I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
I am glad to see the right hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) in her place. Had she not arrived, I might have raised a point of order myself to allow her to get here.
The present situation is not Labour’s fault. I do not blame the Opposition for the excessive centralisation that has come to characterise government in this country. Command and control is, of course, naturally appealing to the Opposition, but in fairness, they only accelerated an existing trend. If they boarded the moving train of centralism, there cannot be any doubt that they drove it to its terminus: grand centralist station. So the Labour party is not entirely to blame; it is just mostly to blame.
The Bill will reverse the centralist creep of decades and replace it with local control. It is a triumph for democracy over bureaucracy. It will fundamentally shake up the balance of power in this country, revitalising local democracy and putting power back where it belongs, in the hands of the people. For years, Ministers sat in their Departments hoarding power like misers. Occasionally, grudgingly and with deep resentment, they might have loosened their grip on the reins of power, only to tighten it almost immediately. Uniquely, they managed to fulfil the wildest dreams of both Sir Humphrey Appleby and Mr Joseph Stalin. That strangled the life out of local government, so councils can barely get themselves a cup of tea without asking permission. It forced a central blueprint on everything from local public services to housing and planning, regardless of what local people want or need. It left councillors hamstrung, front-line public servants frustrated and residents out in the cold.
The reasoned amendment owes much to the pragmatism of St Augustine: “Oh Lord, make me a localist—but not just yet.” Preserve us from the wickedness of delegated powers. Yet, as I said earlier today to the hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts), I do not recall those concerns being raised by the current Opposition during the passage of the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007, which in a mere 176 clauses, contained 86 delegated powers. The number of such powers in this Bill is, therefore, entirely the norm and entirely in keeping with the way in which legislation has been put together, with one important difference: this is a deregulating Bill.
I hope that my right hon. Friend does not miss the opportunity to mention the great pilot of centralisation, John, now Lord, Prescott, who, in moving from the social status of waiter to that of a passenger on cruise ships, was so damaging to local government.
I have to say that I have great affection for Lord Prescott, and I am particularly enjoying his current advocacy of insurance on television.
The Bill is based on a simple premise: we must trust the people who elect us and we must ensure that we trust them to make the right decision for their area. To misquote Clint Eastwood: “A Government needs to know its limitations.” We do not have all the answers but we have to have the courage to encourage local solutions. The Bill is made up of four main elements: London governance, planning, localism and housing. The London element is relatively straightforward and redistributes power away from quangos and back to elected officials and communities. The settlement has been agreed by the Mayor of London, the London assembly and the boroughs, and it is based on consensus across the political parties. I would like to pay tribute to the constructive way in which the Mayor, the assembly and the London boroughs, regardless of their political persuasion, have worked together on these arrangements.
I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman was distracted by something in the Chamber more interesting than my speech, but I have already dealt with that. I politely pointed out that in previous, much smaller Bills introduced when the Labour party was running these matters, the proportion of delegated legislation was much higher. I am here to be helpful.
As a London Member of Parliament, I welcome the part of the Bill that delegates considerable extra powers to London government across the board. We tried to bring in many of these things during the passage of the Bill that set up the Greater London authority in the first place. Will the Secretary of State continue, over the course of this Parliament, to take the attitude that, where possible, we can continue to devolve power both to regional government, which is what the GLA is, and to local government?
I wish that my right hon. Friend had not used the R-word, but it is certainly my intention that this is part of a continuous process of devolution. He is quite right. There was a lot of cynical suggestion that the London councils and the Mayor would not be able to reach an agreement, and it is to their credit that they have managed to do so.
As I understand it, the Secretary of State’s chief argument in favour of the Bill is that local people should be free to determine how they receive services within their own area. Does he believe that the frequency and arrangement of refuse collection services should be left entirely to local decision, or might he occasionally be tempted to intervene in this?
Of course refuse collection is a matter for local people. We have ended Labour’s bin taxes, and there will no longer be an incentive to have a fortnightly collection. If, on that basis, councils want to continue to have fortnightly collections, then good luck to them in facing their electorates. I pay tribute to the right hon. Gentleman, who is in some ways my hero—I am sorely tempted to take down one of my pictures of John Wayne and replace it with one of him—because he is an example of someone who had enormous vitality and ideas regarding the finance of local government and was continually ignored by his own side. I hope to take up the baton that he so sadly dropped.
Within the ethos and context of localism, how are we going to deal with the scandal of 129 local government executives earning more than the Prime Minister? Perhaps they should have to go back to their local people and ask permission before they are paid such outrageous salaries.
My hon. Friend makes a very moderate and reasonable point. I have suggested to chief executives that in order to demonstrate that they are on the side of the workers, they should take a 10% cut if they are earning more than £200,000 and a 5% cut if they are earning more than £150,000. In future, under this Bill, such remunerations will not be arrived at through cosy little deals between the leader and the applicant but must come before the full council, which will have to endorse them. I am pretty sure that common sense will rear its head and we will no longer see this ridiculous creep in the sums of money for chief executives, who will be more cognisant of their responsibilities.
Councils have been drowning in red tape and rules and paralysed by a culture of centralism. Those that want to break the mould and innovate continually run the risk of legal challenge. The Bill will restore town halls to their former glory. There was a time when local councils really were the centre of a community—when the local councillor was revered and honoured as a local person of importance and local government got things done, improved public health, cut poverty and ended slum housing. That is the sort of courage and ambition that we need in councils today.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his generous comments about local councillors. I am sure that they apply to councillors of all political persuasions. My experience is that councillors want to be involved. Does he agree that one way of involving them is to encourage the abolition of the cabinet system in local government?
The cabinet system has many advantages, but it means that a number of councillors are denied the opportunity to be involved. We do not take a strong view on that matter, but the Bill will enable councils to go back to the committee system if they want to do so.
The Bill will give councils the powers and authority that they need. It will be a shot in the arm for local democracy. It will give councils a general power of competence. That is probably the single most important item in the Bill. It will turn convention on its head. It differs from a general power of well-being in one vital respect: instead of local authorities having to find a statute that allows them to act, the fun-loving legal advisers will have to find a statute that prevents them from taking action.
We know that the Labour party considered a general power of competence, so what held them back? Apparently, the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) once argued that councils should not be allowed a general power because it would allow Islington to build a nuclear bomb. He is a much-respected Member of the House and his worries should be taken seriously. I have good news. The residents of Islington and the rest of us can sleep safely in the knowledge that the Radioactive Substances Act 1993, the Nuclear Explosions (Prohibition and Inspections) Act 1998 and the Nuclear Safeguards Act 2000 will prevent Islington council from obtaining weapons of mass destruction. In short, the power of general competence for councils does not simultaneously abolish all other laws of the land.
The Secretary of State advocated the power of general competence as a means of increasing the freedoms of local authorities. However, clause 5(3) states:
“The Secretary of State may by order make provision preventing local authorities from doing, in exercise of the general power, anything which is specified, or is of a description specified, in the order.”
Does that not completely negate the supposed freedoms?
I am surprised by the hon. Gentleman’s statement, because he and I have previous. When he was engaged in a respectable profession before returning to this House, I recall him advising me on these issues. His advice was that these things should not be absolute, and that the Secretary of State needs to retain residual powers just in case. He should not castigate me for taking the advice that he gave all those years ago— nice try.
The Secretary of State said that the current power to do anything that is in the interests of economic, social or environmental well-being is too narrow and that his general power of competence will extend the ability of councils to take action. Will he give practical examples of issues that do not fall within economic, social or environmental well-being, on which councils will be able to act? I am sure that the House wants to be enlightened on how large the power is. Before the election, he said that he wanted to give councils the power to do anything other than raise taxation. Is that still his intention?
The right hon. Lady makes a reasonable point. She will be aware of problems with London authorities’ insurance, and the general power of competence will deal with those. However, the question is: what is the difference between the general power of competence and the general power of well-being? The truth is that there is not much difference, and we welcomed the intention to introduce the latter, but only about 17% of authorities have done so. The reason for that is the innate conservatism of those providing legal advice, so councils have tended to err on the side of not introducing it.
The reason why the general power of competence is so important is that it turns the determination requirements on their head. All those fun-loving guys who are involved in offering legal advice to local authorities, who are basically conservative, will now have to err on the side of permissiveness. That is a substantial change, and I would have thought that there would be no difference between the parties on that matter. I believe that a general power of competence is better than a general power of well-being, because the latter had to be invented as a concept whereas the former is well accepted by local authorities throughout the world, which understand exactly what it means.
The Bill will let councils decide the best way to organise themselves, whether through cities having mayors, through local council executives or through the committee system. On the subject of mayors, I am delighted to report to the House that Lord Adonis will begin a tour of 12 English cities, talking to local people about the prospect of having a mayor. I look forward to his report. The Government are grateful that that distinguished former Cabinet Minister is undertaking that important work.
The idea is basically to get ready for the mayors. I want to make it absolutely clear that if the people in those authorities decide that they do not want a mayor, the powers will disappear. However, it was felt that if we were to move towards referendums, the people of the cities involved should have an indication of the powers and freedoms that they would get if they had a mayor.
I think it was Lord Adonis, when he was dealing with high-speed rail, who made it clear that it was easier to deal with mayors in London and other parts of the country than to deal with council leaders. Cities such as Birmingham—I understand that one of our former colleagues, Clare Short, has thrown her hat in the ring as a potential mayor there—are as important as Boston or Barcelona, and they have a part to play on the world stage. I believe that mayors can enhance that role.
The Bill pushes power out as far as possible into communities and neighbourhoods, into the hands of individuals and community groups. For too long, local groups, community associations and even ordinary men and women on the street with a good idea and a desire to make their neighbourhood a better place to live, have been ignored and left out. They have no rights and no chance to have their voice heard. It is hardly surprising that even the most dedicated activist gets frustrated, let alone a concerned mum who just wants to see her street kept clean or a group of friends who are worried about a local pub that is under threat. We are giving people new rights, powers and opportunities to act on the issues that matter.
The right hon. Gentleman knows my town of Huddersfield very well. Since the election, local community groups have been falling by the wayside in political and community activity. They have lost their funding, including seed funding, and third sector and community groups are in a dire state. What will the Bill do to rejuvenate the third sector and create a renaissance in it?
Voluntary groups in Huddersfield, which I know and love very well, are very keen on those powers. They will have a power to challenge and a power for a proper partnership that is not hand-to-mouth and based on grants and handouts. In such partnerships, sensible local authorities will work hand in glove with voluntary organisations to provide better services for their population.
Let me give another example. People will be able to veto excessive council tax rises. Instead of the Secretary of State making that decision, local people will balance service needs against the level of council tax. They will be able to protect and improve—and even run—the public services on which they rely, and ensure that much-loved local assets are kept for the next generation. Those rights will give community groups the oomph that they need. People will have a genuine stake in their community and a reason to get involved, secure in the knowledge that the power to change things is in their hands.
This is a truly radical Bill from a truly radical Secretary of State. It brings closer to reality the dream of government for the people, by the people and of the people that shall not perish from this earth. In my constituency, people want to buy the port of Dover. People in other constituencies want to buy forests and other such community assets. Will the Secretary of State and the Government consider going faster, deeper and wider, so that we have a community right to buy from central Government as well as from local government?
My hon. Friend tempts me to become a bit Maoist in these matters, but we will certainly consider what he says and look towards giving greater powers to local people.
The Bill will return the planning system to the people. Targets do not build homes, and regional plans do not get communities involved. Today, we have an adversarial, confrontational system, fomented on mistrust and a sense of powerlessness. It is simply not working. The Bill will therefore create genuine neighbourhood planning, by which the community will develop in ways that make sense for local people. Instead of instructions being handed down from on high, the Bill will offer incentives to invest in growth. Instead of unelected commissioners making national decisions on important national infrastructure, those choices will again be down to democratically elected Ministers in this House.
There is a genuine worry among the infrastructure industries, particularly the utilities, about the current interregnum. When will the Secretary of State issue guidance on major infrastructure processes? When will the words used by the Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government, the right hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) be fulfilled? In Question Time, he spoke of a fast-track political process, which might give some certainty for investors and some knowledge of how the system will actually work.
I am happy to reassure the right hon. Gentleman that there will be no gap in the system, and that the utilities are very much in favour of what we are doing. In terms of general national policy statements, we will move at pace, because as he rightly identifies, infrastructure, particularly in respect of the utilities, is immensely important.
The Bill will give councils and communities the power that they need to tackle the housing challenges that they face. The coalition Government have inherited a deep housing crisis. Five million people languish on waiting lists, and many of them have no chance whatever of being allocated social housing. It is a failing that hundreds of thousands of families live in overcrowded conditions while other homes are under-occupied, and that in half of all families who live in social housing, no one works.
The Localism Bill will create a much fairer and more flexible system. Councils will have the discretion to help families meet their needs in the most appropriate way, and we have of course made sure that there will be appropriate protections for the most vulnerable families. However, there are also many families who simply need a short-term helping hand—and councils will now be able to offer just that. I remind the House that we are only talking about new entrants to the system; existing tenants are unaffected. We are also reforming council house financing, building on proposals from previous Governments, but with a more generous offer. All councils will have more money to manage their stock.
Finally, the Bill represents the final nail in the coffin for the most illogical and unpopular measures of the previous Government: it will get rid of bin taxes, home information packs, the outdated port tax, and the sort of bonkers bureaucratic measures that we get when decisions are taken far away from the people they affect—the sort of measures we will not see anymore. The era of big government is over. Look where it got us: uneven and unstable economic growth; frustrated front-line workers slavishly following the rulebook to the letter; and residents and community groups left powerless to solve their problems.
One of the scandals of recent years is that councils have been allowed to run up astronomical debts. My former authority, where I served as a councillor—Hammersmith and Fulham council—is trying to reduce its historical debt of £133 million, which costs taxpayers £5 million a year in interest payments before a single street is even swept. What safeguards are in the Bill against councils running up excessive debts?
The Treasury rules prevent it. I know that Hammersmith and Fulham council has received a lot of praise in the Chamber over the past few hours, but it deserves it—it is a fantastic council. After years of Labour neglect and continuous council tax rises, residents in Hammersmith and Fulham are getting a better, cheaper service that represents the real needs of the community. It was no surprise that it was returned with a thumping majority at the last election.
By pushing power out, getting the Government out of the way and letting people run their own affairs, we can build a stronger, fairer Britain. We can restore civic pride, rebuild democratic accountability, promote economic growth and replace big government with the big society. I commend the Bill to the House.
I beg to move an amendment, to leave out from “That” to the end of the Question and add:
“this House, whilst affirming its belief in the important principle of devolving power to local people and their elected representatives, declines to give a Second Reading to the Localism Bill because the proposed devolution of power to local authorities is undermined both by the extent to which the Bill hands powers to the Secretary of State to over-ride those devolved powers and by the extent of powers of the Secretary of State to direct local authorities in their governance arrangements, and because the community empowerment and neighbourhood planning sections of the Bill, which have been put together hastily and without adequate consultation with important stakeholders, would cause the planning functions of local authorities to become incoherent and ineffective and create new costly and complex systems of service procurement and would reduce the effectiveness of local authorities; and is strongly of the opinion that the publication of such a Bill should have been preceded by both fuller consultation and pre-legislative scrutiny of a draft Bill.”
After all the delays, the false storms, the spin and the briefings, finally we have the Bill where it should be—before the House. It is a Bill that we will demonstrate over the coming weeks will not, I am afraid, revolutionise local politics, empower the masses to shake up their town halls or reinvigorate local democracy. It is a Bill that the Business Secretary rightly described as “not thought through”. Above all, the Bill empowers one person: the Secretary of State. We believe in devolving power to local communities and giving people a real say in how their local area is run: we believe that power should rest in the hands of the many, not the few; and we are optimistic because we have faith that there are few problems so intractable that local communities do not ultimately have the answer.
We would welcome and support a Bill, therefore, that genuinely devolved powers, which is what the Localism Bill was meant to do. We were promised a radical redistribution of power from central Government to people —a new dawn for people power and a groundbreaking shift in power to councils and communities. We were told that this would be the first Government to leave office with much less power in Whitehall than they started with. Today we see that that is just another broken promise. If page 1 of the Bill gives local councils the power to do whatever they like to improve their local areas, why do we need a further 405 pages?
This Bill fails to live up to its name. For all the Government’s talk of localism, the Bill does nothing to convince us that it is anything more than a smokescreen for unprecedented cuts to local communities up and down the country. All those warm words about devolving power and empowering communities ring hollow when, at the same time, local councils face cuts that go deeper than in almost any other Whitehall Department; cuts that fall heaviest in the first year; cuts that hit the most deprived communities the hardest. There is nothing localist about that.
Let us nail the myth that local councils can spare front-line services simply by cutting executive pay, trimming waste and sharing backroom functions, because they cannot. I know that maths is obviously not the Secretary of State’s strong point, because last week he was telling the newspapers about how good the Tory canvass returns were looking in Oldham. We support greater transparency in the pay of senior officials in the public sector and the measures to increase pay accountability in local government, and the right hon. Gentleman does not need a calculator to work out that cutting executive pay and streamlining administration will not help a single council to avoid cutting front-line services.
The right hon. Lady produced some wry smiles when she said how strongly Labour had been in favour of devolving to local councils. I would like her to be honest, at the beginning of the debate, about her own legacy. Was the previous 13 years of central power and no devolution a mistake that she now greatly regrets, or do all local councils and everybody else have some sort of fallacious memory? Have we all missed something, because that is not their view on the ground, whatever colour they are?
I think that what we can see is a steady devolution to local government. I can see—[Interruption.] Interestingly enough, I can see how clauses in the Bill build on Labour’s record in local government. The problem occurs when the right hon. Gentleman tries to suggest that the Localism Bill will shape the future of local government. I am afraid that what will shape the future of local government and how it operates with its partners in the voluntary and private sectors are the cuts, which are doing such a large amount of damage to some of those great partnerships. I refuse to accept from those on the Government Benches that somehow they invented localism or opportunities for communities to take control of assets and have a say. That is just not true.
I will give way again in a little while.
Let us look at Islington council, of which Labour took control in May. The previous Liberal Democrat administration appointed a chief executive on a salary of £220,000. The Labour council cut that salary by £60,000—a significant sum and a good example of a Labour council delivering value for money. However, that is a drop in the ocean against the £40 million-worth of savings that Islington has to find. The Secretary of State knows that the Bill does nothing for councils up and down the country that are struggling with the most difficult finance settlement in a generation. It is not localist to cripple local councils with devastating cuts and to stop them delivering the essential services on which local communities rely.
Has the right hon. Lady noted that Moody’s, the credit rating agency, stated last week that it is only the coalition Government’s deficit reduction plan that is saving our triple A rating? If we lose that, the markets will force far higher cuts on us.
I do not sign up to the view that somehow the country was on the brink of bankruptcy. That is absolutely ridiculous. We should be asking why, given all the measures that the Tory-led Government have instigated since the general election, growth is not higher, and why unemployment is not going down more quickly. That is the question that the Government have to answer. Up and down the country, because of the devastating cuts to local government and the front-loading of those cuts, the Government are sucking the life out of local communities that are trying to rebuild and create the growth that is so essential.
I will give way in a little while, but I want to make some progress.
Perhaps we should not be surprised that the Secretary of State has been captured by Whitehall. In the eight months since his appointment, the Cabinet’s champion for local communities has bothered to make only six visits. Perhaps that is why he is so dangerously out of touch. To be fair, although he does not visit much, he tries to keep in touch by writing. Week after week, local councils are inundated by missives, diatribes and diktats from Ministers, lecturing them on how to organise a street party for the diamond jubilee and on the right way to celebrate Christmas, instructing them on what their street signs should look like and when to empty the bins, and telling them to axe their council newspapers even if it costs more to put the notices in the local paper. That is not localism, and nor is much of the Bill. It is no good providing a general power of competence in one clause if the next four clauses give the Secretary of State the power to curtail it.
We believe that elected mayors can offer effective local leadership. That is why we introduced the model, giving local councils and local people the power to elect a mayor if they wanted one. However, the only person whom the Bill gives a vote to is the Secretary of State.
I will give way shortly, but I want to finish this point, because the Secretary of State has made much of his devolution of powers in relation to mayors. The only person whom the Bill gives a vote to in relation to mayors is the Secretary of State. How democratic is it for the Secretary of State to appoint a shadow mayor ahead of a referendum for local people? Would not such a person have an advantage when standing for mayor? It cannot be right or democratic for the leader of whatever party it might be to have such an advantage in a mayoral election.
The Bill could have encouraged and empowered more people to get involved in the way their community is run and made local councils more responsive to the communities they serve. Instead, it abolishes the duty on councils to provide information to people about how their local council works and how they can get involved. It also states that councils no longer have to bother replying to petitions from local people. I do not understand that.
I am obliged to the right hon. Lady for giving way; we are obviously getting on better now. She talks about democracy. Can she explain how democratic it was, over 13 years of a Labour Government, to increase the amount of ring-fencing from 4% to 15% of local government spend? Was not that simply a case of Labour saying that Brown knew best?
In some cases, there was an argument for some ring-fencing, and I am not going to step away from that. I am glad to say, however, that as we moved through from ring-fencing to local area agreements, we encouraged local councils and their partners in the police, health and elsewhere to come forward with plans of their own. That is what was happening. I think I am right in saying that the present Administration agree with the work on Total Place. They were going to give it another name, but they still agreed with the principle of partners coming together in that way. However, there is nothing in the Bill to help Total Place, or whatever it was going to be called under the coalition Government, and that is a crying shame.
My right hon. Friend is being very generous in taking interventions, and I thank her for taking one from this side of the House. Do the councils that she meets think that they are better off now that, instead of getting ring-fenced funds, their funds are being abolished by the Secretary of State?
I do not think that the many councils that have had their area-based grants removed are singing from the rooftops about the end of ring-fencing. This is robbing Peter to pay Paul, but it is not the most deprived communities that are being paid; they are losing out hand over fist.
Rebuilding trust in politics and engaging people in the political process is vital, but the Bill could undermine standards in public life by making codes of conduct for councillors voluntary. Good standards are surely not optional. Every community expects its elected representatives to adhere to certain standards.
The record will show that for many years under the Labour Government it was Conservative councils, not Labour ones, that increased their council tax.
This Bill is meant to take power from Whitehall and devolve it to local communities, but we find on closer inspection that it provides an arsenal of more than 100 new powers for the Secretary of State. It should be retitled the “only if I say so” Bill, because if the Secretary of State does not like it, it ain’t happening.
Much has been made of the introduction of local referendums, and we support mechanisms that promote public engagement in the political process, but when the Bill gives the Secretary of State the power to decide what is or is not a local matter and on what local people can and cannot have a say, just how deep the Government’s commitment is to localism is called into question. Far from devolving power as we were promised, this Bill represents a massive accumulation of power in the hands of the Secretary of State. If nothing else, at least we now know why the Government were forced to drop the word “decentralisation” from the Bill’s title.
Despite the best efforts of the Secretary of State and his Ministers to transfer powers from the many to the few, even they have not got everything wrong. Some of the Bill’s measures are a continuation of policies introduced by the previous Labour Government—[Interruption.] I am afraid they are. When the Government build on our reforms, we will support them. We support the general power of competence for local authorities, because those elected in an area should be able to do what is in the interests of the communities they serve. With no mention of local economic partnerships in the Bill and in the absence of any other plans for growth, giving local authorities greater flexibility on business rate relief to encourage new start-ups and help local businesses is one small step in the right direction. It builds on Labour’s introduction of small business rate relief.
We welcome the principle of greater involvement for local people in how their communities are developed. Broadly speaking, we support the transfer of powers and functions from unelected bodies to the Mayor of London—provided there are sufficient powers of oversight and scrutiny for the Greater London authority.
I am sad to say, however, that as a whole this Bill represents a massive missed opportunity. When reading it through, it is difficult not to be struck by the sense that, for all the agonised intellectualising of the Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government, the right hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), this Bill is little more than a rag-bag collection of press releases from Tory HQ. Giving local people and communities a greater say in and more control over the future of their local areas and building an open and less adversarial planning system is to be welcomed, but when the Secretary of State’s own Department estimates that neighbourhood plans could cost as much as £250,000, we remain to be convinced that those plans are anything more than a gimmick or a vehicle for those with the loudest voices and deepest pockets to impose their will on the rest of the community.
The Secretary of State purports to say that the planning system will be simpler and more open to local people. How does that square with his decision to abolish planning aid, which has provided tremendous support to people right across this country? Those with he loudest voices will continue to have the biggest say.
My right hon. Friend echoes the point made earlier in Communities and Local Government questions. Planning aid is one vehicle to enable communities that might not have architects, solicitors and accountants among them to engage in the process. It is worrying when people’s hopes are raised and then dashed when they are effectively unable to take part.
I thank the right hon. Lady. As a councillor from 1998 to 2009, I watched councillors and residents become frustrated time and again because councillors could not properly represent residents on a range of issues owing to Government guidelines, particularly on planning. Surely the right hon. Lady would agree that the Bill gives back one very important power—the power of councillors truly to represent their residents without having to worry about any sort of guidance put out by the Government or a quango?
I am sure that, as a former councillor, the hon. Gentleman agrees that different communities have different capacities to engage. Often, in planning and development as in other contexts, it is the voices of those such as the homeless that are not heard. We need to think of ways of supporting those silent communities. The part of the Bill relating to councillors is interesting, but, again, questions will have to be asked in Committee. We shall need to ensure that it works properly, and enables councillors to represent people in their areas without affecting any quasi-judicial position in which they may find themselves when decisions must be made.
I will make a little more progress, and then I will take a few more interventions. The record will probably show that by the end of my speech I had taken more interventions than the Secretary of State.
I mentioned the possible cost of the proposed neighbourhood plans, which might prevent those without deep pockets from being able to participate. The same is true of the much-vaunted provision relating to community assets, which is being billed as a community right to buy. Before the Bill was published we were told that, by giving communities a right of first refusal whenever local assets were being sold or closed down and by guaranteeing them a fair price, we could save pubs, post offices and village shops from closure; but the Bill does no such thing. There is no right of first refusal, there is no right to a fair price, and there is no help for communities seeking to save local assets that the Secretary of State’s cuts threaten with closure.
May I return the right hon. Lady to the issue of neighbourhood development plans? As she will know, parish councils already have to produce parish plans which are part of the supplementary planning guidance. She said that neighbourhood development plans would give a voice to people who wanted to force their will on other people. Does she not understand what an insult that is to serving parish councillors such as me? Many parish councillors spent a great deal of time producing parish plans which were not bigoted and not about forcing our will, but were about protecting our local communities. All that neighbourhood development plans will do is give that more force.
With respect to the hon. Gentleman, I was not referring to parish plans. I have met representatives of parish and town councils, and one of the questions that they have raised—fairly, in my view—is how parish plans might work in relation to neighbourhood development plans, and which would take priority. I am sure that we will examine such issues in Committee in order to ensure that we do not end up with over-duplication.
I know that parish and town councillors do a fantastic job. My constituency contains many parish and town councils. However, we need to ensure through neighbourhood plans that it is not possible for a few people who are not elected representatives to create a forum in which they can impose their will on others in various ways because of their clout and their finances. We need to ensure that the plans allow communities to be represented fairly. We also need to consider the implications for councils in terms of the cost and the additional responsibilities that will be expected of planning officers and others who service the neighbourhood plans. It is not that the idea is necessarily wrong, but we shall need to establish how it will work in practice, and whether it actually amounts to much. Is it all that meets the eye? That is what people want to know. They do not want to be led up the hill only to be marched down it again. That is not the sort of politics in which we should engage.
I do not think that the answer should be more powers for the Secretary of State, for a start.
What I have said also applies to the community right to challenge. We are in favour of empowering front-line staff. In many instances, not just in local government but in the health service and elsewhere, our staff should be at the forefront in coming up with ways of improving services. Those on the front line often have better answers than some managers. Many councils of all political persuasions already engage community organisations and voluntary groups in the delivery of local services. That is not new, and we think that it should be encouraged. However, those organisations need support. Given that their resources are being cut throughout the country, and given that there is no provision other than the right to be considered, we remain to be convinced that this part of the Bill will mean much in practice.
The Secretary of State tells us that this Bill is the centrepiece of what the Government are trying to do to shake up the balance of power in the country fundamentally, but perhaps what is most striking about it is what it fails to deal with. Across every community in the country people often feel that they do not have enough of a say about what happens in their local area, whether in local bus services, community policing, the district hospital, or in the jobcentre’s tackling unemployment. This Bill says nothing about that; it offers nothing to remedy that. Giving elected local representatives the power to summon people before their committees much as we do in the Committees of this House would be one simple, practical thing to give local communities a real say in the services that they use, but the Bill fails to do that.
In turning to the proposals—[Interruption.] Well, I understand from reading the Bill that scrutiny committees can summon an officer of the council, but they can merely invite someone from another organisation. There are no summoning powers over representatives of the utilities, for example, or over the district commander. That is what we are talking about: proper accountability, and proper powers for scrutiny committees.
On the Bill’s proposals on housing, it is again difficult not to be disappointed. For some homeless households, a home in the private rented sector may be a better option than social housing if that avoids long waits in temporary accommodation and provides greater flexibility of location than social housing, but that should be a choice for the household involved, so we will not support a proposal if it allows the most vulnerable members of our communities to be forced into unsuitable accommodation.
What else is missing from the Bill? There is a complete absence of reforms to the private rented sector—the Bill does not even touch on the subject—and we remain to be convinced that there is sufficient quantity of decent homes in the private rented sector to house those in need.
Does my right hon. Friend share my concerns about passing to local government the responsibility to house people in the private sector? Rents are not regulated, tenancies are limited, conditions are often poor, and the tenant’s power to control the way the landlord behaves or maintains the property is very limited. What we need is more council housing with secure tenancies at economic rents, as are currently charged. That is the real way out of the housing crisis.
Supply is important on all counts: supply in social housing, supply in rented housing, and, indeed, supply of affordable homes for people to buy. There is, however, absolutely nothing in this Bill about the private rented sector. In fact, in the name of protecting home owners—he referred to this earlier in departmental Question Time—the Secretary of State was all too keen to confer on private landlords with empty properties a general power to neglect for up to two years, rendering local councils powerless in the face of blight or antisocial behaviour. That is a dilution of local authority powers, as we enabled councils to take action after six months, and it was announced just three days before the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell) urged swift action to tackle empty homes, warning that empty properties attract squatters, vandalism and antisocial behaviour. The Minister even went to Oldham on a visit related to the policy, for which he had to apologise. It did not do the Liberal Democrat candidate much good. What we have here, therefore, is a chaotic policy and a hapless presentation, and it would be comic if the results were not so devastating.
The Secretary of State knows that I support sensible reform of social housing, but it must be reform that encourages employment, supports families and helps to create strong communities where people feel safe. Simply abolishing secure tenancies and kicking new tenants out of their homes when they get a promotion or a pay rise would just create fear and uncertainty. It would disrupt family life, and it could provide a disincentive to work. We on this side of the House could never support reforms that put a break on aspiration
I fear the right hon. Lady is overegging the pudding, given that she must surely acknowledge that in her time as Housing Minister she very courageously brought up the issue of social rent tenure. She was faced with a hailstorm of opprobrium from her own party because of that very brave decision, and her party did nothing about the issue in 13 years in power.
My worry was about single men and women without dependants who were not in work, who had not received the right training and who, often, were going from foyer projects into social housing with a secure tenancy but no support to get them into work. For me, social housing should be a springboard into work—it should be a springboard for people to change their lives. I find it odd that the much-vaunted proposals of the Minister for Housing and Local Government were all about saying that councils will check someone’s pay packet to see whether they have had a pay rise. People may use a pay rise to improve their home, for example, by buying new curtains or decorating, but they could now face eviction. I do not understand that approach. It is not about creating strong and stable communities; it is about stopping people realising their aspirations and stopping the self-sufficiency of many families in future.
The cuts to the housing budget have already dealt a hammer-blow to the hopes of hundreds of thousands of families who are trying to get their own home, and on the big issue of how we get more new affordable homes the Bill is ominously silent. The Government seem unmoved by the fact that the number of planning permissions for new homes in the last quarter of 2010 was down 18% on the record low of the same period in 2009. They seem unmoved by the fact that the housing waiting list figures rose by 12% between July and September, and the Secretary of State is unmoved by the fact that his proposed reforms to the planning system in this Bill could make things worse.
Labour would support reforms that gave local people and communities a greater say and more control over the future of their local areas, because a fair and open planning system that involves local people does lead to better decision making and greater consensus about development. However, every community cannot thrive if the system is biased against change, and every community has to look to the future to create new homes, new workplaces and new jobs. A planning system that is devoid of any obligations to provide for the future, rather than just to protect the present, is destined to fail. There is a danger that the reforms in this Bill, including the scrapping of regional housing targets, could mean that the homes that this country so badly needs will not be built. Indeed, since this Government came to power local authorities have already ditched plans for 160,000 homes—that represents 1,300 homes every single day. Although the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles) tells us that the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister want “chaos” in the planning system, that is not what local people want. They want a planning system that respects the wishes of local communities but is able to deliver the homes that are so badly needed.
Last week, the voters of Oldham sent a very clear message to the Government about the rise in VAT, the trebling of tuition fees, the cuts to the police and the loss of vital community services. To those people, and those across the country, this Bill has nothing to say. For the council coping with huge front-loaded cuts, and facing rising costs for child protection and growing demand for social care, the Localism Bill has no answers. For the community that will see its potholes unrepaired, its streets unswept and its libraries shut down, the Localism Bill offers no help. For the councillor hoping for new jobs in their area, wishing to hold local agencies to account or wanting new affordable homes, the Localism Bill is worthless. For the resident who is worried about care for a loved one, living in fear of antisocial behaviour or concerned about their children’s youth club closing, the Localism Bill gives no assistance.
Labour knows that localism must mean more than dismantling local services and putting blind faith in volunteers picking up the reins, and that localism must serve more than those with the loudest voices and the deepest pockets. We are on the side of local people when it comes to the issues that they really care about. It is to Labour that they will look when this Bill fails to deliver, because they know that the Tories’ claim to believe in localism is a sham. Let the record show that we urged the House to decline to give this Bill a Second Reading.
Order. As Members can detect, a considerable number of Members wish to attract the Chair’s eye during this debate. A limit of eight minutes has been set. Members do not have to use the entire eight minutes and, clearly, the time limit will be reviewed later on.
I shall heed your words, Mr Deputy Speaker.
I must tell the Secretary of State that I really welcome this Bill, which has been a long time coming. I listened to the shadow Secretary of State, and I must say that she has had a convenient memory loss—about 13 years of it. She must recall that the major part of this Bill results from what her Government did to local government from 1997—they smothered it. Under her Government local authorities suffered: a constant flow of directives; a flowing river of statutory requirements; and expensive and time-consuming audits that looked at processes, rather than outcomes. Local authorities’ staffing levels increased, but the jobs were non-jobs or non-productive jobs created merely to meet the heavy strictures of the Labour Government.
Those all added to costs; they did not add to service provision. Related to that was the cynical manipulation of grant funding, as grant was moved from London and the south-east to Labour areas in the north. As I said to the shadow Secretary of State on a previous occasion, in a third big change the local grant assessment meant that Surrey lost £36 million year on year. The shadow Secretary of State said in response that the grant had risen year on year under Labour. She was right, but that was the national grant, not the grants that were subject to the selective manoeuvring up and down the country. In addition, the grant percentage increase for many local authorities had a very low base, particularly in London and the south-east.
Increases in council tax or grant were generally swallowed by local authorities’ being required to meet Government demands—demands based on centralised policies, not on local needs and not on needs as seen by locally elected councillors. I am delighted that the Bill, once enacted, will go a long way towards freeing councils to think and act for themselves according to local needs. I remind those who were Communities and Local Government Ministers in the last Government of the string of reports from the Select Committee advising and almost pleading with the Labour Government to remove layers of bureaucracy, hundreds upon hundreds of targets and the control of minutiae. Those Ministers paid homage to the reports but did nothing.
I served on the same Committee, and my recollection is exactly the same as my hon. Friend’s. The Ministers were indicted in those reports for failing to deliver on social housing, failing to let local communities decide and failing to give planning guidance that local communities wanted to deliver. Time and again in that Committee we heard robust arguments from people who were very unhappy about what they were being asked to do locally.
I thank my hon. Friend for that reinforcement.
The Bill reverses that and proposes the removal of further expensive central Government systems of data collection, targets and inspections following the earlier removal of comprehensive area assessments, local area agreements and the Audit Commission—I could go on. At last, we have a move towards diversity in the supply of public services, which has already been taken on positively in Surrey by councils, including the county and parish councils, by councillors and by residents groups.
I hope that the Government are taking radical measures to remove the Labour Government-imposed obstacles to fair, competitive tendering. When he winds up the debate, perhaps the Minister can comment on that concern. Whether the service is provided in-house or by a private franchise, a properly drawn-up contract, properly managed, enables better services to be provided at less cost, which is increasingly important at this time. Tendering must be fair and effective and the obstacles must be removed.
Since 1992, Labour Ministers questioned by the Communities and Local Government Committee seemed unable to comprehend the damage caused by their top-down imposed bureaucracy, which was supported by a very strong Labour local government contingent on the Committee.
It is a great relief to councils to be rid of regional strategies, with their millions of words and tomes of documents. At last, local councils will again be making local planning decisions. Councillors will be able to have opinions without risking the accusation of bias and being unable to act.
Moves on retrospective planning permissions will be welcomed, particularly in my area where we are plagued by Travellers abusing planning legislation. To be fair, many Travellers in my area are law-abiding people who fit in with our communities. A few are not. The claim by those few that they are a special racial minority and therefore apparently beyond planning laws is sickening. The cost to my local planning authorities of a constant flow of actions from those few individuals is notorious and outrageous.
I am delighted that councils will be able to return to the old committee system if they wish—if they wish, an unknown thing for Labour. For many councillors, it meant that they were able to have a say in decisions rather than feeling left on the sidelines.
I shall watch the move for mayors with agnostic interest. Success will depend on the appearance of strong characters to take on the task. They are around and always have been. I recall some from my days in local government, some of whom were good for their local areas and some of whom were not. They include David Bookbinder, Shirley Porter, Peter Bowness and, of course, two Members of this House from Sheffield, one of whom has just left the Chamber, the other of whom is still here.
For me and many councils, the Bill’s enactment will be a great start for local people, returning local government to councils and concerned local people. It is a huge and positive start, but councils need to act fast to use the opportunities it presents; they should be acting now in readiness for when the Bill becomes an Act.
It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford). He and I had some very interesting years together on the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government in the previous Parliament. Let me say to him in a friendly way that memory loss can be longer than 13 years and that compulsory competitive tendering was hardly the most decentralising policy that any Government have brought in.
By instinct and philosophy I am a localist, so it gives me no great pleasure to say to the Secretary of State that the Bill is a missed opportunity. I simply do not see in the proposals a coherent philosophy telling us what localism is all about. The Select Committee is currently conducting an inquiry into localism, and I do not want to pre-empt or prejudge its findings, but one thing that a number of witnesses have regularly asked is whether local authorities are at the heart of localism or whether they are bypassed by the Secretary of State going directly to communities and ignoring elected representatives. The answer is that the Government do not really know because there is a mixture of proposals that treat localism and local authorities in a totally different way.
The Secretary of State was dismissive when he was challenged about the number of order-making powers, of which there are 140, but it is no answer to say that there were more in previous legislation. If this is genuinely a decentralising measure, why is it necessary to have all those order-making powers and so many regulations about how local authorities should exercise scrutiny? There might be elements of genuinely good policy in neighbourhood planning, the community right to challenge and in dealing with community assets, but why is there so much prescription from the Secretary of State and Ministers about how local authorities may use their new powers? Why can we not allow local authorities to get on with the policy within a general broad framework? I am disappointed that we have not taken further local authority involvement in the remits of the Departments of Health and Work and Pensions—those are genuine missed opportunities.
I welcome some aspects of the Bill, such as the power of general competence, although I wish we had set it more clearly in a new constitutional settlement for local government—we will come back to that in due course. I am concerned about the Secretary of State’s power to revoke any council’s ability to do anything it wants to do under the power. I am pleased about the reforms to the housing revenue account, but concerns have been expressed that local authorities will not be able to keep all their right-to-buy receipts and that extra borrowing controls beyond prudential borrowing controls will be imposed on them. I do not think those measures are particularly localist or decentralising.
I welcome the transfer of powers from the Infrastructure Planning Commission so that it will be elected politicians who eventually sign off decisions on major infrastructure projects. I argued for that when I was on the Government Benches in a previous Parliament. I am pleased that local authorities will be able to return to local committee systems if that is what they want, but why can a local authority with a committee system not have the same devolved powers as an elected mayor? Why does the devolution of those powers depend on which system of governance the local authority chooses? That is not a particularly localist measure.
Does the hon. Gentleman also welcome the abolition of the Standards Board for England? Under that dreadful, anti-democratic device, which was brought in by the previous Labour Government, all sorts of decent, hard-working local councillors were always under the threat of petty allegations being made, often for partisan reasons, undermining local authorities.
There was a problem with the initial design of the board, but it was subsequently reformed and now works an awful lot better. My concern is that if a local authority chooses not to have one, there will be nothing between the action of pulling a local councillor up and questioning their actions in some way and taking criminal action against them for failing to deal properly with an issue in relation to which they have a registered interest. There could be a real problem there with a void in the system.
I have other real concerns. The Government are embarking on a fundamental change to the planning system in this country, which Government Members cheered because that is what they believe in. With regard to the abolition of the regional spatial strategy and the development of neighbourhood plans, my concern is that change of this kind brings uncertainty and, to an extent, a lack of clarity, and that it could bring delays and, potentially, unintended consequences.
What will happen ultimately? The Government say that their policy is to build more homes than we were before the recession. They have obligations on renewable energy and ensuring that wind farms are developed to meet them, but what will happen if the sum total of all those local decisions is that fewer homes are built and not enough wind turbines are built to meet our renewables obligations? What is their fall-back position? Is it at that point that the Secretary of State will intervene, or is it that they will accept the sum total of local will across the country and fall down on their national house-building targets and their renewables obligations? What is the Government’s position? I have not heard a coherent explanation of it.
It was a tremendous privilege to be a member of the Select Committee alongside my hon. Friend for a short time. During one of its meetings that I attended, a number of witnesses expressed different views on the strength or otherwise of regional spatial strategies, but every one of them, to a man, agreed that the proposals being produced by this Government would lead to fewer houses being built, not more.
Ultimately, the test will be whether the policy works. My question is this: if the policy does not work, what is the Government’s fall-back position? The Bill includes a duty on local authorities to co-operate on a range of issues, and it is important that they do so, because many of those decisions will have an impact beyond the boundaries of an individual authority. What will happen if local authorities do not co-operate? The Bill is vague about what will happen in that case.
I have mentioned that local authorities stand at the heart of localism. I believe in elective, representative democracy, so I do not understand why it is necessary for the Bill to spell out what the Secretary of State thinks is a proper increase in council tax and for there to be the power to have a referendum in such cases. Rather than a referendum on whether local authorities should cut services, there can be only a one-way referendum if a Secretary of State thinks that a council tax increase might be excessive, as defined by him. Why can we not just leave it up to elected local representatives to make such decisions? I continually refused to vote for the previous Government’s proposals on capping council tax because I did not think that they were right either.
I will not give way again, because many other Members wish to speak.
As for local democracy and decisions being taken at local level, why is it necessary for the Secretary of State to take a raft of powers relating to shadow elected mayors? Why can we not leave it to local people or councils to hold a referendum so that local communities can decide whether they want an elected mayor? Why must the Secretary of State take powers to bring in shadow elected mayors? The proposals do not seem very localist or democratic.
On the reform of council housing, I am not against different forms of tenure. I believe that they have a place, but if the proposals on flexible tenure are put together with the 50% cut in funding for social housing—that is the Government’s policy—the only social houses that will be built, after those that the previous Government committed to, will be those built on flexible tenure at rents related to market rent levels. The Government are thereby effectively ending the provision of any new social housing as we know it in this country, and I cannot agree with that. By all means let us have additional forms of tenure, but not at the expense of removing altogether the existing forms of social housing tenure for new build.
I know that other Members wish to speak, so I will conclude. I regret that the Bill does not really deliver on a holistic localism agenda. It is a missed opportunity. There is no coherent philosophy. It is very unclear whether local councils are at the heart of the process or whether it is the Secretary of State, bypassing local councils on a range of measures and imposing the way localism operates locally, which is wholly contrary to the meaning of the word.
This debate is extremely important. For those of us who stood on an election manifesto of more power for local people, this is an important and welcome day. I say to the Secretary of State and his colleagues that people throughout England and many local councillors and council officers will be grateful for the Bill.
Over the past 13 years central Government held on to far too much local power. As I listened to the speech by the right hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint), I recalled that her leader said in his conference speech:
“We need . . . local democracy free of the constraints we have placed on it in the past and free of an attitude which has looked down its nose at local government.”
If she and the Labour party are now signed up to that, that is welcome. It is a conversion because it is not what was happening when I was sitting on the Opposition Benches and she and her colleagues were sitting on the Government Benches.
One of the tests is whether there is confidence in local government, and whether people think local councils have powers. The signs, as she and House know, have not been good on those indicators. People feel that they have had less power, not more, and less influence, not more. Confidence in local government has dropped in the past decade, rather than risen. One of the tests for me will be whether, by the time the Bill has passed through both Houses and been amended to improve it, confidence in local government is improved.
I agree with the hon. Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) that one of the welcome small but important changes is that local councillors will in future be able to vote and speak on the things that matter most to their electorate. It was always nonsense that they had to say they were disbarred from speaking on the planning application round the corner in the middle of their ward. We can speak, as we should do, on local matters, and they should be allowed to speak on local matters too.
It is an interesting principle that the right hon. Gentleman has enunciated. Can he tell the House whether he believes that his colleague, the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, should have been moved from his current brief to a different Department because he spoke about something in which he had, potentially, a quasi-judicial interest?
Tempting, but completely irrelevant to the Bill. I will talk to the right hon. Gentleman about that on another occasion.
The Bill has six substantive parts and one additional part which is about EU fines, a slightly esoteric subject about which I know there is controversy. I shall deal briefly with what seem to me to be the good things and make the occasional plea for the Government to go further.
On local government, the power of general competence is welcome, but I hope the siren voices suggesting that there should be frequent exceptions are resisted. We need to make sure, as I have heard the Secretary of State say, that we give councils the power to act except when the law says they cannot. That is what the measure should be about. Getting rid of the Standards Board is popular and right. Introducing a better system for making public how senior pay is decided will raise confidence among local communities. The right of councils to choose their own committee structure is welcome: many councils will want to go back to a committee system to involve their back benchers more. Making sure that councillors play a full part is especially welcome.
One thing about which we on the Liberal Democrat Benches have some concern is the shadow elected mayor proposal. I know what the coalition agreement says and I know that the coalition is committed to holding a referendum in the 12 largest cities outside London. I am not dissenting from that, but we ought to allow those cities to have that debate and then, if they vote for directly elected mayors, so be it. There are arguments on both sides.
On local government finance, the Government are starting down the right road. I welcome the fact that there is to be a much greater power of discretionary relief for businesses, and a new power for small businesses. Those are important matters. The big change has not yet happened and is far too controversial to be hidden away in such a Bill, but eventually I hope we will come to a much better form of local government finance generally. The Secretary of State knows that my colleagues and I believe that something like local income tax and, for land, something like site value rating, will be a much fairer system. I realise that that is too much to bite off and chew in the first Bill, but progress is being made in the right direction.
I do not wish to intrude on that celebration of the Bill’s sound localist credentials, but might the Bill be more effective—and offer more real localism, rather than lip service to it—if it offered to devolve control over revenue, something that has been Lib Dem policy for many years? Does my right hon. Friend not agree that the Bill should disperse power over local government finance to the same extent that it does the power over planning?
I of course support my party’s position, which we will say something further about this year, but, having spoken to Ministers, I know that during this period of government the plan is for a much larger transfer of powers for councils to raise and spend their own money. To put it bluntly, the Government could have not dealt with that in a year, but it is on their agenda and they are starting the reform of local government finance. I welcome their commitment to that, although we cannot do it yet. When we do it, we have to get it right—and be radical about it as well.
I welcome the really important part of the Bill, on community empowerment. I am really pleased that, for example, the community will have the chance to say, “We want to keep this shop, or this pub, or this other community facility.” It is really important that the community will be able to say, “We don’t want that parade to end up all off licences or betting shops. We want there to be a greengrocer, a fishmonger or a baker.” To be able to be involved in the process is really important. It is important that we build up the real engagement of people locally in the planning process, and I welcome the moves to do that.
No, I will not, only because we have so many constraints on time—understandably.
It is important that in the end decisions are taken accountably. There is a danger, which the Secretary of State is aware of, but we must not allow local decisions to be hijacked by a vocal minority with the qualities, the education or the ability and time to run their own campaign. We have to make sure that decisions are taken on behalf of the whole community and not the vested interests. Sometimes the nimby argument can prevail over the right one and we have to ensure that that danger is resisted.
I welcome the community infrastructure levy, and I shall seek clarification in the winding-up speeches on whether it gives the local authority the full freedom to spend the money on, for example, the housing estate next door to the planning application site, either to do it up or to build more housing. There ought to be maximum freedom.
I also welcome the abolition of the Infrastructure Planning Commission and the return to a planning system whereby the ultimate decision will be taken by a Minister accountable to Parliament. In Greater London we have just had our consultation deadline for responses to the Thames tunnel sewer, and there is a huge proposed mains sewer site in my constituency. We are perfectly happy to go through the consultation, but I have argued very strongly that the final decision on the planning application for such a major scheme should be taken by someone accountable to Parliament and not by a body accountable to no one.
I welcome the fact that national planning statements will be revised, and I welcome the community right to buy. That is a very important additional power, which I am sure will be very well used. My little request to go further was reflected in the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Bob Russell): I think there is a good case for what has come to be called the third-party right of appeal. I heard the answer from the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), but, respectfully, I do not think that it was a persuasive one. We have to balance the developers’ power, influence and money with the community, and at the moment there is not a balanced appeal system.
On housing, the deadline for responses to the Government’s consultation paper was a minute or two ago. The Housing Minister will have had my response and, as he can imagine, it was robust and clear and committed to the continuation of the maximum amount of social housing in my constituency and throughout the country. It is really clear to me that we must get those housing provisions right. I understand and respect the argument for localism, but it has to be localism within parameters guaranteeing that we build and increase the number of social homes, and at prices that people can afford. I will reserve my comments on the detail, because we will have other opportunities for that, but we absolutely need to deal with the queue of people who are not being adequately housed.
I welcome the London provisions, which are very gratefully received by those of us in London.
I shall end with two points. Do the Government envisage that someone will have the job of promoting local democracy, given that it is being taken away from local councils? We need to encourage people to participate and not to reduce participation. Lastly, this might sound an esoteric point on which to end, but we have to do away with the nonsense whereby, because of different rules, people can be charged ridiculous amounts for burial if they have moved from the place where they originally come from. There are little things to improve, but it is a good Bill, and I hope that it is even further improved in the next few months.
I start by drawing attention to my interests as declared in the register.
I endorse the view expressed by the right hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes) about the importance of localism being matched by provisions that ensure that overarching, overriding national priorities are met. He made that comment in the context of housing, but it applies even more widely. That should be the basis of localism, to which almost all of us subscribe as a concept, but it must not lead to national responsibility for crucial services and to people’s needs being ignored.
The first question that the Government should be asking is why the Bill, which ought to command widespread support because the principle of localism is widely supported, has generated such a tide of concern and suspicion. Having read through the large number of submissions that I and, no doubt, other Members have received in advance of today’s debate, I found the absence of any papers giving unqualified support to the provisions very telling. The tone was very much “Yes, but”, and that applied to a striking number of them. The more one dug down into them, the more one realised just how serious and extensive were the buts—the concerns and objections that were raised.
How have the Government got themselves into this position? They have done so partly through their own actions, as we highlighted earlier in Question Time and in other contexts. The Secretary of State and his Ministers might like to proclaim the virtues of localism, but they find it very hard to remain virtuous and they wade into any debate when they see the opportunity. Like St Augustine, the Secretary of State says “Let me be localist, but not yet” when a local authority makes provision for refuse collection that he does not agree with, pays its officers more than he believes they should be paid, makes arrangements for parking charges that he does not agree with, or issues a newsletter—or fails to do so. The Housing Minister became involved in Liverpool city council’s decision to demolish a terraced house once briefly occupied by Ringo Starr. All those decisions are clearly about local issues and should be taken locally, and Ministers should have a self-denying ordinance to keep quiet about them. If they did, they would be taken more seriously as advocates of localism.
As the hon. Gentleman will realise if he reflects on this, there is a continuum that makes it difficult to identify where one stops expressing an opinion and where one tries to produce the outcome that one is advocating. Front Benchers should remember that they have responsibilities and that their comments are often interpreted as a wish to see an outcome.
The drafting of the Bill is very unhelpful to the Ministers’ cause of trying to win support for it. I challenge anyone, even the most experienced parliamentarian, to have an easy evening’s read if they try to wade through its countless clauses and schedules. Its drafting—overwhelmingly by way of amendment to other legislation, and with the absence of detailed provision in many of its clauses, which, we are told, will be supplemented by regulations—makes it difficult to have a full feel for what exactly the Government intend. We understand their aspiration, but what will be the detailed implications? That is far from clear, and inevitably lots of suspicions abound that while their intentions may be good the outcomes will not be.
Whether we are talking about how neighbourhood plans will be shaped or how the new insecure tenancies that the Government are imposing on social housing will operate, we do not know the full implications because no provisions have been published or, in the latter case, because the consultation concluded only today, so of course we do not know what the details will be. That suggests a Bill put together in a hurry, without adequate consultation or proper consideration of some of its provisions. If ever a measure cried out for pre-legislative scrutiny, this is it. It is a tragedy that it is being rushed through without proper consideration of its detailed implications and of how the Government’s good localist intentions—I give them that—will work in practice.
The lack of certainty over the Government’s plans and over the effect of the Bill is obvious throughout. On the theme of localism itself, the Government have put an emphasis on neighbourhoods. That might imply a commitment to neighbourhood decision making, or to devolution to a local authority or, in London, to the Mayor, but what happens if those bodies come into conflict? What happens if the Mayor pursues an objective with which the borough council or the local neighbourhood does not agree? There is the added problem that in areas without parish councils the neighbourhood forum that may come into existence under the Bill will not have a recognised form of democratic accountability. Who will prevail when there is a conflict between the various bodies?
Clauses 168 and 169 will allow the Mayor of London to designate any area in London as a mayoral development corporation, which will take over the local authority’s planning powers. Let us imagine that the Mayor of London changes—an election will be held next year. What if the new Mayor is not from the party of the Government? He might look at house building performance in Bromley, for example, and decide that not enough homes are being built there. He might say, “I see some interesting powers in the legislation and I propose to set up a mayoral development corporation in Bromley to get more homes built there.” Under the provisions of the Bill, with which Ministers will be familiar, the Mayor has to consult on his proposals, but he does not have to act on the views of the consultees if he does not agree with them. In the consultation, he would no doubt hear screams of protest from Bromley council and the residents, but he would also hear many people in London saying that they want more homes and that he should do his utmost to build them. What would happen if the Mayor presented a request to the Government to bring in an order to give effect to a mayoral development corporation in Bromley? As I read the Bill—I challenge Ministers to tell me if I am wrong—the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), would face the delightful proposition of enacting the order, because the Bill says that the Secretary of State must act on any such request from the Mayor, even if the local council and the local neighbourhood do not like it.
That brings us back to the tension between competing views of localism, on which, I am afraid, the Bill is entirely silent. If I were a Minister, I would not want to be tied to introducing something on the say so of a mayor who might have very different objectives from those of the Government.
Some provisions in the Bill, such as that one, are slightly bonkers, but others are seriously damaging. The housing and planning provisions will destabilise the planning and housing process at a time when, above all, we need confidence and certainty to get the new homes that we need. The housing market was badly hit by the recession and recovered strongly in early 2010, but the Government’s maladroit and unlawful interference in the planning system has undermined that confidence. The market is now tottering along on the bottom, there is no confidence, and millions of people know that the prospects of getting a decent home at a price within their means are terribly short. The Bill’s ill-considered and untested changes to the planning regime will make an already bad situation worse.
The unwanted changes to social tenancies and the weakening of protection for homeless people are misconceived and should be opposed. Before the election, the Conservative party pretended that it had no plan to introduce those measures, and the Liberal Democrats would have denounced the idea of introducing them as part of a coalition.
Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
This debate is an example of why changes such as those in the Bill are so difficult. All the arguments that Labour Members are making—all the “Yes, buts” we have just heard—show that we live in a strange world. Many Labour Members have said how much they support initiatives such as those in the Bill, but the obstacles that they are mentioning show why, for 13 years, despite their best instincts, they were unable to introduce them.
A fundamental problem faces Members of all parties—the difference between the expert, with all the “Yes, buts” and ideas, and the reality on the ground. There seems to be a fundamental gap in our culture between rhetoric and reality. I experienced it myself every day in Afghanistan, where I heard people say, “We are committed to a gender-sensitive, multi-ethnic, centralised state based on democracy, human rights and the rule of law”, whereas in fact 98% of Afghan women cannot yet read or write. Such disjuncture characterises life, whether abroad or locally, and we experience it every day.
This is not, however, a question of theory. Despite our best intentions and protestations, we daily encounter waste and situations in which we achieve exactly the reverse of what we intended and in which local communities are prevented from doing perfectly sensible things. To put it in pompous, philosophical language, those are problems of power, knowledge, will and legitimacy. That is why the Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), is to be congratulated. At the moment, we have a culture not just of experts but of soundbites, and my right hon. Friend has put 10 or 12 years of focused thought into the Bill.
We could talk about many matters, and Members have mentioned some of them, such as the good moves we have made in relation to councils, but I wish to focus on parishes and communities, the hidden strata on which people do not necessarily focus, perhaps because they are seen as old-fashioned. In the context of a rural community, however, they are vital.
From the point of view of the expert, the parish appears to lack knowledge, power and legitimacy. There is an idea that we should not have a community right to buy, that we should not introduce neighbourhood plans and that we should not allow such localism in the Bill, because communities do not know what is best for them. Of course, as Members of Parliament, we all see daily that that is not true. The shadow Secretary of State made exactly that point when she talked about meeting parish councils. What we observe, and what I daily observe in Cumbria, is that communities should be allowed to carry out neighbourhood planning because they care enormously about their neighbourhood.
If someone sends their child to try to find a house and they cannot, it motivates them to seek affordable housing. That is concretely illustrated in Crosby Ravensworth, where the community is building its own affordable housing. Those people are not nimbys trying to obstruct building—they are doing it themselves. I see the same happening in Kirkby Stephen, where people are getting together to do all the things that planners think they can do with their knowledge of heritage, economics and development. The community is doing them in a much more sophisticated and integrated fashion that is linked to the local area. The people involved are in the area, so they know things that people in Penrith, Carlisle or London do not. Despite all the rhetoric, I do not feel that such communities are ignorant or ill-informed, and they do not ignore local connections.
Why, then, are we pushing ahead with neighbourhood planning, reforms to home building and the community right to buy? It is partly because, in my area, communities show that they can always go further than the Government think. It happens everywhere I go. In Alston, the community has just taken over a snow plough and there is a community ambulance. Those were not things that it was allowed to do—it had to fight to do them. That goes all the way through to smaller things. For instance, we had this country’s first community buy-out of a pub. The communities in my 110 parishes are organising themselves.
Most ambitiously, those communities are looking to the future and to the most difficult issue I can think of—broadband. One might think that communities and decentralisation had nothing to do with that, and it seems like a nightmare for a community to address. There are legal, technical, state aid, engineering and landscape issues to consider, which is why for the past 20 years—it was not just under the previous Government—such infrastructure projects have been conducted in an extremely expensive, slow fashion through semi-monopoly providers that have consistently failed to provide for my community. However, the community knows more. It maps every cabinet and exchange from Leith to Lyvennet. It cares more. It puts the transmitters up on the churches. It can do more and do it more imaginatively—it gets people online and pilots new forms of services. By doing so, the community achieves something that nobody would have thought possible.
That does not happen without Government support. Some Government money is needed, but probably about a 10th as much as would be necessary if the community did not lead the process. Without the community leading the process, the project I am talking about would probably have cost £1.5 million of taxpayers’ money, but with the community in the lead, it could probably be done for £500,000.
Communities can do other things because of their legitimacy. We associate knowledge, power and will with them, but legitimacy is vital. To take the broadband example, the community’s legitimacy allows it to ask people in the parish, “Will you allow us please to put a transmitter on the top of the church? Will you dig from your house to the M6 cable network? Will you contribute money?” The community can ask every farmer, for example, in the district of Crosby Ravensworth, “Will you waive the wayleaves to build a community network that the community will own?”
This is a strange time and place because all hon. Members believe in that decentralisation, whether we call it localism, hyper-localism or double hyper-localism, but we are obstructed by our anxieties about power, knowledge and legitimacy. Let us remember the basic instinct and work together. We should support the Bill because we know that communities know and care more, and that they can and ought to do more than distant officials in Penrith, Carlisle, London or Brussels.
I absolutely agree with the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart) that we want in local government people who really care about their neighbourhoods. We need legislation that allows them to continue to do what is best for their communities, but my concern is that as wonderful as localism sounds—like motherhood and apple pie—by giving competence to local councils but not resources, know-how and capacity, we are saying to local people that they can go ahead and get elected in May this year, but they will be unable to do what they set out to do. For that reason, I have great concerns that this huge Bill, which has not been subject to proper pre-legislative scrutiny, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr Raynsford) said, will end up as hotch-potch, sham legislation. We want to encourage citizenship and encourage people to match at local level the vision of the UK Government and Parliament.
Citizenship is absolutely about encouraging people to take responsibility for their lives and training them to do that, but we must also recognise that they need resources.
On the Bill’s provisions relating to elected mayors, my advice to local areas is: do not touch them with a barge pole. The experience in Stoke-on-Trent is that elected mayors—this also relates to citizenship—undermine the position of local councillors.
On social housing, many years ago, I was honoured to be at the launch of Crisis. I refer the House to its concerns that the Bill might well weaken housing choices and security for some homeless people. It is important that we get that right.
I am concerned about the proposals to abolish the regional spatial strategies. It would be a great disservice to Stoke-on-Trent if it ended up with development on greenfield land without it being able to develop, first and foremost and in a sequential way, the brownfield sites. We need to make those sites a key priority in regeneration.
It was a regional spatial strategy that could have safeguarded the regeneration that Stoke-on-Trent needs in its inner-urban areas.
As a Unison member, I have grave concerns about the community right to challenge. I am anxious that it could lead to privatisation by the back door. As the Bill goes through the House, questions will need to be asked, including about the criteria in regulations for rejecting an expression of interest. Without the regulations, however, it is difficult to know how that will be taken forward. Given the complexity of EU law, how will the Secretary of State ensure that procurement processes result in community organisations winning contracts rather than the major companies, such as Serco and Capita, that have done so much to take over local government services?
There are also issues about a community’s access to quality advice. Yes, neighbourhood planning sounds wonderful, but because of cuts organisations such as Urban Vision in Stoke-on-Trent are losing their funding. Communities must have access to legal planning law. Where will funding for these services come from? My right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich referred to pre-legislative scrutiny, but the Backbench Business Committee is considering new ways of using the House’s procedures. For example, Select Committees, including the Communities and Local Government Committee and the Environmental Audit Committee, of which I am a member, can consider ways of influencing a Bill as it goes through the House. The Bill makes absolutely no reference to sustainable development, so how will its hotch-potch provisions link with and tackle concerns about the climate change agenda and the zero-carbon societies that we need to be building? Will the Minister set out the sustainable development issues? How can we ensure that opportunities for proper climate change policies are co-ordinated?
I have a private Member’s Bill proposing a code for sustainable food, but because of the way in which the House works I will not be able to speak to it on the Floor of the House. A local referendum might well enable councils to consider ways to ensure that when food purchased using taxpayers’ money is served in the public sector—for example, in hospitals and old people’s homes—those involved abide by certain standards. As this Bill proceeds, will the Government consider ways of ensuring that private Members’ Bills can be secured through referendums?
There are many concerns about the Bill. We had reference earlier to people saying, “Yes, but”. It seems to me that many national organisations are going along with the principles of the Bill because they want to be involved, and not be ostracised by the Government, but in private they have major concerns about local capacity. I urge the Government to consider ways of ensuring that we end up not with a sham Bill, but with something that will encourage local people to stand as local councillors and ensure that, when they do, they can make a difference in their areas.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this extremely important debate. The Bill is undoubtedly one of the coalition Government’s flagship policies.
In many respects, the Bill is long overdue and a badly needed piece of legislation. I think that all Government Members accept that the balance of power between local and central Government has been out of kilter for many years and clearly needs to be redressed. Over the years, central Government have become rather suspicious of local government, seeing it as incompetent and rather ineffective—many in the Chamber who have been involved in local government will recognise that situation. Indeed, over the past 30 years, Whitehall involvement in local government has amounted almost to the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it wrongly and applying unsuitable remedies. I hope that the Bill will start to change that.
Local government was not necessarily loved in the ‘80s and ‘90s, but it did function properly. Over the past 13 years, however, it has been taken to a completely different level: the town hall has effectively become a department of Whitehall and part of the apparatus of the state. We have had targets, ring-fencing, regulation and a “Whitehall knows best” attitude: “You’ll only do it one way, and that is our way”. As a consequence, we now have weak local government; it is seen as irrelevant by many people. We have non-participation in elections, a lack of involvement, poor decision making and, in many respects, fear of actually making a decision. Redressing that imbalance is hugely important.
Reform, however, is about not just about creating new powers or shifting old ones, but repeal, which is why I welcome the abolition of the Northwest Regional Development Agency, the other regional development agencies and regional government, and the scrapping of regional strategies, the bin tax and so on. That is all very welcome. I spoke at a conference this weekend with about 100 parish councillors, whose responses to the introduction of the Bill were interesting to hear. They were enthusiastic, receptive and encouraged by the proposals, which demonstrated that people want to be involved and to take responsibility.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right; it is a demonstration of localism. Indeed, I was lobbied about that very topic at the weekend. I will certainly give it my support.
I am sure that hon. Members will refer this evening to many different aspects of the Bill, but I will touch on just one or two. First, we have governance and the general power of competence, which has already been alluded to, and which is an opportunity for authorities to be radical and innovative. I believe also that the referendums on council tax will have a restraining influence on the excesses of some councils, although they will not prevent councils with a popular mandate from taking on a project and proceeding, even if they need a referendum to support it. Also important in my view is the potential introduction of 12 new elected mayors. I have been a long-time supporter of elected mayors, believing that they bring to local government visible leadership, accountability and transparency—people know who is in charge and, in many respects, it is the modern way of doing things.
I fully support the Bill. However, I will be interested to see what the Government do when it settles. Will they introduce and transfer more power to local authorities? I hope so. I am also encouraged that the Government are looking at how we fund local government, because that is critical to the future independence of local government. I would encourage, where possible, the transfer back to local authorities of responsibility for business rates. One good reason for that is that if businesses are paying rates to a local authority, they will have a stake in that local community and the decisions made by that local authority, and they will engage more. Currently, many businesses take an ambivalent view of what goes on in local government, which is not good for communities.
My final point is probably almost as important as the Bill itself: there has to be a culture change. There has to be a culture change in central Government whereby they accept that different parts of the country will make different decisions about different topics. They have to accept that even though they might not like it. However, there also has to be a culture change in local government: it has to take on responsibility to embrace these powers and build its own communities in the way that it wants. However, I fully support the Bill. It is a great work in progress, and I look forward to supporting it through its later stages.
I am grateful for the opportunity to make a contribution to the debate. I would like to focus on three elements: first, my concerns regarding the impact of the devastating cuts to local government in the recent financial settlement, which I believe do not correlate with the Government’s professed desire for localism and giving more power to local people; secondly, the arrangements in the Bill for directly elected mayors in 12 major English cities, including my own city of Birmingham; and thirdly, the provisions in relation to housing.
I support the principle of giving people a greater say in how their communities and services are run, but that has to take place in tandem with two things: fairly funded local authorities, and thereby fairly funded local services; and investment in the capacity and skills of local people to enable them to take control regardless of their social background. Through the Bill, the Government try to talk a good game. However, it comes at a time when the Government at the centre have made a choice, giving local authorities a devastating financial settlement that was far worse than expected, with the worst cuts for a generation.
The Government seem to think that merely by saying that they are committed to localism, and by repeating their lines in support of local people taking control at local level, that somehow, as if by magic, true localism will emerge. However, without a fair settlement for local government, no such localism can emerge. The Bill seems to give a huge amount with one hand, but the Government, through the financial choices that they have made, are taking a lot more away with the other. The simple truth is that localism cannot deliver for local people if all the decisions being made at local level are focused on implementing centrally imposed cuts that are going too far and are too deep.
Does the hon. Lady not recall that it was the former Chief Secretary to the Treasury, in the previous Labour Government, who left a letter that said there was no money left?
On the basis of what the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile) has just said, is it not surprising that a council such as Dorset should have a rise this year, when most councils in the most deprived areas have seen massive cuts? If the problem is a lack of money, why is it that the authorities that are most able to bear that burden are the ones that are better off under this Government?
I agree with my hon. Friend entirely, and I was just coming to that point.
I fear that it is the cuts that will define the future shape, life chances and success, or lack thereof, of Birmingham residents, not the Localism Bill. The provisional local government settlement for Birmingham was a confirmation of the worst-case scenario. Birmingham has to make savings of approximately £170 million in the next two years, and is one of the hardest hit local authorities. In fact, “one of the hardest hit” is a depressing and hideous phrase that the people of Birmingham are having to get used to, after being one of the hardest hit areas in the police settlement.
The sheer size of the cuts in Birmingham will prevent the people of Birmingham from getting the most out of the localism agenda. More affluent areas, which have perversely done better out of the local government financial settlement, have greater scope to gain more from localism. I fear a prevailing culture where those with the deepest pockets will be more able to make themselves heard. If the Government truly want localism to be a success, and want strong local communities up and down the country, they first need to revisit the unfair settlement for local government. Anything less than that is a hollow and unworkable localism, which will not deliver for every community.
The Bill also creates arrangements for directly elected mayors in 12 major English cities, including Birmingham. I am in favour of giving local people a choice as to whether they want a directly elected mayor for their area. An elected mayor could offer highly effective local leadership, and I supported the introduction of this model of local government when it was introduced by the Labour Government. However, I am against imposition. The Bill imposes a shadow mayor on the people of Birmingham, subject to a confirmatory referendum. That aspect needs to be considered again. The people of Birmingham are quite capable of deciding for themselves whether they want a directly elected mayor, rather than having one imposed from the centre by the Secretary of State, subject to later endorsement. Where, may I ask, is the localism in that? If the Secretary of State truly trusted local people to exercise their own judgment about what is right for their area, he would not choose this path.
Earlier, the Secretary of State was asked about his motive for introducing shadow mayors. He said that it was so that people could get ready for having a mayor. People are not stupid. They do not need a practice run dictated to them by the Secretary of State. Let them make their decision and simply get on with it. I am concerned that the shadow arrangements—making the leader of the local authority in the 12 cities the shadow mayor—will create a systemic bias in favour of the shadow mayor, and will make it more difficult for people from all walks of life to put themselves forward for mayorship. That creates an imbalance in favour of the shadow mayor and, regardless of whether that individual is a Labour, Tory or Liberal Democrat councillor, the principle is not sound and is anti-democratic.
The Bill also makes a number of changes to the duties of local authorities in relation to housing. Every single week since I was elected in May, I have met constituents at my advice surgeries who are desperate for housing: people who are on the waiting list for social housing; people who have been waiting many years for a transfer to more suitable social housing accommodation; people on the verge of being made homeless; and young people despairing of ever getting on to the social housing ladder. I am therefore reminded every week of the urgent need to increase the stock of social and affordable housing.
Given that, I wish to make two points about the current changes. First, the changes to the current system are not taking place in isolation. They are doing so with huge changes to housing benefit rules, and therefore councils and social landlords will be under huge pressure. I am not convinced that the changes introduced in the Bill will do anything to alleviate that pressure. The proposals will have to be looked at carefully in Committee.
Secondly, the real challenge is to ensure that more homes are being built. I am alarmed at the reduction in funding for new social homes, and the warnings and figures from various groups involved in building homes. Research recently published by the National Housing Federation shows that, since the general election, local authorities have ditched plans for 160,000 new homes. It believes that, once the homes that Labour started building are complete, no new social homes will be built for the next five years. That would be a complete disaster and I suggest that that should be looked at urgently. No amount of changes to the current system can compensate for the lack of available social and affordable homes. Getting to grips with that should be the priority at this stage.
In conclusion, the Bill has promised much, but the scale of the cuts being imposed on local government, and the deficiencies in some of the Bill’s proposals, will mean that it delivers very little.
I am pleased to be able to speak in the debate, although I have been somewhat taken aback by some of the comments from the Opposition, particularly on the need for savings in local government. The collective amnesia about why the savings are needed in the first place is one thing, but there is also the complete hypocrisy, when it was the previous Labour Government who reduced millions and millions of pounds of neighbourhood renewal funding to Leeds, which has some of the most deprived wards in the country, yet continued to give millions of pounds to Sedgefield—surprise, surprise.
For far too long, we have lived in a system that fails to trust people to get on with their own lives and to run their own lives. Instead, communities up and down our country have had diktats from on high telling them what is best. The Bill is a landmark piece of legislation that will, at last, enable a fundamental shift of power from Westminster to local people. Having been a local councillor for about seven years—maybe not as long as some of my colleagues—I know how frustrating it has been to realise that so little power is given to the local council and councillors, because they have had to adhere to the legislation that has come from this place.
The one area that I am particularly interested in, and which I would like to talk about, is planning and housing targets. I am sure that many constituencies have suffered because of the top-down targets that have been imposed on them. Time and again, when local people in my constituency are given the opportunity to ask what issues concern them most, the overwhelming response is always overdevelopment, and there is little wonder why. Many of the towns that make up my constituency of Pudsey were once mill towns and factory towns. Sadly, those industries have gone, as have companies such as Silver Cross and Greenwoods and, over the years, the industry in those areas has been replaced by residential estates.
Of course brownfield development is a good thing, but the two specific problems that these areas suffered as a result were top-down targets for density, which saw small houses being built on large sites, and the huge housing targets contained in the regional spatial strategy that left local people feeling completely powerless to oppose them.
I concur with the thoughts of my hon. Friend and Leeds colleague. Does he agree that it is extremely welcome and hugely important for an area such as ours that the regional spatial strategies are being abolished? Does he also agree that it is disgraceful that developers such as David Wilson Homes are trying to get forthcoming developments such as the one at Adel in through the back door before the new guidance comes in? Does he not agree that the people of Adel should have the power to stop such a development now?
I completely agree with my hon. Friend. Communities in his constituency and mine have faced these problems time and again.
In Leeds, the previous Government’s regional spatial strategy doubled the target for house building from around 2,500 a year to more than 4,500 every year. At that level, we would have created the equivalent of a new parliamentary constituency within a decade, which would have been completely unsustainable. These targets resulted in not only the brownfield sites in our communities being built on, but a significant threat to the greenfield sites. Time and again, developers came forward with plans for more building. In recent years, permission has been granted for thousands of new homes in Guiseley, but little investment has been made in the infrastructure to cope with so many new residents.
We will have the number of houses that we can cope with. In Leeds, we recognised that certain areas needed more social housing, and the local council increased its target from 25% to 35% of all new houses being social housing. That showed that local people could respond better to local needs, and that is what is important about the Bill.
All the problems that we have experienced have pitted residents against developers, leaving the residents feeling powerless to plan the direction of the towns and villages that they know so well. The recognition of this fact at the heart of the Bill is precisely why I welcome it so much. At long last, the Government here in Westminster recognise that local people are best placed to understand the needs of their towns, as well as the impact of any developments on their communities. Trusting and empowering local people by introducing a neighbourhood planning regime and allowing local knowledge to develop neighbourhood plans and development orders are to be welcomed.
My constituency has a vibrant set of community groups that have joined forces to campaign on this very subject. The Wharfedale and Airedale Review Development —WARD—has already produced an excellent document that highlights the specific issues that need addressing in the local area. I believe that the group will welcome the Bill, which will give it an opportunity to get its voice heard and set the future direction for the area for the first time.
Sadly, the Bill comes too late for some greenfield sites in my constituency. We have already lost fields in Farsley and Yeadon. Both those applications were turned down by the local council, but the decisions were overturned by the inspector, who cited the regional spatial strategy as the reason for allowing them to go through. The planning policies and top-down targets of the past have had a detrimental effect on many of my local communities, and the loss of confidence in the planning process has left many feeling angered and powerless. With this Bill, I hope that we can start again, trusting local people to deliver local planning that understands local needs.
The Localism Bill has received a great deal of attention in England because of its supposedly radical intent. It has received slightly less attention in Wales, as the parts of the Bill that are currently relevant to Wales might not be relevant by the time it receives Royal Assent later this year. That is because of the referendum on the powers in part 4 of the Government of Wales Act 2006 that is being held in Wales in six weeks time. A yes vote would transfer responsibility for legislation on almost all matters in the Bill to the National Assembly for Wales. Bearing in mind the strong possibility of a yes vote—for which I will, of course, be campaigning—may I ask the Minister what effect this would have on the passage of the Bill?
Members who are familiar with the transfer of powers to Wales under the Government of Wales Act will know that there is a variety of means of making the transfer. The most commonly mentioned are the legislative competence orders—LCOs—in the form of Orders in Council, but possibly the most efficient is the transfer of framework powers in a Bill that already has parliamentary time. There are three sets of framework powers in this Bill, relating to housing payments, council tax referendums and planning matters, although I shall make the point later that there should perhaps be more.
Beginning with the powers relating to housing payments, I welcome the consultation that has taken place between Members of this place and Ministers from the Welsh Government on certain subjects. That is a positive step from which other Government Departments could learn. Since my arrival in this place last summer, I have consistently drawn attention to the injustices of the housing revenue account subsidy system in Wales. This dreadful system, dubbed by a former senior special adviser in Wales as the “great Welsh rent robbery”, has seen Welsh council house rent payers contribute more than £1 billion to the Treasury in London in the past decade alone. I must give the Department for Communities and Local Government its due for recognising this problem and accommodating it as far as possible—hence the inclusion of clause 152, which provides the National Assembly with powers regarding the housing revenue account scheme in Wales.
Sadly, though, our problem is not with the Members on the Government Front Bench but with their colleagues in the Treasury, who have yet to reach an agreement with the Welsh Government regarding the £80 million to £90 million that go into the Treasury’s coffers each year from Wales. The housing revenue account subsidy in England is scrapped in the Bill, and there can be no justification for continuing the scheme in Wales or for the Treasury siphoning off the rents of council tenants there. It has become the norm in recent years that, when a power is created on a devolved matter in England, a mirror clause is introduced for Wales. However, there are areas in the Bill for which no such mirror clause exists, even though one might be expected. For example, the general powers of competence given to local authorities in part 1 should also be given to the National Assembly to determine.
Elsewhere in the Bill, we welcome the abolition of the Infrastructure Planning Commission, whose introduction in the Planning Act 2008 we opposed as undemocratic as it transferred out responsibilities and scrutiny that belonged with the Secretary of State. We also welcome the provisions on predetermination, senior pay and business rates, which will apply to England and Wales. However, we share the concern expressed by Citizens Advice about the changes to the homelessness duty.
I must also ask about the effect of the abolition of the regional spatial strategies on Wales, and specifically on those areas in the north-east of my country closest to the border, such as Wrexham and Flintshire, that are impacted on by the north-west England regional strategy. How will this affect cross-border workings? I would be interested to hear from the Minister what discussion has taken place with the Welsh Government on that issue. As I said at the outset, this might be my only substantial contribution to the debate on this Bill, due to the Welsh powers referendum. I certainly hope that that is the case. Diolch yn fawr iawn.
I am grateful for this opportunity to speak in this important debate, having had to leave it earlier to attend a meeting with my noble Friend Baroness Hanham to discuss the local government finance settlement for the borough of Enfield. The issue of finance would normally dominate our debate on local government, as it has a significant impact, but, having been a local councillor and a Member of Parliament for a number of years, and a resident of the borough of Enfield all my life, I believe that this Bill will have a very significant impact on the quality of life of the people there. It contains the most significant devolutionary and localising measures that the House has ever had the opportunity to pass.
I listened with some regret today to the hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts) and others who have been involved in local government and who often speak loudly about localism. I can think of pamphlets published by the all-party group on local government—I co-signed one on primary justice, which was looking for greater devolution and localism—and in Adjournment and other debates Members often pray in aid the activism of local groups and express the need to give them more power, but when it comes to the crunch and we can vote in favour of localism tonight by supporting this Bill’s Second Reading, when we have the chance to side with local people, local groups and those who want to take greater control over their lives and those of the people around them, and when we can not just talk about localism but deliver it, in which Division Lobby will Opposition Members vote?
The hon. Gentleman is talking about the stance that Opposition Members will take, so would he like to comment on the four clauses that give immense powers to the Secretary of State over the general power of competence? If the hon. Gentleman is comfortable with the extent of the powers accorded to the Secretary of State to control that general power, I have to tell him that we are not.
I took part in Committee proceedings on the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill—a Bill of over 200 clauses, so I bear the scars of considering them—and although there was some tinkering around the edges to give greater power to local people, at its heart and at the heart of the previous Government was big government and a big Secretary of State. I shall not go into the issue of size when it comes to the current Secretary of State, but he wants to replace a big Secretary of State in terms of powers with a big citizen.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the most welcome provisions of the Bill include not only the restoring of local ward councillors to their proper place, where they can take part in decision making on planning, but the measures on licensing, on which we have not touched so far? One of the worst legacies of the Labour Government is the result of their foisting late-night licences on so many communities, while at the same time taking away through new national guidelines the power of local ward councillors to speak up on behalf of their communities.
I am grateful for that intervention. It is important to get the message across that this Bill is about giving power not only to the people but to elected representatives—a concern expressed by Opposition Members. We will see this across the board. It is important to recognise that, rather than take note of typical sceptics in the media. On 17 December, The Observer said of the Bill that
“the tendency for partisanship and strife will be great”,
while Planning talked about our entering
“a period in which planning discourse is dominated by sharp-elbowed, well-resourced, well-heeled busybodies”.
Indeed, around the same time, The Independent talked about “a Nimby’s charter”. What we need to do is recognise that the present circumstances are in need of reform. I take seriously the words of one of those in the vanguard—David Evans, the chief planner at West Dorset council, who said:
“The planning system of old was too complex, too prescriptive and too slow…Communities felt that planning wasn’t something for them, rather it was something done to them and as a result there was increasing concern from local residents that overdevelopment was affecting their neighbourhoods.”
That is my experience.
No, I will not give way. The right hon. Lady had her opportunity in government, so I will continue.
When my residents go to their planning committee, what they often see—sadly—is a lack of meaningful engagement. They are squeezed into a five-minute deputation to have their voice heard. The process is often based around the negative—about what people can try to keep hold of for their community—rather than on engaging people from the beginning in shaping communities as part of a neighbourhood plan. Yes, there may be those with sharp elbows, but we are increasingly seeing those who are dispossessed but who want a louder voice.
Let me quote Mark Eaton of the BBC, who is not always a supporter of the Government. He said that this Bill
“may well amount to the biggest change to grass-roots politics in England since universal suffrage.”
He recognises, as do others, that the Bill gives real power back to communities, and it is based on pounds, shillings and pence. For example, the community infrastructure levy will provide an opportunity properly to ensure that money is in the hands of local communities so that they can make and shape their areas. It is about empowering communities, whether it be in the most important power of competence, in the community right to buy or in the neighbourhood plan. Whether they are referred to as “easy Councils” or “John Lewis councils”, diversity in provision will be important.
It will be important to look at the details of the Bill, such as those relating to business involvement. Questions can be asked about where the businesses are in the neighbourhood plan. One need only look at the local growth White Paper, which recognises that every local authority will be able to put in the foundations for local economic growth. As I see in my high streets—the lifeblood of my Enfield community—businesses will have a crucial role to play.
It is important to allow communities to be able to question, for example, the prospect of an A and E closure, such as at Chase Farm, opening up the decision to the community by way of a referendum. Greater transparency is important—at last, Transport for London will have a degree of transparency, matched by that of local communities. That is what is needed for our communities.
We need to be bold; we need to ensure innovation, efficiency and diversity. We also need to recognise and give three cheers to local activists, whether they be sharp-elbowed or not. These are people who for too long have been shut out from decisions in the community and decisions in local authorities. They should be able to help to challenge and shape their communities. We have often referred to the need to shout out, “Power to the people”. At long last, we can ensure that we deliver that rallying cry through the Bill.
I fear that the Bill is a hotch-potch of unco-ordinated policies, as Labour Front Benchers have said, and it will not deliver a strengthened voluntary and community sector. It will instead deliver punitive sanctions on those least able to stand up to them, particularly in the area of housing. I know that from experience in my local authority of Hammersmith and Fulham, which is doted on by the Secretary of State and Ministers. As mentioned previously, that council was said to have showed the way by merging backroom services and cutting senior salaries rather than making front-line cuts.
I urge the Secretary of State to look at the budget for the next three years, which last week was published—or sneaked out, I should say—by the council. Less than 1% of cuts will come from mergers with other councils, as was trumpeted, and less than 1% will come from cuts in senior salaries. Yet fully 50%—more than £13 million in the first year—will come from cuts in children’s services and adult social services, including the closure of most Sure Start centres.
The Mail on Sunday reported just before Christmas that one officer in Hammersmith and Fulham has been paid £1,000 a day for three years—£700,000 paid into a private business run by that single officer, which is more than all the other cuts in senior management put together. That has been described as “good value for money” by the Conservative council. Since this officer’s job is the systematic demolition of council estates in the borough and the redevelopment of needed community assets, I suppose that the Conservative council would think that that was good value for money, but I wonder whether that is what the Secretary of State meant by looking at high salaries.
Three aspects of the Bill have been greeted by hollow laughter by my constituents. One is the community right to challenge. What local organisations taking over community assets means in Hammersmith and Fulham is that all the money is withdrawn, the staff are sacked and in some cases the premises are sold—Sure Start centres and libraries, for example. Then the community is told, “If you want to run these centres on your own behalf with no money from the council, and sometimes with no premises, then go ahead”. That is called the big society.
As for assets of community value, what use is that policy if there is no right of first refusal and no support from the council? What we have seen in Hammersmith is a fire sale of all community buildings—buildings in which literally hundreds of voluntary sector organisations operate. I heard just this morning that Palingswick house in the middle of Hammersmith—a building that 22 active local voluntary groups have made their home for many years—is to be sold off to open a free school for children from outside the borough. Nobody in the constituency has asked for that. The same is true of the Irish cultural centre in Hammersmith, of Shepherd’s Bush village hall and the Sands End centre. Those are vibrant and successful community assets and there is no opportunity for the local community to continue to run them.
As for neighbourhood planning, almost every planning scheme is a joint venture between the council and a developer. In order to build new luxury offices for councillors and senior officers, we have 15-storey tower blocks along the riverside on the site of a community cinema and homes provided by the Pocklington trust for people with visual impairments.
The 100-year-old Shepherd’s Bush market is being destroyed to make way for luxury housing. The air rights relating to the car park of an old people’s home in my constituency are being sold to a private school, which means that no light will reach the old people, but it will make £200,000 or so for the council. Furthermore, in west Kensington the right of local people to take over their own estate, provided by legislation that the Government claim to support, is being vetoed by the council so that a private developer can demolish 750 good-quality council homes in one of the largest developments in the country. I wish that I had more time in which to talk about the impact on my constituents’ housing: about the lack of security of tenure, and about the lack of a duty in relation to homeless people.
My hon. Friend’s constituency and mine have similar characteristics. For instance, 30% of members of our communities live in private rented accommodation. Does my hon. Friend share my horror about the prospect that the Bill will force more people into unregulated private tenancies?
I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. I hope that Government Members have read the comments of Shelter, which has said:
“The proposed changes sever the link between homelessness and recognising the need for a settled home by allowing councils to discharge homeless households into the insecure PRS”
—the private rented sector—
“rather than find them a settled home.”
It is a shameful day for the country when a tradition that all parties have supported for many decades is abandoned: the tradition of ensuring that poorer families have stable and affordable homes. Given all that they have said over the past five years about the need to provide more good-quality affordable housing, the Liberal Democrats above all should not vote for provisions that will destroy security of tenure and the opportunity for people to live in stable homes.
Let me end by making two points that I shall have no time to amplify. The Bill’s provisions for Gypsies and Travellers are also shameful, because they constitute a cynical way of not providing Gypsy and Traveller sites. That is dog-whistle politics.
I am grateful for that intervention, because it has given me a little more time to amplify the point that I was making.
In view of what has been said today about provision for Gypsy and Traveller sites, I think that Members should sometimes examine their rhetoric. The single most important issue is that the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs wishes to cut all provision for Gypsies and Travellers: both the capital funding and the requirement for local authorities to provide sites for them. If there were enough sites, there would not be unlawful encampments. It is shocking that the Government should wilfully close their eyes to that fact and simply introduce civil and criminal penalties for Gypsies and Travellers, and they should examine their conscience.
Finally, let me echo the words of Sir Christopher Kelly, who said that the end of the standards regime allowed councils, such as Hammersmith and Fulham, to get away with what they were doing. That provision should also be rejected.
Let me begin by saying that, given the state in which the Labour party left the country, it is preposterous to use the word “shameful” about a Bill of this nature, whether or not it does everything that the Government claim that it does. Let us have a sensible debate.
I welcome this important Bill. I welcome the sentiments behind it and the purpose that has led two parties to work together, believing in decentralisation, and I welcome much of its substance. Let me say in particular—in the regrettably short time that I have been allowed—how delighted my constituents and I are about the abolition of regional spatial strategies, which I have already mentioned. However—just as the Secretary of State returns to the Chamber—I must record the disappointment that I share with local communities about the indication that the planning system will continue to allow developers an automatic and unlimited right of appeal, while not allowing communities even a limited right. I urge Ministers to think again.
In the very short time available to me, I wish to point out, as chair of the all-party parliamentary save the pub group, that the Bill will clearly have an impact on pubs. At present, planning law gives pubs virtually no protection, and communities have virtually no say over their future.
I would support any measure that helped pubs, but, as the right hon. Lady knows full well, that was one of the disgraceful blank cheques written in the dying days of a Labour Government who were trying desperately to cling to power, and people saw through it. Let me now make some sensible comments about the issue. I think that Members in all parts of the House recognise not only the legal but the moral ownership of pubs by local communities.
I agree. In Hereford we have seen a perfect example of the abuse of the current system. Last year the Gamecock pub in South Wye was sold to Tesco, in the face of local objections and without consultation. The sale went through because of a loophole: pubs and supermarket chains are both zoned B2, although, as we all know, pubs are enormously welcome and supermarkets are not. I am sure the hon. Gentleman agrees that the Bill should deal with that loophole.
Indeed. I thank my hon. Friend for raising the issue, which I was about to mention myself. As he has pointed out, it is perfectly legal to change a pub into a supermarket, a bank or a betting shop, or to demolish it altogether if it is free-standing. That loophole, which applies also to other services, must be closed, and it can be closed if the Government support the Protection of Local Services (Planning) Bill on Friday. The Bill is promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Selby and Ainsty (Nigel Adams), and I urge Ministers to take it seriously. If they are not willing to do so, they must deal with the matter through the Localism Bill, which is not possible as the Bill is currently drafted. Otherwise, the community right to buy will be tokenistic. An unscrupulous developer could demolish a pub overnight and change it into a Tesco before a realistic opportunity to buy had been provided. I consider the demolition loophole particularly extreme: it would be absurd to suggest that a community would still be interested in a pub site once the pub had been demolished.
Given the way in which the community right-to-buy provision is currently worded, there is a danger that other potential operators—small pub companies, individuals, entrepreneurs or small breweries—would find it more difficult to buy and run a pub that represented what the community wanted. In many cases, the right to buy is not only unrealistic but undesirable. It would affect only a few pubs, and I think that the Government should look at the drafting again.
In fact, we are not talking about a community right to buy. Let us be honest: what we are talking about is a community right to try—to try to buy a pub and put it together. Once a community has a realistic and fully backed bid at market value, the owner has no obligation to sell it to the community. I urge the Government to look at the Scottish Parliament’s Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003, which gives communities a genuine right to buy.
On behalf of the parliamentary save the pub group, I have written to the new community pubs Minister—the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill)—informing him of our thoughts and proposals. We believe that the idea of a moratorium is excellent, but we think that it should be triggered not when a pub or other local service is about to be sold, but when plans are presented for its use to be changed or for its demolition.
A six-month moratorium would give communities a real chance either to seek to raise the finance for a community right to buy if they wished to do so or to try to find small companies as partners. That would also benefit the excellent small companies concerned. I am delighted to say that small companies have now started to buy pubs, as the big companies, with their discredited models, are struggling. That should be encouraged, but there is a concern that it will not be encouraged under the Bill as drafted. Two things should happen during the six-month period. The local authority should conduct an independent viability test of any pub that seeks change of use. Some councils already do that. There should also be a genuine independent community consultation process. Again, a few councils do that, but if it were made part of the process, it would give the Bill teeth and the community a right to say.
Finally, there is an idea that communities simply being able to apply to put pubs on a community asset list will solve the problem, but that is not the case. The save the pub group believes that we should try to work towards a definition of a community pub that would then apply to all pubs that communities deem to be important community facilities.
The Prime Minister has said that this is to be a pro-pub Government. I want that more than any Member, but unless this Bill is strengthened, communities will not have a real say over the future of pubs, and I look forward to working with the ministerial team to change the Bill to make that happen.
I want to give the Government the benefit of the doubt and welcome the thrust towards localism in the Bill, and I hope to make it on to the Committee and therefore to be able to scrutinise the detail of the proposals. As the Bill is a thick and huge document however, I have not yet been able quite to get into it, but as I represent the second poorest constituency in London, I have some profound questions.
This Bill is being introduced against the backdrop of cuts to the vital services of some of the poorest people in London—a Somali woman, perhaps, or a Turkish woman, or someone who has arrived and settled here from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. All of them come from communities that have settled in my constituency. It has traditionally been a constituency that many communities have used as a gateway, as they settle and find their feet in this country. What does localism mean to them? It does not mean much if they are losing their library or their community support, or if the centre where their community is based is being shut down.
I will not give way, because time is limited.
Two issues remain deeply relevant to my constituency, both of which I have previously raised in the House. I welcome the proposals for a neighbourhood plan. I have discussed that with the Minister of State, the right hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark). I welcome the capacity for communities to determine the look, shape and feel of their area, and particularly of their high streets. In my constituency, we have seen the disappearance of independent shops, pubs, community centres and vital services, especially banks, and the escalating proliferation of betting shops. Why does Tottenham have 39 betting shops and not one bookshop? Why is there an application for a 10th betting shop on Tottenham high road?
It is clear from clause 97 that there are excessive charges in bringing in a neighbourhood plan. How are ordinary people in Tottenham—the very same people whose housing benefit is being cut, and who on the basis of the coalition’s plans are to be turfed off jobseeker’s allowance if they do not find a job—going to be able to pay the charges to bring in a neighbourhood plan and thereby be able to determine the look, shape and feel of their high street? Those are the questions my constituents will want to ask, particularly against the backdrop of this Bill also introducing the end of secured tenancy.
Tottenham has the highest homelessness rate in London, and it is a shame that this Administration seem to assume that our landlords are paragons of virtue. These proposals will lead to overcrowding in London. They will lead to the kinds of scenes we see in cities such as Paris. I predict that harm will come to communities because of this atrocious part of the Bill. I welcome the neighbourhood plan and I look forward to questioning in detail what it means for communities like mine, but I condemn a situation in which we are casting the very poorest of Londoners on to the streets and into overcrowded living conditions, with landlords who will surely prey on them.
I must first declare an interest: I remain, until May, an elected member of North East Lincolnshire unitary authority, having previously spent 14 years as a member of the former Great Grimsby borough council. The total amount of time I served is 26 years, during which I would like to think there was a certain amount of modest success, but I can assure Members that there was also a lot of frustration caused by the gradual drift towards increasing centralisation. Needless to say, I welcome the Bill’s general thrust to reverse that, but I wish to draw specific attention to the proposals for local referendums and elected mayors, and to express one or two reservations in respect of tenancies and the proposed fines in the context of air quality issues.
The ability of local people, as well as individual councillors, to initiate local referendums already exists, of course. I succeeded in achieving one after a long campaign, and in getting a two-to-one vote in favour of abolishing a town council that was precepting band B properties in excess of £100 per year, only to see that result overturned by the top-tier authority. Bearing in mind that frivolous proposals for referendums will be eliminated at an early stage, I hope that we will eventually come to the conclusion that the result of such referendums should be binding. The people did have a modest amount of success, however, as Immingham town council has reduced its running costs, and in 2008 reduced its precept by 20.9%. I rather suspect it would not have done so had it not been under threat of abolition.
I strongly support the moves towards the introduction of elected mayors, but why only 12? If, as stated, the Government consider elected mayors to provide strong leadership and improved clarity in municipal decision making and to enhance the prestige of their cities, why limit the number to 12, and why only for cities?
Will the hon. Gentleman comment on the fact that mayors are going to be imposed? Indeed, another power that the Secretary of State is taking is the power to impose this on any city or local authority. The current power to have mayors was brought in by the Labour Government, and it can be by resolution or referendum.
Personally, I would always support the decision of a referendum over an imposition.
Why only 12 mayors? Why are the provincial towns not being given the opportunity to have an elected mayor? Local councillors are not generally enthusiastic about elected mayors, as that is seen to risk breaking up the cosy arrangements that exist, particularly if there are two strong parties in an authority. It needs to be made easier for the electorate to kick-start a referendum. Obtaining the support of 5% of the people does not sound like a great deal until one gets out on the streets to try to secure those genuine signatures. In the two unitary authorities that serve my constituency, that equates to about 6,000 people and I can tell hon. Members that getting that number is extremely difficult, because I have tried it.
On kindling community interest in local planning matters, does my hon. Friend agree that the Bill and, in particular, its housing provisions, has the potential to act as a serious catalyst for community engagement in local politics? Does he further agree that the pilot scheme that has taken shape in Attleborough, in my constituency, which involves asking some deep questions about the future of the town, is a model of what might come through the Bill?
I accept the point that my hon. Friend makes. Elected mayors are another advocate for the area that they represent, and provincial towns, particularly those neighbouring cities that will subsequently have elected mayors, should be given an early opportunity in this regard.
On the overview and scrutiny role in local councils, a decade of trying to achieve a satisfactory system has, to the best of my knowledge, failed. There may well be some councils where there has been success, but not many. The biggest problem is to do with officer resources. Scrutiny officers, however hard-working and dedicated, are answerable to senior officers who are rightly charged with implementing the policies of the ruling group. Where is the incentive to create a powerful group to scrutinise and criticise the work of the controlling group? Senior scrutiny officers need to be more independent. They should be appointed by a panel of the chairmen of the scrutiny chairs and be responsible to them, rather than to the senior management of the authority.
On the involvement of communities, I have a general rule of thumb: if people want to take decisions affecting their communities, they should seek election. That is different from encouraging them to become involved, which I fully support because we need maximum participation—I welcome the moves in the Bill that will contribute to that.
May I also draw Members’ attention to the proposals to pass European Union fines, particularly those relating to air quality—a particular issue in the port of Immingham, in my constituency—to local authorities? I seek guidance from our Front Benchers on what the potential is on that front. I speak for my local community in Immingham, which faces a coal dust problem and which may welcome moves that make it more difficult for the regulatory authorities to duck the issue.
Finally, may I express some reservations about the proposed limits on the period of social housing tenancies? I recognise that the proposals will not apply to existing tenants, but I have reservations because the shorter a tenancy period, the less incentive there is for someone to contribute to maintaining the property and enhancing the area in which they live. People become attached to their bricks and mortar, and a short tenancy discourages that. The postcode lottery is a potent political weapon and, as the culture of our voters is that they expect a certain standard of services, it could be difficult to overcome with the differences that will inevitably result in neighbouring authorities.
We could be forgiven for thinking that the Government have, all on their own, discovered community empowerment and social action. I just want to place it on the record, right at the outset, that not only I but many Labour Members have for years embraced the ideas of giving individuals and communities greater power over their own lives. That is why hundreds of local authorities up and down the country are doing participatory budgeting, why the transfer of assets has got off the ground and is now happening, why councils are responding to petitions and why the social enterprise and mutuals sector is growing. This Government are not the first to have these ideas.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. Not for a moment would I seek to miss out something that I believe has been of great assistance in empowering local communities. Success has many parents and the Bill contains some things that I support, but I want to make one central point this evening: I believe that there is a deep schism at the heart of the Government between those people who genuinely believe in this agenda and want to make the most of the skills and talents of local people, and those who see it as a convenient step in an intense political strategy to shrink the state, slash costs and provide respectability for the transfer of assets from the public sector, possibly into the private sector, using the guise of social enterprise as a respectable halfway house.
I have great concerns about that. The Secretary of State for Health is on the record as saying that what he regards as social enterprise is anything other than the public sector. That is a very wide definition, and I say to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, whom I am pleased to see in his place, that I would welcome the Minister giving a cast-iron commitment in his summing up. I would like the Minister to confirm that, under the expressions of interest part of the Bill, the Secretary of State will not be using his order-making powers to change the framework to allow commercial organisations simply to bid to run services and take over assets, and that there will be a genuine commitment to real social enterprise, with asset locks, stewardship and community ownership at its heart. It is vital that we get that on the record.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that an additional element in a community takeover of assets is its having the agency to do so and the resources even to get near those assets in the first place? Does she think that the Bill fulfils the promise of communities taking over assets in a way that that might be possible, bearing in mind the finances involved?
Not by any stretch of the imagination could this Bill genuinely be said to be about empowerment. If people are to be given rights, they need the means to take up those rights. The Bill does not contain the back-up, support, funding and guidance necessary genuinely to give people the sense that they can take on these services.
In a moment.
We are setting out for the worst of all possible worlds. We will raise expectations and then set people up to fail, thus setting this whole community empowerment agenda back years and years; I think there will be an awful lot of disappointed people. If we look at the pubs support package, we see now that no support is available. A community in my constituency wants to take over the Woolpack in Salford. These great local people need help with a business plan, finance and mentoring, but no support is available from this Government to enable them to take over that pub.
I will not give way.
I set out three tests last October, saying that if the Government met them, their localism and empowerment agenda would have my support. Those tests related to funding; having a proper framework for local government; and fairness. On funding, the Government have failed miserably. My local council faces cuts of £47 million, and 15% of those cuts are to come in the first year. Manchester city council faces cuts of £100 million, with 25% in the first year. Voluntary sector organisations face cuts of upwards of £3 billion, with a paltry £100 million transition fund. Whether for local government, voluntary organisations or community groups, the Government have failed entirely on funding.
My second test was about having a proper framework and a long-term partnership with community groups. What I have seen is councils in a headlong rush to divest themselves of responsibility, and they are dealing with big national organisations, not building the small community groups that really want to bid on this agenda. For example, the big national framework contracts for the Ministry of Justice and the Department for Work and Pensions are going not to small social enterprises or small local organisations but to big national companies. The people who are getting the DWP contracts in Greater Manchester are based in Leeds, Birmingham and Newcastle—so much for growing the small local sector.
My third test was about fairness. I am genuinely horrified at the unfairness of the cuts that have been put in place. They are particularly directed at the poorest neighbourhoods—the people who are eligible for area-based grant. They have seen those grants slashed completely, which is why the poorest areas have fared the worst. What is really needed on this agenda is funds. I moved a ten-minute rule Bill just a couple of weeks ago, proposing that instead of paying themselves bonuses bankers should enter into a long-term relationship with community groups to give them not only funding, but business expertise, support, mentoring and back-up. Again, I ask the Government whether they are prepared to support those measures. We need a commitment to true social enterprise and we need to ensure—
No, I will not. Time is short.
When those enterprises are spun out into the social enterprise sector, we have to ensure that that does not happen on the back of people’s terms and conditions. I would welcome a commitment from the Government that when organisations take over, the conditions for the people who work in those enterprises will be maintained at the highest possible standards.
I recommend to the House an excellent example I have seen recently of a council empowering people, which is Lambeth’s co-operative council proposal. Across the country, 100 local authorities have signed up to the co-operative council idea, with citizenship-led commissioning, the transfer of assets, protection for employees and a safeguarding framework that safeguards equity so that we do not get the postcode lottery referred to by the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers). That example would be very worth while.
On this agenda, we need to ask some simple questions, but they are very revealing. What is the point of a general power of competence if there is no money to do anything to improve the community? What is the point of allowing people to bid to run services or take over assets when there is not the back-up and support to enable them to do that? Why involve local people in planning and at the same time abolish planning aid, which gave poorer communities the ability to raise issues, to have technical support and to play their proper part in the planning framework? I genuinely believe that these proposals are the worst of all worlds—raising people’s expectations and then dashing them in a pretty appalling way. There are many reasons why we cannot support the Bill this evening. The principle is right, but the way in which this Government propose to exercise it is utterly wrong. It is not community empowerment, but community demolition.
As a former leader of the council—and obviously a councillor—of the great city of Bradford, I welcome this Bill. I have some reservations and I am sure that as time goes by we can thrash out some of those issues, but my local council will no longer have to doff its cap to a regional development agency to ask for its own money. My local council will not have to argue about ridiculous housing figures or argue the toss about child pregnancy figures when every professional said they were unachievable and primary care trust chairs and directors had to intervene on the Government to explain the ridiculous targets that had been set. There was paper-chasing, whole departments had to be established to facilitate inspectorates, initiatives came through where one-off moneys were chased and a few days’ notice was given to bid for millions of pounds. Such ridiculous initiatives—
No, I will not. The shadow Secretary of State said earlier that she was concerned that the Secretary of State had sent a note about the Queen’s jubilee coming up. I got a note reminding me that it was St George’s day. I did not need to receive a note from the Secretary of State to tell me that it was St George’s day, because we celebrated that in Bradford with great pomp and with all the community behind us.
The Bill will end the farce of the Standards Board for England and the cost of the eternal process of the regional strategic planning regime. I welcome the idea that we can tackle rogue developers in the planning process and that we will not have to facilitate retrospective planning permission. The cost to individual councils of pursuing individual developers is outrageous. I am concerned that we should really mean localism and local determination on planning. My local parish council rejected a Tesco application and my local district council unanimously rejected it, but it then went to the inspectorate, which overturned that decision. Those decisions were overturned in the face of the local populace. I want some clarification on how we are going to address the anomaly, whereby local people are refused what they want.
I am concerned about housing. People can argue the toss about tenures, but we need to build more houses. Affordable housing must be facilitated. The recession has wiped out a whole skill base as far as housing is concerned and I want to see how Business Link, business development and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills will support local government in utilising that housing land.
I am very concerned about elected mayors. My constituency was put into Bradford and although I like the city and people of Bradford, the people of Keighley are not too enthusiastic about being part of Bradford council. The idea that there is a very good chance that somebody from Bradford might be the mayor of Bradford will further alienate the people of Keighley, who will be further detached from that administration. I look forward to using one of the referendum options so that the constituency of Keighley can break away from Bradford council, if it needs to, and form its own administration.
As for the devolution of powers, it is quite easy to devolve powers when there is no money left in the kitty. I look forward to the time when there is more in the kitty, when we have put the economy right and when our local people can make those decisions. Individual departments need to respect their responsibility, as central Government have been an absolute nightmare for local government, trying to join it up to make decisions.
Finally, all the great things proposed in the Bill are undermined by the fact that democracy has been undermined. The postal voting system is undermining local democracy and must be addressed.
There have been a large number of philosophical speeches from hon. Members on both sides of the House, but I want to talk specifically about clauses 124 and 125. I want to ask the Secretary of State and Members of all parties to consider whether we want to change 40 years of homelessness legislation and give local authorities the power to discharge their duty to homeless families to the private sector, whether or not the family accepts that option.
In response to “Cathy Come Home” in the late 1960s and early 1970s, parts of all our communities rose as one—irrespective of the party that they supported—to say that local authorities needed a framework for vulnerable homeless families. No longer could councils of all political persuasions ignore families in housing need. At the same time, we saw the rise of one of the greatest acts of localism since Victorian times: the formation of housing associations, principally through Church and faith-based groups that wanted to do their bit to contribute to dealing with homelessness.
Is it right that we should let go of one of the fundamental tenets of our homelessness legislation, which is to discharge the duty to provide accommodation that families can afford? Private sector accommodation in south London is certainly not affordable to the vast majority of homeless families.
That would be a shocking spectacle and I cannot imagine that any person in this House would find it acceptable.
We must consider the consequences of our actions. Private sector accommodation is, for most families, completely unaffordable. Most families who approach local authorities as homeless are young families at the start of their family life and with the lowest earning potential that they are likely to have in their lifetime. They will have to go on to housing benefit, so we will make families who could otherwise afford to pay their way welfare-dependent. We are saying to families, “You will be on housing benefit and if you try to better your life—if you take the extra day’s work or the promotion—you will lose so much housing benefit that it will not be worth your while.”
I completely agree with my hon. Friend and I wonder whether we are seeing joined-up government. What is worse than the pointless spending of that money is the fact that we are doing it to the detriment of those families. I appreciate that this is a slogan, but it means a great deal and many hon. Members of all persuasions could sign up to the idea that any social policy should be considered through the prism of whether it is giving “a hand up or a handout”. If the Government discharge homeless people into the private sector, they will be giving them a handout that will keep their aspirations low, because those people will know that they can never afford to go into work. Professor John Hills calculated that a couple with two children and a private rent of £120 a week would be only £23 a week better off if their earnings rose from £100 a week to £400 a week. That cap on aspiration will not only force people to stay down but will make them risk-averse. Would a single mum with two or three children who pays rent of £1,000 a month take a job that she might not be able to manage, or do the extra hours that might make her children’s care collapse, if it meant she would then have to give up that job, go back on to housing benefit and experience the delay that we all know happens with benefit assessments?
I ask Government Members to consider whether that is what they want to do to the most vulnerable families. Does it help to have taxpayers paying more in housing benefit and to alienate more families? Our job should be to encourage, and perhaps sometimes to force, people to work if they can, but this measure will prevent that from happening to hundreds of families.
In my maiden speech last May I spoke about the important principle that where services are delivered mainly locally, they should be decided mainly locally, so I strongly welcome the Bill. I was a councillor for 13 years before coming to this place, the last seven of which I was leader of West Sussex county council, so I have seen at first hand the top-down, centralised control from Whitehall that the Labour party exerted. It was determined to treat every part of the country the same—from the City of Westminster to the county of West Sussex and from one end of the country in Cumbria to the other in Cornwall—and its demand for compliance stifled localism and local communities.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the general power of competence in the Bill, which has been much derided by the Opposition, signals that local government will no longer be an arm of central Government but will be able to pursue and develop its own policies and services?
My hon. Friend hits the nail on the head. That is precisely what the Bill does and that is why the reforms represent a radical change. It is interesting that the two parties of the coalition Government are coming together not only in the national interest but in the local interest on principles of individuality, community, libertarianism, greater accountability and democracy.
In my experience as a local authority leader, three things got in the way of true local government, and our role was more about local administration than government. The first of those things was the local government finance system, and I am delighted that there will now be a chance for referendums on council tax and that there will be a greater link between local taxation and local representation.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way and for showing such respect to the Chamber, unlike some of his colleagues.
On local government financing, why not go the whole hog? What is the Government’s weakness? Why do they not return the business rate that the Tory party took away from local government?
We are about to do just that in the Bill. The Government have not waited for legislation and have already un-ring-fenced a lot of the budgets that were constraining local authorities’ ability to spend money according to local priorities.
The second thing that has kept down local governments in the past 13 years—and, to be fair, in previous times as well—is the seeping of authority and power from directly elected local government, often to regional and unelected quangos. Again, I am delighted that the coalition Government have made an early start in that respect as well.
The thing that I particularly want to highlight as having stifled local government’s ability to represent the needs of local communities is the unbearable regulation and the bureaucratic tick-box exercise that local government was forced to go through. When I was a local authority leader, I asked my officers to put an audit code next to every item of expenditure that related to that bureaucratic tick-box exercise and at the end of the financial year I was astounded and shocked to see that my local authority had spent more than £1 million just on going through an unnecessary exercise that often had little relevance to the needs of my local community. Not one penny of that £1 million went to provide a book in one of our libraries. [Interruption.] My Conservative local authority has just opened a new library and I am delighted about that. Not one penny of that £1 million went to provide a personal computer on a desk in one of our schools or to provide a home care package for a vulnerable or elderly individual. Not one penny of it was spent on fire service call-outs or any other front-line service that the local authority for which I was responsible wanted to deliver.
The Bill represents a radical shift and a turning around of priorities. Instead of top-down, Whitehall control, there will be bottom-up control whereby individuals, local communities and democratically elected and accountable local government can provide those services. Where government is more transparent and more accountable at all levels, it is more efficient. Given the disastrous economic situation we have been bequeathed by the previous Government, that is something we need to achieve.
One issue that I would like Ministers to clarify is the way in which European Union fines for air pollution, for example, may be divided up. My constituency and local authority include Gatwick airport—the nation’s second-largest airport and the world’s busiest one-runway, two-terminal airport—as well as a significant section of the M23. As a former local authority leader, I am once bitten, twice shy when it comes to local government formulae and I am interested to know how the formula for dividing such fines will operate so that it does not militate against local authorities with national assets such as airports and other facilities in their area.
Broadly, the Bill is to be greatly welcomed. It has often been said that when this country gave up its empire, Whitehall, in an effort to find things to do, simply turned its attention inwards and decided that instead of administering Nigeria or India it had better administer Norwich or Ipswich. The Bill represents, for the first time, a freeing up of control and greater self-determination for our local communities in the same way as other nations achieved self-determination at the end of the British empire. I appreciate having had the House’s time, Mr Deputy Speaker.
Having been a parish councillor until a few weeks ago, I welcome those parts of the Bill that seek to reduce centralisation and strengthen local democracy, but the Government appear to give with one hand and take away with the other. To give powers to local government with one hand and slash budgets, through the local government settlement, with the other is disingenuous and simply will not deliver localism in any form that I understand. I welcome the excellent sentiments expressed by the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart)—he is no longer in his place—who chairs the all-party group on town and parish councils, of which I am the vice-chair.
On the very day that the coalition announced the deepest cuts in local government history, which will result in an estimated 140,000 public sector job losses in one year alone, they also announced the Localism Bill. Forgive me, but the cynic in me finds a sad but strong link between the two. My concern is that the big society Localism Bill is simply a cover for thousands of job losses. My local authority, Durham county council, is being forced to axe 1,600 jobs and make £100 million of savings over the next four years, and my local police authority is having to cut 80 jobs this year.
The Secretary of State rather smugly told us earlier today that Durham county council has £80 million in reserves. He knows well that for a county the size of Durham, that is not an unreasonably sized reserve. He knows that local authorities are under a legal duty to hold back a percentage of reserves for emergencies and, therefore, are not free to spend that money on front-line jobs. He is also aware that, if Durham county council spent that element of its reserves which it can spend, it can spend it only once, yet it has cuts to make next year, the year after and the year after that. He should also be aware that that element of the £80 million reserve that it can spend will largely fund redundancies this year.
Perhaps the hon. Lady can help me with a little point I am confused about. The leader of her party said over the weekend that had Labour won the election there would have been cuts to local government finance, and in the amendment to the motion her party confirms its commitment to localism and devolution. Are we not just arguing about semantics, because hon. Members on both sides of the House appear to agree on localism, devolution and cuts to local government finance? Where does she think the cuts would have fallen had there been a Labour Government?
The hon. Lady has obviously read my mind. The leader of Durham county council has told me that, had the reductions in grant funding been limited to the level that Labour would have made, all the cuts to the council could have come from existing back-office services without hitting front-line services. However, cuts of the magnitude and scale of those proposed by the Government simply cannot come from anything other than front-line services. Front-line services will be hit, and hit hard.
In answer to the point about Labour’s policy, one of the key points is that we would not have front-loaded the cuts. Salford city council has two to three months in which to deal with £47 million of cuts and is struggling, and I am sure that Durham county council is in a similar boat. I am sure my hon. Friend agrees that it is impossible to make structural changes that can help with that situation.
Yes, I agree. The Association of North East Local Councils has issued figures that show clearly that the pound per person cut in spending power for those who live in the north-east will be significantly higher this year and in the following three years than it will be for those in the south-east. We have already heard today that in Hartlepool the cut per person will be £113. In the Lib Dem-led local authority of Newcastle, the figure is £99 per person, and for those who live in Durham it will be £70 per person. However, those who live in the deprived community of Richmond upon Thames will be hit by a massive cut of £5 per person, and those who live in Buckinghamshire, that well known centre of deprivation and poverty, will be hit by a cut of £4 per person. Sadly, those who reside in deepest poverty-ridden Surrey will find their council spending cut by a crippling £2 per person. How is that fair, and how will that support localism? It is Robin Hood in reverse; it is unashamedly taking from the poor to give to the rich. It is not fair and not progressive. Quite frankly, it is not fooling anyone.
My community already organises and runs many local projects, but it cannot do it alone. The voters of North West Durham, and voters generally, are already working out that the big society is nothing but a big sham. Public and community services simply cannot run on empty. They need investment and support as well as reform. People are realising that the only real choice they are being given is to run services themselves or watch them be cut to shreds. It is all very well in theory to say that local services should be delivered by local citizens, which I agree with, but what happens when those vital services fail?
Services such as talking books are vital to the elderly and the visually impaired, and the careline services are vital to the elderly and disabled. What happens if those services fail or those volunteering to run them simply walk away, get another job or move elsewhere? Such services cannot be left to God and good neighbours. There must be safeguards for when things do not work out.
I welcome parts of the Bill, but I have real concerns about other parts. It could result in a postcode lottery, with some communities able to support a higher level of social services than others, and the poorest and most vulnerable in challenged communities being left to fend for themselves.
Who will be the localists running the big society? They will be those with the time and money to get involved. Wealthier and more middle-class members of society will run services on behalf of the less well-off or the less able. What will happen to the concepts of fairness, entitlement, inclusion and standards? We have already witnessed in some Sure Start centres what happens when more middle class parents get involved: the families that those services are targeted to support—the disadvantaged—are simply overwhelmed, turned off or stay away. That is the danger of having a wealthy, middle class volunteer running vital public services targeted at the most disadvantaged.
There are things in the Bill that I approve of, but they are masked by a Government who are using them as cover for massive public sector cuts, the dismantling of local democracy and a methodology for shifting resources from the poor to the sharp-elbowed better-off.
There speaks the authentic dinosaur aspect of the Labour party—class war. The view of the hon. Member for North West Durham (Pat Glass) is that those who want to do the best for their local community are middle class and sharp elbowed. It is sad that the Opposition amendment is so churlish, so grudging and lacking in any coherent alternative. Within its historical context, the Bill is both radical and transformative of local government, and I think that it stands comparison with some of the greatest legislation of the past 200 years, including the Municipal Corporations Act 1835, the Public Health Acts 1872 and 1875, and the Housing Act 1980, as it will make significant changes in the balance between local government and central Government. It is a reversal of Labour’s ratcheting, centralising tendency, which we have seen with the tsars, the guidance, the strategy, the inspections and the audits, which have traduced the best aspects of local government over the years.
The Bill has a coherent philosophy, because in the aspects that speak to the big society it tackles something that Labour never did—the issue of capital inadequacy and capital inequality. Labour presided over a widening of the gap between the richest and poorest 10% in its 13 years in power, because it did nothing about the ownership of capital, which the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt), the expert on Engels, no doubt knows much about.
The Bill also puts forward a significant commitment to mutualism at the same time as it heralds a civic renewal of local government through our commitment to localism. The New Local Government Network—I have the privilege of serving on its management body—sets some key challenges for the legislation. Is it about a coherent localism, and will it link together coherently as a strategy for policy making and political decision making for citizens? Yes, it is coherent as a philosophy because within the context of GP commissioning, the integration of public health, local enterprise partnerships, directly elected police commissioners, and school and welfare reform, it sits as a coherent strategy for the future.
Does the hon. Gentleman support limiting the expressions of interest to be made by communities to run services to organisations that have a social purpose? Does he also support the regulations not being changed in future by the Secretary of State to include commercial organisations that would seek to make a profit?
The big society is about empowering local people to make decisions at local level. It should be seen not as lots of disparate, discrete initiatives at local level, but within the context of the Bill’s provisions. I see the general power of competence, for example, as a key unlocking a huge amount of progressive development by local authorities. The New Local Government Network specifically praised the general power of competence and said:
“This represents both a significant philosophical shift towards local democracy and a practical transfer of power to the local level.”
That is something that Labour never did in its 13 years of power, although it promised to do so in its 1997 manifesto.
The other important issue—unfortunately, one cannot look in detail at the 406 pages of the Bill and its 201 clauses and 24 schedules in five minutes—is whether it is permissive, as opposed to prescriptive, as an approach to local government? On any objective test it is an extremely permissive piece of legislation. The general power of competence will give local authorities autonomy by unlocking accelerated development zones, tax increment financing, asset-backed vehicles and real estate investment trusts.
In his exposition of the overall coherence of the Bill, is the hon. Gentleman in favour of stripping out of the Bill as it progresses through the House those 126 clauses whereby the Secretary of State can remove the powers that have been put into the Bill, if he so requires?
The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. The TaxPayers Alliance, in its publication in March 2010 entitled “The fiscal and economic case for localism”, speaks to an issue that unites the whole House—the fact that we are too centralised in the power balance between central and local government. Clearly, that is the case. The UK has one of the most centralised systems of government, taxation and spending in the western world. Less than 20% of our revenue is raised locally, as opposed to a G7 average of 60%.
An econometric study in Germany found that Government efficiency increased in direct proportion to decentralisation and could drive it up by up to 10%. That would release in this country the equivalent of £70 billion. The Spanish institute of fiscal studies found that fiscal decentralisation could boost growth in the economy by 0.5%. The Bill speaks to that concern. If Opposition Members ask me whether we are going far enough in fiscal autonomy and decentralisation, the answer is no, but the Bill is a bigger and better start than what went on before.
Opposition Members will notice that we have been consistent from the publication of the control shift document in February 2009, which is the theoretical and philosophical basis for the Bill. We have been pushing the concept of localism. When I served on the Public Bill Committee with the right hon. Member for Salford and Eccles (Hazel Blears) two years ago, we did not oppose multi-area agreements or leaders boards because we believed in localism.
I do not have time to give way, if the hon. Gentleman will forgive me.
The Bill is coherent, although I have two caveats. One is about shadow elected mayors, which was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Kris Hopkins), who is not in his place at present. I have concerns also about councils’ culpability for the payment of EU fines. There will no doubt be contentious debate about that in Committee.
The Bill stands comparison with our party’s historical commitment to civic renewal and civic pride, a golden thread which runs from Disraeli through to Joseph Chamberlain in Birmingham, Macmillan and the house building of the post-war Conservative Governments to this Bill. That is why I will vote for it later tonight.
To describe the Bill as one of the great historical Bills put before the House is to take historical hyperbole to new heights. It is ludicrous. There are more than 100 caveats on the powers that are devolved to local government, and the Conservative and Liberal Democrat Members who keep on about the joy that they have from the freedom for their local authorities will be back in the Chamber in two or three years complaining that the fire standards are worse in Dorset than they are in Warwickshire, that homeless people are more generously treated than they are in Bristol and so on.
National Government have a responsibility to ensure that there are some national standards in what is done. It is important that Government Members understand that. In addition, since 80% of all local government expenditure comes directly from central Government, the freedoms associated with the Bill are more than a little bit limited.
My hon. Friend makes a good point about the possible inequity of services in different parts of the country. Is he aware that, as a result of the cuts to local government funding currently taking place, in many areas social care is being denied to people with moderate needs and going only to those with critical care needs? Does he regard that as a good effect of localism?
That is an effect of localism. That is why national standards, particularly in areas such as social care, access to pre-school education, and education in general, are so important for everyone in our society. People should be cautious of what they wish for from the Bill.
The Secretary of State, in introducing the Bill in a particularly inept and rather unsensible speech, went on to describe how Islington was not going to develop a nuclear bomb. That got a good laugh, I am sure, but it was a particularly silly thing to say. His Government are cutting £300 million from Islington’s budget over the next four years. We are one of the poorest boroughs in London and we come in the top eight poorest communities in the whole country, with high levels of homelessness, high levels of dependency and relatively high levels of unemployment. A newly elected Labour local authority has taken over from the Liberal Democrats, who spent most of their time in control of Islington council on a fire sale of valuable local authority properties. So they have form in how they behave towards local government and local authorities.
My main concern in respect of the Bill and in general is about housing. The legislation enacted at the time of the first world war, and the Public Health and National Health Service Acts of the post-war Labour Government have done more than anything else in this country to eliminate bad housing and homelessness. The Bill destroys that thread of public provision of good quality housing at an economic and affordable rent. Instead, it requires local authorities to force people into unregulated, expensive, badly managed, badly maintained housing provided by private sector landlords.
I understand what the hon. Gentleman says. He was not in the previous Parliament. I was one of those who frequently demanded much more building of council housing. In the latter days of the Labour Government, more council housing was being built, and is still being built in my borough. To be fair, the Government inherited a massive bill for unrepaired estates and bad community areas, and put a great deal of money into the decent homes standard. The Labour Government should be commended for that.
The Bill undermines the principle of public provision of housing for those in desperate housing need. Instead, as I said, it requires local authorities to put people into the private sector. Imagine the situation when a homeless family appears before the local housing authority, which fulfils its duty by encouraging the family to accept a two-year, or perhaps shorter, tenancy in a private sector flat. That is the end of its responsibility. If, at the end of that minimal period, the landlord increases the rent to an astronomical level, that family will become homeless as a result of being unable to afford it, and then, according to my reading of the clauses, they will not be eligible for any further assistance from the local housing authority.
My hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) talked about rising homelessness, which is a major concern and, I think, one of the consequences of the Bill, so I urge Government Members to think very carefully about that. We have a whole generation of children growing up in inner-city areas, often in overcrowded council accommodation and sometimes in overcrowded housing association accommodation. Increasingly, however, they are in very expensive private rented accommodation, paid for by housing benefit, where the landlords do not do the repairs and there is no security of tenure. Those families are the most vulnerable people.
What is the effect on those children of sharing a bedroom with three or four siblings, of heating that does not work, of windows that are not repaired, of a gas cooker that is dangerous and of a fridge that does not work? They grow up with a sense of shame, cannot bring friends home and do not grow up the same as all the other children in their school. We have a national responsibility and duty to invest more money in housing with economical, responsible and affordable rents, and that is best achieved by investing in council housing, which has done so well for so very long in this country.
My final point on housing is that we spend billions of pounds of housing benefit on subsidising the private rented sector. The Government’s solution is to cap and limit housing benefit, thereby forcing people out of what they describe as the “high-cost areas,” such as those that my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) and I represent. The people being forced out will move somewhere else, and as a result communities will be damaged. Other countries regulate, control and operate the private sector far better, far more efficiently and far more humanely. It works in Germany and, to some extent, in the United States, so why can we not do it here? We cannot because of the Secretary of State and his Ministers’ obsession with market solutions to all problems. There are no market solutions for homelessness; there is social intervention, community investment and public operation. That is what can deal with homelessness, and that is what can lift the life chances and opportunities of some of the poorest and most vulnerable children in our community.
I welcome the Bill as a catalyst to support, release and empower the vibrant and often untapped resources in our local communities. In recent years, many individuals and community groups have been hindered in making valuable contributions to community life by impenetrable bureaucracy and the centralised setting of priorities, or simply by a sense of disconnect between what happens in the confines of the town hall and the rest of the community. The Bill seeks to bridge that gap, and I believe that it will succeed, provided that the determination and vigour with which it has been introduced into the House is matched by similar determination and vigour to make it happen. We should be realistic about the cultural change needed to make this a reality.
I spent six years as a local councillor before arriving in this House, during which I was amazed to discover such things as the fact that the local area plan contained approximately 40 targets, but only seven of them were locally determined—the rest were centrally set. Those were six years during which I witnessed continual frustration on the part of community groups, who had much to offer but struggled to have their voice heard. One such group runs The Oaks community centre in my former ward of Penketh. The group converted a school into an excellent all-age community centre, which is popular and in daily use, but it has told me that it has struggled to obtain even the tiniest degree of public funding or support, while two other local authority community halls in the same ward have languished under-used and largely unloved—expensive capital resources, the poor use of which a community right-to-buy bid, provided for in the Bill, could have addressed.
I recall residents feeling almost a sense of grief when their historic primary school building was demolished in order to be replaced by a modern box. A local referendum, the power for which is provided in the Bill, could well have allowed those residents to have their voice heard. As it was, a local petition against the demolition, signed by thousands of residents, was all too easily dismissed, and, as if to add insult to injury, as a local councillor I was unable to vote on the issue because I had previously spoken to some of the residents about how to make their voice heard. The revision in the Bill of the rule on predetermination is much needed.
I am fortunate now to represent a constituency with a high degree of community participation. The Congleton Partnership, for example, is an impressive, well-organised and visionary group, working to ensure the sustainability and success of Congleton as a vibrant market town. Provisions in the Bill will, I hope, pave the way for the Congleton Partnership to make an even greater impact.
Provisions enabling groups such as Crossroads Care Cheshire East, of which I am a patron, to express an interest in running such services, as part of the adult social care service in which it has developed real expertise, could contribute considerably to resolving one of the local authority’s key challenges and, at the same time, enable Crossroads Care to fulfil its aspiration to grow its services substantially.
I am sure the hon. Lady is right that many excellent local community groups would like to fulfil a greater role in supporting their local communities, but does she not accept that, where those groups do not exist or cannot take on such additional responsibilities, the Bill’s problem is that it creates a real gap in provision in some communities?