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Sustainable Communities Act 2007 (Amendment) Bill

Volume 718: debated on Thursday 8 April 2010

First Reading (and remaining stages)

The Bill was brought from the Commons and read a first time.

Second Reading

Moved by

My Lords, we have just received this Bill from the Commons, but I think that noble Lords who take an interest in these matters will know that it has received considerable attention there and has widespread support from the Government and from Members of Parliament of all political persuasions.

The Act that this amends, the Sustainable Communities Act 2007, is widely seen as a success. It provided new ways in which communities could bring forward proposals for action by their councils and the public authorities and in conjunction with other private third parties.

It has been widely recognised that that Act has stimulated great innovation in those areas, with over 100 councils taking it up and 300-plus proposals being generated to promote local sustainability and reflect the views of local people and local groups. The Bill is designed to carry forward, speed up and broaden that process and ensure that it goes on to the next stage after the successful round 1.

The detailed provisions are that Clause 1 recognises that decisions on proposals coming from the community may be complex, and that it is not necessarily sensible to leave all action on those proposals until a single decision that has covered all the points. The clause therefore enables decisions to be taken in whole or in part and carried forward, whereas the present wording constrains that and therefore slows things down.

Clause 2 inserts four new sections into the original Act. Inserting new Section 5A simply clarifies what was always intended and sets a date by which the Secretary of State must specify when the next round of proposals will be invited.

Inserting new Section 5B will improve the process of agreeing proposals, including consultation on the procedure for administering councils’ and communities’ suggestions, and requiring the Secretary of State to seek agreement on them. Those procedures are clearer. The new section also provides for the rights of parish councils to be involved, an important improvement, and the rights of voters themselves to petition councils about submitting proposals. It also identifies who will shortlist and select proposals that are to be taken forward.

New Section 5C will extend the right to submit proposals to county associations and parish councils, as was promised by a CLG Minister in another place. Inserting new Section 5D adds some other procedural improvements, particularly that regulations shall be made under the negative resolution procedure in both Houses.

This is therefore a straightforward Bill, building on something that is already successful and well appreciated in communities up and down the land and by councils of all political persuasions. These are modest improvements but they can make a real impact on extending local democracy and local engagement. I beg to move.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, for bringing the Bill to us in this House. I echo his opening comments—the original Sustainable Communities Act indeed had a wide measure of support.

At this early stage I should declare an interest once again as an executive member in the London Borough of Sutton, because that is one of the 100 or so councils that have submitted proposals under the original Act. We certainly join enthusiastically in the support for that Act.

We all recognised that it was important that that was not seen as a one-off proposal, something that simply happened—or not—and then faded away. It is clearly important that the process is ongoing and has widespread support, not only from all sides of this House and the other place but, perhaps even more importantly, from the community at large. Those local authorities that have embraced the original Act will build upon that work.

We now have Total Place, which has recently been introduced to us. That has certainly produced interesting information but, as with all interesting information, its real purpose is to be of some use, not simply to be interesting. We therefore need to see how much local authorities and their partners and others in the community can build on the evidence and the work that is in Total Place to take these measures forward. From these Benches, I give keen support to what I think the noble Lord described as the limited additional measures in the Bill—limited but very necessary. I look forward to hearing what further comments the Minister may be able to give us when he responds here.

I have one particular question. I know that the Bill extends the powers to parish councils. By definition, that includes town councils, which are regarded as parish councils for legislative purposes. I cannot resist the temptation once again to express my personal regret that Greater London is the one part of the country that is not allowed by law to have parish councils. I simply put that in because I never lose an opportunity to mention it, ever since I introduced a Private Member’s Bill in the other place back in 1973 to try to deal with that. Unfortunately, the Government were so alarmed by the proposal that they called the February 1974 general election and my Bill was lost, along with my seat at the time.

New Section 5C(1) says:

“The Secretary of State may by order specify persons or classes of persons, in addition to local authorities”.

I seek clarification on what is in mind for,

“persons or classes of persons”,

perhaps in addition to community groups or parish councils. Is it intended, for instance, to include local strategic partnerships? It is a wide and loose expression to find in a Bill, and I would welcome some clarification of what is in mind for that. With that single question, I give an unqualified welcome to the Bill and am pleased to support it.

My Lords, I offer the support of these Benches for the Bill. Into the wash-up period, which perhaps does not exactly show the conduct of Parliament in its best light with regard to the process and scrutiny of legislation, comes this legislation which is an example of best practice. The Bill was introduced in this place by my noble friend Lord Marlesford. It was then rolled out across the country on a pilot basis and was seen to work. My honourable friend Alistair Burt introduced the Bill in another place to extend it on a more rolling basis, and now the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, has picked it up in your Lordships’ House, where it enjoys support on all sides because it has been shown to work.

There are some very heartening examples that have been focused on at Second Reading and in Committee in the other place. They do not necessarily need to be rehearsed here, but there are some very exciting initiatives. There is a crisis at the heart of our communities. Many of them are changing. Rural communities are losing their post offices, their pubs and their focal points, and there is a sense of distance and alienation from the democratic process. This measure, albeit in a fairly modest way, breathes new life into those structures. It tells people to love where they live. If they want to demonstrate that, they can get engaged and come forward with initiatives, whether in Hackney, where, if they are worried about an overconcentration of betting shops on the high street and want to change the planning laws, they can do that; or whether they want to have a levy on chewing gum in local newsagents to pay for the cost of cleaning it up, they can do that.

That is tremendously liberating and invigorating for local communities. It is the complete embodiment of localism, which we are all heading towards because its opposite, big government, has been seen to fail. We certainly enthusiastically welcome that on this side of the House and look forward to hearing many more examples of how the Bill is being used to allow communities to engage with the democratic process and improve the environment where they live.

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Whitty for taking this Bill through your Lordships’ House and delighted to be able to give it the Government’s full support. I am also pleased that it has support across all parties.

I will not take up too much of the House’s time, given the matters that we still have to discuss, but would like to make just a few comments. I offer my congratulations and thanks to Mr Alistair Burt, the honourable Member for North East Bedfordshire, for championing the Bill through another place. His efforts have ensured that 287 Members of Parliament have signed Early Day Motion 1095 calling for the Bill to be debated before the end of the Session. That was extremely helpful.

I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, who took the original Bill through your Lordships’ House in 2007. During Second Reading on that Bill, he said that it offered the Government the chance of a real shift of influence from the centre to the grass roots. He was right. This week I had the pleasure of repeating a Statement made by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, in which he updated the House on progress being made under the 2007 Act. Grass-roots ideas from a number of councils across the country are influencing government thinking and have the potential to change the lives of thousands of people. I also offer thanks to Local Works and Mr Ron Bailey, whose enthusiasm has been instrumental in the development of the provisions that we are debating today.

For those not intimate with the logistics of the Sustainable Communities Act, it may be worth reiterating how the current arrangements have been carried out. The previous Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the Member of Parliament for Salford, wrote to local authorities on 14 October 2008. In that letter, she restated her belief that the Act creates a useful opportunity for local authorities to propose new ways to improve local neighbourhoods for their residents, visitors and businesses. She requested that local authorities submit proposals which they felt would improve the economic, social or environmental well-being of the authority’s area, including participation in civic and political activity.

Under the Act, the Government appointed the Local Government Association as the body which naturally represented the views of local government. It would be known as the “selector”, the gatekeeper of local authority opinion and communities’ inspiration. I publicly thank Councillor Mitchell and the LGA for their hard work and scrutiny of the many proposals which were submitted. As my noble friend outlined, a total of 301 proposals were submitted to the LGA for shortlisting, 18 of which were joint proposals. Those 301 proposals came from 90 lead authorities, with a further 10 district councils contributing to joint submissions. That represents 28 per cent of the total authorities in England—100 out of 353 authorities.

The Government have co-operated with the LGA as it examined each proposal, but when the final shortlist was published on 23 December 2009, it still contained 199 proposals. Under the Act, the Government are currently consulting the LGA and trying to reach agreement with it about which proposals the Secretary of State believes should be implemented.

As I said, we are making progress with the original Act, but we want to do more. The principles behind the Act have the potential to drive real change, to go far further than we can at present. My honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State and Member of Parliament for Stevenage said in another place that, as with all things in life, legislation must evolve in order to become stronger.

The Bill being taken through by my noble friend Lord Whitty will enable that evolution to take place. Although 199 proposals were submitted to the Secretary of State by local authorities, there were 242 requests for the Government to take action: 242 bright ideas to improve the social, economic and environmental well-being of local areas. The Bill will enable the Government to respond individually to each one. That is just common sense. Councils will look at us in disbelief if we turn to them and say that we are required by law to give one blanket response to all the different requests that they make, just because they submitted them on one form as one proposal.

Local democracy starts with citizens. The Government have strengthened the rights of local people to shape the area that they live in, including increasing the power of elected local councillors and local authorities to represent their interests. It makes sense that local councillors at both local authority and parish level should assist us in developing and shaping the implementation of the Act ready for the next decade and beyond. My noble friend’s Bill will allow them to do so by providing a full opportunity to contribute to consultation and debate on the regulations that will govern the process of submitting, considering and deciding on proposals in future. That process will ensure that there will be an opportunity for communities to help to influence and shape the future implementation of the Act.

The noble Lord, Lord Tope, asked about the particular significance of new Section 5C(1) concerning persons or classes of persons. It was originally intended to include parish and town councils under certain circumstances, but it will be subject to the consultation process under the regulations. The current Act enables grass-roots ideas to be heard and acted on. The Bill will enable grass-roots ideas to influence the Sustainable Communities Act process itself.

This Government have given local authorities a much stronger and more expansive role than ever before, placing them firmly at the centre of decision-making. The Bill will make the role of local government stronger still. It will allow the Sustainable Communities Act to evolve, to become more responsive to the needs of citizens and to ensure that it has a future as a permanent part of the architecture of local government.

I congratulate my noble friend on moving Second Reading today, and I commend the Bill to all noble Lords.

My Lords, I express gratitude and appreciation for the support from all sides in this Chamber for the Bill and to those in another place—to Alistair Burt and to all those who signed the EDM, as the Minister said.

We have got this on the agenda. It is building on success and, as the noble Lord, Lord Bates, implied, is devolving power not only to local authorities but from local authorities to the people on the ground. That is an important development in our democracy and one that we are all committed to sustaining. I also thank Mr Ron Bailey, as did my noble friend. He is probably one of the super-lobbyists for Private Members’ Bills—to no gain whatsoever to himself, but to the great benefit of the community at large in the area of democracy and the environment. It is important that a Bill such as this can fill a gap and get a process going which we are all agreed is important and positive.

Bill passed and sent to the Commons.