My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement made in another place by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government on the future of local government. The Statement is as follows:
“Local authorities and the services they provide in partnership with others are hugely important to the health and strength of our communities and country. They help to determine the quality of our everyday lives—the schools our children attend, the cleanliness and safety of our neighbourhoods, the health of families, the ease with which we can travel, and the leisure activities we enjoy. Many of the biggest social advances in recent generations were led by local government and its leaders. They have served their communities well. But, in 1997, this Government inherited public services and institutions that were rundown, demoralised and starved of cash and resources. We responded with significant investment to expand capacity, and by setting a strong direction nationally.
“Combined with the hard work and commitment of local councillors, the local government workforce and other partners, this has led to real improvements in local public service delivery. For the next phase of reform, we need to respond to new challenges. The increasing complexity and diversity of these—from climate change to tackling deep-rooted social exclusion—demand more flexibility at the local level. Expectations of citizens are rising fast. They rightly want more choice over the services they receive, more influence over those who provide them and higher service standards.
“The White Paper that I am publishing today proposes that local authorities and other public service providers have the freedom and powers they need to meet the needs of their communities and to be more clearly accountable for doing so. Communities must also have a bigger say in the issues that matter to them most. We therefore propose a new settlement with local government, communities and citizens. We will give local authorities a stronger role in leading their communities and bringing services together to address local needs and problems. Central government will play their part in guaranteeing minimum standards and setting overall national goals, but we will step back and allow more freedom and flexibility at the local level. In exchange, we expect to see more accountability to local citizens, stronger local leadership, better and more efficient services and a readiness to support tougher intervention when things go wrong.
“The White Paper sets out how we intend to achieve this rebalancing between central government, local government and local people. At present, there are as many as 1,200 national targets and indicators for a local area. In future, we will cut this to 200 indicators, with around 35 targets, plus statutory education and childcare targets. The targets will be tailored to local needs, agreed between government and local partners and set out in the local area agreement. In this way, we will focus on the things that really matter to people everywhere, guaranteeing national minimum standards but encouraging local innovation and local priorities. We will introduce a more proportionate, risk-based inspection regime to cut bureaucracy, and more targeted support or intervention when things go wrong.
“Our best local authority leaders have made a huge difference to the citizens and communities they serve. The White Paper sets out measures to ensure that all communities benefit from strong, accountable and visible leadership. In future, there will be three choices for councils: a directly elected mayor, a directly elected executive of councillors, or a leader elected by their fellow councillors with a clear four-year mandate. All the executive powers of local authorities will be vested in the leader of the council, with a strong role for the council to scrutinise the leader’s actions and approve the budget and major plans.
“The way in which councils choose to govern themselves will be different in different parts of the country. We will make it easier for local authorities to move to a directly elected mayor or executive by resolution of the council, in consultation with local people. Where they want to, they will also be able to introduce whole-council elections and single-member wards, improving accountability to voters.
“We recognise the potential gains that unitary status can offer in terms of accountable, strategic leadership and improved efficiency. There will be a short window of opportunity for councils in ‘shire’ areas to seek unitary status. We expect a small number of proposals to meet the value for money criterion and the other criteria set out in the invitation we have issued today. In remaining two-tier areas, we will work with local authorities to deliver better value for money and greater efficiency.
“Strong leadership works best if balanced by citizens and communities having a bigger say in the quality of the services they receive and the places where they live. To ensure services are more accountable, more responsive and more efficient, local authorities will involve and consult service users more fully and provide better information about standards in their local area. In addition, we will review barriers and incentives to increased community ownership and management of local facilities and other assets. We will increase and strengthen the powers of local people to demand answers and action through a new community call for action.
“Councillors should be champions for their local community, able to speak out on all issues affecting their local area, including planning and licensing. They should be able to sort out issues on the ground or demand a formal response through scrutiny procedures. Effective scrutiny by councillors is an essential part of robust local democracy. We will strengthen it. Communities need strategic leadership to help to bring local partners, the business sector and the voluntary and community sectors together. Issues such as community safety, public health or community cohesion require all local partners to share the same agenda. Our best local authorities already recognise this, and their citizens and communities benefit as a result. Our proposals will ensure that this happens across the country.
“Sir Michael Lyons described the ‘place-shaping’ role of local authorities in his report this May. I pay tribute to his work so far. The proposals before the House today provide a clear basis for Sir Michael’s future conclusions on local government funding. Cities play an increasingly important role as engines of economic growth. In recent years, there has been a renaissance in our towns and cities, thanks to the vision and leadership of local authorities and their partners. But we need to go further. We must look beyond city and town boundaries to consider the success and prosperity of the surrounding area. In recent months, we have consulted our towns and cities on the tools and powers they need for economic development. There is no ‘one size fits all’.
“The White Paper provides a response to issues raised by towns and cities on transport, skills, economic development and co-operation between neighbouring local authorities. We will continue to work with them over the coming months. Our clear, overriding principle is that the greater the powers devolved, the greater the premium on clear, visible leadership. None of our reforms can be carried out without a strong and committed workforce. Local government contains many high-quality councillors and public servants. It has transformed our towns and cities, and in many areas it is leading public services in partnership working, innovation and efficiency. Our reforms will give citizens and communities a clearer voice, create stronger and more visible leadership, and establish a new settlement with local government and its partners, communities and citizens.
“The White Paper is about creating better services and better places. It sets out the tools that will help all local areas to tackle the challenges of the 21st century, to capture the strength and talents of their citizens and communities and to achieve their full potential. I commend this White Paper to the House”.
My Lords, that concludes the Statement.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement made by the Secretary of State in the other place a short time ago. I declare that I am an elected member of a local council. In doing that, I join the Minister in acknowledging the enormous amount of work—I probably take myself out of this comment—that local councillors do and their commitment to their communities. As with all Statements, there is only a limited amount that one can say in response, partly because the White Paper on which it is based is not released until after the Statement has been made. We are left with just the précis in the Statement, which arrived rather late on our desks, of what is involved.
The first aspect that I would like to test with the Minister is the relationship that the White Paper will have with legislation in the next Session. Will that be with or without the influence of the Lyons report? That is where the meat of change will lie. Fiddling around with the organisation of a local government’s internal arrangements is a minor part of the changes that the Government will presumably have to make. Is it intended that any legislation emanating from this White Paper will encompass the Lyons recommendations? How can anything relevant to local government be decided in the absence of consideration of its financing? Has Lyons effectively been kicked into touch at this time? As we have always expected, the solutions to the questions raised are likely to be far more radical than perhaps the Government wish to contemplate. Will the legislation include any provisions that are required to implement the changes to the Mayor for London’s powers?
It is hard to give a very warm welcome to what has come forward today. All parties subscribe to the theory of localism, but each seems to have a slightly different view of what that means. There may be aspects in this White Paper—when I have a chance to read it—on which we will agree with the Government and which we think are worth having. But devolving powers to the lowest level of democratic government from central government and returning the powers that have been given to the undemocratic regions does not seem to be part of what is on offer here. What devolvement of powers does the Minister believe will come from these proposals, particularly in relation to transport, planning and economic development? At the moment, it seems—this is very cursory—as if devolvement is restricted to enabling a few parish councils to make a few more by-laws.
What has happened to the good intentions from the statements made in the past by the Prime Minister, by the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, and by the Secretary of State, Ruth Kelly, on devolution? Have they got lost in and during the interregnum of the transfer of power at the highest levels in government? What is happening with the Barker report? Will any of her recommendations that need to come forward in legislation be included in the next Session?
As I have said, I have not seen the full proposals so it is hard to know quite what the fine words mean or what relevance they have to the electorate in general. The main thrust seems to be that the Government are trying to devise a new settlement with local government, communities and citizens, which is how it is put. The only welcome proposals to aid that are a promise by the Government to reduce 1,200 targets down to 200 indicators and 35 targets. What of scrutiny by external inspectors? Where will they play a role in this, or are they to be abolished? What penalties will there be for not achieving these targets? Perhaps the Minister will be able to give us information on that.
We would all welcome more support for the democratic leadership of councils. But does the White Paper give any more detail on what would be involved in, for example, a directly elected executive of councillors? Would a leader have to be previously selected or elected by colleagues and then go to the electorate with a full slate of executive members? How would they be selected? How would they be put forward for election? Would they have to be elected as councillors first? If not, how would they be chosen? I hope that there is more clarity than is currently available.
Can the Minister give us some idea of how it is envisaged that the role of back-bench councillors—those who actually represent their communities—will be strengthened? How will they be engaged in the business of the council, or will they remain as they are—largely outside the administration of and decision-making on policy and practice? I am delighted to know that the White Paper gives councillors their voice back on planning and licensing issues. That disgraceful lapse was brought about by this Government. We had long arguments during the debates on the Licensing Bill when we put forward the view that the councillors’ democratic voice would be taken out, but we were completely pooh-poohed. The same thing has happened with planning. I am delighted that at last the Government have realised that this is a role for councillors. It is a disgrace that councillors have not been allowed to speak and that, when they have spoken, they have been threatened with the Standards Board. I very much hope that the White Paper makes it clear that their role is at the centre of these issues and that they are not to be precluded from them. Also, how will the proposals for the community call for action work?
The White Paper looks as if it might be a missed opportunity to truly strengthen local government—that will become more apparent as time goes on—to devolve power properly to the local level and to rid us of the regional level, which was dreamt up by the Deputy Prime Minister and resoundingly defeated by the electorate. It is good that councillors should be able to decide when their elections should be and whether they should be annual or by thirds. It is time for that to be amended and I suspect that many councillors will want to go for the full four-year term.
What are the electorate to make of all this? They are reeling from extraordinary hikes in council tax, which, in the past five or six years, has risen astronomically—all under this Government. The electorate are scared stiff of the revaluation of their properties for local tax purposes. They are now threatened with the Northern Ireland regime, which I hope will not come here, and the arrival of council tax inspectors marching all over their houses to check the amount of double glazing and the views from the windows. They are unable to find their way through the unfathomable processes that will keep elderly people in care without bankrupting them. It does not look as though this White Paper will help with that at all.
I hope that the process that will follow this Statement—that of legislation—will enable us to delve into some of these matters and to end up with proposals and powers that are really relevant to local communities and on which we can ultimately agree. That is what local government is about; it is about representation of its people. The more agreement that we can come to politically, the better that role can be fulfilled. I do not promise that it will be like that. I expect that there is more than meets the eye in this legislation. But, in the mean time, the curate’s egg is well and truly laid.
My Lords, we live in one of the most centralised states in western Europe and, after the effects of this White Paper have been felt, that will remain the case. This is a wasted opportunity. The White Paper has not been worth the wait of the many months that it has taken to get this far. It does nothing to address the increasingly unsustainable burden of council tax or to deal with the dominance of central government funding for local government services. That lack of local financial flexibility is at the core of the weakness of modern local government. The White Paper does nothing to return the powers of central government or quangos back to town halls.
The document is full of motherhood and apple pie, or as I have been taught to say in this new era of equalities, “non gender-specific parenthood”. The Government now claim that they have discovered localism and decentralisation. Of course we welcome their conversion to the idea, but we remain deeply sceptical about whether they have any real understanding of it. The implementation is via a zoo of acronyms and action plans, all of which have the capacity to blur genuine accountability.
The Government remain besotted with the notion of mayors. So far there have been 34 local referendums resulting in 22 rejections and 12 wins. That has been the choice of local communities. But Mr Blair wants mayors and so Mr Blair shall get mayors. We are going to get them through consultation now, not through referendums. If you do not want a mayor, you can have an enhanced leader. This is the imposition of the mayoral system by the back door, and I ask the noble Baroness why the Government are so determined to emasculate back-bench councillors in the same way as they have emasculated Back-Bench MPs. Vesting all executive power in an authority in one person is a highly dangerous move and should be resisted at all costs.
There is a proposal to allow some areas that have already expressed an interest to become unitary councils if they choose to do so, and we believe that this is a sensible way forward. But we would like to know what the triggers are for this and how consent will be determined. Who will have a vote in such a proposal and who will make the final decision?
The exact proposals for parishes are unclear, but giving very local communities more say in service delivery and local well-being is of course to be welcomed, provided that democratic accountability is not lost. A right to initiate a call to action must not turn into mob rule, and principal councils must retain the capacity to take strategic decisions and deliver big services for the benefit of the whole community. If it is left to the weight of numbers, the fix-the-pothole lobby will always be larger than the special-educational-needs lobby, but that does not make it right.
In passing, I should like to comment on the flow chart on page 37, which describes what will happen in a call to action. It has come straight from the Janet and John book of local government. For anyone who has spent time in local government, it is risible.
City regions are a case of the dog that has not barked in the night. We heard a lot about the idea in the Miliband era, but sadly it now seems to be rather silent. Several metropolitan areas are now ready for co-operative working, which they see as a way of unlocking devolved powers from Whitehall. So the crucial issues are the governance proposals that will be linked to the scheme: are they to have mayors; are councils to merge; and are we to have federated structures? More important, what powers would be on offer to those who choose to go down this route? If the scheme is linked to travel-to-work areas, existing council boundaries will be crossed and therefore local consent mechanisms are very important. Strengthening passenger transport authorities is to be welcomed in principle.
Members on these Benches regret that this White Paper has been published ahead of the Lyons review so that the issues of powers, finance and structures will not be considered together despite the fact that they are inextricably linked. We believe that the failure to link these important issues will probably ensure that, even by its own meagre objectives, this White Paper is doomed to fail.
My Lords, I am grateful for the welcome given to the White Paper. I have sympathy with the pressures on Opposition Front Bench spokesmen who have to respond to a very detailed White Paper at short notice. I fully intend to make myself and officials widely available over the coming days and months so that we can sit down and discuss the detail as fully as possible because there is a great deal to consider and on which to take collective advice from the wisdom available around this Chamber. I am particularly pleased to see the noble Lord, Lord Bruce-Lockhart, in his place because I would like to say how much we have appreciated working with the Local Government Association. In response to the cynical voices on the Opposition Benches, I should point out that we have received a great deal of support from the LGA for what we have brought forward because it is very much in tune with what the association has been telling us would be right and proper for local authorities. The noble Lord, Lord Bruce-Lockhart, himself said this morning that these are significant changes.
In the time I have available, I shall address the major issues. There is no way that we would agree that this is a missed opportunity. This is a consensual paper and I look forward very much to it growing more consensual over the coming months as we bring forward legislation because nothing is more important than that we work together in local government to make the best possible offer to citizens. The White Paper has preceded the Lyons report because we were right to say that deliberation on form and function comes first. In his interim report, Sir Michael Lyons influenced our thinking in the emphasis he placed on the shaping of powers and what that would involve, as well as on new ways of working. In turn, we will read and consider extremely carefully what he brings forward. He now has a full explanation of what we think local government can and should do in the future. This is a seamless process. When the local government Bill is brought forward it will give consideration to the things which need legislation as set out in the White Paper, and I will share those with the House as soon as possible. Obviously we have to give a lot of consideration to what Sir Michael Lyons says and therefore the form of the Bill is not yet resolved on issues of that sort. But in no way has it been kicked into touch; far from it. With regard to the impact that this Bill may have on a GLA Bill and the powers of the Mayor of London, there will be no impact.
The noble Baroness asked a number of questions about the sequence in which these things will be dealt with. I have spoken about Lyons, but Barker is of course another example. We will listen hard to what Kate Barker has to say about the ways in which we can improve the planning system, building on what we have done already and addressing the culture of change in planning so as to bring land allocation, land use, housing, employment and productivity closer together—closer to the ground—and make it more effective.
On the devolutionary powers in the Bill, when noble Lords read the White Paper they will see the scope of the devolution. Let me take, for example, the way the powers of the Secretary of State have been reduced. The Secretary of State will no longer be able to determine whether parishes are created; that will go to the district councils. Equally, government will no longer account for whole elections; that will now rest with a resolution of the council. The Secretary of State will not have any power to confirm by-laws. Devolution goes along with the emphasis we give in the first chapter of the White Paper to the voice of the local community and how to amplify it. We emphasise putting best value on the ability of the council to inform, involve and consult so that local people can test councils against best value and ensure that they have achieved it—as indeed many councils do to the best of their ability.
I turn to city powers. This is a work in progress and I hope noble Lords will agree that it is a sensible approach when we are talking about something as radical as looking at ways of giving more powers to cities to enable them to become more efficient—powers which they have told us they want in the enormous consultations we have held not only with cities but with towns around the country as well. Over the next few months we will be looking at the joint review of economic development when considering how to develop city plans. The Department for Transport, for example, is looking to devolve more transport powers, and we will come forward with more worked-out plans when we have had an opportunity to consider the Leach review, the Barker review and the Treasury report on sub-regional economies.
On the performance regime, I am glad that the noble Baroness opposite recognises what a radical step it is to strip out the 1,200 targets and reduce them to 200. They were set alongside the agreement on national outcomes, which will itself determine what all local authorities will work towards: the very top, high-level national priorities which will be determined in the 2007 Comprehensive Spending Review. These are to be 200 indicators which will be agreed between local authorities and central government. But more important again, 35 local targets—different ones for each local region to address particular problems such as economic development or the delivery of public health systems—will be set to reflect local needs. That in turn will be reflected in the local area agreement—the delivery plan—which, for the first time, will be on a statutory footing. This will be underpinned by duties which will attach to the local strategic partnership, with partners not only in local authorities but in the whole range of public services. There is a list of those named partners. There will be more power to front-line councils, which is extremely important.
As to the processes for the direct election of leaders—one of the three options—I should say to the noble Baroness that we are not going to impose mayors. This is not mayors by the back door but an open and very transparent process which will depend a great deal on what the local authority itself wants to do. As to the powers of local councils, the review will look not only at the local call for action but also at training and a stronger role for them. I am glad that there is a welcome for the reformed code of conduct. I shall explain in writing how the community call for action will work. I disagree with the noble Baroness—I think it is a very clear diagram. Would that all my papers had such clear diagrams.
Let me address the issue of unitary status and how it will be managed. We have made it clear that this is an invitation to shire counties which they can trigger and determine themselves. The criteria are set out. We have said quite clearly that we will look at the broad consensus—at what determines it and who supports it. No district council or even groups of councils will have a veto on it. I am very glad that the noble Baroness welcomes the additional powers for parishes and the right that districts will have to create parishes.
I am grateful for the welcome. I look forward to working with the Opposition when we introduce the Bill to make it a good Bill and a good settlement for local government.
My Lords, local government is about the community of place; therefore local government is about local difference and diversity. If it is not, it is not local; and if it is not about local decision making, it is not local government. Otherwise it becomes a post box for central government decisions.
As previous speakers have said, much awaits the Lyons report because local government needs adequate and independent financial resources. It also needs structures that are effective, transparent, accountable and inspire confidence—and it is on structures that I wish to comment.
First, I shall make a couple of points on internal structures. I very much welcome the more permissive and pluralist tone of the White Paper. Like previous speakers, I, too, raise an eyebrow at elected mayors. There is nothing one could not do as a majority leader than one could in addition have done as mayor, except require the majority leader to persuade—and rightly so.
I also favour annual elections rather than all out because I believe in incremental change rather than swings-of-the-pendulum change. But, again, I welcome the fact that this is a matter for local authority decision- making and I welcome very much the tone of my noble friend’s White Paper today. I still slightly regret the imposition of Westminster style cabinet government on local government committee structures rather than the introduction into Westminster of more effective committee styles because I wanted all of our community to own change and not just the cabinet of the majority party.
Although much less apparent in this White Paper—again I am sure this is to do with the influence of my noble friend—there is still, none the less, the belief that politics has to be conducted in a very macho, male, adversarial style, that it is about conflict, leadership and cabinets, whereas many of us would prefer to talk about consensus, incremental change and committees. I do not think the change of language is necessarily wise. I also suspect that single-member wards—although, again, this is rightly a matter for local authorities—will probably see a reduction in the number of women councillors, currently standing at 30 per cent. I would regret that. But, as I say, the White Paper is about a more pluralistic and consensual tone and it is to be welcomed.
I also welcome the greater permissiveness and pluralism in terms of external structures. I do not think it is any secret that my own local authority, Norwich City Council, hopes very much to become a unitary authority. It was, for 600 years, a county borough until 1974 and would very much like to have the capacity to become, yet again, a unitary and competent authority. Why? Because of the three problems that most face authorities such as my own—the problems of economic regeneration, anti-social behaviour and so-called problem families, and increased longevity and its effect on social care. These problems cut across the current district and shire council—and very often the health service authority—divides. I want to see local authorities with the competence, in a holistic way, to deal with those issues.
At the moment in my city, four different local authorities end up providing different bits of local authority services. How on earth does the local citizen, voter and taxpayer know who does what, to what standard, at what cost and with what accountability? If they do not know and they cannot hold someone accountable, why should they bother to vote? If they do not bother to vote, we see the end of local government.
My Lords, I am very grateful to my noble friend. She has enormous experience in local government and we shall listen carefully to what she has to say over the next few months.
We have addressed in the White Paper some of my noble friend’s anxieties about the cabinet system, not least through the strengthening of the overview and scrutiny committees which, for the first time, will have the powers—rather like a Select Committee—to call for papers and for people to appear before it. These could include the local PCT or a whole range of named partners. It will be a much wider range across local government. The other change will be that they will have a right to expect—and will have to expect—a response to their recommendations. It will not be sufficient for them simply to appear and then nothing happens. So that and the review we will conduct into the capacity of councillors to respond, as part of the democratic renewal, to the call for action—a combination of these plus other things which are in the White Paper—will address some of my noble friend’s anxieties that there is not a progressive structure for local councils to move through in order to, as it were, “train up” for local government.
My noble friend’s point about local government structures is a graphic example of why unitary authorities will bring together disparate functions and end wastefulness. We have said that the invitation to take part in restructuring is a short window, but there is no option for no change in areas where there are still two-tier authorities; they will all be required to improve their working practices. They will be invited also to take part in pathfinder projects where they will be able to test-out new ways of working. I look forward to seeing some of the positive innovation that is already going on made more universal in that way.
My Lords, the key words in the Statement which the Minister has kindly repeated are “strong direction nationally”. There are many words suggesting this is about devolution and decentralisation but I think that most of the proposals—although there are some useful relatively minor things—are about greater central direction; they are authoritarian, centralist and will lead to greater uniformity.
I am a member of a borough council in Lancashire. What got me laughing about the chart on page 37 is that it sets out what any good councillor has been doing almost every day of their life for the entire time they have been on a council—in my case for much of the past 35 years—and I am not quite clear why it needs legislation to tell councillors how to take up issues on behalf of their residents.
I shall focus on the emphasis in the White Paper on local area agreements which, from the perspective of a district councillor in the very large county of Lancashire, are neither local nor agreements; they are, very substantially, imposed from the centre. The negotiations to which the Secretary of State referred earlier in the House of Commons are very one sided. They are conducted on the basis of, “Do this; do it this way and you will get the money. Don’t do this; don’t do it this way and you won’t get the money”. A very large county such as Lancashire runs the risk that if you start including matters such as housing, leisure and so on in local area agreements, you end up with a uniform policy—a one size fits all—for a hugely diverse county, from the Fylde coast, to north Lancashire, to central Lancashire and Preston, to the east Lancashire towns and all the rural areas. There are many such counties where local area agreements are a means by which central government impose their policies, their targets and their wishes on local people.
I do not see much in the White Paper about the right to be different—not the right to be different because needs are different but because different places have similar problems, different solutions are surely relevant. If local people democratically want different solutions, surely that is what local democracy is about. Does the Minister agree that what is in the White Paper militates against that kind of local democratic diversity?
No, my Lords, I do not agree at all. If the noble Lord reads the introduction to the White Paper and the prefaces of the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State, he will find the right to be different written through it in the most powerful and compelling way. I hope this is not a case of the Liberals believing that we have taken over part of their agenda and feeling sore about it. This is a serious attempt to make local area agreements work better. The noble Lord is right that they have not been working as well as they might, partly because they were imposed on top of a lot of other forms and functions. We have responded again to the Local Government Association; it has told us that this is one way to liberate the potential for every local area to live up to what its community wants.
The local area agreement will be a statutory document, but it will be agreed locally. It will be underpinned by the local strategic partnership, which, for the first time, will have duties attached to work with its partners across local government. It is significant that every Whitehall department has signed up to this White Paper, and that is reflected on the ground. This is a radical departure from how things have been done. There will be more pots of money in the local area agreements and more policies to be agreed.
The delivery of social care involves so many different agencies, not least the voluntary and community sector, but we will have a platform and a power to bring these people together. It will be done under the agreed outcomes at national level. We have to have those—they are our national priorities, whether it is higher achievement for young people or better public health. Every local area will have 35 targets which it negotiates itself. That is what will make the difference in the character of the policy and delivery, which will make the difference for local people. The voice of local people will be heard in a way it has not been heard before.
My Lords, I declare an interest as a vice-president of the Local Government Association, although I offer only some personal thoughts. I very much welcome the Government’s commitment to devolve more decision-taking powers to local government and to offer more flexibility, freedom and local choice. It has hitherto been a curiosity, and a rather unsatisfactory one, that the Government’s enthusiasm for devolution to the regions has not apparently been matched by much enthusiasm for devolution to local government. I very much welcome the radical approach that my noble friend has described.
However, that still leaves the looming question: how are the RDAs and other regional satrapies to be made more democratically accountable? Can my noble friend cast any light on that? Can she say how the Government’s policies in that regard would relate to their encouragement to authorities to put themselves forward for unitary status, which is extremely welcome? It must be right that our important historic cities and boroughs should be able to be self-governing and take responsibility for the delivery of the full range of local services.
If we are to strengthen our democracy as a whole, which we surely need to do, must we not nurture democracy at local level? If enough people of real ability and ambition for their communities are to be attracted into local government and—who knows—thence into national politics, is it not necessary to provide scope for them to exercise responsibility commensurate with ability and ambition? Does that not apply to all elected members, not just the leaders of local authorities? Is not this fundamental issue more important than those about particular forms of local government, whether elected mayors, executive cabinets or local authority leaders on long leases?
Can my noble friend tell us whether the very welcome reduction in targets that she has announced means that the Treasury really means to let go, to allow elected local authorities to raise and spend money, free from the stultifying oversight of central government, instead being accountable to local people as citizens and electors and, indeed, possibly to local calls to action? Has the Treasury finally rid itself of the paranoia which possibly had some justification in the 1970s but has been absurd in an age of global financial markets—its fear that an increase in local government borrowing over and beyond what the Treasury decreed as appropriate would cause a rise in interest rates and crowd out private investments? Are we now to allow grown-ups in local authorities, as in private life, to judge what they can afford to borrow?
The phrase “earned autonomy”, which I was glad not to hear from the lips of my noble friend—I think I did not—has expressed too much a post-war view, of which we have learnt to be thoroughly sceptical, that the gentleman in Whitehall really does know best. Can my noble friend assure us that we have now moved beyond that patronising view towards a real respect for local people and local democracy?
Yes, my Lords, I can. The tone of the White Paper is proof of the fact that we bow to the expert and experienced response that local authorities give when they know what their communities need. I think that we would all agree with that.
On my noble friend’s last but one point, we will have to leave the question of funding until we have the Lyons paper in front of us. I am sure that we will have many a serious debate on the implications of whatever Sir Michael comes forward with.
I very much welcome what my noble friend said about the power and scope of local councils and how we intend to build those up. We have to revitalise our democracy. The starting point is to make local councillors feel that there is nothing more honourable or effective than representing their wards and councils. The White Paper will have to do that in a big way.
On the RDAs, we will come forward with worked-out plans for the cities and the city regions. When the previous Secretary of State went around the country, as the present one has, talking to cities and councils, it was about the city and its region and the way in which economic development spills over well beyond the city’s boundaries. The strength of cities and rural areas shows that in addition to the cities’ capacity to grow and be creative and competitive, like our European competitors, the rural areas can benefit in their own special way.
High-level authorities such as oversight and scrutiny committees will be able to call on the RDAs to explain themselves if they so choose, making them more accountable. They are one of the named partners. There is a clear relationship here; we do not intend to diminish the power or capacity of the RDAs. We expect them to work closely and in harmony with cities and city regions when we come forward with those proposals.
My Lords, the Liberal Democrats are very happy for the Government to take up our ideas, but we want to see them implemented well. That is shown by the number of Liberal Democrat Members on our Benches today, compared with those of other parties.
I have two questions. Can the Minister tell us what evidence—I stress “evidence”, as distinct from a propensity for presidential style—the Government have that imposing strong leadership models will commend itself to communities, given the very lukewarm response to the proposition put before us, as my noble friend said? Secondly, when will we get legislation dealing with the standards board and codes of conduct? This issue, quite apart from all the others raised, deserves to have a Bill taken through quickly. If Back-Benchers are to be champions of their communities—it is a sine qua non for every councillor to be a champion of his or her community—they must be able to be involved in planning and licensing matters in a way which is impossible now. In the days when I chaired a London borough planning committee, I do not know how I could have done the job subject to the restrictions which colleagues now face. Will the cost and grief to taxpayers which the standards board is causing come to an end quickly?
My Lords, we are not imposing strong leadership; we are suggesting that there are three models which local authorities can adopt, each of which will give leaders more visibility, accountability and power. However, there is a choice, and there will be a lot to be decided by the local authority.
The noble Baroness asked about evidence. The prime evidence is the confusion which people feel about who is responsible for what. It is extremely difficult to find out what the council does, let alone what the divisions of responsibilities within the councils really mean. I have before me a customer survey on perceptions of local government in England, which shows, for example, that 70 per cent people do not believe that they can influence local decision-making, and that there is a great deal of genuine confusion about everything that local government does and who does it. I would be very happy to send that to the noble Baroness. Paragraph 3.16 of the White Paper refers to another survey which states that the role of the leader was perceived to have become stronger where there was an elected mayor. It showed too that, under the new arrangements, people felt that there had been a better articulation of policy and, therefore, greater satisfaction. I shall send her that information.
My Lords, I am required by procedure to adjourn the House for the lunch-break business. I beg to move that consideration on Report of the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill be now adjourned and shall not resume before 3.12 pm. The lunch-break business is not time-limited—I am always nervous when I say that. I know that there are quite a few speakers, but it is assumed that we will try to keep within an hour, out of fairness to the business which resumes thereafter. In moving that Report be adjourned, I give that gentle word of persuasion to the House.
Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.