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Sustainable Communities Bill

Volume 693: debated on Thursday 12 July 2007

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. I regard it as a privilege to be able to move the Second Reading of this Bill, which was taken through another place with such determination and skill by my honourable friend Nick Hurd.

I start by congratulating all those who have worked together to get the Bill this far. First, its main architect was Ron Bailey of the campaigning organisation Local Works. Secondly, it had widespread cross-party support, with more than 400 Members of Parliament, including more than half of the Parliamentary Labour Party, signing Early-Day Motions in favour of such action. Many national organisations have already spoken out in support. Let me quickly mention just a few: the Local Government Association, nearly 1,000 parish councillors and their umbrella organisation, NALCO, the Countryside Alliance, the CLA, NCVO, Age Concern, Help the Aged, the Scouts and the British Youth Council.

Perhaps I should first declare my interest as the chairman of Marlesford Parish Council, president of the Suffolk Preservation Society and a vice-president of CPRE. I have been concerned with the sustainability of rural England and Wales for many years, having served during the 1980s and 1990s on the Countryside Commission for 12 years and the Rural Development Commission for eight years.

The campaign started as a result of Ghost Town Britain, a study by the New Economics Foundation which charted the decline of local shops, post offices, pubs, services and communities. The report demonstrates social exclusion, in particular. Many other reports have backed it up: High Street Britain 2015, published by the All-Party Parliamentary Small Shops Group and Stamped Out, by Age Concern, to name but two.

I am sorry to say that during the past 10 years, rural areas in this country have felt neglected and ignored. There were real signs that that was changing with the arrival of Mr Miliband at Defra, and especially with the arrival of the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, who is so very respected in this House. I am reasonably confident that Mr Hilary Benn, who has taken over from Mr Miliband, will continue the new tradition.

The Bill offers the Government the chance of a real shift of influence from the centre to the grass roots, so I am very glad that the Government are endorsing the Bill. That was the starting point. Then the campaign had to take a view on what we were seeking to achieve in place of ghost town Britain. The answer must be sustainable communities. Bearing in mind our starting point, that clearly meant the reversal of the decline in local economies, services and communities highlighted in the reports that I mentioned. But sustainable, healthy communities should also be environmentally sustainable. They should be inclusive and encourage citizen participation; otherwise they will not be sustainable as communities. Hence, the four limbs were: promoting local economic activity, the environment, social inclusion, and citizen involvement. What is certain is that this problem will continue unless action is taken to stop it.

Let me give a real example: supermarkets in rural areas. There have been individual campaigns against supermarkets and their effects on communities and some have been successful. By way of illustration I will tell your Lordships about a campaign in Suffolk to prevent Tesco from opening another superstore in rural countryside near Saxmundham only 12 miles from the Tesco superstore which already existed at Martlesham. It was led by Caroline Cranbrook who has done so much nationally to encourage the sale of locally produced food. Lady Cranbrook interviewed 81 local shops, most of which would have closed if the supermarket had been built. The Suffolk Coastal District Council looked at the retailing need and refused Tesco planning permission. The company appealed and then withdrew in the middle of the appeal. Meanwhile, Paul Thomas, who previously ran a pub in London, opened a farm café in Marlesford entirely based on local food, including fish from the local coastal waters, which has won national acclaim for some of the best meals in such establishments. I hope some of your Lordships may visit it.

The overall picture, however, is of the trends of ghost town Britain increasing and that evidence is overwhelming. Local authorities and local communities can and should play an important role in promoting the sustainability of local communities but the problem is so serious that government cannot leave it to individuals, communities or even local authorities. There are ways in which government can help—I emphasise the word “help”, not “dictate”—to stop and reverse the problems. There are things that only government can do, as well as things they should do, as well as ways in which government can help to enable the actions of councils and communities. Those government actions must not be ad hoc or done on a whim; they must be properly thought out and co-ordinated.

So do we act top-down or bottom-up? The campaign’s oft-stated view is that councils and communities are the experts in their own problems and the solutions are for them and not for Whitehall. The Prime Minister and the previous Prime Minister seem to agree. Mr Blair said in his party conference speech last year:

“People want power in their own hands … and won’t accept a service handed down from on high. They want to shape it to their needs, and the reality of their lives”.

As our present Prime Minister said just a year ago:

“Just as in the last century governments had to take power from vested interests in the interests of communities, in the new century people and communities should now take power from the state and that means ... I want a radical shift of power from the centre”.

Mr Phil Woolas, the Minister who took the Bill through the Commons, said in his brief to the PLP on 26 March this year:

“We firmly believe that it is for local people and their elected representatives to determine how best to ensure that their community is sustainable”.

If the Government believe that, they will trust local people and their councils who must now get into the driving seat.

Let me explain clause by clause how the Bill will work. Clause 1 concerns the sustainability of local communities. It defines the principal aim of the Bill, which is to promote that sustainability. Promoting the sustainability of local communities is defined as encouraging the improvement of the economic, social and environmental well-being of a local authority, or part of its area. Subsection (4) clearly states that it is the duty of Government to assist local authorities to achieve this. It recognises that local authorities need help in achieving local sustainability but do not want more imposed duties from central government.

Clause 2 requires the Government to approach all local councils and invite them to put forward suggestions on how to improve the sustainability of their communities. In making suggestions, local authorities must have regard to 13 different matters in the schedule to the Bill that have been selected by tens of thousands of people as important for local sustainability. In the Bill, local councils mean county councils, district councils and London borough councils. In some ways, I regret that they do not mean parish councils, which are the real grass roots of local government. However, I recognise that already more than 400 councils would be consulted, and good local authorities do in general consult parish councils on many matters, particularly planning applications. I am therefore confident that, under the terms of the Bill, parish councils will be able to make effective representations on matters that affect their communities.

Clause 2(2) and (3) enable local councils to request a transfer of functions from one person or body to another to promote local sustainability. This will allow local authorities to identify existing sources of money for local matters, to propose how that money could be spent differently, and, if they so choose, how it could be used to switch resources to what local people find more important. If a particular road in a local authority area is managed by the Highways Agency and the local authority believes, on the ground of improved sustainability as laid out in the schedule, that it could manage it better, it could request from the Secretary of State a transfer function from the Highways Agency to the local authority.

Clause 3 deals with how local authorities’ proposals will be dealt with and presented to government, and with the process by which government decide which proposals to action. It requires the Secretary of State to appoint a person known as the selector, who will act as a representative on behalf of local authorities. The selector’s role will be to consider all the proposals made by the various local authorities under Clause 2, and to work in co-operation with the Secretary of State to put them into a shortlist. Having someone to act on behalf of local authorities is clearly simpler than the Government themselves having to co-operate with 400-plus local authorities on a case-by-case basis. There was general agreement in another place that the selector would be the Local Government Association. Once the shortlist is presented to the Secretary of State, the Secretary of State must decide which proposals to implement from the shortlist and, in so doing, must work with the selector to try to reach agreement. The presumption here is on the implementation of local community and council proposals.

The duty to co-operate in subsection (1) and the necessity not only to consult but to try to reach agreement is a new and vital part of legislation. Its purpose is to ensure that there are genuine attempts to reach agreement. That goes much further than consultation often does when the consulter has to show only that suggestions were considered. The selector must represent the interests of local authorities. As I said, it is envisaged that this will be the Local Government Association, which has already been approached and has agreed in principle to carry out this function.

Clause 4 requires the Government to publish their decisions on the proposals in the shortlist in Clause 3, giving reasons why each proposal has been accepted or rejected. All proposals that the Government have decided to implement must be published in an action plan, with each proposal accompanied by a statement of action stating how the Government intend to implement it. The clause therefore sets out the national framework to be implemented by government to help to improve the sustainability of local communities, with the contents of the plan and subsequent government action being driven from the grass roots. The requirement to publish an explanation of the decisions taken on which proposals to implement or reject introduces transparency and accountability into the process. This is further enhanced by subsection (4), in which the Government have a duty to report every year to Parliament on the progress being made in implementing the proposals in the action plan.

Clause 5 requires the Government to implement a set of regulations that must be followed in regard to approaching councils for proposals on improving local sustainability and in drawing up a shortlist of those proposals as defined in Clauses 2 and 3. Subsections (1) and (2) deal with the requirement for the Government to publish such regulations and in so doing to consult the selector and any other bodies that represent local authorities in drawing up the regulations. Subsection (3) suggests guidance on what the regulations may contain surrounding the procedures that local authorities should take prior to making proposals and the procedures that the selector must follow in drawing up a shortlist and reporting to the Government. The most important part of the clause is in subsections (4) and (5), which state that the regulations must contain a duty on local authorities to involve all sections of society and to obtain their views and to try to reach agreement on proposals to improve local sustainability prior to submitting their report on proposals to the selector. That ensures that the process is truly devolutionary, capturing the ideas and the suggestions of local people. Subsection (4) will try to achieve that by a mechanism of local citizens’ panels to consult and try to reach agreement on any proposal put forward.

Clause 6 requires the Government or the person they see fit to appoint to provide local spending reports that give a detailed breakdown of all the money spent by the Government and their agencies in local government areas. The purpose of the clause is simply to open up the books and for the first time enable both local authorities and communities to have a clear picture of how government money is spent in their area. That will enable greater transparency and accountability at the local level and also enable councils to identify areas where a transfer of function in Clause 2 would be most appropriate in promoting local sustainability. Prior to the production of any local spending reports the Government must first consult any persons or bodies that are likely to be affected by the compiling of the reports.

Clause 7 deals with sustainable community strategy. For the purposes of standardising all legislation that deals with local communities and sustainability, this clause enables the Government to amend current and any possible future legislation that makes reference to a term “community strategy” so that it can be amended to be “sustainable community strategy”.

Clause 9 provides for money to be made available from Parliament for the Government to fulfil their obligations under the Bill. Clause 10 sets out the Short Title. The Act will be known as the Sustainable Communities Act 2007. It also defines the geographical and political extent of the Act. The Act does not extend to Scotland and Northern Ireland for the obvious reason that for a Bill that so clearly proposes the devolution of power it would be inappropriate to extend that to Scotland and Northern Ireland, which already have their devolved rights.

I am glad that the Bill so closely follows the Prime Minister’s approach. I note that his consultation paper, The Governance of Britain, published only last week, says:

“The evidence suggests that if people feel their efforts will be rewarded by real change in their communities, they will be willing to step forward”.

I entirely agree with that and I suggest that the Bill is based on a philosophy that is now accepted by the three main political parties in Britain. The Bill may therefore be the first piece of legislation to receive Royal Assent that will help to implement one of our new Prime Minister’s priorities for action. I commend the Bill to the House.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Marlesford.)

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, on bringing forward the Bill for consideration today, and I am pleased that the debate on this important legislation is being kicked off by two Peers from the beautiful county of Suffolk, which has the sort of communities that would benefit enormously from these provisions. I also congratulate the Local Works campaign on the sterling job that is has done not only on producing the legislation but on the campaign that led up to it. When I first read the Bill I was concerned that it might be rather technocratic and wondered whether people in communities would get behind it and understand what we are seeking to achieve. However, I have been pleasantly surprised by the number of local meetings across the country, the attendance at the rally here and the wide range of interest groups that have put their weight behind the Bill. I am glad that my initial misgivings were proved wrong. We on these Benches certainly give the Bill our wholehearted support.

The fact that there are sometimes successful campaigns against the closure or the opening of a supermarket should not cloud the fact that one of the fundamental problems facing society is a sense of powerlessness. People feel that decisions about their lives are taken in a way that they do not understand or have no opportunity to influence. People feel a huge sense of frustration when time and again they come up against a system that provides no accountability or recourse and when they cannot voice their concerns with confidence that someone will listen and take them on board.

We support the Bill because it puts people first and gives them a bigger say in what happens. It does so in three ways. First, it helps to identify and tackle community decline, promoting greater social, economic and environmental sustainability in communities. Secondly, it actively encourages participation by communities in the decisions affecting them. Finally, it provides accountability in areas where there has previously not been enough democratic accountability.

I particularly welcome the fact that the Bill helps to provide a framework within which groups that do not always have the strongest voice can make their voices heard. Too often it is a minority of very loud people in a community who get their way, rather than the majority, who find it difficult to fight their way through the system. The Bill’s potential merit is its holistic approach to community involvement. Closures of schools, post offices and family farms are part of an interrelated package. Campaigns against the loss of services such as a village school, for example, are often not formed exclusively of the immediate beneficiaries of the service. Even when people do not have children in the local primary school, it is evident that if the demographics of the area change, then the shop could close, public transport could be decreased and the economy could change. All such changes have a knock-on effect. A Bill that actively promotes participation by the whole community by helping them to identify problems and to do something about them can be only welcomed.

The Bill’s important aspect, particularly as it relates to the local government Bill going through your Lordships’ House at the moment, is that it puts the duty on central government to help local areas, whereas the local government Bill is very much about how local councils have to adhere to the policies and practices put forward by central government. There is a tendency among central governments of all kinds to adhere to one-size-fits-all and not always to understand that, although there are times when a policy may well have the effect which they desire in one area, the law of unintended consequences will always kick in and result in things going badly wrong somewhere else.

Local spending reports are one of the most important parts of the Bill. At present there is no sense of relative priorities in areas—funding streams are split up and managed in different ways; some are more or less accountable. People very rarely have the chance to say, “What would my priorities be for my area? If I could put all this together and think about how the money is spent, how would I do it?”. If the information in the local spending reports helps to provide them with the information to do that, that can only be welcomed.

The Bill is about empowering local communities and complementing and extending what the Government were intending to do in their White Paper. It is about supporting communities. Communities are something that we all feel passionately about, whether in terms of the environment, social exclusion or the economy. There are hundreds and thousands of people who are passionate about their communities and who want their services restored and extended, but they have not had a chance to have their voices heard. That is what the Bill is about and that is why we shall support it from these Benches.

My Lords, I join in thanking my noble friend Lord Marlesford and congratulating him on carrying the Bill into this House and submitting it to your Lordships. I declare a personal interest which has a tincture of family pride. I know that there are other families—at least two—who can boast, as we can, of four generations in direct descent serving in another place, but I think that it is rare for a new Member of Parliament to steer a Private Member’s Bill through all its stages in the Commons in this way. Certainly neither my grandfather nor my father nor I ever attempted such a feat, so perhaps I am allowed humbly to congratulate the honourable Member for Ruislip-Northwood on what he has done so far.

This Bill fits into the pattern of localism which, as my noble friend says, now runs through the thinking of all our political parties. The Government have announced, as the noble Baroness has just reminded us, plans for giving local people greater say over local government spending. However, this is a complementary concept which fits neatly into the general puzzle by proposing to give local people greater knowledge through the local spending reports and greater say in stimulating and guiding spending in their locality, including spending by central government.

I would like to make two general points about this movement towards localism. I hope that the Government are gradually weaning themselves away from identifying localism with regions, and I hope that the definitions in the Bill may help them in this direction. I know the bureaucratic attractiveness of thinking in terms of regions, and I know the European dimension. However, in most of England, regions are still an artificial concept and will remain one, achieving neither recognition nor loyalty. They do not act as the stimulus for local energy, which is what this Bill and many other efforts are about.

Secondly, we need to accept a consequence—that greater local knowledge and influence over what happens, and how money is spent, will lead to a greater variety of practice and priorities. The fact that people receive different levels of service in different areas depending on where they live will in the end no longer be regarded as a reproach—a postcode reproach—but as a justifiable fact, a necessary consequence of greater local democracy and a necessary incentive to experiment.

Having been Home Secretary and therefore in charge of perhaps the most naturally centralising of government departments, I have come to believe that experiment—and that means local experiment—is crucial. One consequence of this Bill may be increased local experiment in sector after sector. My caveat—a caveat that we must all have—is that this needs to be within a commitment to the values and integrity of one British nation, a commitment to values that must exist regardless of ethnic background or origin.

We all recognise and lament the fact that our democracy is going through an apathetic stage. However, there are reserves of enthusiasm and interest which derive not from our activities in this Palace but from the interest that both speakers have stressed—an interest which naturally exists locally, for local thinking, local initiative and local decisions. Harnessing that interest—which to some extent is still dormant—to the cause of our general democracy is not just a good cause, it is an essential one.

My Lords, as I rise to speak in support of the Bill, I must first declare an interest as chairman of the Somerset Strategic Partnership, which I hope will continue to play its part in reinvigorating the communities of Somerset. It will come as no surprise to noble Lords to learn that I support this Bill from the perspective of rural settlements, although I realise that it applies equally to urban communities.

The first aspect that pleases me about the Bill is that it defines sustainability as promoting the economic, social and environmental well-being of an area. All too often, sustainable development is assumed to be an environmental agenda which should take precedence over everything else, whereas in reality a sustainable community is one where family and friends support each other, where jobs are available, where there is a mix of housing—and if we are extremely lucky, even an availability of housing. There should be a range of services available and a sufficient mix of people to sustain them, and there should be community activities of all sorts, ranging from a football club to whist drives to work with charities and even people who just make donations to the local youth club. It should be somewhere in which people are generally prepared to come together to give something to their community.

I probably could have declared an interest as a former chairman of the Countryside Agency, if being a former chairman of anything is reckoned to be an interest. I should say that the agency took a keen interest in and was a strong supporter of the rural sustainable development agenda. We tried to use the countryside to promote businesses there and to lift people’s lives. Above all, we tried to promote anything that encouraged community sustainability. We supported all sorts of community activities with grants. Quite often they were small payments, and we sought to make the application process a simple one. We devised and administered the local heritage initiative, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund. We helped hundreds of communities create their own village greens using the New Opportunities Fund, and we had our own village grant scheme to help anyone do almost anything that brought people together. Actually, it was not quite as loose as that, but there is no doubt that the scheme was as much about promoting community working as it was about implementing the various projects being proposed. Creating pride of place within a community was very important to us.

I remember being heartened by the report of a schoolgirl from a very deprived and run-down former coal-mining village in County Durham. When asked why she was supporting a particular project that we were promoting, she said that she had been involved the year before in a school project to write a history of the parish, which we had also helped. She said, “I used to think that my village was”—and here she used a rather unparliamentary word which stems from a well-known firm of plumbers called Thomas Crapper and Company—“but now I know it is not”. I thought, “Great. You beauty, that is exactly what it is all about”. Her new pride of place led her to contribute to village life, and therefore we had been successful. It meant that she might not want to leave the village the moment she finished school, and that if she did leave she would be prepared to come back and start a family there, thus making a contribution. In that case, we had definitely achieved something.

Alongside these very small incentives for parish activity and innovative pilot schemes to help promote the delivery of local services by having joint outlets, mobile post offices and so on, we tried to encourage both market towns and parishes to think about what they wanted. They were to draw up plans to work out what they wanted their parish or town to be like in 10, 15 or 20 years’ time. Did they want a pub, a village school or a village shop, and what would they have to do to encourage that to happen, or to ensure that their public and private services survived? What mix of community did they want? Did they need some affordable housing—the answer to that question was almost always yes. We also ran training courses for parish councillors so that they could implement their plans. All that is now dead and gone, but this Bill incorporates the principles of our agenda, and for that reason I strongly support it.

I was sorry to see that the earlier intention of giving more direct control to parish councils got squeezed out in the Bill’s passage through the other place, and that it is now the principal councils that have control. However, I am glad that they are specifically obliged to have regard to parish plans. One of the biggest bugbears of parish councils is that, having gone through the often rigorous process of devising a parish plan, they then find that no one in authority pays any attention to it. As your Lordships will be aware, parish councils have all too little control over the future of their community, either in terms of planning decisions or meaningful spending powers. Anything Parliament can do to help in that respect is most welcome.

My own town of Ilminster in Somerset, for example, is furious that it appears to be in the process of almost being destroyed by a series of planning decisions that neither the town council, nor the chamber of commerce, was able to prevent. We should bear in mind that this town, in the old days, used to be its own urban district council. Unlike the town in Suffolk mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, a very large Tesco store is being built in our town, despite the fact that there is a Tesco only six or so miles away. To give Tesco its due, it wanted to put the store on the rural side of the town car park but the planners insisted that, for environmental reasons—this is why, all too often, sustainability and the environment get muddled up—it had to put the store in the town car park, which has now been moved to the outskirts of the town. Soon, anyone coming to shop in Ilminster will have to walk past the new Tesco to get to our shops—if they can be bothered; some of the shops are now nearly half a mile away. The situation has been made worse by making one of the main roads into the town a one-way street running out of town, so that most people parking and shopping have to go literally all round the houses to get home.

The decisions have not been easy. I highlight the problems of Ilminster only because there is no doubt that the concerns of the town were never properly heeded throughout the process. Residents now feel completely disillusioned with our local democracy and the planning system. I sincerely hope that this Bill will ameliorate that situation in future.

I hope that the Bill will have an easy passage through this House and that, if anything, more power will be given to parish councils to control their own future, rather than leaving it to the principal councils to dribble down favours that they might think the parishes should be allowed. I do not quite understand whether the local spending reports can now go down as low as to parish level, or whether they only apply to the principal council areas as a whole. Perhaps the Minister or the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, could respond to that. I believe that, with the possible formation of more unitary authorities, it will be particularly important for parishes to be able to grasp their own futures. I guess that it will all depend on the signals given out by the Secretary of State, with reference to the action plans being prepared by the principal councils. So, in spite of some very minor misgivings, I strongly endorse this Bill.

My Lords, first, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, and those in another place, who have brought the Bill forward. Having said that, in many ways I am dismayed that the Bill is necessary. That is a reflection of the imbalance of power in England between an increasingly centralised state on the one hand and, on the other, local people, local organisations and their local authorities. Of course, the Government must be able to set their own national priorities. In the local government White Paper, we have seen the emphasis on just 30 national outcomes; and that is right. But local authorities should be able to pick those up and drive them forward in the way they think fit. I accept also that local authorities must themselves devolve—to community organisations, social enterprise and individuals. I support the noble Lord, Lord Cameron. Devolving to parish councils is extremely important.

However, the Bill would not be necessary in most of the other major democracies in the world. Devolution took place in France some 15 years ago. In the United States local authorities have responsibility for health, police and economic development. Tony Travers, professor at the London School of Economics, pointed out this week that England is now at the bottom of the list of OECD countries for the percentage of taxation raised and spent locally by local authorities.

We have been over these arguments a hundred times. In my last three years as chairman of the Local Government Association, I have discussed these issues probably once a week with the department responsible for local government. We all agree on the need for a devolutionary agenda, but I am dismayed that the action has not matched the rhetoric. We have agreed at all the meetings that the UK Government are now unique in the high degree of central control they exert over public services and local government in England. The Secretary of State talked about a new era, a tipping point of devolution. We all agree that this high degree of central control is holding back improvements in public services and in economic prosperity. We have agreed that it is wasting public money; I refer to the report to the Treasury by Sir Peter Gershon. It is holding back local choice. It is simply denying the ability of local democratic representatives to assess local need, to make local choices and to respond to those choices. It is also denying and eroding democracy itself.

The Local Government Association argued that there is a crisis of trust. Out on the street, both central and local government are simply not relevant to so many people’s lives. It is not a question of apathy as is sometimes said across Westminster and Whitehall. People are not apathetic. They care deeply about the issues that affect their everyday lives, but they are frustrated by a remote and unreachable Government. Therefore, we have to take government closer to people’s lives. In the absence of other devolution, the Bill will enable that to happen.

In meetings with the Treasury and the DCLG we have also agreed that there is a real need to boost economic prosperity. I have argued previously in your Lordships’ House that statements from the Treasury in the devolved decision-making report show that our great cities of England have just half the GDP per head of their European counterparts. The report states that one of the reasons for that is that those European cities enjoy far stronger devolved political autonomy. Therefore, the Bill will enable local authorities to put forward proposals for the devolution of those key powers—those key economic levers in planning and transport, in skills and economic development and in housing. However, I was dismayed that in the Prime Minister’s Statement on the governance of Britain the only point made about housing—an issue made so much of, with lots of talk of devolution—is that there will be a new central homes agency. In France, Germany and Switzerland housing supply matches demand, yet in this country housing is being built at half the rate that it was in the 1970s. Therefore, we need to allow local authorities, local people and local businesses to take charge of housing targets and development, as they do in France, Germany and Switzerland where the system works so much better.

I hope that the Bill will allow local authorities to take responsibility and powers away from the centralising agencies which are now proposed. We have heard statements about devolution and yet there seems to be a strengthening of the regional layer, which has simply sucked up powers from local authorities and local people. Those powers have not been devolved from the centre. I hope that the Bill will enable that devolution to happen.

I am mystified that the Prime Minister should have made the following statement last September when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, although I think that it is absolutely right. I quoted this statement in the Official Report in June. He said:

“It is right that local councils, not Whitehall, should have more power over the things that matter to their community, and from economic regeneration to public transport, the empowerment and strengthening of local councils and local communities is what we must now do”.

Yet nowhere do I see this process, except in the Bill before us. Therefore, I support it very strongly. The Local Government Association, of which I am no longer chairman, has agreed to act as a selector—in a sense as a filter. I am dismayed that that is needed but it has offered to do that.

As regards local authorities proposing initiatives on social, economic, environmental and sustainability issues, and on what local people want, I should be grateful for clarification that when functions are devolved, the powers, resources and money that were held by the original agencies and the freedom and flexibility to respond to local issues will also be devolved.

In conclusion, I strongly support the Bill, but, after so much talk about devolution and the many meetings that I have attended, it is disappointing that such a Bill is necessary.

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, and Mr Nick Hurd for his work in another place. It is quite an achievement to get a Private Member’s Bill through both Houses. I managed to do it with the Dealing in Cultural Objects (Offences) Bill and I know the nightmares that are faced by all parties, including the Government, at every stage. That occurred at a time when certain Members of the other place were still alive and making life even more difficult than is the case now.

I am particularly keen on a Bill that has “sustainability” in its Title. When I held my party’s brief for overseas development under the ODA, as it then was, I discovered that the Government would try to strike out any amendment which used the word “sustainable” because it had connotations of unaffordability. You never knew exactly how much it would cost, as sustainability lasts for ever.

This Bill is supported on all sides of the House. Therefore, unless somebody appears from nowhere, the only people who can kill it are the Government. I very much hope that they will not table amendments to the Bill. Amendments were made in the Commons. I very much hope that they will support the Bill in its present form. I think that without amendments the Bill—which, as everybody has acknowledged, is a great idea—will go through. However, the real reason I support the Bill is its underlying bottom-up basis. It comes from local power for local people, based around the three criteria of social, economic and environmental issues.

I live in two places: a small village in Northumberland and Tufnell Park in north London. I found it interesting that I originally thought of Northumberland, where we have the problem of the local shop closing down and elderly people having to move out of the village, because if you have no car you are stuck. Local transport has disappeared, and with the post office and the local shop closing down went the local newspapers. It is a very difficult situation. However, I was particularly taken when I listened to one of the advocates of the Bill, Mr Ron Bailey, on Radio 4, talking about this in terms of town and city landscapes. Cities have exactly the same problem, as a city is just a vast number of local communities together. Those local communities can often be destroyed by large supermarkets in the area, which suck out all the local shops even in the high street. You end up with areas which a few years ago were very vibrant now being dead zones with faceless shops or with none of the local character and none of the local community that was once associated with them.

This will be a difficult Bill to implement, but I hope that the Local Government Association, acting as the selectors—although that has not been set out in the Bill—will publicise the fact that local decision-making means that people do not have to accept decisions from on high. The planning process always gives the impression that it is something that people cannot stop and because the rules allow it, it has to take place. That should not be the case. Local communities know what they want and what they do not want, and if they do not want a certain supermarket or another development in their area, it should be up to that local community. It enhances a local community to have a local campaign on an issue. Everyone will know that the one way to meet your neighbours in London is set up an organisation such as a neighbourhood watch, which allows you to meet people who live in your street. On that basis, I very much support the Bill, and I hope that the Government will support it wholeheartedly.

My Lords, I, too, congratulate my noble friend Lord Marlesford on the clarity with which he presented the Bill in his excellent and comprehensive introduction. The Bill is remarkable in many ways since, as we understand it, it now has all-party support, which is unusual in any dimension. One other unusual thing has happened today, which is worth putting on the record: a Member on these Benches was able to praise the work of his son, who was standing at the Bar. It is very nice to see Nick Hurd, who has steered the Bill through the other place, and to have heard his father, who I suspect is quite proud, speak from these Benches.

The Bill has come about thanks to—we may claim credit on this side—the efforts of the Conservative Party working with Local Works and campaigning for stronger local democracy. We have heard from every speaker today about the importance of local democracy. Perhaps if it had come a bit sooner, it could have replaced swathes of the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill, which we are trundling through at the moment, particularly the area that we were dealing with yesterday, which related to parish councils. The noble Lord, Lord Cameron, drew attention to the importance of parish councils in their work and in the fact that they represent so closely people in rural communities.

The Bill embodies the response to widespread public concern about the decline of rural communities. As others have said, it follows on from the loss of key services from local post offices, banks and community shops, and from widespread concerns that, despite government assurances, an assault on the countryside for the development of even more housing will impact further on those local communities, without them having any way of influencing the outcome. We already know that there has been a big impact on the green belt, despite what the Prime Minister said. In the past 10 years, more than 16,000 houses have been built on new green-belt land.

It is important that the Bill’s effect is to give local communities a real say over future developments. It will deal with the sort of matters raised by the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, about the supermarket being put in the wrong place, so sucking up, as it is there, not only the annoyance of local residents but the trade that could come from others.

In light of the Prime Minister’s plans announced yesterday that housebuilding will be at the top of the agenda, I take this opportunity to say that those plans should not be implemented without the inclusion and approval of local communities, which after all is what the Bill is about. The very first test of whether this Bill is successful will be that, where large housing developments—or even small ones—are planned to deal with our big housing problem, local communities will be properly involved in the schemes and will not be ignored when they say that there is a flood plain that has been there for ever, which no one has built on for 500 years for the good reason that they will get flooded out if they do so. That is the sort of local knowledge that we should be paying attention to.

An interesting aspect of the Bill is that the proposals being put forward by local government for consideration will have to be filleted—if I can put it like that—by a selector. I very much hope that, as the noble Lord, Lord Bruce-Lockhart, said, the Local Government Association’s involvement will make that an easy process. It is extremely important that the LGA is seen to be as impartial as possible and that there are proper criteria about which people cannot argue. The local criteria have to be agreed with local government in advance.

I hope that the Bill will revitalise the relationship between central and local government. That relationship needs revitalising and the apathy that has been talked about needs to be dispelled. I again agree with my noble friend Lord Bruce-Lockhart that much of it is not apathy at all, but sheer frustration. People are kicking the boxes beneath their feet because they think that they cannot and will not succeed whatever they say. If this Bill opens up the opportunity for local people to be considered and have their voice heard, it will have done a really good job.

The Bill is long overdue. I know that it has been given a fair wind in the other place. We understand that no amendments will be tabled, so there need be no further stages of the Bill and it can pass today—rather, it can have Royal Assent quite soon. However, there are three things that I wish the Minister would clarify, because they are not explicit in the Bill.

My Lords, I do not think that he can, because they are questions for the Government. If I cannot ask the Government my questions, I will assume that they have been answered. That seems to be a sensible way to leave it.

I hope that the Minister will accept the assurances given in the other place that there will be no further amendments and that the Bill will be accepted. I hope that I do not need to cause a kerfuffle and flurry on the other side of the Chamber again. I give the Bill my wholehearted support and thank my noble friend Lord Marlesford for introducing it.

My Lords, I am delighted to speak on behalf of the Government to support the Sustainable Communities Bill. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, on bringing forward the Bill, and I add my congratulations to those of the noble Lord, Lord Hurd of Westwell, to the honourable Member for Ruislip Northwood. It is an achievement for a Member of another place to bring a Bill forward so successfully, achieve such a high level of cross-party support and find a Minister in the House of Lords speaking in support of a Private Member’s Bill.

The Government believe the Bill can help in our efforts to engage and empower communities, strengthen local democracy and devolve real power to local authorities, their local partners and their residents. The Government have always supported the main aspiration of the Sustainable Communities Bill, which is to promote the sustainability of local communities. Indeed, the Government can claim to be the original author of the concept of “sustainable communities”. Strong and Prosperous Communitiesthe Local Government White Paper contains a powerful set of measures which give local people and local communities more power to influence their lives.

I am sure that we all accept that the Bill, as it was introduced to Parliament, was, as its sponsor put it, “honest but imperfect”. While we supported the Bill’s main aspiration, we felt that in operation it would, or could, have been impractical. We were therefore pleased to work very closely over several months with the honourable Member for Ruislip Northwood and the Bill’s other sponsors, including my honourable friend David Drew MP and and Julia Goldsworthy MP, and Local Works, who have done so much over a number of years to bring the Bill to this stage. Our objective throughout was to strengthen the Bill so that it could be used in a positive and constructive way while ensuring that it dovetailed with government policy and its backers’ aspirations. We believe that that has been achieved and that the Bill which is now before the House of Lords is substantially improved from the Bill that entered the Commons.

There are two elements of the Bill that I shall highlight today as substantial steps forward in moving power from the centre to local communities. We have had an interesting and important debate today, and we had it in the context of the local government Bill that is in Committee. The first aspect is that we have strengthened the dialogue between central and local government. Under the Sustainable Communities Bill, there will be a formal channel through which ideas that come from communities can be presented to central government through a body that represents democratically elected councils; namely, the Local Government Association. Central government will be required to co-operate with that body in drawing up a shortlist of proposals to consider. That will enable the role of the LGA and the existing central local partnership to be strengthened. The Government welcome that.

The second aspect of the Bill that I shall highlight is that it provides a mechanism—local spending reports, to which noble Lords have already referred—that for the first time will map the public funding which goes into each local authority area. We believe that this resource mapping will strengthen local democracy and enhance the operation of the new local area agreements by ensuring that there is greater accountability and transparency in funding. Many noble Lords referred to the importance of this aspect, and I echo their comments. It will enable local authorities, their partners and communities to take better informed decisions about the priorities that they choose to pursue to promote the sustainability of their local community.

The Government have a strong and successful track record in this area. They have already brought forward a series of powerful measures to promote sustainable communities. For example, the Local Government Act 2000 gives local authorities broader power to do anything that they consider is likely to achieve the promotion or improvement of the economic, social and environmental well-being of their area. There is much more that local authorities could do to make the most of that power.

The same Local Government Act also requires local authorities, in consultation with their local partners, to prepare a community strategy for their area that has sustainable development at its heart. The Government have taken the opportunity presented by the Sustainable Communities Bill to rename these strategies in statute as “sustainable community strategies”. That reflects their core importance in promoting the sustainability of local communities.

Although the Delegated Powers Committee has identified an issue here, we have thought very carefully about it and weighed up the importance of giving the Bill a fair wind. In the light of that, we are prepared to indicate clearly that we will not bring forward amendments to the Bill.

Strong and Prosperous Communities, the local government White Paper, and the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill contain a series of powerful measures. Our intention is to devolve and decentralise, to strengthen local democracy and community governance and to give people a real say in how their communities are run. Devolving power to communities and their locally elected representatives is the best way further to improve local services and promote the sustainability of local communities.

I shall not go through the measures in the Bill because many of us in the Chamber are involved in the Committee stage of the local government Bill, on which we are having important discussions. However, devolving governance is just one of the ways in which we are strengthening resident and community involvement through our implementation of Strong and Prosperous Communities. Another way is community empowerment, by which we mean giving confidence, skills and power to communities to influence what public bodies do for or with them. My right honourable friend Hazel Blears has championed that in particular.

Our vision for empowerment is to allow local flexibility. Local authorities know best how to reach their citizens and communities and will want to adopt a range of different approaches to empowerment depending on their circumstances. We do not want to prescribe; we want to work with partners to build on what they know about effective practice and to encourage its use.

This Government’s view is that democracy should be about much more than casting a vote every few years. Local people know the needs of their area better than anyone. This Government are delivering a real shift in power to town halls and ensuring that town halls pass it on to local communities. At Second Reading of the local government Bill, I sensed a consensus that that Bill was very much about devolution. I reassure the noble Lord, Lord Bruce-Lockhart, that the Prime Minister is very much behind this approach. He has spoken clearly this week of his vision for a,

“reinvention of the way we govern”,

promoting “the active citizen” and “the empowered community” and building “open enabling government”.

It is equally clear that this will be one of the Prime Minister’s main priorities. In recent weeks he has spoken of local democracy, strengthened by citizens’ forums and new citizens’ juries, where citizens and their representatives have had a chance to fully debate the concerns that matter to them. Last week he spoke of enhancing representative democracy by devolving more power directly to the people, and launched a debate on a series of specific proposals that would bring this about.

The noble Lord, Lord Cameron, asked a specific question about the Bill. While it is not my role to answer on behalf of the mover of the Bill, I want to make a point from the Government’s perspective about whether local spending reports go down to the parish level. In Clause 6(4) the area of the local spending report can be,

“one or more parts of a local authority area”.

We will consult as the Bill requires on the approach to be adopted.

The time has come for the idea of sustainable communities. Our local government White Paper, the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill, and the Prime Minister’s recent statements confirm the Government’s commitment to devolution and community empowerment. The Sustainable Communities Bill clearly pushes in the same direction. I am confident that the Government support taking it forward. I confirm that the Government do not intend to amend the Bill and we look forward to continuing the work of the Bill’s supporters and working with them to bring the aims of the Bill to fruition.

The noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, was very kind to suggest that my right honourable friends Hilary Benn and Hazel Blears would be committed to taking forward the aspirations of this Bill. I believe that they will be. With that, I am delighted to confirm once more the Government’s support for the Bill.

My Lords, my honourable friend Nick Hurd and all those who have campaigned for this Bill must be as delighted as I am that it has had such widespread support—indeed, complete support in this House. As we all know, and I think people outside this House are beginning to realise, the House of Lords does not endorse, embrace or easily pass anything which is not good legislation. Therefore, the imprimatur of this House is of itself of importance and value.

I so agree with my neighbour the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, that this Bill will enable not just the loud voices to be heard. That ties in very much with the comment of my noble friend Lord Hurd that it will harness the dormant interest which exists. My noble friend referred to regions. The simple fact is, as we have all learnt now—including certain leading politicians such as Mr Prescott—that people of this country do not identify with regions. They identify with their towns, with their cities, with their counties and, above all, with their parishes. That is how people think. That matters enormously.

The noble Lord, Lord Cameron, made a particular reference to the need for parishes to be involved. Parishes will be involved because as soon as people think they can matter, they take action. We are back to the dormant interest. I thought it was interesting when my noble friend Lord Bruce-Lockhart referred to European towns often being more politically conscious in some ways. It is not a coincidence that leading French politicians, for example, however eminent, important and busy they are, very often regard the probably quite small commune of which they are the mayor as their grassroots and their powerbase. This matters a great deal if we go back to de Gaulle in Colombey-les-Deux-Églises. For all the centralism in France, people there often closely identify with grassroots. I, would not compare my sympathies to any politicians, but I certainly regard the most important elected post that I ever held to be the chairman of my parish council.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, on this question of sustainability. Frankly, that is what it is all about. England would not be what it is today had our forefathers not sought to ensure its sustainability, protection and preservation, particularly in the rural areas.

My noble friend Lady Hanham talked about the LGA as an assessor. I hope that the LGA will be a satisfactory assessor, but the LGA is not in the Bill as an assessor. Presumably, if it did not perform properly steps could be taken to find somebody else who would do it better.

Finally, the Minister had a useful phrase, not quite a hostage to fortune but one that will be valuable to people who note it. She said that local people know the needs of their community better than anyone. That could be the motto of the Bill. I ask the House to give the Bill a Second Reading.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.

House adjourned at 4.57 pm.