local democracy. In addition, it gives greater power over planning, housing and other services and allows councils and councillors to be better held to account. The Bill will be published imminently.

I thank the Minister for his response. May I ask him to go into a little more detail on how the localism Bill, through empowering local people, will help protect the green belt in my constituency of York Outer?

Of course. One of the real opportunities in the localism Bill is to remove the threat to the green belt that comes from the regional spatial strategies. The concern up and down the country that green belts could be deleted through those strategies will be buried once and for good by the localism Bill.

I was pleased to hear the Secretary of State confirm that material consideration should be given by councils to circular 01/06 on Gypsies and Travellers, although some, including mine, have not been doing so. May I ask the Minister to outline what benefits that will present to neighbourhoods and to villages such as Welford-in-Avon in my constituency?

The Leader of the Opposition has said that the previous Government looked down their noses at local government. Nowhere was that more true than in the case of parish councils. The charge of parochialism needs to be turned round and we need to regard an interest in locality through parishes as a positive measure. The localism Bill will allow parishes, as neighbourhoods, to set their own plans, to have them adopted and to give effect to them in the planning system.

May I ask my right hon. Friend to go a bit further on the role of parish councils? Skipton and Ripon is packed with hundreds of excellent parish councils and they are asking me what specific role they have in relation to district councils. Will he go into a bit more detail on that?

The planning provisions in the localism Bill will allow every neighbourhood in the country, including parishes, to set its own local neighbourhood plan. That will mean that they can design the look and feel of their neighbourhoods going forward into the future and in so doing take away the bureaucracy that is involved in taking planning applications through the development control process. If we capture it in the plan, we will not have that bureaucracy and uncertainty.

I welcome the Government’s commitment to include local referendums in the localism Bill. Does my right hon. Friend agree that if the results of those referendums are not binding, their status will be only marginally higher than that of an ordinary petition, although they will be a lot more expensive? Will he bring in proper referendums that are legally binding?

I know that my hon. Friend is a great champion of referendums, as he has organised one in his own constituency. The localism Bill contains binding referendums on subjects such as whether to introduce mayors, the neighbourhood plans that I mentioned earlier and excessive increases in council tax. It also contains provisions for advisory referendums that will test public opinion and can influence policies. Sometimes it is appropriate to nudge councils to do the right thing. This will be perhaps more of a shove than a nudge, and I think it will be difficult to ignore.

How can the Minister keep a straight face when he talks about localism and local democracy when later today his Government will ram through legislation to take away that local democracy from Exeter and Norwich with our recently restored unitary status?

I am advised that the right hon. Gentleman did not even table an amendment to the Bill, such is his commitment. I shall stand corrected if I am wrong. During the previous Government’s time in office, this country became one of the most centralised countries. We want to revive local democracy by transferring power from central Government to local government and down to communities. We will take no lectures from the Opposition, who have driven that centralisation.

What discussions has the Minister had with the Welsh Government on devolving extra powers to the National Assembly under the localism Bill?

We have had discussions with the Welsh Assembly Government. Clearly, if we want to devolve powers to the lowest possible level, those discussions will vary according to the different provisions in the Bill. It is quite a detailed matter and the hon. Gentleman will see the outcome of the discussions when the Bill is published.

Will the Minister say what proportion of local expenditure should be raised locally, thereby bringing direct accountability to local communities on delivering localism?

I do not think it is terribly localist to prescribe what that percentage should be, but it is right that as we take a more localist direction, we want a greater connection between the behaviour of local councils and the revenue being raised. That is the direction in which we are going, but it would be wrong to prescribe a percentage.

Two weeks ago the High Court ruled that the Secretary of State acted unlawfully when he scrapped regional housing plans, comparing him with Henry VIII. His Majesty’s reply was that it did not matter because the Government were going to abolish them in the localism Bill anyway, but that could take nine months to become law and the confusion that the Government have created has undermined the construction industry and led local councils to ditch 1,300 new homes every day. Will the Minister confirm that, in the mean time, local councils should get on with supporting the construction of the homes that the country so badly needs?

The right hon. Lady makes a mistake that afflicted the Government of whom she was a member—the fatal flaw of confusing plans with homes. In many cases there was an inverse relationship: the higher the target, the lower the number of homes actually built. That is why we want to reform the planning system. The Government’s intention has been absolutely clear. There is not a councillor, planner or developer in the country who does not know that the regional strategies are on the way out and will be buried and interred for ever.